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Murderer's 'final freedom': The bizarre life of Jack Unterweger, poet and killer of prostitutes, ends at his own hand

You still seem strange and distant

And lively, Death . . .

But one day you will be close

And full of flames.

Come, lover, I am there.

Take me, I am yours]

IF EVER there were a death foretold, it was that of Jack Unterweger. For a poster publicising a film about his life, he posed playfully with a noose around his neck. In his poems and letters to friends, he spoke of suicide as 'the final freedom' that would bring 'a longed-for peace'. In his long years in prison, he tried to kill himself at least three times. And last week, on the day he was found guilty of strangling nine prostitutes, he told his lawyer he was about to end his life.

Six hours after the court in the south-east Austrian city of Graz pronounced him guilty, he hung himself in a cell, using his shoelaces and a stretch of elastic from his tracksuit trousers.

Given his death wish, and his history of sadistic violence, no one should have been especially surprised. But the reaction was one of utter shock. And mixed with it was a strange sense of catharsis.

The night before the trial ended, a bomb exploded outside the courtroom.

On the Tuesday evening itself, the delivery of the verdict and the judge's announcement of a life sentence were punctuated by rolls of thunder and flashes of lightning.

Johann Unterweger was the son of an Austrian prostitute and an American GI serving with the Allied forces, which occupied the country for 10 years after the Second World War. It was not a happy match, and his was a wretched childhood. Deserted before birth by his father, he was not even two years old when he was dumped by his mother on an alcoholic grandfather, who beat him, and a prostitute aunt, who herself was murdered by a client.

By the age of five, Unterweger was already drinking schnapps. By his late teens he had moved on to robbery and pimping. Not long afterwards came murder.

His lust for violence was insatiable. 'I wielded my steel rod among the prostitutes and pimps of Hamburg, Munich and Marseilles,' he later confessed. 'I had enemies and conquered them through my inner hatred.'

The first certain victim of that hatred was Margret Schafer, an 18-year-old German murdered in December 1974. During his trial, Unterweger said that at the moment of killing he had seen his mother reflected in Schafer's face, and out of rage for the way he had been abandoned, he throttled her with her bra. It was not an argument that won him sympathy in the court. He was sentenced to life imprisonment. But in jail, the bad boy from the depths of the Austrian underworld vowed to make good. He read voraciously. And he began to write - poems, short, stories, plays, a novel, filled with fury at his childhood deprivations and his own depravity.

Outside, they struck a chord. Peter Huemer, a historian and radio talk-show host, was one of a number of Austrian intellectuals who believed that Unterweger possessed a rare talent. Like many people on the left, Huemer found the 1983 autobiography, Purgatory or the Trip to Jail - Report of a Guilty Man, especially powerful. 'It was authentic, a real cry,' he said. And like many, Huemer signed petitions proclaiming Unterweger a perfect candidate for early release on parole.

'Unterweger represented the great hope of intellectuals that, through the verbalisation of problems, you can somehow get to grips with them,' Huemer recalled. 'We wanted to believe him very badly.'

When Unterweger was paroled in May 1990 after serving 15 years, many politicians and church leaders welcomed the move. As the governor said: 'We will never find a prisoner so well prepared for freedom.'

It was a high-risk strategy. In many ways it bore similarities to the campaign spearheaded by Norman Mailer in New York to secure the release of Jack Henry Abbott, a convicted killer-turned-writer, in 1981. Within weeks of freedom, Abbott killed again, prompting Mailer's infamous remark: 'Culture is worth a little risk.'

Nobody in Vienna was keen to draw parallels with the Abbott case; instead, they looked rather to those of Jean Genet, freed on the insistence of Jean- Paul Sartre, and of Jimmy Boyle, the Scottish author and reformed murderer.

For a few months, Unterweger revelled in his freedom and celebrity. He became a regular on television chat shows; he read his work to enthusiastic audiences. Dressed in natty white suits and silk ties, he drove about town in a Ford Mustang sporting the number plate 'W-Jack 1'.

It was not long before the first body was found. In September 1990, Blanka Bokova, a Czech prostitute, was strangled with her own underwear. Unterweger was in Prague at the time, where he claimed to be researching the city's red light scene for a magazine.

Other deaths followed: in October 1990, Brunhilde Masser was killed near Graz; in December, Heidi Hammerer died near Bregenz; in the spring of 1991, Elfriede Schrempf, Silvia Zagler, Sabine Moitzi, Regina Prem and Karin Sladke-Eroglu were all murdered and dumped in forests near Vienna and Graz. Later that year, three prostitutes were killed in Los Angeles at the time Unterweger was there, again apparently to research the city's red-light district.

During the trial that ended last week, forensic experts testified that a hair found in his car had, with '99.9999 per cent' certainty, come from one of the murdered women, and that clothing on one of the victims contained threads from a scarf belonging to Unterweger. In addition, they argued that the manner of the deaths suggested they had been caused by the same person.

The evidence was circumstantial. Not a single witness testified to seeing the accused with any of the victims. And to the end, Jack Unterweger protested that he was innocenct.

Perhaps he was - but many of those who fought for his release now believe that he was guilty. And some among them admit that they feel guilty. 'At the time, I genuinely believed that Unteweger was a reformed man' said Peter Huemer last week. 'But now I feel I was deceived, and that I am partly to blame.'

(Photograph omitted)