Austria Captive Daughter
AP
From a private collection, a photo dated June 1951 shows then 16-year-old Josef Fritzl standing in front of a statue in Amstetten. Fritzl, 73, was arrested this week for having held his daughter captive in a cellar for 24 years and fathering seven children with her.
updated 5/2/2008 6:27:44 PM ET 2008-05-02T22:27:44

Casual acquaintances knew Josef Fritzl as a jovial fellow who liked to drink beer and enjoyed a bawdy joke.

But former neighbors say the man accused of imprisoning his daughter and fathering her seven children ran his household like a dictator. Piece by piece, a picture is emerging of a shrewd liar and an obsessive tyrant.

"At home, he was clearly the lord of the manor. Even at his campground, he was very strict and his rules had to be followed," said Anton Graf, who rented Fritzl land along Austria's Mondsee Lake.

"He was inflexible and had no sensitivity," Graf, 57, told The Associated Press. "You were sick, something happened, he didn't care. ... There was a rule — and that was it."

Although authorities have clamped down on records, examples of Fritzl's double life are coming to light.

The 73-year-old retired electrician was both a hard worker respected by his peers, and a fiercely private man whose life revolved around the home he ruled with an iron fist.

An agile criminal mind
The mosaic of Fritzl now taking shape also points to an astonishingly agile criminal mind: He allegedly forged letters, concocted an elaborate but consistent cover story that his daughter Elisabeth had joined a cult, and even impersonated her in a phone call to his wife.

Fritzl apparently complemented trickery with authoritarianism: To keep family and tenants from the windowless, soundproofed rooms where he confined Elisabeth for 24 years along with three of the children, he menacingly banned them from the basement.

Former tenants said Fritzl told residents of the apartment house he owned that the cellar was off-limits and they were not allowed to take photos there. Anyone who broke that verbal agreement was threatened with eviction, they said.

"He was obviously a tyrant," said Sigrun Rossmanith, who works with Austria's court system. "If they heard over and over that the cellar was taboo, then they didn't dare to check on anything."

Police say Fritzl also told his daughter and the three children held captive with her that the cellar was rigged to release toxic gas in case they attempted to overpower him in a bid to escape.

'He terrorized the family'
Herbert Katzengrueber, Amstetten's mayor, said City Hall officials who dealt with Fritzl described a manipulative and controlling man.

"He was apparently very dominant within the family," Katzengrueber said. "He terrorized the family. The deplorable acts against the daughter were not the only violence. There was also permanent pressure put on the family over the years."

Fritzl was born in Amstetten on April 9, 1935, but little is known of his early life. Even his parents' names have been withheld by authorities, who say privacy laws prevent them from releasing birth, marriage and death certificates.

A class photo from a school trip in 1951 — obtained by AP — shows a 16-year-old Fritzl looking tall and handsome, with dark hair and a serious demeanor. A former classmate who gave his name only as Erich S. recalled Fritzl as a "slightly different" teenager and remembers his unfashionable haircut.

Johann Kreitler, director of the high school Fritzl attended from 1947-51, said Fritzl left school at 16 and later went to a vocational school.

Fritzl's employers and colleagues say he gained their respect and was a hard worker.

"He expected a lot from others, but he seemed to expect a lot from himself," said Graf. "Saturdays, Sundays, holidays — if work needed to be done, he did it."

Yet outside the workplace, there were warning signs.

He had a prison record
Reports suggest Fritzl was arrested in the 1960s in Linz and may have served prison time. Police have declined to comment, saying records that old have been erased under Austrian law.

But the daughter of a former employer backed up the reports.

"He was hired even though he had a record," said Sigrid Reisinger, who heads the Amstetten construction material firm Zehetner, which employed Fritzl from 1969-71. She said the alleged crime was of a sexual nature but did not recall details.

Calls to Fritzl's lawyer, Rudolf Mayer, went unanswered Friday.

Fritzl then sold machines for a German company in Austria and was often on the road. He bought an inn and campground in Unterach, about 90 miles west of Amstetten, that his wife, Rosemarie, who police say was unaware of the cellar dungeon, ran during summers from 1973 to 1996.

"One day he came to my door and told me that Elisabeth was not coming home any more, that she had left to join a cult," Graf said.

'So convincing of the sorrow he felt'
He said Fritzl was so believable that no one was suspicious. "He was so convincing of the sorrow he felt and the suffering of his family," Graf said. "Nobody had any clue."

Graf said Fritzl also told of discovering one of Elisabeth's children on his doorstep, and Graf said he never doubted the tale.

Two other children also turned up the same way, hand-picked to live upstairs, police say, because Fritzl decided they were "crybabies" who would raise a ruckus in the basement.

Authorities say Fritzl was twice suspected of arson at the inn, in 1974 and 1982. But Gerhard Neuhuber, an Unterach police official, said Fritzl was cleared because of lack of evidence.

During the second investigation, Fritzl spent a short time in prison, Neuhuber told the AP.


After the latest allegations, police in Upper Austria have been examining whether Fritzl might be linked to an unsolved murder nearby.

Yet Fritzl remains little-known in Unterach, where those who dealt with him say they saw little in his character that seemed exceptional or suspicious.

Graf said he sometimes met Fritzl for business dealings, and the pair would share a beer. "He told jokes, not always the cleanest," Graf said. "He laughed loud, a real boom."

Germany's Bild newspaper interviewed a man it identified only as Paul H., who said he twice vacationed in Thailand with Fritzl, and obtained video showing Fritzl on the beach receiving a massage, eating supper and laughing.

"We sat out on the terrace and had a nice evening," it quoted the friend as saying.

He paid his fishing dues
There was no sign of the man investigators say confessed to tossing the body of one of his offspring in a furnace after the child died in infancy.

Social workers visited the house about 20 times to check on the three children Fritzl and his wife were raising upstairs, and "there was no reason to suspect that something was wrong," said Josef Schloegl, head of the Amstetten district court.

Much about Fritzl remains a mystery — even to police, who say he clammed up this week.

He wasn't active in community or church groups. Even his fishing club says he was something of a question mark.

Fritzl paid his dues, and "there was never a problem with him," said club treasurer Reinhard Kern.

"Whether he actually went fishing or not, how am I to know? Maybe it was an alibi."

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Discuss:

Discussion comments

,

Most active discussions

  1. votes comments
  2. votes comments
  3. votes comments
  4. votes comments