World and Nation

Austrians Recoil at Case of Incest in Cellar Dungeon

With his Mercedes-Benz and the rings on his fingers, Josef Fritzl looked every inch a property owner, neighbors in this tidy Austrian town said Monday. Even when running errands, they said, he wore a natty jacket, crisp shirt and tie.

Fritzl’s apartment house, its back garden obscured by a tall hedge, was his kingdom, one neighbor said, and interlopers were not welcome. On Monday, investigators in white jumpsuits combed the house and garden for clues. The authorities said Sunday that Fritzl, 73, had kept one of his daughters imprisoned for 24 years in a basement dungeon, where she bore him seven children.

The daughter, Elisabeth, 42, is in psychiatric care, along with two of her children. Her eldest daughter, Kerstin, 19, whose illness pulled apart Fritzl’s secret after he had her taken to a local hospital, was in a medically induced coma and was in critical condition, the authorities said.

The authorities said Fritzl confessed Monday to imprisonment, sexual abuse and incest. The case has left this town of 22,000 people, 80 miles west of Vienna, in stunned disbelief. Neighbors milled around the three-story apartment building on Monday, watching the investigation unfold and asking how such an atrocity could have occurred in their midst.

“One cannot comprehend the dimension of this,” said Doris Bichler, 34, a neighbor who was walking with her daughter. “Natascha Kampusch was bad, but this is of a totally different scale.” Bichler was referring to the notorious kidnapping of an Austrian schoolgirl, who was hidden in a windowless cellar for eight years until she escaped in August 2006. Until now, the Kampusch case was considered by many as the epitome of depravity in the post-World War II history of this country.

But as details of this latest case filter out, it seems even harder to fathom than Kampusch’s abduction, involving nearly a quarter-century of confinement and sexual abuse, and the birth of seven children, three of whom never emerged from the cellar into daylight until last week.

It also raises a troubling question: Why did two such horrifying crimes occur in the same period in Austria, known as a tranquil, picture-book land?

There seems no easy answer — and Austrian officials, while insisting that similar crimes had occurred in other countries, said they were struggling to make sense of Fritzl’s singular misdeeds.

“He was man of stature,” Franz Polzer, the chief of the criminal investigations unit for the Province of Lower Austria, said at a news conference here, holding up a photograph of Fritzl, a heavyset, gray-haired man dressed in black.

“He led a double life,” Polzer continued, “with one family of seven children, with his wife, and a second family of seven children, with his daughter.”

The police described Fritzl as an authoritarian figure who had brooked no dissent.

Trained as an electrician and an engineer, Fritzl owned the small apartment building, renting out a few apartments and living on the top floor. Over many years, he built an underground world for his captives in a warren of cramped, windowless rooms. He provided them with food and clothing, bought outside town to avoid suspicion.