A serial killer who crossed continents
In the summer of 1991, Jack Unterweger, a Viennese writer with a checkered past, came to Los Angeles with assignments from Austrian media to report on the city’s dark side. He insinuated himself into Hollywood’s expatriate Austrian and German crowd, visited LAPD headquarters, and went on a ride-along with a patrol officer.
At night, Unterweger the journalist became Unterweger the killer, picking up three prostitutes downtown and in Hollywood and strangling them with a signature ligature he fashioned from his victims’ bra straps. It was a pattern he’d honed back home, where he’d been killing prostitutes and dumping their naked bodies in wooded areas, posed obscenely and strangled with their own clothing.
An intelligent and charismatic man, Unterweger was a classic “malignant narcissist” who strangled at least nine women in the early 1990s while reporting on the crime wave and enjoying the fawning support of Vienna’s radical chic salons.
Although the exploits of this jet-setting Euro-ghoul have been a staple of Austrian tabloids, Unterweger’s story remains obscure here perhaps because it was overshadowed first by the state trial of the officers in the Rodney King beating and then by the O.J. Simpson case. John Leake’s fascinating book “Entering Hades: The Double Life of a Serial Killer” is sure to change that. An American translator and editor who lived in Vienna, Leake is ideally suited to investigate this case and probe the particulars of the Austrian psyche that he thinks allowed Unterweger to roam free for so long.
Leake explains that Unterweger was protected by powerful patrons, including Austrian justice officials, eminent psychiatrists, authors and other cultural lights. Leake also suggests that Unterweger was the first global serial killer. (Criminologist wisdom holds that serial killers operate close to home and certainly don’t leave a trail across two continents.)
Unterweger was articulate, media-genic and mesmerizing to women -- part Hannibal Lecter, part Ted Bundy, part Mick Jagger. He should also have been a prime suspect from the beginning, since he’d already been incarcerated for 15 years for bludgeoning an Austrian teenage girl to death. It was while in prison for that murder that he wrote an autobiography that endeared him to the Viennese intellectual set. He was set free with a rare presidential pardon in 1990. Six months later, Austrian prostitutes began disappearing.
Unterweger told police that he valued his freedom and celebrity too much to risk it with new crimes. His influential supporters agreed. Indeed many Austrians still believe that Unterweger was a victim of class warfare, a police conspiracy or an overzealous justice department. Unterweger himself cannot offer any insights. He hanged himself in his Austrian jail cell in 1994, the day he was found guilty of nine murders, including the three in Los Angeles. He was 43.
Born in 1950 during the Allied occupation to a teen mother, Unterweger never knew his father. When his mother was jailed for theft, authorities placed the boy with his grandfather and step-grandmother. When his mother got out of prison, she married the American GI who probably fathered Unterweger, but never returned for the boy. By 16 he was committing crimes and pimping out girlfriends. In 1976, he was sentenced to life in prison for murdering Margret Schafer, 18.
While incarcerated, Unterweger began to write brooding memoirs and novels filled with sadistic fantasies that became bestsellers. He also wrote children’s stories broadcast on Austrian radio and had “almost a supernatural ability to win helpers and advocates, whom he used to obtain privileges and influences.”
The photo on the book cover shows the menace and dark allure that Unterweger exploited so successfully. Slender, with piercing eyes, chains slung around his neck and a large prison tattoo across his bare chest, women wanted to rescue him.
Among those who lobbied for Unterweger’s pardon was future Nobel Prize-winning author Elfriede Jelinek, who wrote, “The clarity and great literary quality with which Jack Unterweger described his childhood made a great impression on me.”
But the memoir was fiction. Leake says Unterweger fabricated a prostitute aunt slain by her john. His portrait of a brutal grandfather was challenged by relatives. He blamed Schafer’s murder on a blackout rage but had cold-bloodedly marched her into the forest before strangling and beating her.
Nonetheless, Unterweger’s patrons used these works as proof that he’d been rehabilitated. Austrian writer Sonja Eisenstein paid for correspondence classes (he scored highest in religion) and was moved by a poem he wrote (plagiarized from Hermann Hesse). Years later, as suspicion grew in her mind, Eisenstein realized she’d been duped. She wrote to Austria’s largest newspaper:
“Jack Unterweger is a shark in the Austrian cultural scene . . . an agent of destruction that threatens all society. No one is safe from him.”
Prophetic words, but the paper never printed them.
Instead, the ex-con won a state grant to produce his play “Scream of Fear” and prostitutes disappeared in towns the playwright toured. Fearing a political scandal, authorities dithered.
“The idea that the poster boy for rehabilitation cruised around the country strangling hookers, paying for gas, food, and lodging with state subsidies, was too embarrassing to contemplate,” Leake writes.
He explains differences between the U.S. and Austrian justice systems and drops references to Nietzsche (an Unterweger favorite), Freud, the classic film noir “The Third Man,” and Nazi persecution of so-called “degenerate artists,” which Leake believes made “the pendulum swung to the opposite extreme in postwar Vienna, and no one dared call an artist or writer a degenerate.”
Leake’s Vienna is a city of coffeehouses, classical music and legal prostitution. But it is also a dark, melancholy place whose young people, chafing against decorum, were seduced by Unterweger.
By early 1992, the police net began to tighten. Tipped off by journalists, Unterweger fled with his teen fiancee to Miami before being apprehended and brought back to Austria. His trial was held in provincial Graz because Viennese authorities lacked the backbone to try its infamous son, Leake asserts. In the end, his convictions may have hinged on DNA extracted from one blond hair belonging to a murdered Prague prostitute that was found in the BMW that Unterweger had abandoned in Paris.
Leake’s book is really a dual narrative. One is the story of Unterweger himself, a beast straight out of a Grimm fairy tale. The other is a morality play about a Mitteleuropa society so titillated by the “woman killer” in its midst that powerful interests colluded to turn a blind eye to the charming monster they’d unleashed.
Denise Hamilton is the editor of “Los Angeles Noir,” a short story anthology, and the Eve Diamond crime novels.