Jack Unterweger


Jack. Even his name sounded fictional. Like the name from a film noir or piece of pulp fiction.
“Jack” was a good name for a bad man, maybe the best for the worst kind of men, and Jack Unterweger was clearly if nothing else a genuinely bad man. The name “Jack”, with the right degrees of charm and chill, cool and threat, intelligence and evil, suited Unterweger just fine.

I was in Austria looking for Jack, but then so was everyone, Interpol included. Jack was on the run. The bungling Austrian police had missed him and now the French, the Swiss and the Italian police all lost him. He was gone.

Jack Unterweger was a genuine mystery, but the reason everyone was looking for him was not. He was a suspected prostitute killer.

Between the months of October 1990 and May 1991, seven women (Brunhilde Masser, Heide Hammerer, Elfriede Schrempf, Silvia Zagler, Sabine Moitzi, Regina Prem and Karin Sladky-Eroglu) had been killed. They had several things in common: they were all prostitutes; they were all from Graz or Vienna; and they had all been strangled, probably with the bra or stockings they were wearing, and then dumped in woodland. The Austrian media hummed with talk of nothing else. Just Jack.

Forty-two years old, a convicted killer and notorious ex-pimp renowned for a history of violence, Jack – as the police were constantly reminding us – had always been obsessed with prostitutes.

He had already been convicted of strangling one prostitute, in 1976, when he was sentenced to life imprisonment for the brutal murder two years earlier of an 18-year-old named Margaret Schafer. As he explained at the time, his mother had been a prostitute and he had beaten Schafer with a steel bar and then wrapped a bra around her neck and strangled her in a blind rage because he saw his mother’s face flash before him. Prostitutes tormented Jack. At night, he strangled them in his dreams.

Jack had related a horrendous childhood growing up in a hovel among prostitutes, pimps, alcoholics and criminals and being kicked from orphanage to institution after both his mother and his father, an American GI serving in the occupying army, deserted him when he was still a baby.

He was mostly raised by his grandfather (an alcoholic who beat him) and his aunt (also a prostitute, who would coincidentally one day be murdered by a psychopathic whore-hater herself). Almost inevitably, Unterweger eventually fell into the world of robbery, pimping and finally, murder.

On May 23, 1990, he was released from Stein prison on probation. Brunhilde Masser disappeared from her patch the following October and five weeks later, Heide Hammerer, another prostitute, had also gone missing. Both bodies were found in January 1991.

By the spring of 1991, the Graz police had linked him to the murder of 35-year-old prostitute Elfriede Schrempf who had disappeared on March 7, 1991.

Jack was known to have been in the area at the time and had been unable to provide a satisfactory alibi. Months of public speculation and intensive investigation followed. On February 13, 1992, a warrant was issued for his arrest. Jack ran, vanished. It looked like the definitive open-and-shut-case.

There’s a twist though (everything to do with Jack has a twist). There were, in fact, no fingerprints. There were no prints, no witnesses and, as the body was badly decomposed, no real forensics for police to go on. In fact, there wasn’t any actual evidence against Jack at all.

Many people felt that Jack was being hounded. Worse than that, there was actually the distinct possibility that in “The Jack Unterweger Case”, as the Austrian press were calling it, Jack Unterweger was not the killer but the victim.

I was fascinated by Jack, but then so was everyone in Viennese society.

The truth was, Vienna had been enthralled by Jack long before he was suspected of this latest murder. Back in the Seventies, shocked by the appalling brutality of both his childhood and his terrible response to it, Viennese society had become intrigued, and rather titillated, by Jack’s image as the ultimate, hardened criminal, the somewhat sleazy, bad man – by Jack the Killer.

Then in prison Jack invented a further fascination for them, a second Jack, a new Jack, one just as remarkable as its twin. The killer with the classic deprived childhood turned himself into the perfect prisoner, the classic rehabilitated offender, using his life sentence to educate himself and learning to deal with the traumas of his upbringing and articulate his pain and anger through writing rather than violence. He became Jack the Artist. Jack the Writer.

The maladjusted brute who went into prison knowing only the company of prostitutes and criminals emerged as an urbane and thoughtful aesthete, feted by Vienna’s high society and acclaimed by its literary establishment as the author of a raw and powerful autobiography, of prison-plays and experimental poetry and the founder-editor of a prison newspaper/literary magazine.

“His upbringing had really made him the lowest of the low. It was his mission to make something of himself,” one writer recalled. “He studied and worked on his writing like a man possessed.”

The level of his achievement was such that respected Austrian artists, prison reformists and the literary organization PEN began campaigning for his release.

Austria’s law ministers and leading psychiatrists endorsed the view that Jack would be able to channel his aggression into his writing and was in no danger of regression. Jack was released, with the prison governor saying: “we will never find a prisoner so well-prepared for freedom.”

Outside, Jack adopted the role of Vienna’s Jimmy Boyle or John McVicar, its symbol for the whole concept of penal rehabilitation, its model. Dressed, like Tom Wolfe, in white suit, white shoes and black polka-dot shirt (the collar sometimes over his jacket), he appeared on TV debates discussing social issues, gave readings from his bestselling autobiography, and was sought after on Vienna’s social circuit, the living proof that Austria could civilise even its worst criminals.

Then in the spring of 1991, within a year of being released, he was questioned by Graz police about the murder of Schrempf and Masser.

