Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Cannibalism: The Ancient Taboo in Modern Times

Teenage Killer Cannibal

Robert Ackermann's apartment building
Robert Ackermann's apartment building
An argument over a porn tape, a scuffle, a possibly unintentional murder, all topped off with a multi-course two-day meal. That's how Robert Ackermann became Vienna's teenage cannibal killer. His case doesn't fit the typical profile of cannibalism. Ackermann's motives were neither ritualistic, particularly bloodthirsty, nor, despite the pleasure the crime provided him, apparently sexual in nature. His motive evidently was among the most dangerous of all: twisted, misdirected morbid curiosity. The handsome, blond young man seems to have killed Josef Schweiger impulsively or even accidentally, then seized on the opportunity to explore his frightening fascination with the hidden secrets of the human body.

By August of 2007, Ackermann, then 19, had left his native Cologne, Germany, for Vienna, Austria, where he was staying in short-term housing for the mentally ill and homeless run by a private charity. He shared a room with Josef Schweiger, 49, who had been in the facility since that June. Weekly social workers don't seem to have been alarmed by Ackermann's behavior or concerned about the pair's feuds. But neighbors on the family-filled tenement block who argued with the increasingly disturbed Ackermann, saw him crawling naked through the yard howling at the moon, or dumping what appeared to be blood from his window, realized the teen was dangerous.

Ackermann was once a seemingly normal, friendly, intelligent boy. In early adolescence, with psychological problems instigated either by the physiological changes of puberty or perhaps his father's abandonment of the family, he changed drastically. Ackerman began hearing voices and manifesting serious behavioral problems. At 15, he left home. He experimented with methamphetamines, ecstasy and harder drugs, and with crime. He stole, sometimes pretending to be a businessman in order to bamboozle banks. He even masqueraded as a doctor for darker purposes.

Robert Ackermann, as a child
Robert Ackermann, as a child

Ackermann's history of severe mental illness was marked by several hospital stays, and he was diagnosed with schizoaffective psychosis. German authorities declared him too ill for prison, but not quite sick enough to be placed in a state hospital for his protection or for that of society. Ackermann was on his own, despite his mother's desperate pleas and evidence that his disease could be controlled with medication, which he tended not to take if left unsupervised. He ended up in Vienna, where, earlier in 2007, he was arrested at a local hospital. He had been impersonating a doctor, hoping that, disguised as a member of the hospital staff, he might be able to sneak into an operating room and take part in surgery, a boyhood dream.

He would soon get his chance.

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