Jack Unterweger

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Jack Unterweger
Johann Unterweger

(1951-08-16)16 August 1951
Died29 June 1994(1994-06-29) (aged 42)
Cause of deathSuicide by hanging
Other namesJack the Writer, Häfenliterat, Knastpoet, The Vienna Strangler
OccupationJournalist, playwright, former waiter
Criminal penaltyLife imprisonment
Span of crimes
Location(s)Austria, Germany, Czechoslovakia, United States
Date apprehended
27 February 1992
Flugblatt Wortbrücke 3 und 4 - Unterweger.jpg

Johann "Jack" Unterweger (16 August 1951 – 29 June 1994) was an Austrian serial killer who committed murder in several countries. Initially convicted in 1974 of a single murder, Unterweger began to write extensively while in prison. His work gained the attention of the Austrian literary elite, who took it as evidence that he had been rehabilitated. After significant lobbying, Unterweger was released on parole in 1990.

After his release, Unterweger became a minor celebrity and worked as a playwright and journalist, but within months he began to kill women serially. After being convicted of an additional nine murders in 1994, he committed suicide in prison by hanging himself.

Early life[edit]

Jack Unterweger was born in 1951[1][2] to Theresia Unterweger, a Viennese barmaid and waitress, and Jack Becker, American soldier whom she met in Trieste, Italy.[3] Some sources describe his mother as a sex worker.[4] Unterweger's mother was jailed for fraud while pregnant but was released and travelled to Graz, where he was born. After his mother was arrested again in 1953, Unterweger was sent to Carinthia to live with his grandfather,[3] who was known as a "rough fellow" who regularly used his grandson to help him steal farm animals.[5]

Unterweger was in and out of prison for much of his youth. He worked as a waiter, but between 1966 and 1974 he was convicted sixteen times, mostly for theft-related offences, but also for pimping and sexual assault on a sex worker; he spent most of those eight years in jail.[6]

First murder conviction, imprisonment and release[edit]

In 1974, Unterweger murdered 18-year-old German citizen Margaret Schäfer by strangling her with her own bra, and in 1976 he was convicted and sentenced to life in prison. While imprisoned, he wrote short stories, poems, plays, and an autobiography, Purgatory or The Trip to Prison – Report of a Guilty Man,[7] that later served as the basis for a documentary.[8]

In 1985, a campaign to pardon and release Unterweger from prison began. Austrian President Rudolf Kirchschläger (SPÖ/ÖVP) refused the petition when presented to him, citing the court-mandated minimum of fifteen years in prison.[9] Writers, artists, journalists and politicians agitated for a pardon,[10] including the author and 2004 Nobel Prize winner Elfriede Jelinek; Günter Grass;[11] Peter Huemer;[12] and the editor of the magazine Manuskripte, Alfred Kolleritsch.[10]

Unterweger was released on 23 May 1990, after the required minimum fifteen years of his life term. Upon his release, his autobiography was taught in schools and his stories for children were performed on Austrian radio. Unterweger himself hosted television programs which discussed criminal rehabilitation,[13] and he worked as a reporter for the public broadcaster ORF, where he reported on stories concerning the very murders for which he was later found guilty.[10][11]

Later murders[edit]

Law enforcement later found that Unterweger killed a young woman named Blanka Bockova in Czechoslovakia,[14][15] and seven more in Austria in 1990 (Brunhilde Masser, 39; Heidi Hammerer, 31; Elfriede Schrempf, 35; Silvia Zagler, 23; Sabine Moitzl, 25; Karin Eroglu-Sladky, 25; Regina Prem, 32) in the first year after his release, all garroted with their bras.[14] In 1991, Unterweger was hired by an Austrian magazine to write about crime in Los Angeles, California and the differences between U.S. and European attitudes to prostitution. Unterweger met with local police, even going so far as to participate in a ride-along of the city's red light districts.[14] During Unterweger's time in Los Angeles, three sex workers – Shannon Exley, Irene Rodriguez, and Peggy Booth – were beaten, sexually assaulted with tree branches, and strangled with their own bras.[16]

In Austria, Unterweger was suggested as a suspect for the sex worker murders. In the absence of other suspects, the police took a serious look at Unterweger and kept him under surveillance until he went to the U.S. – ostensibly as a reporter – observing nothing to connect him with the murders.

Arrest and death[edit]

Police in Graz eventually had enough evidence to issue a warrant for Unterweger's arrest, but he had fled by the time they entered his home.[14] After law enforcement agencies chased him and his girlfriend, Bianca Mrak, through Switzerland, France, and the U.S., he was finally arrested by the U.S. Marshals in Miami, Florida on 27 February 1992.[14] While a fugitive, he had called the Austrian media to try to convince them of his innocence.