Jack spent the summer under suspicion, claiming he was being harassed and victimized. He felt compelled to change the personalized numberplate of his Ford Mustang car (W-JACK-1) for fear of reprisals and claimed an aggrieved relative of one of the victims had attacked him with a knife.

On September 1, papers like the Kurier speculated that the man they were looking for “could be a known murderer… Police have even given this monstrous killer the nickname ‘Jack the Strangler’.” The world and his wife knew who they meant. Jack knew too.

On January 17, 1992, he travelled to Graz voluntarily and was questioned for four hours but released without charge. Jack again gave them an alibi for March 7, 1991, the night of Schrempf’s murder – namely that he had been with his 18-year-old girlfriend, Sabine, in Vienna.

In fact, this aroused police suspicion because he actually had a far better alibi which he had not offered up for scrutiny – that he was giving a literary reading at an arts café in Koflach, half an hour’s drive away from Graz.

The Graz police were now linking him publicly with the deaths of five prostitutes in Vienna even though the Chief Prosecutor in Vienna refused to issue a warrant for his arrest or even to make a connection with the murders in Graz.

On February 13, 1992, as predicted in the press the day before, the Graz police obtained a warrant for his arrest. But the following morning, when they raided Jack’s flat (having invited the state TV channel to accompany them) Jack was, perhaps not surprisingly, nowhere to be found.

Actually he was visiting Switzerland with a girlfriend; then he vanished, leaving the Swiss police and the Austrian authorities blaming each other and the liberals, intellectuals and artists facing the fact that the man they had campaigned for, Austria’s most respected reformed criminal, was back on the run. And he was now a suspect in the murder of eight prostitutes. The only suspect.

I was confused about Jack, but then so was everyone. Vienna was in a dilemma.
“On the one hand, you see, he just can’t have done it. He can’t have,” one writer who knew Jack, had campaigned for him, explained. “He was desperate to get out of prison and is really too intelligent and too afraid of prison to risk going back inside. He had been in prison too long, he had achieved enormous success and respect outside prison he had changed. Plus, there is obvious evidence of police persecution and prejudice against him… But on the other hand, it must have been him. He has no concrete alibis, his sexual habits and brutality are well known.” All of this was true.

Viewed from the cosy civility of a Vienna coffee-house amid circumspect Viennese neatly peeling their boiled eggs for breakfast, the city seems an unlikely setting for a case such as this: so clean and so smooth-running, the trams and tubes clinically efficient – nothing it seems should go wrong here. But something, somewhere had gone wrong and that something seemed to be Jack. Perhaps Vienna – the civility, the circumspection – had driven him mad.

I was looking around, looking for pieces of Jack, any clues or views about Jack that might make my mind up. Even now, those around him (campaigners, intellectuals, close associates) could not resist pontificating about the possibilities, examining the various theories.

“Jack is very intelligent, very complicated and vey unsympathetic,” said one of them. “I helped him, yes. But I didn’t like him. I would still be shocked if it was him. The man I knew was not a monster.”

“Jack is a freak,” shrugged film-maker Willi Hengstler, “but not necessarily a killer.”

I met everyone: intellectuals and writers who had campaigned for him, tabloid hacks who had attacked him, his lawyer, the head of Homicide, former prisoners and the man who made the film of his life story. Most of them had visited him in prison, worked with him, but none of them knew him well enough to know – know if he could be the killer. None of them called themselves his friend. None had been to his flat. And, at the end, I met a man called Wolf, who had been in prison with him and he could be the only one who counted.

Meanwhile, Jack was everywhere. He was all over the papers, phoning from his hideout to protest about police persecution and claiming that two society women kept diaries that would provide further alibis (according to popular rumour, these were the wife of a politician and the wife of a paper magnate).

He was all over the TV, claiming that he couldn’t cope psychologically with being incarcerated pending investigation, phoning a newsreader to claim he would commit suicide rather than face prison.

He called the Kurier to ask them: “Am I really supposed to be the Prostitute Killer the police are looking for ?”

The Kurier’s headline ? “HELLO. IT’S ME, THE MASS MURDERER.”

Faced with the embarrassment of Jack’s disappearance, most of Vienna’s artists, liberals and intellectuals chose either publicly to disown him or stubbornly stand by him, arguing insistently on his absolute guilt or innocence.

There were two schools of thought that had one thing in common: they both bestowed upon Jack a kind of greatness.

If he was the killer, he was one of the great killers, an extraordinarily clever, callous killer who left no evidence of his crimes and fooled everyone.

But if he was innocent he was one of history’s great innocents, one of its true unfortunates, a man who coincidence had determined repeatedly had no alibi on the night of a murder, a sitting duck for an orchestrated police campaign, all just as he was making himself into something, someone. But which? Some of Austria’s most eminent minds could not decide.

Then a third, smaller, much more interesting group had emerged proposing the extraordinary-seeming idea that Jack had manipulated the whole scenario, implicating himself (by fleeing) in order to cast himself as both the hero and victim, receive mountains of publicity, revive his flagging fame and avenge himself on the police by humiliating them.

“One of Jack’s games,” Willi Hengstler put it. “A kind of Russian roulette with the authorities – putting his head in the noose, only to emerge at the end, triumphant, with an irrefutable alibi. Jack likes to be the victim.”

