Jack Unterweger: Crime Writer Turned Serial Killer

Jack Unterweger quoteJack Unterweger, born Johan Unterweger in 1950 to Theresia Unterweger, a Viennese barmaid, waitress, and prostitute, had a brutal childhood. He never knew his birth father, only that he was an American GI serving with the Allied Forces, which occupied the country for ten years after the Second World War. While pregnant, Theresia Unterweger went to jail for fraud but got released prior to her son’s birth. Before his mother was again arrested in 1953, she sent two-year-old Johan to live with his grandfather, a ruthlessly vicious alcoholic who beat him regularly and engaged in sex with numerous prostitutes while Johan slept inches away, in the same bed.

Little Johan wasn’t asleep.

Combined with his mother’s sexual proclivities, her abandonment of Johan “Jack” Unterweger by age two, and a prostitute aunt who helped raise him until being murdered by a client, these lust-filled nights perpetuated a hatred of prostitutes that would span a lifetime, wreaking havoc in four countries and across numerous state borders. He probably hated women in general, even though he admitted to having sexual relations with over 150 women who lived to tell the tale. Nonetheless, his early years left a marked impression. If we were to categorize Unterweger within the nature vs. nurture debate, nurture would get my vote.

For most of Jack Unterweger’s youth he ping-ponged in and out of prison for petty crimes and assaults against local prostitutes. To give you some idea of his criminal past, between 1966 and 1975 he was convicted sixteen times, mostly for sexual assault, and spent most of that nine-year span in prison.

Random House released a free pdf of the book, written in German.

In 1974, Unterweger’s fury escalated to murdering an 18-year-old prostitute by strangling her with her own bra. In 1976, authorities caught up to him. The jury sentenced him to a life behind bars. While in prison, Unterweger became a voracious reader and developed a passion for the written word. A talented writer, he published short stories, plays, poems, and even an autobiography based on the childhood abuse and the crimes that followed. The autobiography, Fegefeuer oder die Reise ins Zuchthaus —in English the title translates to Purgatory or The Trip to Prison: Report of a Guilty Man—caught the eye of a well-known director, who adapted the book into a feature film.

No doubt about it, Jack Unterweger could write, earning literary respect both inside and outside the prison walls.

The film became an “overnight success” and the book garnered critical acclaim within Europe, in 1984. With his emotive and evocative writing, he touched the lives of many. Unterweger soon realized the power of the pen when the writing community began a campaign to pardon and release one of their own. At the time, Austria had undergone a rehabilitation program for violent criminals. When European celebrities joined the cause, demanding Jack’s release, he walked free in 1990 after serving only 15 years of a life sentence. Prison officials used Jack Unterweger as their success story. The rehab program worked.

They should have chosen a better candidate.

Within two weeks, Unterweger rose to literary superstar, booking speaking engagements and appearing on national talk shows to discuss prison reform. Dressed in a white silk suit, gold rings on several fingers, and gold chains around his neck, he topped off the hero-esque ensemble with a red-flower corsage. Ratings soared. The country had a charismatic new author who’d climbed out of the bowels of criminality and made a difference in people’s lives.

They didn’t know how right they were…yet.

As a crime journalist, Unterweger concentrated on red-light districts and the alarming number of missing prostitutes. He covered his own crimes! Six women had been strangled with their bras, and then dumped in desolate locales. Austria had their first serial killer, and no experience handling multiple murderers.

Not everyone was convinced of Unterweger’s miraculous transformation. A retired detective noticed the string of grisly murders in Austria and the Czech Republic matched the MO of the homicide that sent Unterweger to prison in 1976, but the Vienna Strangler — aka Vienna Woods Killer — left little to no forensic evidence behind. Nonetheless, police put Unterweger under surveillance while they built their case.

In 1991, police interviewed Unterweger. During the interrogation, he admitted to visiting the red-light district but not for nefarious reasons. He merely interviewed prostitutes for research.

Overwhelmed, Austrian officials enlisted the help of FBI Profiler Special Agent Greg McCrary.

In the interim, an Austrian magazine hired Unterweger to write about crime in Los Angeles, California. Specifically, they asked him to focus on the different attitudes toward prostitution between the U.S. and Austria. This afforded Unterweger the perfect opportunity to flee the country, and ridicule police by participating in ride-along’s through LA’s red-light districts — all the while raping three prostitutes with tree branches, strangling them to death, and then dumping their bodies in remote areas.

No one caught on. All three cases ran cold.

It wasn’t until Special Agent McCrary called the LAPD to inquire about unsolved homicides with a specific MO of strangling the victims with their bras that a connection was finally made. The dates Unterweger stayed in LA coincided with the murders. Lo and behold, no Austrian prostitutes went missing during that time-frame, either.

A single hair with the root-ball intact would be his undoing.

Even as a fugitive, he reached out to the media to convince the public of his innocence. Austrian authorities chased him through Europe, Canada, Czechoslovakia, and the U.S. In 1992, they finally captured him in Miami, Florida. Being in custody didn’t stop Jack Unterweger from living every writer’s dream. He continued to give celebrity author interviews, and masquerade as a wrongly accused victim. However, when he reached out to his literary colleagues, the writing community had enough of trying to save a now active serial killer. No one would help him escape justice a second time.

The trial of the century hung on the DNA from that single hair.

Though later, authorities also matched a red fiber from his trunk to another one of his victims. The fiber, DNA match, and timeline convinced the jury of his guilt. The crime writer the public adored was in fact a merciless mass murderer.

