Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Otto Sanhuber: The Man in the Attic Case

Shots Ring Out!

Otto Sanhuber had spent many years as a secret lover of Dolly Oesterreich and most of that time as a resident in her and Freds attic, unknown to Fred, when a crisis erupted in a most terrible way.

It was August 22, 1922. The Oesterreichs had been out for the evening. They were quarreling when they returned home. Otto heard the noisy row. Then he heard a loud thud and the sound of Dolly screaming. Otto thought Fred was beating Dolly; actually, she had just slipped on a throw rug. He grabbed two .25-caliber guns and rushed down the stairs.

It is important to note at this point that Fred Oesterreich was never able to tell his version of the next events. All we have to go on are the words of Dolly and Otto, plus the physical evidence.

According to the stories told by both Dolly and Otto, Fred recognized Otto as the culprit he had found in his home before, leisurely helping himself to a generous leg of lamb. Flying into a rage, Fred tackled Otto, grabbing for the guns, then putting his hands around Ottos neck. One or both guns went off and a panicked Otto pulled the trigger again and again, shooting Fred a total of three times.

Fred Oesterreich lay dead on his living room floor.

What could they do? Otto believed they could make it appear that burglars had intruded into the family home and murdered the husband. For once, he gave the orders and a frightened Dolly complied. Otto divested Freds corpse of the diamond-studded chain watch, then locked Dolly into a closet, tossed the key on the floor, and scurried back upstairs to his familiar refuge.

A neighbor had heard the shots and phoned the police, who arrived shortly. Fred! Oh, Fred! they heard Dolly tearfully cry from behind the closet door of the couples bedroom. The key to it was on the carpet a few feet from the door.

Chief of Detectives Herman Cline was on the scene at the Oesterreich home that night. He took an immediate dislike to Dolly Oesterreich. She was too immaculately dressed and carefully made-up for a woman of 55, in his (rather old-fashioned) opinion. Alan Hynd describes what happened as the interrogation began.

He began questioning her and his suspicions were ratcheted up. Did you and your husband ever quarrel? he asked.

Never, she instantly replied.

Not even a little bit? he pressed.

She remained oddly firm. There had been no arguments between herself and the late Fred.

Cline knew that all couples have spats. Why would someone claim otherwise? He knew she must be a liar and have something to hide.

The chief and other officers carefully inventoried the residence. Only one item could be identified as missing: the husbands diamond-studded watch. However, the dead mans wallet was still in his pocket and stuffed with cash.

Cline got nowhere with Dolly Oesterreich. His attempts to trip her up and catch her in a lie or contradiction all failed. Later he would describe her as the toughest dame I ever saw.

When the crime lab came back to report that Fred Oesterreich was done in by a .25, Cline was convinced that something was wrong with Dolly Oesterreichs burglar story. No burglar uses a .25-caliber gun, he said. Why, thats a womans gun. But attempts to prove Dollys guilt were fruitless. There was one seemingly insurmountable problem with her having murdered her husband. That was the question of how she could have locked herself in the closet from the outside.

Freds close friend and business associate, Fred Keune, said he was certain a burglar had killed Fred Oesterreich. He was one of the most loved men I have ever known, Keune commented to the Los Angeles Times. As far as I know, he didnt have an enemy in the world. Telling those assembled that he and his wife frequently socialized with the Oesterreichs, Keune went on to say that, Mr. Oesterreich was probably the cause of me moving here and now that he is gone it seems everything worthwhile that was here when he was alive has faded away. . . . It was the greatest blow of our lives when we learned last night he had been killed. Im sure it is a case of burglary.

Herman Cline kept plugging away at the baffling case while the widow Oesterreich was free to get on with her life.

Get on with it she did. Once again she moved. She told others that she wanted to get away from the awful memory of Freds killing. She moved to a smaller home on North Beachwood Drive. The year 1923 began with Otto Sanhuber moving into yet another attic. He no longer had to hide from Fred Oesterreich but he had more reason than ever to want to hide from the world.

Dolly tried to settle her late husbands estate. She hired attorney Herman Shapiro. Dolly was a sensuous woman and the two began flirting, then progressed to dating. During a meeting, Dolly pulled an obviously expensive, diamond-studded mans watch out of her purse. She handed it to Shapiro and said, Here, I want you to have this. It belonged to dear Fred.

Later, she set about getting rid of the guns that had been used in her husbands killing. She had just started a relationship with an actor. She handed him a .25-caliber revolver. He knew at least part of the story of Freds violent demise. She assured him that she had had nothing to do with her husbands death but feared having the gun would incriminate her even though she was innocent.

Her friend indicated that he did understand and was happy to take it off her hands. He went to the La Brea tar pits and tossed it.