What was striking about this idea was that no one, even those who had met him only fleetingly, could dismiss the idea. Everyone attributed him with the “intelligence”, the cunning necessary to conceive such a scheme. Also, the people who believed in the idea the most were the ones who knew Jack the best, men like Hengstler, for example, who had researched Jack’s life while directing the film of his autobiography, ‘Fegefeuer’ (‘Purgatory’) and journalist Peter Huemer, who interviewed him in prison.

“Jack was the raw material – he gave people what they wanted. He would say anything if it would help him. He calculated very quickly how to manipulate people. Like a mathematician. This was the secret of his success.”

Hengstler remembers: “if you ever mentioned a school of psychology or a theory that pertained to Jack, then the next week he knew more about it than you did.”

Some of the writers and campaigners were even forced to concede the terrible possibility that if Jack Unterweger was actually guilty, it was possible that his rehabilitation had always been a lie, and that the 15 years of dedicated self-education had merely been an extraordinary ruse to deflect suspicion away from him – Jack, the famous “perfect” prisoner. After all, Jack would surely be the first serial killer in history whose best alibi was that he was at a poetry reading at the time of the murder – not attending one, but actually giving one.

Meanwhile, the police had stated unequivocally that one man had murdered seven prostitutes in Graz and Vienna.

The seven murders were said to be similar to a case in 1973 where Unterweger had also been the prime suspect. This put Jack’s lawyer in a difficult position. Although their supposition seemed highly speculative, it was not necessarily to Jack’s advantage to contest it. It meant the police now had the problem that Jack only needed to produce one alibi to provide himself with eight alibis. Unterweger’s dilemma was that, at this point, he didn’t have a watertight alibi.

The police, the intellectuals, the lawyers and the media were now all using Jack to state their respective cases, promote their causes and their vested interests. The character assassination of Unterweger was in full flow. Jack’s idea of feeding the media stories to enlist their support had backfired. The tabloids tore into him; he became the centerpiece of a circulation war.

The police in Graz insisted that, as a former pimp who had already been convicted for strangling a prostitute, whose hatred towards prostitutes (and hatred of his mother) was well documented, Jack was undoubtedly their man. As well as reiterating that he had been in the vicinity of each of the seven murders, they revealed that he still regularly frequented prostitutes and confirmed that they had discovered handcuffs, a canister of tear gas, and porn pictures during the search of Jack’s flat.

Some of the victims – a grim parade of raw, sad faces – also bore the mark of Jack’s sadistic sexual practices, which were well known from passages in his books (“I wielded my steel rod among the prostitutes and pimps of Hamburg, Munich and Marseilles. I had enemies and conquered them through my inner hatred”).

“Have you seen his collection of knives – the whips and chains,” one detective casually asked me with an evil (or envious) smile.

There are knives and whips ?
“Sure. Unterweger handcuffed prostitutes – but who in Vienna doesn’t ? Besides, collecting knives is not a crime.”

One hooker said Unterweger had handcuffed her but in her experience, judges or bankers were far rougher clients.

Jack had been a suspect for longer than anyone realized, nearly 20 years. He had been suspected of having murdered Marica Horvath, aged 23, whose body was dumped in a pond in Salzburg in April 1973.

The detective on the case, August Schenner, now retired, had been so convinced of Unterweger’s guilt that from the moment the bodies of Masser and Hammerer were discovered in January 1991, he had gone to the Graz police urging them to arrest Unterweger every time another prostitute’s body was discovered. Schenner, once dismissed as a batty old publicity seeker, lately became the hero of the tabloids, as the man who wasn’t fooled.

Headlines screamed about the danger to Unterweger’s new teenage girlfriend. Men did not like Jack but women loved him.

“Women knew when he had come into the room, even with their backs to the door,” as one of them told me, even now adding an involuntary shudder. Several female socialites were said to have sent Jack letters in prison fantasizing about being violated by him, letters that one detective described to me as “pure pornography”. To their horror, he was then released.

The Interiors Minister, Frank Loschnak, finally imposed a news blackout on the case, admitting there had been “indiscretions” but at the same time suggesting there was more evidence than the press knew about. Sources at the Justice Ministry however claimed: “the longer the investigation goes on, the slimmer the evidence gets.”

The public had probably already decided. The mood was now turning against the intellectuals. “When his clever friends tossed him aside,” spat an old shopkeeper, fed up with the mere mention of Unterweger’s name, “he gave up writing books and went back to what he did best – killing. Everyone goes on about what a miserable childhood he had. Everyone in Austria has a horrible childhood.”

The intellectuals themselves were starting to feel queasy: Elfriede Jelinek, one of Austria’s most respected and popular playwrights, admitted: “I feel uneasy even talking about it. I felt that he had thought very seriously about his crime. But he was a completely different person in jail.” Later she was appalled by what she called his “pimp behaviour.”

But such were their objections to Unterweger’s treatment from both the press and police the intelligentsia seemed to resolve to give Jack the benefit of the doubt. So, their argument went, if Jack saw prostitutes, then that was common enough and not illegal (prostitutes were legal and licensed in Vienna). If he paid prostitutes to beat them, then that also was not a crime.
“That didn’t mean he killed them.”

With Austria waiting to join the EEC, civil liberties were becoming an increasingly hot political potato. Jack had become the test case for the whole concept of parole and prisoner’s rights. The right wing were using the case to campaign against liberal penal reform and the liberal left were in turn presenting him as the victim of police persecution and insisting that parole was a risk a civilized society had to take.

