The murderer of prostitutes who became a famous writer in prison, was pardoned and killed again

Johann Unterweger was born on August 16, 1950 into a poor family in the Austrian town of Judenburg.

“When you educate a psychopath, the only thing you get is an educated psychopath”, writer and FBI profiler Gregg McCrary wrote about Jack Unterweger. The phrase is questionable, like any generalization, but in the case of the Austrian serial killer of prostitutes it fits like a glove.

Because when he went to jail in 1974, serving a life sentence for murdering a teenage girl, Johann “Jack” Unterweger was 24 years old and could not read or write. Over the next 15 years, he would not only learn how to do it, but would become a successful writer, publishing books of poems, children’s stories, and novels, as well as a crude autobiography that topped the best-seller lists in Europe.

That earned him intellectuals, writers and politicians to start a campaign for his release.justifying it in his contributions to the culture that showed him as an example of “rehabilitation”.

They succeeded and on May 23, 1990, after serving only 15 years behind bars, received a pardon from the Austrian government. In freedom, he worked as a journalist, continued to write books and toured extensively in several European countries and the United States.

In its course, while talking about his books and signing copies to his admirers It was leaving a trail of deaths: one in the Czech Republic, three in the United States and seven in Austria. In all cases, his victims were – or he believed they were – prostitutes.

In 1974, when he was 24 years old, he committed his first murder. His victim was an 18-year-old German named Margaret Schäfer (AP Photo/Bill Cooke)
In 1974, when he was 24 years old, he committed his first murder. His victim was an 18-year-old German named Margaret Schäfer (AP Photo/Bill Cooke)

an unhappy childhood

Johann Unterweger was born on August 16, 1950 in the bosom of a poor family in the Austrian town of Judenburg, where his childhood, according to his own testimony, was one of constant suffering, full of abuse.

Son of an American soldier who disappeared from the map when he found out about the pregnancy and of a mother who had to resort to prostitution to survive, the future serial killer was raised by his maternal grandfather, a man more likely to hit him than caress him.

A widower, the man used to bring prostitutes into his home and it was not uncommon for little Johann to end up drunk and sprawled unconscious on the floor after drinking with them. He never sent him to school, so the boy grew up without even learning to read or write.

When he grew up a little, he preferred to spend his time on the street instead of staying in the unhealthy environment of the family home. He was not only dedicated to wandering, but to make some money he began to commit petty theft and later specialized in assaulting prostitutes who offered their services on the street. That landed him in jail more than once, but since these were minor crimes, he didn’t spend much time behind bars.

the first crime

In 1974, when he was 24 years old, he committed his first murder. His victim was an 18-year-old German named Margaret Schäfer whom he sexually assaulted and then beat her with an iron bar until she was unconscious. Once on the ground, he strangled her with her own bodice and tossed her into the woods for her corpse to rot.

As soon as he arrived in prison, Johan Unterweger enrolled in a literacy program and learned to read and write (Getty Images)
As soon as he arrived in prison, Johan Unterweger enrolled in a literacy program and learned to read and write (Getty Images)

They didn’t catch him right away. The police had to investigate for almost a year to discover that Johann Unterweger was “the killer of the prostitute”, as he was called in the media, which, in fact, dedicated a few centimeters to the matter.

The trial was quick, because Johann quickly confessed his crime. The most striking thing – and highlighted by the chroniclers who covered it – was that he spent it crying. In front of the court he said that he was sorry, that he would never do such a thing again and begged to be given a second chance.

The court did not give it to him: he was sentenced to life imprisonment.

a writer is born

As soon as he got to prison, he enrolled in a literacy program and learned to read and write. He discovered a world in reading. He devoured everything he found in the library and wasted no time in setting himself up to write. He first published a collection of poems, then a series of children’s stories and never stopped.

He was good at writing, so much so that he managed to interest an Austrian publisher to publish his texts. The starkness of his poems, enhanced by his history and by the fact of writing from prison, made him a cult author.

He published more short stories and two novels until he finally produced what was considered his best work, his autobiography. “Fegefeuer – eine Reise ins Zuchthaus” (Purgatory – A trip to prison) it was a bestseller and they also bought the rights to make a movie.

