03.17.09

My Life in the Dungeon

Testifying by videotape, Elisabeth Fritzl described her years of torment, repeatedly raped by her father Josef and trapped with the children of incest in a dank cellar. It was so harrowing that it led her father to confess. Barbie Latza Nadeau reports.

Testifying by videotape, Elisabeth Fritzl described her years of torment, repeatedly raped by her father Josef and trapped with the children of incest in a dank cellar. It was so harrowing that it led her father to confess—Now he faces life in prison. Barbie Latza Nadeau reports.

Sometimes the smell of mold can be more horrible than the smell of death. On the first day of Josef Fritzl’s rape, incest, and murder trial in Sankt Poelten, Austria, the chief prosecutor passed around a brown cardboard box with items taken from a dungeon below his house. No one outside the closed courtroom knows for sure what was in that box, but we do know that it smelled like a dark, damp place where water seeped from the walls; a space closed off from sunlight and void of any normality for nearly a quarter of a century.

This was where Fritzl raped his captive daughter more than 3,000 times, fathering seven children. Three of those children were raised in the dark cellar with Elisabeth. Three were raised upstairs by Elisabeth’s mother, who claims to have known nothing of the horror below. One, a twin, was burned in an incinerator in the backyard after allegedly dying from respiratory problems at birth. Elisabeth bore all seven children on her own, cutting the umbilical cords with a pair of rusty scissors.

When he was angry, Fritzl would turn off the electricity or fail to deliver food for days at a time, leaving the four captives hungry and cold in the dark.

The 33-year-old Austrian prosecutor, Chritsiane Burkheiser, is doing her best to transport the eight jurors to that underground hell where Fritzl lured his daughter just days after she turned 18. “Have you ever wondered what it was like in the cellar?” she asked the four men and four women as she passed around the box. It was like this, she said, turning the light on and off in the courtroom. “Light out. Rape. Light on. Moldy walls. Rape. Light out."

On Monday, Fritzl, 73, pleaded guilty to charges of rape, incest, false imprisonment, and coercion. In a surprise twist, on Wednesday, Fritzl also pleaded guilty to murdering one of his newborn twins. Originally he said the baby was stillborn, but on Wednesday he said: "I was hoping the little one would survive but I should have done something. I don't know why I didn't help. I just lost sight. Sorry."

The trial will continue to determine sentencing, with a verdict expected by Friday. The new pleas mean that Fritzl will certainly receive a life sentence. He made them after watching video taped testimony by his daughter Elisabeth, who was excused from appearing in court, but according to press reports may have secretly attended the proceedings." Her testimony will now help determine whether he is remanded to prison or a psychiatric ward.

Elisabeth had told police that the baby she named Michael was born alive and could have been saved with medical treatment. Austrian media have reported that Elisabeth testified that, “Michael began to suffer breathing problems, his skin turned blue and his legs started to stiffen.” Her father then took the baby away saying, “What will be will be.”

On Wednesday Fritzl also pleaded guilty to slavery, a crime that has never been tried in the Austrian court system. Burkheiser said that no matter how bad the sexual abuse got, the uncertainty was worse. She told the jury that Elisabeth spent 24 years wondering when she would be raped again and, maybe worse, what would happen to her and her children if he never returned. “It was his playground,” Burkheiser told the court. “He came, took her, and went again.”

On Monday, Fritzl had admitted to the court that on August 28, 1984, just days after she turned 18, he asked Elisabeth to help him fix a door in the basement of the family home in Amstetten, Austria, where he claimed to be building a bomb shelter. He had already been sexually abusing the girl since she was 11, and there is no doubt she expected to be sexually abused once more when she followed him to the basement. Instead, he led her through a series of electronic doors that later would prove impossible to escape from. He drugged her with ether, according to Burkheiser, raped her, and then chained her to a pole behind a bed he had prepared.

Elisabeth, whose 11 hours of videotaped testimony will be shown in snippets throughout the week-long trial, kept a diary on grocery-store receipts her father left at the bottom of the shopping bags when he brought supplies. In the diary, she recalled that the chain was too short and for the first several days she could not even reach the toilet.

