When Josef Fritzl applied for a permit to expand his basement in 1978, no one thought anything of it. Josef, a successful electrical engineer, was well known in the small Austrian village of Amstetten, where he was born and grew up. Everyone thought of him as an affable family man — he and his wife, Rosemarie, had seven children.
While some might have questioned how strict he was with his wife and children, the prevailing sentiment was, “if it’s not your business, stay out of it.” Only those close to the Fritzl family knew what a tyrant he truly was. He ruled the household with an iron fist, yelling at and beating the children for the slightest infraction. Rosemarie, too, was treated as one of Josef’s subjects, never allowed to have a say in anything, never given any money. If she didn’t obey his every command, she would be beaten. Josef often threatened to lock her in the house if she wasn’t obedient enough.
Yet it was his fourth child, Elisabeth, who seemed to bear the brunt of Josef’s abuse. He was extremely controlling of her, to the point of obsession. She was never allowed to have friends over or to do anything outside of his watchful eye — he even took her with him everywhere he went. He would go through her things and read her diary. He would beat her for any reason, or sometimes, no reason at all.
Beginning when she was about 11, Josef began exposing himself to Elisabeth and leaving porno magazines under her pillow. By the time she was 12, he began sexually abusing her.
With few friends outside of school, Elisabeth didn’t have anyone she could confide in. But her friends all say they knew the Fritzl home was not a good place to be, and that Elisabeth was deeply unhappy.
Meanwhile, Josef was working tirelessly on his underground “bomb shelter” — a labyrinth of tiny rooms connected by narrow passages. No one thought much of his project — through the 70s and 80s, the Cold War was still on, and many Austrians still remembered the last time bombs had fallen on their cities.
In fact, Josef himself remembered the bombing of his hometown. He was only 3 years old when Hitler marched on Austria, and his father had put Josef on his shoulders so he could get a good look at the Führer. Little Josef was enamoured of Hitler, despite his mother being arrested by the Gestapo and sent to a concentration camp for three years.
Once she was back, now a single mother, she seemed to resent the burden of raising Josef. She was cold to him, showed him no affection, and left him alone for days and even weeks at a time. She beat him frequently. When the Allies bombed his city, his mother refused to take shelter, instead sending Josef alone to the air-raid shelters.
So Josef building a bomb shelter under his house seemed even more understandable than most. Concrete construction was his specialty, and of course he knew just how to safely install electrical systems. He hired a relative to help him with the construction tasks that he, a middle-aged man, couldn’t handle himself. Other than himself and the relative who helped him, no one was allowed in the basement, which he called “his kingdom.”
But there were certain details that didn’t make sense in a bomb shelter. Like that fact that the door to the shelter — reinforced with concrete — was hidden behind some rotating shelves straight out of a mystery movie. That door opened into essentially an airlock leading to yet another concrete-reinforced door. That inner door could only be opened with an electronic code, which only he knew, and could only locked or unlocked from the outside.
In early 1983, Josef was still working on his basement bunker, and Elisabeth was 16. It was then that she managed to escape her father’s abuse by running away with a friend to Vienna. However, since she was still a minor, police were able to take her into custody and return her to her parents.
In the car on the way back to their home, Josef told Elisabeth that he would never let her run away again.
The following year, after Elisabeth turned 18, she told her father that she had found a job and was going to move in with her older sister in a nearby town. But Josef was not going to allow her to escape from his control.
On Aug. 28, 1984, Josef lured her into his workshop to help him with a door. When Elisabeth entered the room, he came up behind her and chloroformed her. Once she was passed out, he handcuffed her and carried her down to his meticulously constructed basement. He chained her to a wall and left, locking her inside.
He then went to the police and played the distraught father to report her missing. Since Elisabeth had run away just the year before, many assumed she had simply done so again. But the police still investigated the young woman’s disappearance — and if there was any foul play, her father would be the prime suspect.
In looking into Josef’s past, they found some troubling details. When he and Rosemarie had first married, he would stay out late at night, riding his bicycle around and “peeping” at couples while they made out or had sex. He would expose himself to women on the street, and even masturbate in front of them. He attacked one woman in an attempt to rape her, but she was able to fight him off. Then, he followed another woman home from work. Later that night, when she was asleep, he broke into her house and raped her at knifepoint — with her infant son asleep in a cot beside the bed.
