Jack Unterweger

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Jack Unterweger
BornJohann Unterweger
(1950-08-16)16 August 1950
Judenburg, Styria
Died29 June 1994(1994-06-29) (aged 43)
Graz, Austria
Cause of deathSuicide by hanging
Other namesJack the Writer, Häfenliterat, Knastpoet, The Vienna Strangler
Criminal penaltyLife imprisonment
Span of crimes
United States
Date apprehended
27 February 1992

Johann "Jack" Unterweger (16 August 1950 – 29 June 1994) was an Austrian serial killer who committed murder in several countries. First convicted of a 1974 murder, he was released in 1990 as an example of rehabilitation. He became a journalist and minor celebrity, but within months started killing again. After being convicted of an additional nine murders, he committed suicide by hanging himself in prison.

Early life[edit]

Unterweger was born in 1950 to Theresia Unterweger, a Viennese barmaid and waitress, and an unknown American soldier whom she met in Trieste, Italy.[1] Some sources describe his mother as a prostitute.[2] His 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 and his wife.[1]

Unterweger was in and out of prison during his youth for petty crimes, and for assaulting a local prostitute. Between 1966 and 1975 he was convicted sixteen times, mostly for sexual assault; he spent most of those nine years in jail.[3]

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 arrested and sentenced to life in prison. While in prison, Unterweger wrote short stories, poems, plays, and an autobiography, Purgatory or The Trip to Prison – Report of a Guilty Man,[4] that later served as the basis for a documentary.[5]

In 1985, a campaign to pardon and release Unterweger from prison began. Austrian President Rudolf Kirchschläger refused the petition when presented to him, citing the court-mandated minimum of fifteen years in prison.[1] Writers, artists, journalists and politicians – mostly Socialists – agitated for a pardon,[6] including the author and 2004 Nobel Prize winner Elfriede Jelinek, Günter Grass,[7] Peter Huemer[8] and the editor of the magazine Manuskripte, Alfred Kolleritsch.[6]

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 the radio. Unterweger himself hosted television programs which discussed criminal rehabilitation,[9] and 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.[7][6]

Later murders[edit]

Law enforcement later found that Unterweger killed a sex worker named Blanka Bockova in Czechoslovakia,[10][11] 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.[10] 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.[10] 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 brassieres.[12]

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 his arrest, but Unterweger had left by the time they entered his home.[10] After law enforcement agencies chased him and his girlfriend, Bianca Mrak, through Switzerland, France, and the United States, he was finally arrested by the FBI in Miami, Florida, on 27 February 1992.[10] While a fugitive, he had called the Austrian media to try to convince them of his innocence. He was extradited to Austria on 27 May 1992, and charged with 11 homicides, including one which had occurred in Prague and three in Los Angeles.[10] The jury found him guilty of nine murders by a 6:2 majority (sufficient for a conviction under Austrian law at the time).[10] On 29 June 1994, Unterweger was sentenced to life in prison without possibility of parole.

That night, he 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 prostitutes.[12][10]

Based on psychiatric examination, Austrian psychiatrist Dr. Reinhard Haller diagnosed him with narcissistic personality disorder in 1994.[13][1]

Prior to his death, Unterweger asserted his intention to seek an appeal, therefore, under Austrian law, his guilty verdict was not considered legally binding after his death.[1]

In popular culture[edit]

In a 2008 performance, actor John Malkovich portrayed Unterweger's life in a performance for one actor, two sopranos, and period orchestra entitled Seduction and Despair, which premiered at Barnum Hall in Santa Monica, California.[14] 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.[15]

In 2015, Elisabeth Scharang directed a film called Jack about Unterweger.[16]

Broad Green Pictures is also developing a film Entering Hades starring Michael Fassbender.[17]

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 ID 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.[18]

The Bloodsucking Zombies from Outer Space song "The Legendary Jack", is based in the strangler's life.


  1. ^ a b c d e Leake, John (2007-11-13). Entering Hades: The Double Life of a Serial Killer. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. ISBN 9781429996334.
  2. ^ Hindmarsh, Richard (2010). Genetic Suspects: Global Governance of Forensic DNA Profiling and Databasing. Cambridge University Press. p. 153. ISBN 9780521519434.
  3. ^ Milhorn, Thomas H. (2004). Crime: Computer Viruses to Twin Towers. Universal-Publishers. p. 464. ISBN 9781581124897.
  4. ^ "Murderer's 'final freedom': The bizarre life of Jack Unterweger, poet". The Independent. 1994-07-03. Retrieved 2017-02-04.
  5. ^ Debruge, Peter (2015-08-13). "Locarno Film Review: 'Jack'". Variety. Retrieved 2017-02-04.
  6. ^ a b c Robert MacFarlane (13 January 2008). "A Murderous Talent". New York Times.
  7. ^ a b Kate Connolly (30 June 2009). "John Malkovich brings serial killer Jack Unterweger back to life on Vienna stage". The Guardian.
  8. ^ Gerhard Moser (1 November 2009). "Der Mann aus dem Fegefeuer (The man from purgatory)". Österreichischer Rundfunk, ORF, ("Austrian Broadcasting").
  9. ^ Legare, Michael Joseph (2016-01-13). When Things Seem Odd: Polly and the Internal Guardian. FriesenPress. ISBN 9781460277539.
  10. ^ a b c d e f g h Atkinson, Rick (3 August 1994). "Killer Prose". The Washington Post. Retrieved 6 August 2018.
  11. ^ Czech language article about the victim from Prague
  12. ^ a b Malnic, Eric (June 30, 1994). "Austrian Slayer of L.A. Prostitutes Kills Self". Los Angeles Times. ISSN 0458-3035.
  13. ^ Haller, Reinhard. "Malignant Narcissism and Sexual Homicide - exemplified by the Jack Unterweger case". Semantic Scholar. Retrieved 6 August 2018.
  14. ^ "Los Angeles Stage - Seduction and Despair: Hearing John Malkovich - page 1".
  15. ^ "Infernal Comedy Official Web Page". Retrieved May 28, 2012.
  16. ^ "Locarno Film Review: 'Jack'". Variety. Retrieved 28 August 2015.
  17. ^ McNary, Dave (May 3, 2016). "Michael Fassbender to Play Serial Killer in True Crime Story 'Entering Hades' (EXCLUSIVE)". Variety. Retrieved May 4, 2016.
  18. ^ "Horror at the Cecil Hotel". October 16, 2017. Retrieved May 2, 2018.