The wife of an Austrian man accused of holding their daughter captive for 24 years fought to keep the troubled family together, but never knew their child was in a soundproofed cellar beneath the apartment, her sister said.
In a television interview with The Associated Press, a woman who identified herself as Josef Fritzl’s sister-in-law provided intimate details of the oppression inside the Fritzl home, describing him as a “tyrant”.
The woman, who has pictures of herself with the family, asked only to be identified as Christine R to avoid public attention and throngs of journalists seeking interviews.
Christine painted the most complete picture to date of her sister Rosemarie and her belief that daughter Elisabeth ran away from home at 17 to join a cult. That was about six months before police say she was locked into the windowless cellar in Amstetten.
“We spoke about it often when we met,” the woman said of her 68-year-old sister. “And I would say, ’Rosemarie, where can Elisabeth be?’ I even told her myself, she is definitely in a cult where you can only have a certain amount of children, or they don’t want sick children.”
Christine, 12 years Rosemarie’s junior, recalled searching for Elisabeth in railway stations and where homeless people congregated. “We really did detective work all around as to where the cult could be,” she said.
But why the cult story was so easily accepted, and other questions, have puzzled Austrians, who have grappled with whether Rosemarie might have had knowledge of the crime.
Police say they have no evidence that Rosemarie was complicit in her husband’s alleged atrocities. They say the 73-year-old retired electrician confessed to the imprisonment, fathering his daughter’s seven children and incinerating the body of one of the children who died in infancy.
Christine described Fritzl as a “tyrant” who instilled a culture of fear at home, which helped him create an elaborate cover story that no one questioned of Elisabeth running away to join a cult and abandoning three children on their doorstep. He was just as tough on his wife as the children, she said.
“He tolerated no dissent,” she said. Listen, if I myself was scared of him at a family party, and I did not feel confident to say anything in any form that could possibly offend him, then you can imagine how it must have been for a woman that spent so many years with him.“
Josef Fritzl is accused of concocting the cult story and even impersonating Elisabeth in a phone call to convince his wife of its truth. He is also accused of forcing his daughter to write letters that were used to explain the three children apparently found at their doorstep.
The sister said Rosemarie focused on her family with even greater effort after her husband was jailed for “a year and half” in connection with what Christine said was a 1967 rape conviction. She did not provide more information.
The Oberoesterreichische Nachrichten daily on Saturday printed an excerpt of what it said was a 1967 court record found in the state archives in Linz, in which a Josef F was accused of breaking into the apartment of a 24-year-old nurse and raping her.
Police have declined to comment, saying records that old would have been erased under Austria’s statutes of limitation. But authorities are awaiting old court records that the media say document the case. Christine said she did not have more information.
She said her sister reacted with “shock” but believed that “everyone makes a mistake” and focused on keeping her family healthy.
As time went on, the relationship between Fritzl and his wife soured, Christine said.
“As far I know no sex took place in recent years. I believe it was because of his prior conviction, and because my sister had been getting bigger. And in any case he never liked fat women,” she said.
Still, Christine said there were no warning signs about the relationship between Fritzl and Elisabeth, whom police say may have been sexually abused when she was as young as 12.
Authorities first began to unravel the complex story on April 19, when Elisabeth’s eldest daughter was admitted to a hospital suffering from an unidentified infection.
Doctors, unable to find any medical records for the girl, appealed on TV for her mother to come forward. Fritzl then accompanied Elisabeth to the hospital April 26 and opened up to police.
Fritzl faces up to 15 years in prison if he is ultimately convicted on rape charges, the most grave of his alleged offences. If prosecutors can charge him with murder through failure to act, in connection with the death of the infant, he could receive up to 20 years.