In Austria, Herr Dungeon Meister plays the cult card

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.


  1. Peter,

    I thought exactly the same thing as you did. I wonder what Sekte they suspected she joined, poor thing?

    I have another piece of Austrian paranoia that helps explain this awful crime: all those big houses with massive, concealed nuclear bomb shelters. I mean, I don’t doubt there are English/French/American sickos who would love to enslave women in their cellars, but unlike in Austria, their cellars — if they have them — aren’t like bank vaults.

    I don’t doubt that there are others.

  2. #1: Ronan, very well thought out…and detailed.

  3. I don’t know whether the Amstetten house had a bomb shelter, but I know the Kampusch cellar was. In any case, these typically aren’t like a flimsy American basement, or a damp English coal cellar, but proper concrete subterranean quarters.

    Anyway, I’m derailing already. Back to those cults…

  4. #3: In America, the rich have updated to the ” Security closet”. You can encase yourself in one when bad guys break into you house at night. . But they are more the size of a phone booth. ( no room for the 2nd wife…Ronan.

  5. That is just seriously disturbing. That poor woman.

  6. Somebody’s going to hell for a long, long time.

  7. StillConfused says:

    I saw the headline on Drudge Report and couldn’t bring myself to click the link. Nasty crap man… really nasty.

  8. I had the same reaction as #7 – heard about it and simply didn’t want to hear the details.

    This post, however, is interesting. It is more than just a little amazing that the authorities basically bought the cover story and didn’t bother to investigate. That kind of blows my mind.

  9. Carol F. says:

    Isn’t “not investigating” an 18/19 yr old runaway pretty typical? I’m surprised you all are surprised.

    The story is horrible on the surface and beyond hellacious if you even ruminate for a moment on the details.

  10. Peter LLC says:

    Isn’t “not investigating” an 18/19 yr old runaway pretty typical? I’m surprised you all are surprised.

    If it were the United States with its long tradition of un-policed compounds out in the woods somewhere I would be less surprised, but Austria is a country that officially eschews splinter groups (the minimum definition for a non-cult religious organization is, inter alia, a group with 2/1000 of the population, currently 16,000*), likes to know where its citizens are and makes going undercover for long lengths of time difficult.

    In other words, there isn’t much of a tradition of dropping out of society, but apparently people are ready to believe that joining a cult makes people disappear without a trace.

    *About four times the number of the officially recognized LDS church in Austria, which achieved that status in 1955, no doubt due in part to Secretary Benson’s influence when Austria was negotiating its State Treaty.

  11. I feel that the authorities should conduct a search of all cellars just in case.

  12. Aaron Brown says:

    Did Peter LLC ever find sex slaves among the Vienna words? Maybe he should go looking in the Vienna wards instead.


  13. Peter LLC says:

    Not a bad idea, Aaron, but I think I blew it a few years ago when I turned up with my German phrase book in hand and told ’em in my best missionary accent: “Ich bin reich und zu haben.”

  14. I agree with Martha. Where there is smoke, there is fire. We see two signs of smoke. How many other depraved Austrian men are holding girls in their basement?

  15. I agree with Martha. Where there is smoke, there is fire. We see two signs of smoke. How many other depraved Austrian men are holding girls in their basement?

    Dan, I hope this is ironic because otherwise you’re channeling Dick Cheney.

    Peter: Have there been actual cases of members of sects going missing in Austria?

  16. Peter LLC says:

    Not that I know of, Norbert; definitely nothing approaching the notoriety of the last two prisoner-in-the-basement cases.

    Having said that, Austria’s most widely read newspaper, the Kronen Zeitung, does carry articles about JWs, Mormons/polygamists and Scientologists at random intervals that probably keep the public opinion on higher alert than the facts on the ground warrant.

  17. Last Lemming says:

    I don’t know about now, but in the 70s, the Kinder Gottes would have been at the top of the suspect list.

  18. My clock radio is set to BBC and I’ve awoken the past 2 days with this story. The details are beyond disheartening and disgusting, but I sort of agree with the fact that I don’t think it’s that surprising the authorities didn’t look further for her since the notes were in her own writing and she was of age.

    (And the first thing I thought when I heard this story yesterday was, “What is WITH Austria, anyway?”)

    It makes me sick to think of the many missing children all around the world who may be being held prisoner, subjugated to a life of hell.

  19. Send in the Texas CPS.

  20. Peter LLC says:

    the notes were in her own writing and she was of age.

    It was reported today that DNA tests of the envelope and stamp adhesive match the father; obviously this would not have been available back in ’84, but I hope that such tests would not be ruled in the future based on the claims of the letters contained therein.

    Also, some fact checking revealed that until 2001, the legal age in Austria was 19. So it turns out that in 1984, the authorities should have been in hot pursuit of any 18 year old missing person, silly sect stories notwithstanding.

  21. Peter LLC says:

    Send in the Texas CPS.

    It would probably result in a good compromise–the Texas CPS’s predilection to park APCs in your living room at the first anonymous allegation tempered by Austrian civil servants’ preference to remain inactive for a decade or two.

  22. I knew it:

    Authorities said it was not unusual for homes in Lower Austria to have bunker-like cellars with steel doors because for years the region had been situated on the edge of the iron curtain and the threat of nuclear war was considered to be a genuine threat. Fritzl is even believed to have been a beneficiary of the generous state subsidies paid out for such projects.