16 August 1950
|Died||29 June 1994
|Cause of death||Suicide by hanging|
|Other names||Jack the Writer,
Häfenpoet (prison poet),
The Vienna Strangler
|Criminal penalty||Life imprisonment|
Span of killings
|27 February 1992|
Johann "Jack" Unterweger (16 August 1950 – 29 June 1994) was an Austrian serial killer who murdered prostitutes 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. He committed suicide following a conviction for several murders. Austrian psychiatrist Dr. Reinhard Haller diagnosed him with narcissistic personality disorder in 1994.
Unterweger was born in 1950 to Theresia Unterweger, a Viennese barmaid and waitress, and an unknown American soldier whom she met in Trieste. Some sources describe his mother as a prostitute. 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, whom he described as a violent alcoholic.
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.
In 1974, Unterweger murdered 18-year-old German citizen Margaret Schäfer by strangling her with her own bra, and in 1976 was arrested and sentenced to life in prison with no parole option for fifteen years. While in prison, Unterweger became an author of short stories, poems, plays, and an autobiography, Fegefeuer oder die Reise ins Zuchthaus (Purgatory or the trip to prison), which was adapted into a motion picture.
In 1985, a campaign to pardon and release Unterweger from prison was undertaken. President Rudolf Kirchschläger refused the petition when presented to him, citing the court-mandated minimum of fifteen years in prison. The campaign gathered momentum among the Viennese cafe intellectuals, political radicals, writers, artists, journalists and politicians who agitated for a pardon, including the author and 2004 Nobel Prize winner Elfriede Jelinek, Günter Grass, Peter Huemer and the editor of the magazine Manuskripte, Alfred Kolleritsch.
Unterweger was released on 23 May 1990, after the required minimum fifteen years of his life term. Upon his release, his autobiography Fegefeuer oder die Reise ins Zuchthaus was taught in schools and his stories for children were performed on the radio. Unterweger himself hosted television programs which discussed criminal rehabilitation, and he reported as a journalist for the state broadcaster ORF (Austria's equivalent of the BBC), including reporting stories concerning the very murders for which he was later found guilty.
Law enforcement later found that Unterweger killed a prostitute in Czechoslovakia and six more in Austria in 1990, the first year after his release. 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. During Unterweger's time in Los Angeles, three prostitutes — Shannon Exley, Irene Rodriguez, and Sherri Ann Long — were beaten, sexually assaulted with tree branches, and strangled with their own brassieres.
In Austria, Unterweger was suggested as a suspect for the prostitute 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.
Law enforcement eventually had enough evidence for his arrest, but Unterweger was gone by the time they entered his home. After law enforcement chased him through Europe, Canada and the U.S., he was finally arrested by the FBI in Miami, Florida, on 27 February 1992. While a fugitive, he had called the Austrian media to try to convince them of his innocence. Back in Austria, Unterweger was charged with 11 homicides, one of which had occurred in Prague. The jury found him guilty of nine murders by a 6:2 majority (sufficient for a conviction under Austrian law at the time). 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. He is reported to have used an intricate knot identical to that used on the murdered prostitutes. Because he died before he could appeal the verdict, under a technicality of Austrian law, Unterweger is officially to be considered as innocent, despite the original guilty verdict; Unterweger's case was one of those considered in a review of this Austrian legal principle.
In popular culture
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, CA. 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.
The story of the police investigation, pursuit and prosecution of Unterweger is the subject of an episode of The FBI Files entitled "Killer Abroad" (Season 2, Episode 14). He is also the subject of an episode of Biography entitled "Poet of Death."
- Leake, John (2009). Entering Hades: The Double Life of a Serial Killer. United States: Berkley; Reprint edition. ISBN 0425228010.
- Leake, John (2007). Entering Hades: The Double Life of a Serial Killer. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. p. 368. ISBN 9780374148454.
- Hindmarsh, Richard (2010). Genetic Suspects: Global Governance of Forensic DNA Profiling and Databasing. Cambridge University Press. p. 153. ISBN 9780521519434.
- Milhorn, Thomas H. (2004). Crime: Computer Viruses to Twin Towers. Universal-Publishers. p. 464. ISBN 9781581124897.
- Kate Connolly (30 June 2009). "John Malkovich brings serial killer Jack Unterweger back to life on Vienna stage". The Guardian.
- Robert MacFarlane (13 January 2008). "A Murderous Talent". New York Times.
- Gerhard Moser (1 November 2009). "Der Mann aus dem Fegefeuer (The man from purgatory)". Österreichischer Rundfunk, ORF, ("Austrian Broadcasting").
- Czech language article about the victim from Prague
- Eric Malnic (30 June 1994). "Austrian Slayer of L.A. Prostitutes Kills Self". Los Angeles Times.
- "Los Angeles Stage - Seduction and Despair: Hearing John Malkovich - page 1".
- "Infernal Comedy Official Web Page". Retrieved May 28, 2012.
- "Locarno Film Review: 'Jack'". Variety. Retrieved 28 August 2015.
- McNary, Dave (May 3, 2016). "Michael Fassbender to Play Serial Killer in True Crime Story 'Entering Hades' (EXCLUSIVE)". Variety. Retrieved May 4, 2016.
- John Leake, Entering Hades: The Double Life of a Serial Killer, Farrar, Straus and Giroux (2007).
- Katherine Ramsland, Criminal Profiling (part 2), Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods, TruTV.