Lawyer Thomas Prader wrote in Profil that “there is no longer any trace of a fair investigation. Clues which would exonerate Unterweger are not pursued. The Unterweger case exposes legal rights in Austria, it makes clear that in many cases procedural guarantees and human rights are not worth the paper they are printed on. There will be no fair trial for Unterweger. Constitutional rights in Austria remain a fiction.”

But even though all this may have been true, and the police and press had behaved appallingly, that didn’t mean Jack wasn’t actually the killer.

Indeed Profil also printed an apology to the public acknowledging the writer’s guilt by Gunter Nenning, Austria’s Bernard Levin, a former advocate of Unterweger’s right to freedom, and one never to miss an opportunity for some publicity. The writers, Nenning said, had to take some of the blame for “breaking into his life” and then abandoning him.

Now, these same writers, asked whether they thought Jack was guilty or innocent, would give a mischievous little chuckle as if they were being invited to address one of the great imponderables, such as “What is Art ?” or “Is There A God ?”

“Logically, theoretically and morally,” Nenning told me, holding court in his musty study, “I say that Jack Unterweger is innocent until they show evidence in court and prove it… But my inner feeling is that it is not impossible that he did it.”

He went on to compare the case with that of Jack Henry Abbott (another Jack, another killer), whose release had been secured, in part, by Norman Mailer. Abbott was released and then killed again and the implication that Jack had too was obvious.

Others, caught in an unsavoury sort of dilemma, resorted to a bizarre kind of logic.
“If he was the killer, he would be one of the cases of the century,” speculated Peter Huemer. “Statistically, the chance that I would know one of the cases of the century is so unlikely that, therefore, I think he is not guilty.”

Perhaps what happened next shook them. Just as it looked as if, in his absence, everyone else’s egos were hijacking the story, Jack was back on centre-stage. Jack was arrested. He was arrested and the number of prostitutes he was suspected of murdering went up to eleven.

I looked at Jack. In his white Wolfe suit, black shirt, white tie, book held studiously open in his palm, composed and contained expression, in this picture, he looked the very image of the earnest author. You could see the intelligence. It was obvious. I looked at another picture, a prison picture. Under the suit, the other Jack, lean and muscular, his heavy Bangkok chains draped over the scary tattooed chest, hard eyes set in a hard face. He reminded me of Francis Dolarhyde, the killer in the Thomas Harris novel, Red Dragon.

He provoked what someone called “that Cape Fear feeling.” Here they were then: the two Jacks. In both he was the very image of his image, the very image of Jack. Now they had caught him. Jack was locked up again, and far away.

The Americans had been looking for him too and they found him. Credit card receipts had placed him in Florida and on February 27 this year, Federal agents armed with his photo arrested him on Miami Beach in the company of an 18-year-old schoolgirl named Bianca. Bianca had travelled with Jack from Vienna to Gossau then from Paris to Miami and within a week or so Jack had been arrested, just two weeks after he slipped through the fingers of the Austrian police.

“He looked like a normal tourist,” said a Marshall. “Once we finally caught up with him, he surrendered.”

Miami had been Bianca’s idea – “because I liked Don Johnson.”

He was held in the Miami Metropolitan Correction Centre, pending extradition and under investigation by Interpol and the LAPD for the murder of three prostitutes found strangled in scrubland around Los Angeles and Malibu during the summer of 1991.

Police said that only days after the discovery of the seventh (or eighth if you include Horvath) Austrian victim on May 28, 1991, Unterweger had made a five-week trip to Los Angeles (June 11 – July 16, 1991). During these five weeks, the three American prostitutes were thought to have been murdered, also strangled with their own underwear, a method that even in Los Angeles was considered unusual.

Now the coincidences were not only piling up, they had become international. There had been no such killings before or after Unterweger’s visit. Jack was, of course, proclaiming his innocence and, for now, the evidence seemed to be that Unterweger had stayed in cheap motels close to the girls’ regular streetcorners and that a menu from a restaurant on the Pacific Coast Highway, not far from where one of the bodies had been found, had been discovered in Jack’s Vienna flat. That was it.

It emerged that Jack had been in LA to research a story he was writing for an Austrian magazine focusing on LA’s red-light areas, and that he had travelled round LA in police cars as a guest of the LAPD. This was eerily reminiscent of the fact that, during the early stages of the Austrian investigation, Jack had covered the story of the Graz prostitute killer for Austrian television and had actually questioned Chief Inspector Edelbacher about it. As a suspect himself of course, strictly speaking, it should have been the other way round.

It was reported that when LA detectives showed Jack photos of the bodies he observed that the victims had not been beaten, nor did they have bras or stockings round their necks. As Jack pointed out, according to the Austrian authorities, these traits were his trademark.

“He was very cool at first,” one detective was quoted as saying. “A real charmer. Then he lost his nerve and started whimpering like a child.”
“He’s a man with two faces,” said a US Marshall.

The key question here was: was it really possible that Jack had been released on probation, killed seven Austrian prostitutes between October 1990 and May 1991, then gone to Los Angeles for five weeks and killed three prostitutes, during which time he was being driven around Los Angeles as a guest of the LAPD ?

The Americans and Austrian authorities seemed to think it was.
“There is no warrant for his arrest,” said deputy district attorney Michael Montagna. “But he is our prime suspect.”

So Jack sat in an American prison, speaking only poor English and subject to frequent body searches and what he called “humiliations.”
No charges were brought in America and no evidence was produced to extradite him to face charges in Austria. But it appeared that, under immigration rules, only after ninety days would the American police have either to charge or release him (on May 27).

