GRAZ, AUSTRIA — On June 29, 1994, an Austrian court sentenced TV personality, best-selling author, and sexually sadistic serial killer Johann “Jack” Unterweger to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
That evening, Unterweger cut the term short by hanging himself with a rope made of shoelaces and the drawstring from his track pants. He was 43. After three previous suicide attempts while he was incarcerated, this was Jack Unterweger’s final act of violence in a lifetime full of them.
Born in 1950 to a single mother who was in and out of jail, Unterweger grew up hated and horribly abused at the hands of an alcoholic grandfather who also kept the boy surrounded by drugged-up party girls and professional sex providers. The illiterate youth lashed out early on. At 16, he got arrested for severely beating up a prostitute, a crime he would return to and horribly expand upon.
In 1974, Unterweger strangled 18-year-old sex worker Margaret Schafer to death with her own bra. Two years later, he got sentenced to life for the murder. Confessing later, Unterweger stated:
“I envisioned my mother before me and I killed her.”
While locked up, Unterweger finally learned to read and write, and thereby tapped into his own previously undiscovered talent. He composed a multitude of stories, plays, poems, and, ultimately, an autobiography titled Purgatory or The Trip to Prison: Report of a Guilty Man that topped Austria’s book charts.
The country’s intellectuals, authors, political radicals, and church leaders hailed Unterweger as a genius who had just needed an outlet for his troubles. This man, they claimed, proved that genuine rehabilitation was possible.
The resulting campaign for Unterweger’s parole led to him walking free in May 1990, after doing the minimum time allowed for a life sentence. Austria’s top-tier tastemakers welcomed the ex-con as a literary superstar and even a hero.
Unterweger appeared frequently on television and in newspapers. He wore sharp white suits and tooled around Vienna in a convertible Ford Mustang. Purgatory became part of the curriculum in Austrian high schools, and his short stories for children were made into a popular series of radio shows.
Eventually, Unterweger got a job as a reporter for public broadcaster ORF. He frequently took on stories about crime — particularly those involving prisoners and prostitutes — and drew acclaim in how he addressed the topics from his unique point-of-view.
In time, Unterweger would go on to cover his own crimes, interviewing sex workers about a predator who was out stalking them — while he himself was the predator.
Unterweger’s first post-prison casualty turned up in September 1990. As a reporter, he had traveled to Prague to file a story on the new Czech government’s policy regarding red-light districts. Part of Unterweger’s research, apparently, involved fatally strangling prostitute Blanka Bokova with her own bra.
Returning to journalistically investigate the Austrian sex trade, Unterweger ran homicidally wild. He choked seven prostitutes to death throughout the remainder of 1990 and into the following spring.
Later in 1991, Unterweger traveled to Los Angeles on a magazine assignment to cover the city’s street-crime epidemic. He asked police officers to take him to a location where prostitutes plied their trade. In short order, Unterweger murdered three streetwalkers, again strangling each woman with her own bra. During his five-week stay in L.A., Unterweger notably was shacked up in the notorious Cecil Hotel, known for it’s many connections to murder, death, and suicide. Many believe that Unterweger chose the Cecil in homage to Richard Ramirez, the “Night Stalker,” who lived there while committing his own serial murders.
After he returned from L.A., Austrian authorities started linking Unterweger to the local killings. They set up a stakeout on his apartment, but Unterweger caught wind of the operation and fled the country with his 18-year-old girlfriend.
The run didn’t last long. Investigators tracked Unterweger to Miami and extradited him back to Austria. His second life sentence came down fast. Unterweger’s self-imposed death penalty, then, came down even faster.
Main photo: Johann “Jack” Unterweger/YouTube video [screenshot]