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)

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Guru Careers: Copywriter / Direct Response Copywriter

£20k plus sales linked bonus. : Guru Careers: We are seeking a Copywriter to j...

Recruitment Genius: Accounting Technician

£17000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A fantastic opportunity has bec...

Guru Careers: 3D Creative Designer

Up to £26k DOE: Guru Careers: A Junior / Mid-Level 3D Creative Designer is nee...

Recruitment Genius: Ecommerce Website Digital Marketing Manager - Fashion / Retail

£40000 - £60000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: You'll be joining a truly talen...

Day In a Page

Turkey-Kurdish conflict: Obama's deal with Ankara is a betrayal of Syrian Kurds and may not even weaken Isis

US betrayal of old ally brings limited reward

Since the accord, the Turks have only waged war on Kurds while no US bomber has used Incirlik airbase, says Patrick Cockburn
VIPs gather for opening of second Suez Canal - but doubts linger over security

'A gift from Egypt to the rest of the world'

VIPs gather for opening of second Suez Canal - but is it really needed?
Jeremy Corbyn dresses abysmally. That's a great thing because it's genuine

Jeremy Corbyn dresses abysmally. That's a great thing because it's genuine

Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, applauds a man who clearly has more important things on his mind
The male menopause and intimations of mortality

Aches, pains and an inkling of mortality

So the male menopause is real, they say, but what would the Victorians, 'old' at 30, think of that, asks DJ Taylor
Man Booker Prize 2015: Anna Smaill - How can I possibly be on the list with these writers I have idolised?

'How can I possibly be on the list with these writers I have idolised?'

Man Booker Prize nominee Anna Smaill on the rise of Kiwi lit
Bettany Hughes interview: The historian on how Socrates would have solved Greece's problems

Bettany Hughes interview

The historian on how Socrates would have solved Greece's problems
Art of the state: Pyongyang propaganda posters to be exhibited in China

Art of the state

Pyongyang propaganda posters to be exhibited in China
Mildreds and Vanilla Black have given vegetarian food a makeover in new cookbooks

Vegetarian food gets a makeover

Long-time vegetarian Holly Williams tries to recreate some of the inventive recipes in Mildreds and Vanilla Black's new cookbooks
The haunting of Shirley Jackson: Was the gothic author's life really as bleak as her fiction?

The haunting of Shirley Jackson

Was the gothic author's life really as bleak as her fiction?
Bill Granger recipes: Heading off on holiday? Try out our chef's seaside-inspired dishes...

Bill Granger's seaside-inspired recipes

These dishes are so easy to make, our chef is almost embarrassed to call them recipes
Ashes 2015: Tourists are limp, leaderless and distinctly UnAustralian

Tourists are limp, leaderless and distinctly UnAustralian

A woefully out-of-form Michael Clarke embodies his team's fragile Ashes campaign, says Michael Calvin
Blairites be warned, this could be the moment Labour turns into Syriza

Andrew Grice: Inside Westminster

Blairites be warned, this could be the moment Labour turns into Syriza
HMS Victory: The mystery of Britain's worst naval disaster is finally solved - 271 years later

The mystery of Britain's worst naval disaster is finally solved - 271 years later

Exclusive: David Keys reveals the research that finally explains why HMS Victory went down with the loss of 1,100 lives
Survivors of the Nagasaki atomic bomb attack: Japan must not abandon its post-war pacifism

'I saw people so injured you couldn't tell if they were dead or alive'

Nagasaki survivors on why Japan must not abandon its post-war pacifism
Jon Stewart: The voice of Democrats who felt Obama had failed to deliver on his 'Yes We Can' slogan, and the voter he tried hardest to keep onside

The voter Obama tried hardest to keep onside

Outgoing The Daily Show host, Jon Stewart, became the voice of Democrats who felt the President had failed to deliver on his ‘Yes We Can’ slogan. Tim Walker charts the ups and downs of their 10-year relationship on screen