Unterweger was extradited to Austria on 27 May 1992, and charged with eleven homicides, including one which had occurred in Prague and three in Los Angeles.[14] The jury found him guilty of nine murders by a 6:2 majority (sufficient for a conviction under Austrian law at the time).[14] Based on psychiatric examination, Austrian psychiatrist Dr. Reinhard Haller diagnosed Unterweger with narcissistic personality disorder and presented his findings to the court on 20 June 1994.[17][18] On 29 June 1994, he was sentenced to life in prison without possibility of parole.[19]

That night, Unterweger committed suicide at Graz-Karlau Prison by hanging himself with a rope made from shoelaces and a cord from the trousers of a track suit, using the same knot that was found on all the strangled sex workers.[14][16]

Prior to his death, Unterweger had asserted his intention to seek an appeal, and therefore, under Austrian law, his guilty verdict was not considered legally binding after his death, as it has not been reviewed and confirmed by the court.[20]

In popular culture[edit]

In a 2008 performance, actor John Malkovich portrayed Unterweger's life in a performance entitled Seduction and Despair, which premiered at Barnum Hall in Santa Monica, California.[21] A fully staged version of the production, entitled The Infernal Comedy premiered in Vienna in July 2009. The show has since been performed throughout Europe, North America and South America.[22]

In 2015, Elisabeth Scharang directed a film called Jack about Unterweger.[23]

In 2016, Broad Green Pictures announced the development of a film version of the 2007 book Entering Hades, with Michael Fassbender attached to star.[24]

The story of the police investigation, pursuit and prosecution of Unterweger is the subject of an episode of The FBI Files titled "Killer Abroad" (Season 2, Episode 14). He is also the subject of an episode of Biography titled "Poet of Death".

Austrian musician Falco's controversial song "Jeanny (Part-I)" depicts a murder and rapist's thoughts, and its promotional video contains a number of references to crime scenes both real and fictional; while the "news break" in it (which is also heard in the song) refers in an oblique way to Unterweger, who was still in jail at the time of the single's release.

The Investigation Discovery Channel's true crime series Horror at the Cecil Hotel's premiere episode 1402 told Unterweger's story. The episode aired on Monday October 16, 2017.[25]


  1. ^ "Information researched and summarized by Chelsea Newton & Tiffany Waller | Department of Psychology | Radford University | Radford, VA 24142-6946" (PDF).
  2. ^ Newton, Michael. "An Encyclopedia of Modern Serial Killers - Hunting Humans". Murderpedia.
  3. ^ a b Leake, John (November 13, 2007). Entering Hades: The Double Life of a Serial Killer. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. pp. 37–38. ISBN 9781429996334. entering hades.
  4. ^ Hindmarsh, Richard (2010). Genetic Suspects: Global Governance of Forensic DNA Profiling and Databasing. Cambridge University Press. p. 153. ISBN 9780521519434.
  5. ^ "Die spektakulärsten Kriminalfälle". Kabel 1. August 9, 2015.
  6. ^ Milhorn, Thomas H. (2004). Crime: Computer Viruses to Twin Towers. Universal-Publishers. p. 464. ISBN 9781581124897.
  7. ^ "Murderer's 'final freedom': The bizarre life of Jack Unterweger, poet". The Independent. 1994-07-03. Retrieved February 4, 2017.
  8. ^ Debruge, Peter (August 13, 2015). "Locarno Film Review: 'Jack'". Variety. Retrieved February 4, 2017.
  9. ^ Leake 2007, p. 40.
  10. ^ a b c MacFarlane, Robert (13 January 2008). "A Murderous Talent". The New York Times.
  11. ^ a b Connolly, Kate (30 June 2009). "John Malkovich brings serial killer Jack Unterweger back to life on Vienna stage". The Guardian.
  12. ^ Moser, Gerhard (1 November 2009). "Der Mann aus dem Fegefeuer (The man from purgatory)". Österreichischer Rundfunk, ORF, ("Austrian Broadcasting").
  13. ^ Legare, Michael Joseph (January 13, 2016). When Things Seem Odd: Polly and the Internal Guardian. FriesenPress. ISBN 9781460277539.
  14. ^ a b c d e f g h Atkinson, Rick (3 August 1994). "Killer Prose". The Washington Post. Retrieved 6 August 2018.
  15. ^ Czech language article about the victim from Prague
  16. ^ a b Malnic, Eric (June 30, 1994). "Austrian Slayer of L.A. Prostitutes Kills Self". Los Angeles Times. ISSN 0458-3035.
  17. ^ Haller, Reinhard. "Malignant Narcissism and Sexual Homicide - exemplified by the Jack Unterweger case". Semantic Scholar. Retrieved 6 August 2018.
  18. ^ Leake 2007, p. 297.
  19. ^ Leake 2007, p. 309.
  20. ^ Leake 2007, p. 314.
  21. ^ Crain, Mary Beth (April 30, 2008). "Seduction and Despair: Hearing John Malkovich". L.A. Weekly. Archived from the original on June 17, 2018.
  22. ^ "Infernal Comedy Official Web Page". Archived from the original on November 16, 2018. Retrieved May 28, 2012.
  23. ^ "Locarno Film Review: 'Jack'". Variety. Retrieved 28 August 2015.
  24. ^ McNary, Dave (May 3, 2016). "Michael Fassbender to Play Serial Killer in True Crime Story 'Entering Hades' (EXCLUSIVE)". Variety. Retrieved May 4, 2016.
  25. ^ "Horror at the Cecil Hotel". October 16, 2017. Retrieved May 2, 2018.