Denied the opportunity of returning to Vienna to defend himself against the expected charges, Jack complained to Profil: “How many unsolved murders are there in Los Angeles ? One victim is supposed to have been found in the vicinity of a housing estate. I wouldn’t be so crazy as to kill one in front of a house. That would be to mock the intelligence people grant me.”

He argued that the dead American prostitutes were “not my type.” He said he had two hopes. “Either they find the murderer or he will strike again while I’m in jail.”

Jack, admittedly an extraordinary man, was now in an extraordinary position. Yesterday was Jack’s 78th day in American custody. Under American law, an American court would protect Jack’s rights by refusing extradition unless the Austrians could present a case strong enough to stand up in an American court. Indeed the judge presiding over the preliminary hearing actually wished him good luck. But at the same time, they did not want to let him go because they needed time to investigate his movements in Los Angeles and Malibu. Forensic tests would take some time.

The irony of this stalemate of course was that the Austrians were not actively seeking extradition – probably because they did not have enough to convict him in Austria and were banking on the Americans nailing him.

The American DA, running for public office and anxious about having to let a possible serial killer go free, was said to have been pushing for extradition, which suggested that their case was not particularly substantial either. They were both just buying time.

Then it was revealed that Jack was undergoing a DNA test in connection with blood and semen found at one of the LA murders. The development seemed significant. It suggested that the evidence in Los Angeles was so scant that the Americans had had to resort to the DNA test because they didn’t have enough evidence otherwise, while in Austria, they couldn’t even resort to the last resort because they didn’t have any forensics to do a DNA test on (because of the decomposition of the corpses). At this point, the public could have been forgiven for asking: what the hell was going on ?

The confusions and contradictions, the twists and turns, were confounding even those who had followed the Jack Unterweger story from the beginning, such as Profil journalist Robert Buchacher.

Tobias Micke from the Kurier, which had hung Jack out to dry, admitted to me that even now, he couldn’t make his mind up whether Jack had done it. So journalists like Micke and Buchacher went back to re-examine the original cases, in particular the Schrempf and Hammerer cases.

Heide Hammerer, 31, disappeared from her patch on December 7, 1990. Jack had spent the night in a hotel in the vicinity. The next morning he had a meeting to discuss a radio recording of one of his plays and had stated that he had travelled down with two of the actors by train.

However, they maintained that, in fact, Jack had arrived the previous night by car – namely his white Ford Mustang Convertible. The director of the play described Jack arriving at the 9am meeting (with his Ford Mustang) “fresh and eager to work”, presumably implying that he did not look as if he had strangled a prostitute the night before.

At this point the crucial questions were: would a man who had already been convicted of murdering one prostitute, really have gone to pick up a prostitute and murder her in a white Ford Mustang Convertible with a personalized number plate W-JACK-1 ? And how could he not have been seen ?

This left only the murder of Elfriede Schrempf on March 7, 1991, on the night of Unterweger’s poetry reading in Koflach about a half hour’s drive west of Graz. Graz CID placed her disappearance between 10 and 10.30.

There was some dispute about the time the reading ended but fans confirmed that after the reading Jack had signed books and talked for some time before leaving for Vienna, driving his white Ford Mustang. If Schrempf had disappeared at 10.30pm, it was unlikely that it could have been Jack that killed her – particularly as again the Ford Mustang had not been sighted.

But having established his alibi, the police moved the goalposts. They now said that Schrempf could in fact have disappeared later than 10.30pm, if she had returned to her patch after all the other prostitutes/witnesses had gone. Another prostitute risked the wrath of police by telling Profil that she had seen Schrempf get into a white Golf police car at 10.30pm.

In any case, if the police could not pinpoint the time of the girl’s disappearance, how could Unterweger produce a conclusive alibi ? He couldn’t.

Rumors had already been circulating about an army officer whose extreme sexual tastes were well known who had been questioned about the Graz murders and who had since hanged himself.

While Jack sat in an American prison, suspected of crimes on two continents but unable to answer the charges because none had been brought, everyone else was having a field day.

Everyone was talking about him in Vienna. His girlfriend, Bianca, had been flown back to Vienna and was defending him to the hilt, saying things in interviews like “he couldn’t have killed them – they weren’t his type”, which didn’t strike one as exactly helpful. Mind you, maybe this was actually the sort of point that mattered.

A private detective from Koflach contacted me to say he knew that the witnesses who had stated that Jack left the poetry reading after 10.30pm had done it either for money (from Jack), or for lust (for Jack). For a small fee he would take me to them. But for a small fee, people would say anything. Half the hookers from Vienna to Los Angeles were claiming he had slept with them, but then by now that was like claiming to have slept with Kennedy (another Jack).

I decided to try some Viennese logic – some Freudian logic. Surely as a convicted killer of one prostitute and the chief suspect in the murder of several other prostitutes, the fact that his mother had been a prostitute must be the key. It was all in his book.

“His hatred for his mother was incredible,” many people agreed. Film director Willi Hengstler said the original text for ‘Fegefeuer’ ran to 1000 pages.

“Just bleeding,” Hengstler commented. “Years of raw pain and emotion bleeding out of him.”

Even so Hengstler had told me his research into Jack’s early life had caused him to doubt whether a large part of Jack’s legendary upbringing was really real.