Chief of Detectives Herman Cline somehow learned that Shapiro was walking around with a diamond-studded watch. Suspicions aroused, Cline had a talk with the attorney, who obligingly reported the story of the grateful Dolly Oesterreich and her generous gift. He also handed the watch to Cline, who took it to Dolly. She suddenly developed amnesia. Ive never seen it before, she insisted.

Dolly Oesterreich at the time of her arrest (AP/Wide World)
Dolly Oesterreich at
the time of her arrest
(AP/Wide World)
Ah-ha! Cline was certain he could prove her a liar. The conscientious detective traveled to Milwaukee where he visited good jewelry stores until he found the one that had sold that watch to Fred Oesterreich. He returned home to arrest the widow Oesterreich for first-degree murder.

As a shocked Dolly Oesterreich suffered her first days in jail, her actor friend read about the arrest in the newspapers. Frightened, he went to Cline and told him the story of the .25 he had been given and told to dispose of.

Cline was elated. All of the pieces of this puzzle were finally falling into place. Whatd you do with the gun? he asked.

I tossed it in the La Brea tar pits, the actor replied.

Clines heart sank. Jesus Christ, he said bitterly, Now theres as much chance of finding it as finding a snowball in hell.

Sources differ as to whether Clines people were able to recover a .25-caliber from the tar pits. Hynd wrote in The Attic Lover that they dragged them in vain. But Cecilia Rasmussen wrote in The Los Angeles Times that On July 12, 1923, 11 months after the murder, police found the gun near the oozing tar. Rasmussen also said that a neighbor with whom Dolly had deposited a second gun went to the police with it. However, both [guns] were too rusted to determine whether they had fired the fatal bullets.

Shapiro visited Dolly behind bars. Apparently she was unaware of the crucial role he had played in getting her there for she seemed to still regard him as a trusted friend. She told him that she had a very special favor to ask. In her home there was a trap door leading to the attic. It was on the second floor, located inside the closet there. She wanted Shapiro to take a generous bag of groceries to her home and knock three times on that trap door. A man would answer the raps, she explained, and take the groceries.

The whole thing sounded crazy to Shapiro. Nevertheless, he bought the groceries and made the trip to the closet on the second floor.

Alan Hynd describes the scene: the door to the attic opened and a man said, Hello, Herman, dont be afraid of me. Apparently he knew of Dollys friend and may even have been expecting this visit. Middle-aged at the time, the still slim and slightly built Otto Sanhuber peered down at the stranger bearing the full grocery bag. Otto slid out of the attic and onto a shelf.

The attorney introduced himself and Otto gratefully accepted the groceries. Glad to meet you, Otto said, extending his hand for a shake, Mrs. Oesterreich has told me a lot about you.

On another visit to Dolly, Shapiro reminded her that he was a civil, not a criminal, attorney and could not be expected to handle her murder case. So she hired the flamboyant Frank Dominiquez, a smart and outspoken lawyer who did specialize in criminal cases.

Dominquez heard nothing about the man in the attic from his client. However, Shapiro told him about Otto and Dominquez insisted that Shapiro get Otto out of his attic residence. Otto vacated reluctantly when he understood the implications for Dolly.

In court, things were looking up for Dolly Oesterreich. Dominquez moved for a dismissal of the murder charge. Much to the chagrin of Herman Cline, the judge granted it. No weapon could be linked to the killing, there were no eyewitnesses, and no confession. The stolen watch that had so mysteriously turned up was too thin a reed upon which to rest a murder case.

It seemed that the slaying of Fred Oesterreich was destined to remain a mystery.

Apparently the extraordinary love of Dolly Oesterreich and Otto Sanhuber had finally spent itself. Dolly continued to date Shapiro, who gave her an ultimatum: she could no longer see Otto. She agreed to it on the condition that Shapiro help Otto find work.

According to Fallen Angels by Marvin J. Wolf and Katherine Mader, Shapiro took Sanhuber to San Francisco and found him a job as a janitor. From there he went to Vancouver, Canada, where he worked as a porter. He soon married a Canadian woman. After a time he returned to Los Angeles with his wife. He found another hotel porters job, one where he worked nights and retired to sleep before the sun rose. He made no contact with his former lover. Somewhere along the way, he changed his name to Walter Klein and it was under that name that he married his wife, Mathilde.

Seven years passed before Cline got a break in the case.

In 1930, Shapiro appeared at the police station. He and Dolly had had a falling out over money, he told them. He claimed that she had threatened him. Thus, he had drawn up the affidavit that he was turning over to them.

That affidavit contained the story allegedly told to Shapiro by Otto Sanhuber.

The polite, quiet and sunshine-averse Otto was employed in another Los Angeles apartment house as a porter. He was arrested for murder. So was his former lover, Dolly.

 

 

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