Ten years after being freed from the cellar where her father had imprisoned her for 24 years, Elisabeth Fritzl has found happiness.
Elisabeth, who was raped by her father in the cellar and bore six children to him, now lives with those children—now aged from 15 to 29—in upper Austria, in a small village less than an hour from Amstetten, says Mark Perry, the British journalist who first broke the story of Josef Fritzl’s sensational crimes of captivity, rape and incest to the world.
Elisabeth is also married and one of her children work for the local council.
Fritzl, now 83 and serving a life prison term, “is showing no regret at all,” says Perry, who in March spoke to Fritzl’s lawyer, Walter Anzböck.
“He visited him a fortnight ago and Fritzl said, ‘It’s normal to have a family in the cellar.’ There’s no remorse. You would have to be a psychopath to do what he’s done.”
Perry was a 25-year-old journalist for the Austrian newspaper, Kronen Zeitung, when he first heard the name Josef Fritzl. It was 1984 and he received a call from the chief detective of police in Amstetten, a town in northern Austria.
“He said, ‘We’ve got a missing girl called Elisabeth Fritzl. We’ve spoken to her father, Josef, and he’s given us her picture. Would you mind putting it in the newspaper?’ ” recalls Perry. “I said, ‘Of course.’ ”
Perry interviewed father-of-seven Fritzl and detectives “went to the house a couple of times,” says Perry. “They had a biscuit and a cup of coffee and they took notes. They never once got a sense that anything was wrong.”
Yet beneath their feet, a nightmare was unfolding.
Elisabeth had not fled her family at all—she was locked in the windowless cellar of the Fritzl home where her father would hold her captive for 24 years. Throughout that period he raped her and she gave birth to seven children in the home prison, one of whom died.
Three children—Lisa, Monika and Alexander—were taken upstairs to live with Fritzl and his wife Rosemarie, who was told by her husband that Elisabeth had joined a cult and had dropped the children on the doorstep. Three other children—Kerstin, Stefan, and Felix—remained in the cellar, which was accessible by a small, hidden door that could only be opened by a secret code, in Fritzl’s cellar workshop.
“I don’t know why it was so,” Elisabeth would later tell police. “My father simply chose me for himself.”
The foundations of the depraved under-ground world that Fritzl had kept secret for more than two decades began to crumble on April 19, 2008, when Elisabeth’s first-born, Kerstin, then 19, fell ill with breathing problems. Elisabeth, then 42, “begged her dad to let her daughter go to the hospital,” says Perry.
Fritzl complied, taking Kerstin to the hospital and telling staff she was his granddaughter. Sticking to his story of 1984, he said he did not know the whereabouts of Kerstin’s mother, Elisabeth.
When doctors were unable to diagnose the cause of Kerstin’s illness they put out a public plea in the media for Elisabeth to come forward.
“She was in the cellar watching TV and she begged Fritzl to let her and her other children out,” says Perry. “That’s when he let her out.”
Though it had been 24 years, Perry recognised Elisabeth’s name in reports.
“It was a huge shock when Elisabeth appeared,” says Perry, who was on holiday at the time and rushed back in his car to Amstetten. He called Fritzl wanting to quiz him on the apparent return of his long-lost daughter.
“This was a few days before the police took him in,” recalls Perry, 59. “Fritzl said, ‘Just bugger off. Don’t pester me. I don’t want anything to do with Elisabeth.’ Then he slammed the phone down.
“I spoke to the police officer who first interviewed Elisabeth and she said she was a nice woman with grey hair and a sort of blank expression—like wax. Elisabeth told them about the cellar. They couldn’t believe her at first.”
But the evidence—the cellar prison, the children—would soon bear out the unthinkable truth.
“His neighbours were totally shocked,” says Perry. “He lived a normal life and blended in well. He just kept himself to himself.”
Fritzl received a life sentence for his crimes. He is currently in Austria’s Stein prison, has changed his name to Josef Mayrhoff, and is believed to have dementia. “He kept saying, ‘Just look into the cellars of other people, you might find other families and other girls down there,’ ” recalls Perry. “He doesn’t believe he’s done anything wrong at all. He thinks it’s a failure of justice and that he’s been wrongly locked up.”
Since her freedom, Elisabeth, 52, has been given a new identity, which is strictly protected under Austrian law.
The family “is doing more than fine,” a local restaurant owner told The Sun. “They come often to my venue and we treat them like any other guests. Everybody in the village knows them.” Said a resident: “Given what they have been through, they are very polite, happy and smile a lot.”
It’s a world away from the unthinkable depravity they endured for so long.
“One thing that sticks in my mind is the first time the little 5-year-old lad, Felix, came out of his prison,” recalls Perry. “The policeman said he was pressing his nose on the car window and just looking—looking at the stars, looking at the light. For the first time in his life he was seeing the stars. And he was just quiet, pressing his nose against the car window and being astounded by everything.”
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