Soon after her captivity began, she wrote, her father forced her to write a letter to her mother Rosemarie claiming to have run off to join a cult. Rosemarie then opened a missing-persons file that was closed several years later. Eventually, Elisabeth wrote in tiny letters on her scraps of paper, her father released her from the chains, but he threatened that he would kill her if she tried to escape.

Over the course of her 24 years in the dungeon, Elisabeth bore seven children. She raised Stefan, 19, Kerstin, 20, and Felix, 6, in the basement. Lisa, 16, Monika, 15, and the surviving twin, Alexander, 13, were taken upstairs immediately after they were born and left on the doorstep of the family house. Fritzl told neighbors that the three children were left there by their runaway daughter Elisabeth, and he and Rosemarie legally filed to adopt them all. Austrian children's rights advocates picketing outside the trial blame a dysfunctional system for not checking on the authenticity of these abandonment claims.

Elisabeth taught the cellar children to read. She hung pictures of flowers and sunshine on the walls. They had a TV and videocassettes but the dungeon had no heat or hot water. When he was angry, Fritzl would turn off the electricity or fail to deliver food for days at a time, leaving the four captives hungry and cold in the dark. Sometimes, when the upstairs family went on vacation, Fritzl’s basement family would be abandoned for up to 10 days at a time with little food.

Still, Fritzl’s defense attorney, Rudolf Mayer, says his client is not a monster, and that his own childhood abuse at his mother's hand is the root of his problems. "She simply didn't want a child and she treated me accordingly," Fritzl told the court. "I was beaten."

Mayer claims that Fritzl, who had three other daughters, “chose this daughter for this role.” A monster, Mayer says, would have let the cellar babies die. Instead, Fritzl cared for them, bringing them school books and celebrating holidays and birthdays with them. “He wanted to build a second family in the cellar.”

Meanwhile, Fritzl’s upstairs family thrived, and rented apartments in the house to nearly 100 different tenants over the 24 years of Elisabeth's captivity. Sepp Leitner, who rented there for almost five years, was suspicious when his electricity bills suddenly skyrocketed and says he nearly discovered the dungeon. He also testified to police that he and other tenants often noticed basic staples like milk and pasta missing from their kitchens. He says his dog Sam constantly sniffed and barked at what he later discovered was the entrance Fritz used to take food down to the cellar. "I really blame myself for not inspecting it more thoroughly," he lamented. "If I'd been a bit more persistent perhaps we'd have found out about the dungeon earlier."

On April 19, 2008, Kerstin suffered a seizure. Fritzl agreed to take her to the hospital, and he made Elisabeth carry her to the car. In her scrap-paper diary, she recalled seeing the sunlight for the first time in 24 years. Fritzl then pushed her back down into the dungeon and delivered Kerstin to the hospital, claiming to have found the young woman and a note from her mother. Authorities at the hospital grew suspicious and called police, who reopened the missing-persons case Rosemarie had filed years before.

A week later, driven by her glimpse of freedom, Elisabeth was able to convince her father to take Stefan and Felix upstairs and to take her to the hospital to visit Kerstin. Fritzl and his daughter were detained there, and Fritzl eventually confessed to the imprisonment and told investigators about the dungeon. They had to break through eight electronic doors to reach the dank living area, where there was so little oxygen that police had to use oxygen tanks during the investigation.

Franz Cutka, the official spokesman for the court, said that Elisabeth’s testimony would “only be viewed in small portions” because it was so disturbing. After Tuesday’s testimony, he said that Fritzl watched his daughter’s videotape attentively and responded to questions.

During the trial, Elisabeth and her children are staying at a nearby psychological center. She will not have to confront her father in court, but she may be asked to provide further video testimony. After the trial, she plans to live under a new identity in an undisclosed location with her son Felix. Kerstin and Stefan suffer from severe social and physical disabilities, including rotting gums and immunity problems from being raised without sunlight. They, along with Fritzl’s wife and the upstairs children, have also taken new identities.

Barbie Nadeau has reported from Italy for Newsweek Magazine since 1997. She also writes for CNN Traveller, Budget Travel Magazine and Frommer's.