Neighbours had told Hengstler that the alcoholic, womanizing grandfather who supposedly beat Jack was actually “a real sweetheart, with nothing but love for the boy.”

Though the family “Unterweger” was well known to the police, there was some uncertainty about whether his mother was ever a prostitute.

I visited Jack’s lawyer, Georg Zanger, and the man heading the Unterweger case, Ernst Geiger, the Head of Homicide who had himself just returned from LA, and my confusion, my confusion about Jack, immediately changed: it got worse.

Nothing was true anymore. Zanger was a short, snappy customer, renowned for his expertise, who admitted that he preferred not to think about Jack. Zanger maintained that the police had not shown any evidence that his client had done anything illegal and that the police had got several things wrong.

“The tear gas in Jack’s flat was Bianca’s (for self defence). As for the handcuffs, someone had given them to him as a present and anyway Jack had already admitted liking S&M. Jack had, in any case, been quoted as having said “even supposing I bound my victim… would I have been so stupid as to leave the handcuffs lying around in my flat ? I might as well have cut their tits off and put them in a gherkin jar,” which has a certain logic to it, I suppose, if not much sensitivity.

His lawyer also pointed out to me that Jack volunteered to take the DNA test, that it wasn’t compulsory. In fact, he had advised Jack against taking it. Zanger had psychiatrists ready to testify that the prostitutes’ killer would be a man who had problems with women, not a lady-killing charmer like Jack, who, according to everyone, had women eating out of the palm of his hand, alhough, of course, killers like the famous Hillside Strangler, Kenneth Bianchi, had also been such a man.

“I see no reason why my client should be this killer of 11 prostitutes,” Zanger said.
What about his mother ?
“His mother was not a prostitute.”
What about Margaret Schafer, his first victim ?
“She too was not a prostitute.”
What about his aunt ?
“No. She was killed in a domestic dispute, not by a sex-killer, and she was not a prostitute either.”

As far as Zanger was concerned, whatever Jack himself had said or written Jack was just a man who paid for sex with prostitutes, like a great many others in Vienna.

He claimed that Margaret Schafer’s death had nothing to do with prostitution or even sexual frenzy. Jack had beaten her because she was a witness to a robbery he had just committed. Likewise, he had strangled her with her bra simply to confuse the police, to make it look like a sex crime.

At this point, the key question was: If Jack was not in fact a convicted prostitute-killer, if his mother had never been a prostitute, and neither had the aunt who raised him, then why was he a suspect in the murder of 11 prostitutes ? Could it be that it was the police – not the intellectuals – who had made a terrible mistake?

Perhaps only Vienna could produce a case of eight killings that revolved around a book. The trams had magazines pinned inside them, waiting to be read. The coffee houses offered all the international press. Street-sellers sold, not cigarettes or trinkets as in other countries, but magazines, magazines and newspapers everywhere. Perhaps Jack had read too many books, maybe that had driven him mad.

Willi Hengstler didn’t think so. Jack had read a lot of books but no one mentioned any literary heroes, any inspirations. Hengstler maintained that what appealed to Jack about writing was the fame it brought, citing Jack as a classic case of “Narcissistic Borderline Syndrome”.

“Jack doesn’t like literature. Jack doesn’t like writers. Jack doesn’t like anything.”
To Hengstler, it was that simple.
“Jack only liked Jack,” he said, smiling.

On the way to meet Detective Geiger, I was expecting him to deny all of Zanger’s claims. But by now I did not know anything.

“It’s true, Unterweger’s mother was not a prostitute,” Geiger shrugged, expressing the full extent of his dislike merely through the staccato pronunciation of Jack’s name.

“Neither was Schafer, no. Neither,” he smiled, as if he was dramatically producing the missing clue, “was his aunt.”

He leaned forward, beaming, and added with an incredibly triumphant flourish, “In fact, she wasn’t even his aunt. She just had the same name but they weren’t related.”

To me, this was increasingly making Unterweger look less like a man with a troubled personal history of relatives and acquaintances who were all prostitutes, than simply a man who had sex with prostitutes. The theory was blown. Geiger didn’t seem down-hearted though. On the contrary. He looked ecstatic.

“You see,” he explained. “It was all part of his Life Lie.”
A Life Lie ? Was that a crime ? Geiger felt obliged to explain. “He made it all up.”

Police had talked to Jack’s estranged mother (now a hotel manager in Munich) and she had denied ever being a prostitute, though she had abandoned him. Jack was sticking to his story – that his mother was a prostitute and he had killed Margaret Schafer because he saw his mother’s face flash before him – which, for a man accused of killing 11 prostitutes – was either brave or stupid or incredibly audacious.

But for Geiger, with all the contempt of someone so trained in the value of facts that making things up/writing fiction was intrinsically tarnished, the Life Lie was all that counted: Jack was now a proven liar. So, if he said he didn’t kill the 11 prostitutes, it was axiomatic that he did.

Geiger confirmed that they had eliminated other pimps and sadists from their enquiries long ago. They were not looking for another suspect.

Nothing was true anymore: Jack had been transferred from Gersten prison to Stein because the man who had murdered her had been sent to the same jail (for Jack’s protection). But why – if she was not really his aunt ?

Many believed that Margaret Schafer, like Marica Horvath (the case in Salzburg), was possibly being schooled by the pimp Unterweger, on her way to becoming one of his prostitutes, as was Bianca.

