On 15 September 1990, some passersby walking along the river Vitava River in Czechoslovakia, near Prague came across the grisly sight of the body of a young woman. Blanka Bockova was the first victim of Jack Unterweger. She was left in a state of degradation, lying on her back, nude, with a pair of grey stockings knotted around her neck. Her legs were open and she had been covered with leaves.
The night before she had gone out with friends for a drink in the upmarket Wenceslas Square and had remained in a bar while the others left around 11.45pm. She was last seen talking to a man, aged around 40, but no-one could offer any other details. Bockova was a fun loving girl and was not a prostitute.
Several weeks later Brunhilde Masser, a well known prostitute from Graz, was reported missing. As Austria had very few problems with prostitutes the authorities became concerned. Two months later in early December another prostitute, Heidemarie Hammerer, also went missing. On New Year’s Eve, almost a month after her disappearance, her body was found by hikers in a wood outside of the town.
Like the first murder she was also found on her back and covered with dead leaves and bramble. It appeared that the body had been redressed and then dragged through the woods. Although not naked, her legs were bare and a missing piece of material from her slip was found inside her mouth. Hammerer, like Blanka Bockova, had been strangled with a pair of tights and also displayed bruises and ligament marks on her wrists, suggesting that she had been tied up. Several red fibres on her clothing that didn’t match anything she was wearing appeared to be possible evidence left by the killer.
A few days later the body of missing prostitute Brunhilde Masser was discovered. Her badly decomposed body was also found in a quiet wood in Bregenz. Again, there were no signs of robbery and her manner of death matched the previous two murders.
The Austrian Federal Police investigating the cases found it difficult to unearth details about the prostitutes’ clients. There had been no witnesses to the murders and the police found themselves without any leads to go on. At this particular stage the Austrian police, unaware of Blanka Bokova’s murder in Prague, had no indication that they were dealing with a serial killer.
This view would soon begin to change when another prostitute, Elfriede Schrempf, disappeared from Graz on 7 March 1991. Schrempf’s parents contacted the police to notify them that a man had called the family home several times and taunted them about their daughter’s occupation. What concerned them and the police was the fact the girl’s telephone number was unlisted and suggested that the person who may be responsible for her disappearance made the calls.
On 5 October 1991, Schrempf’s body was found like the others in a woodland area just outside Graz. Her remains were skeletal and again she was covered in leaves. The police, if they hadn’t realised then that they were in the midst of a serial killer soon did when four more prostitutes vanished, this time from Vienna. Silvia Zagler, Sabine Moitzi, Regina Prem and Karin Eroglu had all vanished within the period of a month.
Moitzi’s body was discovered on 20 May 1992 followed by Karin Ergolu. Both women had been strangled and dumped in woodland outside the city of Vienna. Again the MO of the killer was the same: the victims had been asphyxiated with an article of their own clothing.
A breakthrough suddenly came to the fore when retired seventy-year-old investigator August Schenner, recalled a series of murders and attacks he had dealt with in the seventies. The crime scene and cause of deaths was remarkably similar to the murders now being committed in Austria. The culprit, Johann ‘Jack’ Unterweger had been caught and imprisoned.
The former murders of two women had led Schenner to a prostitute, Barbara Scholz who had admitted that she and Unterweger had abducted one of the victims, eighteen-year-old Margaret Schaefer and taken her to a wood where she was tied up and assaulted. Unterweger had demanded sex and when the girl refused he bludgeoned her to death with a steel pipe. He then strangled and left her nude body face up in the wood covered with leaves.
At the trial Unterweger had confessed to the crime but revealed that as he hit the victim he had seen a vision of his mother, which had fuelled his anger and hatred resulting in him continuing to strike the victim until she was dead.
Unterweger was declared insane by a psychologist who described him as being a ‘sexually sadistic psychopath with narcissistic and histrionic tendencies, prone to fits of rage and anger. He is an incorrigible perpetrator’.
Despite finding the body of the second victim, Marcia Horveth, who had also been strangled and dumped into Lake Salzachsee near Salzburg, Unterweger denied responsibility. He was also now serving time in prison for life.
Inspector Schenner had known that Unterweger was incredibly manipulative and used such skills to influence those around him. On investigation he discovered that the killer had secured a parole board and managed to get himself released only fifteen years into his sentence. Not only had Unterweger been freed early but in the time he had also become a best selling novelist and celebrity.
After his incarceration in 1976, Unterweger who was originally illiterate spent his time in jail learning to read and write. He not only became well read but ventured into writing himself and rather incredibly created a bestseller with his autobiography 'Fegefeur' (Purgatory) followed by another self examination ‘Endstation Zuchthaus’ (Terminus Prison) which won a prestigious literary award.
