Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Daughter-Dungeon of Joseph Fritzl

The Runaway

If we believe Josef Fritzl's police statements, this vile confinement was his way of protecting his daughter, although it was he from whom she most needed protection.

He was a strict man and set in his ways. He taught his children to be obedient and polite, and he did not hesitate to employ corporal punishment if they fell short of his high standards. Little surprise, then, that he had little patience for the vicissitudes and rebellions of adolescence.

Young Elisabeth was a vivacious, active girl who loved swimming, tennis and soccer. But when the teenager grew more interested in music, day-dreaming and going out, and she replaced those childhood pursuits with adolescent concerns and started sneaking out, drinking in bars and spending time with boys, Fritzl was incensed. He claims he started her in a waitress training program to distract her from these new bad habits.

But it was waitressing that was bringing Elisabeth toward freedom. When she was 15 and moved east to Strengberg to the dorms while learning waitressing, she spent her first time away from home — and the first time she was safe from her brutal and domineering father. Returning home from school, she ran away to alluring Vienna with a friend from work. The police picked her up before a month had passed and sent her home. But that taste of freedom would sate her for the next few years while she finished her training. In the summer of '84 she finished the program and was waiting to hear about a new job in Linz in the country's north. She told friends that she might move in with her sister soon, that she would move in any case and would send them her address once she was settled.

But in fact she would stay in little Amstetten, hidden away behind the hedges and beneath the ground at Ybbsstrasse 99 for decades to come. It was easy enough: in running away, Elisabeth had already set a precedent her father could use as cover. It would be easy to let the world believe that this supposedly troubled child had simply run away again. Indeed, no one questioned it. Fritzl got away with it for a very long time.

He kept her safe from the dangerous world and her growing independence; he kept her to himself. His young daughter was something he would claim to be powerless to resist: he wanted a big family, he would say later, and he wanted children with his daughter. She reminded him of his mother, a woman as strict and violent as he.