This from our Viennese correspondent Peter LLC, recently seen scouring the Vienna words looking for sex slaves while Ronan stood idly by.
For the second* time in less than two years, an Austrian man has been found with prisoners in his cellar.
By now you’ve surely heard about the 73 year old Austrian man, Josef F., who drugged his then-18 year old daughter in 1984, locked her up in his cellar for the next 24 years, impregnated her at least six times, kept three of the resulting children with his daughter/their mother in the cellar and adopted the other three children after their mother “left” them on the doorstep. The case finally broke when the oldest child who had spent her 19 mortal years underground came down with a rare sickness and her mother was able to persuade the father to take her to the hospital. CNN has the gory details.
Last night the Austrian national broadcaster changed the topic of its weekly “Im Zentrum” program to discuss the breaking story (since the original topic was the police shooting of three unarmed Romanians, one fatally, the interior minister was already handy). In addition to the interior minister, the mayor of Amstetten, the Amstetten district commissioner, representatives from the police and sundry experts tried to tackle the question on everyone’s mind—“How could such a crime happen?”
The response was fairly predictable with the authorities basically conceding defeat in the face of the unthinkable: “Such a crime boggles the mind.” “How could we have known that the biological mother was in the house?” “He had created the perfect ruse.” “The hiding place was perfectly concealed.” But was this the perfect crime?
Admittedly, Josef did wake up pretty early to fool the police; perhaps most decisive was his ability to coerce his daughter into writing letters (or passing them off as written by her) explaining her disappearance and requesting the powers that be to end the search.
Still, in a country that requires its citizens and visitors to register with the police within three days of changing address, keeps track of those who pay the TV tax (and visits those that do not) and generally plays an active role in maintaining law and order, I have a hard time believing that the lack of bureaucratic imagination is solely to blame for the unsolved missing persons case. Indeed, I suspect that widespread views regarding non-traditional religious groups played a role in keeping the authorities from stretching their imagination in the first place (or performing much more than a perfunctory investigation).
According to the AFP, “A letter was sent to her parents asking that they stop searching for her and local authorities concluded she had been seized by a religious sect.”
In my experience Austrians are largely distrustful of anything smelling of a sect, and perhaps rightly so, but it seems to me that many are equally gullible when it comes to believing the worst about sects, as long as it confirms what they think they know about them.
Obviously, Austrians are not unique in this regard, but I am dismayed that Josef F. was able to pass off not only the disappearance of his daughter but also the appearance over the years of three of her children on his doorstep—whom he subsequently adopted claiming she had left them there (with letters in her hand explaining everything and giving the time and date of birth, of course)—by telling the police and neighbors that she had run off with a sect.
While not the only factor in the failure to solve the case, the sect angle appears to have been the icing on the cake. Since she was of age, did not appear to be suicidal and had indicated that she did not want to live under the same roof as her father, the investigators confirmed that the search was not exactly intensive and basically involved entering her name into the “Polizeicomputer” that would have checked, inter alia, the registration, employment and social security databases.
They found no sign of her in these databases, but given her profile and an apparent readiness to believe that members of a sect do not hold down jobs, go to the hospital, avail themselves of unemployment benefits, travel, buy and sell property or engage in any of a myriad of daily activities that register in official places for decades on end, the case was put on the back burner.
I can’t help but wonder if the authorities had been just a bit more skeptical of the sect explanation if they might have pursued the investigation more doggedly, not accepting the absence of evidence as evidence of the absence of wrongdoing. And I can’t ignore the irony that the very fear that sects engender in the hearts of some liberal European societies provided Josef F. with his “escape goat,” allowing him to distract from his own misdeeds by highlighting fictional ones.
*The first was Natascha Kampusch in August 2006.