For that crime, he had been sentenced to 18 months, but served just 12 months. Back at home, no one knew of this crime; ever-obedient Rosemarie told friends and family that he had gone away to work on a project for his company.
After 15 years, the rape conviction was taken off his police record.
Now Josef knew the police were starting to dig around and turn up things best kept buried. So, about a month after imprisoning her, he went down to the basement and forced Elisabeth to write a letter. In it she stated that she was alive and well, had joined a cult, and instructed them not to look for her. He drove 100 miles away to mail the letter, beginning what would become his double life.
Now with the letter from Elisabeth, and with no other evidence to go on, her missing person case was closed. And Josef Fritzl was free to carry out his demented fantasies.
Elisabeth was kept chained to a wall in the dark, damp basement. Rats and insects infested the cave-like prison. Every couple of days, her father would come down and unchain her so he could rape and torture her. He would leave a little bit of food, just enough to last until the next time he came. If Elisabeth didn’t do as he told her, Josef warned, he would simply leave her there and let her starve to death.
By 1988, Elisabeth was pregnant with her father’s child. Josef gave her a medical book on childbirth, a towel, and some scissors, forcing her to give birth alone in the basement. Elisabeth named her newborn daughter Kerstin.
In 1990, she gave birth again, this time to a boy she named Stefan.
In 1992, she had another girl, this one named Lisa. But Lisa’s birth was different — she was born with a heart defect. Her constant crying — along with Elisabeth’s pleading for him to take her to see a doctor — convinced Josef to find a way to get the baby out of the basement without raising suspicions. So he had Elisabeth write a letter stating that she couldn’t look after the baby. He then put 9-month-old Lisa into a cardboard box and left her on the doorstep for Rosemarie to find. They took Lisa to the hospital, where she underwent emergency surgery for her heart condition. Later Josef and Rosemarie would legally adopt Lisa.
That seemed to mark a turning point in the Fritzl home. While Josef had been living somewhat of a double life, going downstairs every day or so, sneaking food to his growing “downstairs family,” now the double life was really taking off. He quit his job and went into business for himself, so his whereabouts wouldn’t be questioned by anyone. He would drive to towns miles away to drop off their trash and shop for diapers, food, and other supplies that people in Amstetten would question. He also began bringing in a TV, toys, radio, and other things to make the smelly, damp basement seem almost like a home.
Elisabeth, too, tried to make the children’s lives as normal as possible, keeping them on a schedule and teaching them to read and write.
Two years after Lisa’s birth, Elisabeth gave birth to another girl, Monica. This time, Josef made Elisabeth record a short message giving the baby up, then went to a pay phone, called his home, and played the recording when Rosemarie answered the phone. Then he left Monica on his doorstep and adopted her too.
Realizing they needed more room, Josef put Elisabeth and the older children to work digging out soil with their bare hands. Eventually more rooms were created, expanding the basement to about 590 square feet.
But then in 1996, Elisabeth gave birth to twins, Alexander and Michael. Michael was having problems breathing right from the start. Ignoring Elisabeth’s pleas for him to take the baby to a hospital, Josef instead allowed Michael to die. He burned the tiny body in the furnace and scattered the ashes in his yard.
As for Alexander, Josef again forced Elisabeth to write a letter abandoning the baby, and again Josef and Rosemarie adopted this latest “foundling.”
In 2002, she gave birth to the seventh of her children, Felix. Josef continued beating and raping Elisabeth in front of the children, but now he was torturing his “downstairs family” in a new way. Besides his constant threats of abandoning them to starve, he would bring pictures of the three “upstairs” children to the basement with him. He would show the children — who had lived their entire lives in a windowless basement — pictures of their siblings playing outdoors in the sunlight, opening Christmas gifts, and taking gymnastics and music lessons.
Meanwhile, aboveground, over 100 different lodgers came and went from the Fritzl house. All were forbidden from going into the yard above the basement, and especially forbidden from going into the basement at all. While some tenants reported hearing strange sounds, Josef was always able to explain them away.
In addition, social service caseworkers visited the Fritzl home 21 times to check on the well-being of the adopted “foundlings.” None of them found anything suspicious, either.
But life in such a filthy, dark place could not continue forever. In April of 2008, Kerstin, now 19 years old, began having severe seizures and losing consciousness. Finally succumbing to Elisabeth’s pleas, Josef agreed to take her to a hospital. On April 18, Elisabeth helped carry her oldest daughter out of the basement — then turned around and went back downstairs to her other two children.
