inner workings of the mind are always fascinating, but more so when
the subject is a dedicated, cold-hearted serial killer. Austrian
John Unterweger once declared, “I have my own way of doing
things.” His way included strangling women with their own
bras, slowly twisting until the noose was so tight and so small
that displaying one in a courtroom caused a collective gasp of
horror. His way included a short sojourn in the U.S. where, in the
guise of a journalist, he not only “researched” the
nightlife by riding along with the LAPD, but murdered three
prostitutes --- a kind of working vacation.
Unterweger fascinates because of his cold-blooded hatred for women
disguised as love, his above-average articulation and ability to
pervert the truth, and his zest for killing that began when he was
in his early 20s. At that time he savagely slaughtered a female
acquaintance for a few bucks and a fur coat. Convicted of the
crime, he received a full sentence --- 20 years --- in Austria. He
was released after 15 years with the approbation of many left-wing
admirers, beautiful people and psychologists who asserted their
opinion that he was a reformed man, a victim of childhood abuse who
had become, in prison, a rather decent writer. He wrote a play
about himself and starred in it after his release. All seemed well;
the system had rehabilitated a youthful offender, and Unteweger
even wrote children’s stories.
After being granted his freedom, Unterweger went into full swing.
Using his status as a journalist (the author, John Leake,
translated his diaries and other documents in the case), he hung
around with policemen and was apparently as intrigued as they at
the series of “Vienna Woods” murders: women strangled,
left lying nearly naked in the forest. The killer always left their
jewelry, audaciously signaling that robbery had not been a motive.
Unterweger, meanwhile, was seducing women, either sexually or
simply as gullible friends, and later, allies against those who
would accuse him.
Small and childlike, with a winsome face that made women trust him,
Unterweger dutifully recorded all but the actual acts of murder in
his diaries. Occasionally his innocent guise would slip; he once
unnerved a female friend by calling her and stating, “I know
exactly where you are right now.” It was his attention to
detail that made him such a successful killer. After extensive
forensic probing over the years and a bulldog of an investigator in
Austria determined to bring Unterweger to justice, there was still
only a paltry amount of physical evidence linking him to any of his
Leake shows how the net tightened around the charming Jack,
including well-researched private revelations from his women. One,
a Guatemalan beauty he met in LA and imported to Austria, barely
escaped his murderous hand. He kept her virtually imprisoned,
abused her with minor tortures like throwing water on her head, and
once nearly drowned her in the bath. She was one of the lucky ones.
He sent her back home when police began to close in on him. He then
seduced a lively young redhead and took her to Miami to hide out
from the Austrian legal system. He forced her to work as a go-go
dancer and barmaid, the first steps in her total degradation --- in
his teen years he had been a pimp.
Like Bonnie and Clyde, the two holed up in dreadful digs with
cockroaches crawling the walls; yet his girlfriend was willing to
defend him until her parents had her extradited and re-programmed.
When Unterweger seemed all too anxious to be returned to Austria,
someone smelled a rat and began piecing together the LA crimes and
Unterweger’s distinctive MO. In Europe he would get more jail
time; in LA he might face the executioner.
At Unterweger’s second trial, played out in scorching
vignettes in this, Leake’s first book, Jack’s cleverly
constructed facade began to crumble. The abusive relatives he had
for so long treaded on to gain sympathy turned out not to be so bad
after all, and his own mother would not give him an alibi. Still he
had women falling under his spell, one of whom, a bright young law
student, met him in prison and was convinced of his innocence even
as the trial unfolded. His ability to garner sympathy among the
intelligentsia underscored Unterweger’s unique psychopathy.
He deceived many, but was finally brought down by painstaking,
tireless police work.
Reviewed by Barbara Bamberger Scott on January 21, 2011