The key questions now were: did Geiger really think that Jack would leave handcuffs in his flat when he knew he was under suspicion ? Or pick up a prostitute and murder her in a white Ford Mustang with a personalized numberplate ?

Geiger treated this with the same sang-froid, the same logic as he had the loss of the Freudian explanation, the mother fixation, as a motive for Jack’s killings. Handcuffs, flashy white Mustang – it all went to show just how seriously disturbed Jack really was. Simple as that.

If Jack was just disturbed (only that), the person who would know would be the girl he lived with, 18-year-old Bianca Mrak.

Bianca had returned to Vienna and fuelled the tabloids’ circulation war by selling her story to Krone with a five-day serial entitled “Bianca’s exclusive Love Story. The Girl & The Murder Suspect”.

When we met at 4pm, she was waiting for Jack to phone, the one call he was allowed from Miami. She missed him.

Jack was strange and, of course, so was Bianca. Bianca, some people said, was strangely normal, a fairly straight, bright provincial schoolgirl.

Krone dressed her up for the photos “like a proper little whore”, as Bianca put it. When I met her, wearing what looked like an old aunt’s red dress and jewellery and smoking coloured cocktail cigarettes, she seemed to be trying to create a very different impression from the Krone photographs, possibly trying too hard.

She was annoyed the press never said that she and Jack were engaged, in love. She seemed almost bored relating their escape to me: Vienna-Gossau-Paris-Miami.

“It was in Paris where Jack got rid of the gun,” she mentioned casually.

There’s a gun ? I didn’t know there was a gun, I almost shouted.
“It was a handgun. Jack got it to do a story for a magazine on gun-dealers.”

Maybe he did. But whether he really needed to take the gun on the run with him to Paris and then drop it down a street drain never to be seen again was another matter.

Bianca first met Jack in a disco in Vienna last year. The first thing he did was to tell her who he was. When they escaped, he told her he was wanted for murdering prostitutes (“that was all,” Bianca shrugged). In Miami, because Jack could not risk being identified, it fell to Bianca to find a job. An ad in the Miami Herald wanted dancers – $1500 a week. Jack stayed at home writing his version of events for his lawyers.

The public, she thought, were on Jack’s side. “Mostly they ask me when he’s coming back. Though some of them look frightened when they see me and run away.”

Bianca was still maintaining that Jack did not even see prostitutes, even though Jack seemed to be tacitly admitting that he did.

Time was nearly up. It looked likely that Jack’s DNA results in Miami would not arrive until after his 90 days confinement, at which point, they surely couldn’t hold him any longer. This would be on 24 May.

I was feeling none the wiser when the phone rang. “I know Jack,” said a voice, as if this in itself was a threat. “I’ll meet you.”

Wolf had been in Stein with Jack and heard about my interest from a detective I had talked to.

“I didn’t like him. I didn’t like him as a human being. I wouldn’t want to drink a beer with him,” said Wolf, which was a bit rich considering that most people wouldn’t want to drink a beer with Wolf. “I don’t think you understand Jack,” he said, darkly.

He met me at a hot-dog stand on the Gurtel, where many Stein prisoners gathered. Wolf looked like someone from Stein or someone from the Stasi, like someone who put people in Stein.

He had short, cropped hair, hard eyes hidden behind huge Porsche sunglasses, a short leather coat and damaged hands. He had been a burglar, a forger and, I would guess, a pimp in his time.

Wiener magazine had carried many stories about Jack’s prison life and Wolf confirmed them. Contrary to the intellectuals’ view of Jack as an emblem of prisoner solidarity, Jack was hated, even there. Especially there.

“’Detached’ and ‘fantastically condescending’, Jack was “a bastard, a bad bastard,” said Wolf. “He was like a super-guard, much worse than the guards.”

Despite his lowly status as a “sex offender”, Jack had special privileges. “Jack manipulated the whole prison. Remember, he was a pimp. Pimps manipulate. They control people – the hookers and the customers.”

His new-found status as a revered writer and cult figure was almost as valuable to the prison governor as it was to Jack: the governor’s lust for publicity was as big as Jack’s. Jack’s rehabilitation was good for Stein’s reputation and the governor accelerated his release, avoiding the usual parole restrictions, such as supervision or gradual re-introduction.

Jack didn’t even look like one of the prisoners; he was allowed to wear many more gold chains than prisoners were usually permitted and displayed an expensive Raymond Weil watch. Jack had his own cell. He had a cushy job in the laundry and was able to deal in hash, alcohol and even TV sets. He had a porn library he would loan out – at exorbitant prices.

He had a reputation as a grass – grassing on his own customers so that when the goods were impounded, they ultimately found their way back to him. His visiting privileges were unheard of and several of the wealthy women who visited him claimed to have had sex with him in jail. In Stein, Jack’s pretences to literature were treated with derision. He was considered pompous and vain with no credibility either as a hard man or intellectual.

“He behaved like a super-guard because he had to be better than the other prisoners,” said Wolf, “just as he believed himself better than any other poets or writers. Those writers, these ‘intellectuals’,” Wolf smiled, “they didn’t know Jack from Adam. They are not his friends. Jack has no friends. I always thought Jack had only slaves or enemies. It was nonsense to see Jack as this angel. Jack learnt to be like that because he knew it would get him free.”
Wolf’s face was empty. “You should go to his flat.”

I was in Jack’s flat. I had come to see Bianca, who was living there, but I was ignoring her. I was looking at the flat. It did not exactly carry the mark of an aesthete. If Jack had changed, he had not changed his taste. But if Jack had bad taste in art, was that a crime ?