When Josef Fritzl brought his “granddaughter” into the Mostviertel-Amstetten State Hospital, she was in grave condition. Her skin was so pale it was translucent; her teeth were all rotten. She was suffering from seizures, in and out of consciousness, and her kidneys and liver were shutting down. The doctors couldn’t tell what was causing all these symptoms, but they pointed to severe neglect.
When questioned about what had happened to the young woman, Josef acted belligerent and angry, refusing to answer. He only wanted the doctors to fix Kerstin up and send her back home as quickly as possible.
Then the hospital staff discovered something else that rang alarm bells: Kerstin Fritzl did not appear to exist. There was no record of her birth, no school records, no medical records, nothing. As Kerstin slipped into a coma, doctors knew they had to find her mother so that maybe she could shed light on what was happening.
Josef claimed he had no idea where Elisabeth was; he said he found Kerstin dumped on his doorstep with a note like the others. So doctors and police went to the media, begging Elisabeth to come to the hospital and help them save her daughter.
Down in the basement, Elisabeth saw the news reports that everyone was looking for her. Somehow she managed to convince her father to let her go to the hospital, promising she wouldn’t tell anyone where she really had been for the last 24 years. On April 26, 2008, Josef allowed Elisabeth to take Stefan and Felix out of the basement for the first time in their lives.
When Elisabeth arrived at the hospital, she looked decades older than her 42 years. She was gaunt, pale, and her hair had gone entirely silver. The children were equally skinny and pale.
So police took Elisabeth in for questioning.
At first, she kept her promise to her father and said nothing of what had happened. But once she was told that she could be charged with being an accessory to a crime, she relented. Over the course of two hours, she told police of the living hell she had endured in that basement for the last 8,516 days.
Josef Fritzl was arrested that day. He would be charged with multiple serious crimes, including rape, incest, slavery, kidnapping, and the murder of Michael.
Word of the incredible story got out quickly, and media from all over the world descended on the small town of Amstetten. Only two years after the notorious case of Natascha Kampusch, such a similar and unspeakable crime in a relatively small country was big news.
After Kerstin’s recovery, Elisabeth and all her children — confirmed by DNA to be fathered by Josef — were taken to a psychiatric clinic in Amstetten. The officer who drove the boys there described how Felix didn’t talk, just kept his nose pressed against the car window, fascinated by the world outside.
They would remain in the clinic for a year, receiving medical and psychiatric treatment and learning to adjust to life outside.
Josef’s trial, which began March 16, 2009, was a sensation. Only 100 hand-picked journalists were allowed to attend. At first, Josef pled not guilty. His defense was that Elisabeth had been a wild, out-of-control teen, addicted to drugs and engaging in prostitution. He only locked her up, he said, to save her from such a destructive lifestyle.
But his court-ordered psychiatric evaluations disputed this. He told his therapist that he was “born to rape,” and had locked his daughter up so that he didn’t go on and rape other women. He was diagnosed with “severe combined personality disorder” including borderline, schizotypal, and schizoid personalities.
Before trial, Elisabeth’s testimony — over 11 hours long — had been taped in order to protect her. When the tape was played, the torture she described at the hands of her father was so awful that some jurors couldn’t stand to watch for more than two hours at a time.
Josef, who had been unemotional up to that point, broke down. He changed his plea to guilty, took responsibility for his crimes, and apologized to his family.
He was sentenced to the maximum allowed under Austrian law: life in prison. Once imprisoned, he had to be placed on suicide watch at first, and later he had to be segregated from the general prison population, as he was intensely hated and frequently attacked. At one point he changed his name to Josef Mayrhoff.
As of this writing, Josef is incarcerated in Garsten Abbey, suffering from Alzheimer’s and in failing health. If he lives long enough, he will be eligible for parole in 2024, when he would be 89.
As for Elisabeth and her children, they were given new identities and put up in a colorful house in a town known only as “Village X.” They wish to remain out of the spotlight, so their home is equipped with surveillance cameras warning if anyone trespasses. Their neighbors also serve as a kind of guard, as well, warning off anyone who comes looking for them. Reports are that they are all doing very well, and that Elisabeth has even found love and gotten married.
The basement where she and her children spent so many years was, for a time, a kind of gruesome tourist attraction. But in 2013, the city of Amstetten had it filled with cement, forever sealing it closed.