The jury handed down a verdict of guilty in nine counts of murder in the first degree. Two of the bodies were so degraded the coroner couldn’t conclusively show how the women died, never mind link the deaths to a specific suspect. However, little doubt remained they too had fallen victim to Unterweger’s wrath. In total, he killed upwards of a dozen prostitutes and pimps.

Within hours of the verdict, Unterweger took the easy way out. Creating a rope from shoelaces and the drawstring from his pants, he hanged himself in his prison cell. Sure enough, the knots used to secure the noose matched the knots used to turn a woman’s bra into a murder weapon.

Some say his final exit was the most flawless murder of his sadistic rampage. It was certainly the most rewarding.

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.

~Jack Unterweger, poet, author, journalist, serial killer

Please note: After conducting my own research, I realized Forensic Files did an episode on Jack Unterweger, which I breezed through briefly before posting this. For anyone who watches this episode and is tempted to comment about my accuracy vs. a TV dramatization, please remember Hollywood’s penchant to enhance facts for entertainment purposes. Also, this is an overview of the case, not a detailed account.

 

 

About Sue Coletta

Member of Mystery Writers of America, Sisters in Crime, and International Thriller Writers, Sue Coletta is the bestselling, award-winning author of psychological thrillers and mysteries. Sue's short stories and flash fiction have appeared in OOTG Flash Fiction Offensive magazine and numerous anthologies, and her forensic articles have appeared in InSinC Quarterly. In 2017, Feedspot awarded her Murder Blog as one of the Top 50 Crime Blogs on the net. Sue's the communications manager for Forensic Science and the Serial Killer Project, and co-hosts the radio show "Partners in Crime" on Writestream Radio Network. As a way to help fellow crime writers, Sue created a team of crime experts (detectives, coroners, police captains, etc.) and founded #ACrimeChat on Twitter. She's also a proud contributor to The Kill Zone (see details in full bio -- menu bar).

34 Comments

  1. Excellent as always. A terrible childhood matters in many killers life. A possible future career lost and broken.

    • So true, Eve. If only abusive parents realized what they were doing, we might not have as many killers. Nice to see you around. Hope you’re feeling better! xo

  2. How horrible! He might have had talent but the lengths he went to hurt these women can’t be overlooked.

  3. Extremely interesting. I’ve never heard of him. I don’t think the guy had a chance. So sad, all that talent.
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  4. This is enough to make the hair on my head stand up straight. Excellent post Sue. It seems that serial killers are often charming and get away with so much because of it. Certainly he was a psychopath. Many of them fool their psychiatrists. Grisly.

    • Thank you, MJ! He could have been a psychopath (born with psychopathic tendencies), but perhaps he was a sociopath (learned behavior), and if he never had the sort of abusive childhood he endured, he might have gone on to do great things. I guess we’ll never know the truth.

  5. Shudder. This takes “write what you know” to a whole new level. Although, the story is great fodder for mystery/suspense/thriller writers!
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  6. What a fantastic, horrific story. I wonder if there were any copycat killings. With talent like that what a shame he didn’t have a better childhood that didn’t twist him into a killer. You did this story justice in this brief rendering, Sue —- Suzanne

    • Thank you, Suzanne. To my knowledge, there weren’t any copycat killings. I agree. What a waste of a promising career. Some people shouldn’t have children.

  7. talk about writing about what you know. He obviously had an advantage over the rest of us who have to make our stories up without the benefit of first hand experience of the crimes we write about.

  8. Sue, I don’t see any Share bar here on this article. I’ll tweet it old-fashioned way, but it would be useful to have a floating share bar here for lazy readers 🙂

  9. I do a lot of research for my novels, but most is done in libraries and via Google. When I was in the Army in 1966, I was assigned to create a list of off limits places near the post and actually visited strip joints and houses of ill repute in the line of duty. Really and truly. It was an eye-opening experience. But I prefer to do my research from my armchair these days. Thank goodness for YouTube, Amazon, and internet searches.

  10. I agree with Margot. Had he had a healthy upbringing, his talent could have been a beacon of the arts, not a tragic tale. So sad.
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    • It really is, Staci. Perhaps more so for the family of the victims. It pisses me off that he broke the trust of the writing community, too. Shame on him.

  11. What a bizarre and twisted tale. How sad that he was talented yet allowed his darker side to control his nature. I’d never heard of him before, but I found your post informative and intriguing at the same time. What a sad account of a life that impacted so many others in to a tragic end.
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  12. Were any of his books ever translated into English?

    • A new movie about his life released in 2015, so someone may have translated his books into English. To my knowledge the Random House pdf is only available in German, but I did find his books on Amazon (in German). You may find a translated version on the UK site, if you dig deep enough. I’m curious too.

  13. This says more about his readers and the power of words.

  14. Amazing to think that his urges as a killer fueled such writing talent.
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  15. Amazing story, Sue. Where in the world did you find out about this guy? He was a truly talented monster.
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    • Thanks, Garry. I wondered if any crime writers ever took their research too far. Y’know, just curious. 😉 Then I stumbled across Unterweger and got lost for two days, digging through his life.

  16. Wow! You can’t make this stuff up. If one of us wrote it out, readers would claim it absurd. Truth is honestly stranger than fiction.

  17. Wow, what a story, Sue! And it’s so sad, too, to think of what might have been, had he had a caring, loving upbringing. Don’t know what would have happened with his writing, but I have to wonder whether he’d have turned into the killer he was…

    • I agree, Margot. Some people should never be parents.

      Unterweger was a natural-born writer. If he controlled his murderous urges, he could’ve lived every writer’s dream. He did for a while, but he couldn’t keep the monster at bay. What a waste of talent.

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