I stepped into a small hall littered with a dozen, large, framed photographs – soft-focus, soft-porn images of women, mainly nude or wearing only high heels, like an Athena version of Allen Jones. Positioned at random, over every available bit of wall-space, the effect was not a particularly pleasant one. Even Bianca agreed, adding, in mitigation, that they were from a prisoner, sent to Jack in prison.

In the lounge, the snakeskin boots that I trip over are Jack’s. There was an ornamental sword on the wall, a poster (101 Uses of A Condom), and a gold condom framed on the wall with the words: Für Den Goldenen Schub/Im Notfall Glas Einschlagen (Break The Glass In Emergency): a thug’s idea of something funny rather than a writer’s.

A musty-looking cabinet full of glass animals, a red sports car and tacky tourist souvenir animals (elephants, penguins, a fluffy dog) unnerved me almost as much as the awful, exploitative artwork.

Jack’s videos included: Citizen Kane, Blind Date, and a film called Convicted. Suddenly I remembered how much Jack had hated Hengstler’s B&W art film of ‘Fegefeuer’.
“Too complicated, too stylized,” said Willi. “He would have liked it a lot better if it was in colour and had lots of naked girls and car chases.”

In the study, I could see shelves and shelves of well-ordered files, books and magazines. Two scary-looking (self ?) portraits of Jack rested above the computer alongside a nude photo of a young girl who could have been Bianca.

Everything began to make me uneasy. Strapped over the bedroom door was an enormous red belt. Jack’s perfume was Obsession. On the bedroom walls were several rough sketches of women being splayed on the bed, ravaged, or in the throes of ecstasy. For some reason, three large pictures over the bed, painted in lurid acrylics, of mythical, erotic images such as a naked female warrior and a lion with dragon’s wings, disturbed me most.

On the bedroom door was a sign – the sort of sign teenage boys have on their lockers: “JACK PARKING ONLY.” On the wall, a framed certificate listed all the events in history that have happened on the date 16/8/50 – in sport, art and war.

I had heard so much about him and suddenly I saw him: Jack. Bianca had put on a video, a video of Jack’s appearance on the Austrian equivalent of the discussion programme After Dark.

Bianca was watching him, beaming. Eyes twinkling with charm and menace, completely commanding the attention, Jack sat at the head of a table of experts on penal reform, in the perfect pose of the louche intellectual – legs crossed and one arch finger rested on his cheek wearing his famous white suit, polka-dot shirt and grotesque red paper rose in his buttonhole. He moved like a marionette – thin, pinched mouth, like a thin doll. If pimps always dress like pimps, Jack, being an ex-pimp, dressed like a newly-famous ex-pimp.

Despite this, the authority and control of his contributions were impressive. When he spoke, we listened. Of the panel, Jack was the only one able to speak uninterrupted for four or five minutes. When they listened, his eyes seemed to burn with delight.

Now Jack sits in an American jail cell, with only the satisfaction that he is unmistakably a victim to keep him company. No charges have been brought, no evidence presented in any court – in Miami or Austria. The results of the DNA tests are said not to be ready for another six weeks. Jack’s lawyer, Mr Zanger, insists that after 90 days, on May 24, even they must release him.

Though Mr Zanger obtained an injunction preventing the press from speculating about the Austrian cases, on Saturday May 9, Austrian tabloids openly linked Jack with the murder of a prostitute in Czechoslovakia. Details again were sketchy (she was not named) and the main evidence against him would appear to be a passport stamp that revealed he had gone to Czechoslovakia around that period. The Austrians are still trying to link him with a further two killings in Vorarlberg. Meanwhile, with no evidence, Jack could be free any day now, free to go where he pleases.

It seemed to me that if Jack was the killer, it was not about prostitutes, or even about his mother. It never had been. It was about women. It was about women and Jack. His mother, Margaret Schafer, every single victim was just this: a woman.

What if it was hate that made him make his mother a prostitute in his book – a hatred from being abandoned, illegitimate, which he had nurtured to the point of obsession ? What if it was just revenge, his way of dominating her memory, of making her lower than even he (the lowest of the low) had been. Jack was a pimp, so he made her his prostitute too – like all his other girls, 18 or otherwise.

If it was Jack Unterweger, the killings were not about sex – they were about ego, not about pleasure but pain, about his need to be loved and to be better – better than everyone. It could have been about a way of being, of being Jack – Jack who, as writer or prisoner, had been the lowest of the low but had to be the best. All of these things were possible. If it was Jack.

And if it wasn’t Jack, who was it ? If the case against Jack remains completely circumstantial, then perhaps someone else had killed the women – someone else who wasn’t even under suspicion, let alone investigation. No one in Vienna seemed worried about that.

For now, no one knows. Maybe no one will ever know if it was him. Except, of course, for Jack himself. And, hell, who knows, maybe even Jack no longer knows any better than we do.


Nb: Jack Unterweger was ultimately charged with 11 homicides, one of them in Prague. The jury found him guilty of nine murders by a 6 to 2 majority. On the 29th of June 1994, Unterweger was sentenced to life in prison without parole. That night at Graz-Karlau Prison, he committed suicide by hanging himself with a rope made from shoelaces and a chord from the trousers of a tracksuit. He is reported to have used an intricate knot identical to those used on the murdered prostitutes.