Austria: Police questions as Josef Fritzl clues suggest accomplice
May 1, 2008
Pressure mounted on the Austrian authorities yesterday amid claims that bungling by police and local officials may have prolonged the agony of Elisabeth Fritzl, who was held in a dungeon and sexually abused by her father for almost a quarter of a century.
The investigation - though it has resulted in a confession and detention of the father, Josef Fritzl - is increasingly being questioned by Austrians who have been shocked by the case.
Franz Polzer, the police chief of Lower Austria, stonewalled as he was bombarded with questions from the media about the conduct of the case. He emphasised that Mr Fritzl, the father of seven children from an incestuous relationship, had acted alone in imprisoning his family in a cramped cellar beneath his home for 24 years.
We are not conducting an investigation into a crime involving accomplices,” he said. But Colonel Polzer also announced that the unravelling of the case was due to an anonymous tip-off.
Elisabeth, the 42-year-old victim, was detained in the grounds of the clinic where her critically ill daughter, 19 - one of her seven children - was being treated. The police seized Elisabeth, suspecting her of child neglect until she told the full story of her existence. Their action raises the question of who tipped off the police if not an accomplice? “Knowing about a crime is not the same as being an accomplice,” said Colonel Polzer. “The informant asked anonymity and we will respect that.” The police seem determined to rule out any possibility of someone being in league with Mr Fritzl.
Yet more clues point to third-party involvement. The door to the dungeon - which had received building permission as a nuclear fallout shelter - weighed 300kg (660lb) and could only have been hinged into position with the help of someone else. Mr Fritzl, moreover, went on several holidays, including at least one three-week stay in Thailand, leaving Elisabeth and her children in the cellar.
Even if the small pantry was full of cans it is unlikely that there would have been enough food to feed them. And there are still questions about how the imprisoned relatives disposed of their rubbish. Colonel Polzer blocked questions on the issue and seemed even to deny knowledge of Mr Fritzl's holidays and absences.
“If there is a home video from this Thailand trip then we would like the media to give it to us and we will then think about it.” The video, shown widely on television, shows Mr Fritzl and a friend from Munich riding on an elephant (off-camera commentary: “Hey, Sepp [Mr Fritzl's nickname] you had better show this to your wife to convince her that we're on safari, not hunting for humans”).
This has been ruled by the police as irrelevant. So far, the case is based on only two hours of testimony from Elisabeth, a partial confession from her father and DNA results, which confirm that he had an incestuous relationship. All further questioning of Mr Fritzl has been delayed until next week.
The key question so far has been why Mr Fritzl's sexual history was not taken into account. Although he was convicted of rape in the late 1960s, this record was expunged under an Austrian law that seeks to rehabilitate offenders after their sentence. “The essential lesson from this case is that previous convictions for sex crimes should be taken into account in the case of adoption,” said the Die Presse newspaper yesterday.
It is a call that has been echoed across Austria as outrage grows about the crime. Colonel Polzer emphasised that the investigation would continue for months and that “in the interests of ensuring that such a crime is never repeated” will seek to reconstruct in detail the last 25 years of Josef Fritzl's life. To that end, the police have been searching other properties owned across Austria by Mr Fritzl, 73.
But many basic elements of the investigation have not even been started. Rosemarie, his 68-year-old wife, has yet to be questioned. Police merely asked her whether she knew what was going on and found her denial credible.
No attempt has been made to track down all the tenants who have rented rooms in the house since 1984. One, Sabine Kirschbichler, lived for two years in the house recently and told the magazine Brigitte that she frequently saw Mr Fritzl carrying heavy bags of shopping into the cellar after dark. “Now, I realise why we weren't allowed to rent cellar space,” she said.
The local authorities have tried to fend off criticism that they ignored suspicious signs from the house.
“Elisabeth ran away from that house as a girl, police searched for her, brought her back and delivered her back into the violent embrace of her father,” says Hedwig Woelfl, the director of a child protection centre in Austria. “Running away from home was a clear sign of unhappiness ... but nobody apparently showed any interest in the fate of this girl.”
The chief executive of the region, Hans Heinz Lenze, showed reporters documents proving that his council's go-ahead for the adoption of three of Ms Fritzl's children was legal: no trace of a sex crime could be found. Social welfare teams visited the house 21 times, but never looked around. Yet the building had in the space of a decade registered one missing person and made the claim that three babies had been dumped on the doorstep.
The Fritzl home, in a busy street, was constantly visited by bureaucrats. Building inspectors checked out the underground bunker - before it was used as a prison - and fire safety inspectors checked the incinerator that was used to burn a baby's body and was metres away from the dungeon. The inspection team pronounced the ventilation shaft safe, gave Mr Fritzl the appropriate stamp and left.
The years of abuse
1976 Josef Fritzl begins to sexually abuse his daughter Elisabeth, 11
1984 On August 28 Elisabeth is drugged and handcuffed by Mr Fritzl soon after her 19th birthday. She is incarcerated in the basement of their three-storey home in Amstetten
1986 Martina Posch is sexually abused and murdered. The wife of Mr Fritzl had a campsite and guest house near to where the body of Ms Posch was found
1988-89 The first of Elisabeth’s children, a girl and a boy, who were fathered by Mr Fritzl, are born and held underground
1993-97 Elisabeth gives birth to two more girls and a boy. They appear on the doorstep and are taken in by Rosemarie, Mr Fritzl’s wife. The boy's twin dies soon after birth and is incinerated
2003 Elisabeth gives birth to another boy, who is also raised in the cellar
2008 Thge oldest daughter held underground becomes ill and is taken to hospital by Mr Fritzl on April 19. Doctors appeal for her mother to come forward
2008 Elisabeth and her father are picked up by the police on April 26
2008 Mr Fritzl admits on April 28 to sealing his daughter in the cellar and fathering her seven children