Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Daughter-Dungeon of Joseph Fritzl

Life in Hell

Josef Fritzl
Josef Fritzl

But Fritzl was an expert at covering his secret criminal life and second family. He even considered the potential danger of letting the neighbors see him buying twice as much food and supplies as would be customary for a family the size of his aboveground household. For 24 years, he used his properties as an excuse to drive away and shop in another town for Elisabeth and their children.

Time must have passed strangely for Elisabeth: day after day in that cramped, windowless warren, never seeing natural light, visited, battered and raped again and again by her father. An old TV set gave her some idea of the passing world, but it must have been the succession of pregnancies and departures—of children delivered and taken away—that marked her time.

First born was Kerstin, in 1988. It changed little; her imprisonment and her father's visits continued. Stefan was born in 1990 and Lisa in 1992.

When she was still an infant, Fritzl brought Lisa out of the basement in a cardboard box, with a letter from Elisabeth, asking her parents to take care of the girl and warning them not to look for her. The letter seems to have satisfied the welfare office with its authenticity. Josef and Rosemarie adopted the child without raising suspicion as to how or why Elisabeth had left the child with the family she'd apparently fled.

Next, in 1994, was Monika. Fritzl simply brought her upstairs and put her in Lisa's stroller—and waited for his wife to receive the call, presumably recorded, he'd arranged from their daughter. That the Fritzls had a new and unlisted phone number should have been a clue, but it merely baffled Rosemarie, and went unnoticed by the welfare officials.

Elisabeth then gave birth to twins, Alexander and Michael, in 1996. Michael died shortly thereafter under circumstances that remain unclear. Fritzl cremated him in the household furnace and brought Alexander upstairs. Their last child, 2002's Felix, stayed downstairs with his mother, who sent a letter to let Rosemarie know she'd had another child. Fritzl evidently felt he couldn't impose another baby on his aging wife.

Family man Fritzl spent every few evenings with Elisabeth and the three children in the basement. He watched videos with them and ate dinner with this hidden family. Meanwhile, he and his wife raised the three other children publicly, affording them all the support and extracurricular activities granted the child of a comfortable Austrian family. This might have gone on indefinitely, or until Fritzl's eventual death. The old man had long warned the captive family that they would be gassed or electrocuted if they tried the doors. But in fact the electronic locks would have opened and released them had Fritzl died—a timer was set to open them if a period of time passed with them closed.

But then Kerstin saved the family.

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