His books proffered self-confessional tracts such as: "I wielded my steel rod among prostitutes in Hamburg, Munich and Marseilles. I had enemies and I conquered them through my inner hatred."
Untweger’s memoirs were filled with self-indulgent documentation of the state of his own disturbed mind and his urges to kill. No doubt the poetic and lyrical quality of such writing coupled with his infamy as a ‘damaged’ killer impressed publishers and the parole board alike. For Untweger’s literary efforts had done more than give him awards and celebrity, it had also secured his freedom in that the authorities were quick to believe that ‘art’ had brought about redemption.
The now famous lifer was upheld as an example of how an evildoer, and in Unterweger’s case a sadistic killer, can alter themselves for the better and contribute to society. After countless interviews with the press, Unterweger, now showing that he was a reformed man, found himself at the centre of a public campaign to release him. On 23 May 1990 his endeavours to hoodwink the authorities and members of the public saw him become a free man once again.
One of the most bizarre and disturbing aspects of this case is that while Unterweger was being feted by the chattering classes and invited to glitzy soirees and parties, he was also been asked for his opinions and advice on the latest disappearance of prostitutes that he alone was responsible for. The killer by this time was now known as ‘The Courier’ and Unterweger not only participated on television talk shows about the matter but even conducted broadcast interviews on the street himself.
In reality, while the devious Unterweger was basking in the spotlight of celebrity and seeing his books rise up the bestsellers list, he was still continuing his sickening obsession with brutalising women.
Certain police investigators had become suspicious of Unterweger, but they had to tread carefully as the former killer was now a popular literary figure and symbol of redemption for a liberal community.
Dr Ernst Geiger, a detective on the Austrian Federal police force had never been convinced by Unterweger’s act as a reformed man. A discreet surveillance was kept on the killer. When Unterweger was invited to Los Angeles to write articles it wasn’t just Geiger who noticed that the latest murders suddenly stopped. Now he realised that he would have to look seriously into Unterweger’s movements and either eliminate or arrest him. It was just a question of getting the right evidence.
The police began to trace all of Unterweger’s activities from credit cards to receipts and rental car agencies. After several months they had accumulated many links to the man’s movements and places where the victims had been murdered. Records showed that Unterweger was in Graz when Brunhilde Masser was found strangled and also in Bregenz when victim Heidemarie Hammerer disappeared off the radar. A witness also testified that Unterweger was similar to a man she had seen with Hammerer just before she disappeared and that he had been wearing a brown leather jacket and red scarf. Sightings of Unterweger with the other victims in Vienna were also established.
Following Unterweger’s return to Austria, where he realised he was now a suspect, he wrote articles criticising the police force’s effort to track down the killer. Because so many people had taken a great risk in believing that Unterweger was a reformed character they supported him in his crusade against the police.
It was important that Dr Ernst Geiger collected as much circumstantial evidence that he could, which he did from various Austrian prostitutes who Unterweger had visited under the pretext that he was a journalist.
Dr Geiger was able to carry out forensic tests on a BMW that Unterweger had bought on his release from prison. A hair fragment was found and DNA tests proved that it belonged to Blanka Bockova, the first victim from Prague. This evidence allowed a warrant search of the suspect’s flat in Vienna where they discovered a brown leather jacket and red scarf. They also came across a menu and receipts from a Malibu seafood restaurant, together with home snapshots of Unterweger posing with female members of the Los Angeles Police Department. Geiger, on a hunch, thought that something might also turn up in LA. He contacted the police there and discovered that they were in the throes of investigating three killings of prostitutes.
Geiger discovered that all of the murders in LA were identical to those in Austria. They had all been killed while Unterweger was in the city masquerading as a journalist and requiring the LA police to assist him with his research. More importantly, receipts from the Unterweger’s apartment correlated to hotels near where the prostitutes were murdered.
One worrying development for the police was that Unterweger had acquired an impressionable girlfriend, Bianca Mrak, who was now missing from home. It now became an urgent crusade to track down Unterweger before anything happened to her.
Tipped off by friends that the police were now searching for him Unterweger left Austria with Mrak and managed to enter into America. He then started a campaign to make him look like a victim of police persecution and contacted the Austrian press. The manipulative Unterweger managed to persuade Austrian newspapers to publish his case for defence. Playing the wronged man role and a victim of police vindictiveness, some of the papers agreed and even paid him for an exclusive article.
Mrak herself revealed that she was happy to be with Unterwegger and the picture created was that they were fugitives facing persecution from the Austrian police who had singled him out as a scapegoat.