In April 2017 it’s almost ten years since the near-unbelievable story of the Austrian grandfather who abducted his own daughter and kept her prisoner in a warren of soundproofed basement rooms, broke.
Josef Fritzl incarcerated Elisabeth in the cellar under his Amstetten home when she was just 18. The convicted rapist went on to father seven children with her, until his monstrous behaviour was finally uncovered by the police.
In March 2009, Fritzl was jailed for life. Initially he denied all charges, including rape, incest, murder by neglect and enslavement. But on the third day he changed his pleas to guilty, claiming that watching video testimony from Elisabeth (who refused to face him in court) made him change his mind.
British-born journalist Mark Perry broke the story in April 2008 and says of the deluded grandfather: “He still thinks he’ll come free one day and go fishing and carry on with life.”
After 15 years in prison, Friztl could apply for parole, but after his sentence was passed, his lawyers said he expected to spend the rest of his life in prison.
Perry spoke to Fritzl twice – first when Elisabeth was reported missing and again when she turned up at a hospital and blew her father’s reign of terror to smithereens.
Writing for the Huffington Post UK, he said: “I’ve been in journalism for more than 30 years now and I’m considered a veteran crime reporter, but never have I experience this amount of horror or such an individual. He hasn’t felt any remorse up to this day as far as I personally could see.
“Can a psychopath of his likes be held accountable for his horrendous crimes? After dealing with that cold-blooded man for so long a time, there’s only one answer for me: Keep him locked up for the rest of his life. And let him suffer like he let his family suffer.”
Psychiatrist Dr Heidi Kastner, who interviewed Fritzl to assess if he was fit to stand trial, recalls how he claimed he was “born to rape”. Dr Kastner said: “He felt bad sometimes. But he practised keeping all remorse, thoughts of remorse at bay. And if you practise something, you become good at it.”
She added: “The reason why he did it - at least the reason he gave why he did it - was that he had this need to control other, another person, and to control a woman, and to control her sexually, and to live his sexuality with them, somebody who was completely under his control and who couldn’t get away from him. Somebody who wouldn’t leave him.”
As Channel 5 airs Fritzl: What Happened Next, we take a look at a case that shocked the world.
Who Was Josef Fritzl?
A former electrician, Fritzl was married to Rosemarie, with whom he had two sons and five daughters, including Elisabeth, who was born in 1966.
Records show Fritzl served prison time for rape and had convictions for attempted rape and indecent exposure. He also worked as a landlord and ran a pub and a campsite. He is believed to have started sexually abusing Elisabeth when she was just 11.
What did he do?
Elisabeth had threatened to run away many times and indeed had been brought back home by the police or Fritzl himself more than once. When her absence was noticed in August 1984, he told friends and family she had run off to join a religious sect.
Elisabeth was banished to the cold, damp, rat-infested basement, where a total of eight doors would have to be opened before reaching the purpose-built cellar that was to become her home. At first, Fritzl shackled his daughter with an iron chain that held her arms hoisted behind her back, allowing her to move just half a metre from either side of her bed. Throughout her imprisonment she was told if she tried to overpower him, the dungeon would be pumped with poisonous gas and she – and the seven children she would later give birth to alone, and without help or pain relief - would perish underground.
Around nine months into her imprisonment he removed the chain because it was “hindering his sexual activity with his daughter” according to the indictment.
How did they get out?
It was to be 24 years from the day her incarceration began until Elisabeth would finally be free again.
On 19 April 2008, in a rare show of mercy, Fritzl drove his 19-year-old daughter Kerstin to hospital after she grew gravely ill in the cellar. Unbeknownst to him, Elisabeth had slipped a secret note into her daughter’s pocket, begging for help. As the teenager lay dying in intensive care, suffering from breathing problems and a kidney disorder, her doctors put out a clever TV appeal for her mother to come forward. Fritzl responded by escorting Elisabeth to the hospital, where he was eventually arrested.
Where is Elisabeth Fritzl now and what happened to her children?
During her imprisonment, Fritzl raped his daughter at least 3,000 times, resulting in seven children. Three of the children - Kerstin, Stefan and Felix - were to stay underground and did not see daylight until their release in April 2008.
A further three appeared at the family’s front door in a ploy by Fritzl. He told his wife and the community they had been abandoned by Elisabeth, who was still living with her sect. He went on to successfully adopt one of them and officially foster the other two.
The seventh child, a twin named Michael, died shortly after his birth in the basement in 1996. The child had breathing difficulties and died in his mother’s arms when he was around 60 hours old. Fritzl burned his body in an incinerator.
When Elisabeth arrived at the hospital where Kerstin was being treated, she was described by Dr Guntram Knecht as “destroyed by all means.” An account in the Guardian said: “At the age of only 42, her crudely cut hair is completely white, her lips are shrunken around toothless gums, her face is deeply lined, her body painfully thin, her skin almost transparent.”
Elisabeth and her children were given new identities. Immediately after their release, they were admitted to a psychiatric clinic in which a special dark enclosure was built for them as they began the long process of readjusting to life on the outside.
In 2010, Fritzl’s sister-in-law, a woman who identifies herself as Christine R, told The Independent about Elisabeth’s life after leaving the clinic to live with her children in secret, secured accommodation.
She said: “Elisabeth likes to go shopping a lot. She couldn’t do that while she was locked in the cellar for those 24 years. She loves jeans with glitter pockets and she passed her driving test without difficulty. Now she’s looking for a car. The kids are all going to school and working hard. Felix, the smallest one, has got a PlayStation.”
Neither Elisabeth nor her children have been photographed or given interviews since their release.
Willibald Reitner was the first police officer to speak to Elisabeth after she was freed. He revealed: “I don’t have personal contact with Elisabeth and her children. However, every year at Christmas, New Year and Easter I get a text, wishing me all the best.”
Rape Crisis services for women and girls who have been raped or have experienced sexual violence - 0808 802 9999
Survivors UK offers support for men and boys - 0203 598 3898
Fritzl: What Happened Next airs on Channel 5 at 10pm on Thursday 13 April.