In his prison interviews, Unterweger never missed the opportunity to repeat that he was sorry for his crime, which he described as the result of an unhappy childhood that had led him astray. He was willing to reinsert himself into society and contribute his own, he said, if they gave him a new opportunity.

The Austrian government granted him a pardon on May 23, 1990. The media showed him as an example of recovery (AP Photo/Bill Cooke)
The Austrian government granted him a pardon on May 23, 1990. The media showed him as an example of recovery (AP Photo/Bill Cooke)

His promises found attentive ears. Several Austrian writers – among them Elfriede Jelinek, who would win the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2004 – started a movement calling for his freedom, which was soon joined by other intellectuals and politicians.

The Austrian government granted him a pardon on May 23, 1990. The news hit hard in the media, which almost unanimously showed him as an example of recovery.

A role model

The poor young man who had arrived illiterate in jail came out as a 39-year-old man, a consecrated writer and a model for society. He attended performances of his own plays, gave literary lectures and television interviews where he told how the art of writing had redeemed him.

They always asked him about the rehabilitation of prisoners, situations in which he always had a politically correct and hopeful answer at hand. If he had done it, anyone could do it.

They invited him to parties and cocktails in the world of literature and entertainment. They also organized tours around the country and abroad. In front of the cameras or in the photos of the magazines he always appeared dressed in a white suit and a red flower on his lapel. His image was that of a winner.

Four months after his release, he killed again, and he would not stop.

The Killer Writer’s Raid

The first victim was found in September 1990. She was naked except for her wedding ring and stockings. She had been brutally beaten, raped, strangled with her own stockings, and left in the woods, covered in leaves. She almost the same as the first victim of “Jack” -as everyone called him-, but nobody thought of him when looking for the murderer.

It was later found that he had killed six women during 1990: five in Austria and one in the Czech Republic, where he was on tour to present his works (Reuters)
It was later found that he had killed six women during 1990: five in Austria and one in the Czech Republic, where he was on tour to present his works (Reuters)

By then, the freed writer was also engaged in writing newspaper articles about true crimes. That was also very good for him.

It was later found that he had killed six women during 1990: five in Austria and one in the Czech Republic, where he was on tour to present his works. Most were prostitutes.

In June 1991, he flew to Los Angeles to write one on the differences in the treatment of prostitutes in the United States and in Austria. In his spare time he took advantage of the trip to kill three of them: Sherri Ann Long, Shannon Exley and Irene Rodríguez.

California police were clueless, but a retired detective who knew the Unterweger case began to suspect that it was no coincidence that the deaths of the three prostitutes coincided with his visit to Los Angeles and began to investigate on his own. He soon discovered that two of the three murdered women had been seen with him, presumably to be interviewed and included in the article he was writing.

They questioned him but he gave an alibi and by the time they found out it was false, Jack had already flown back to Austria. “They began to suspect him a few weeks ago, when the writer was required to justify an alibi that would help him reject the accusation of murdering a prostitute on March 7, 1991. He stated that he spent that day with his girlfriend, but The Police discovered that the writer participated in a seminar on the afternoon of the crime that ended at 9:30 p.m., so he had time to commit the murder, ”reported a media outlet at the time.

The evidence piled up.in a search of the place where he had stayed in Los Angeles, the police found a red scarf whose fibers were the same ones that had been found on the neck of one of the victims.

Capture, trial and suicide

Jack Unterweger was already in Vienna, but he soon discovered that he could not feel safe there either. A police friend told him that he was being investigated for several murders. He decided to run away with his girlfriend, an 18-year-old girl, and flew to Canada.

He was captured in mid-1992, when he made the mistake of sneaking into the United States and was extradited to Austria to stand trial for the murders.

The trial began in April 1994, and on June 29, Johann “Jack” Unterweger was sentenced to life again, but this time without the possibility of even dreaming of a pardon. He was found guilty of eleven murders.

During the trial, on this second occasion, the serial killer writer did not cry or show remorse. Nor when he heard the sentence. I just say: “I will not spend years in jail again, I will not be able to”.

He committed suicide that same day in his cell, hanging himself with a rope, just six hours after hearing the sentence.

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The murderer of prostitutes who became a famous writer in prison, was pardoned and killed again