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Poet of Death: The Twisted Case of Jack Unterweger, the Vienna Strangler

His murder spree spanned years and crossed continents. 

jack unterweger
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  • Photo Credit: Murderpedia

We’d all like to think that people are capable of making positive changes—and many are. In the case of the Jack Unterweger aka the Vienna Strangler aka Jack the Writer, this was not the case. Released from prison following a murder conviction, Unterweger was considered completely rehabilitated from his violent urges of the past. Within a year, however, he would kill 11 more women, many of whom were prostitutes. A global manhunt to catch Unterweger ensued, culminating in a dramatic standoff with police.

Johann “Jack” Unterweger’s troubled relationship with prostitutes supposedly traces back to an early age. He was born in Graz, Austria in 1950. It was rumored that, in addition to being a barmaid, his mother also worked as a prostitute. She was arrested for fraud and was briefly imprisoned while she was pregnant with Unterweger. After her subsequent arrest in 1953, Unterweger was sent to live with his grandparents, as he never learned the identity of his father.

Related: Who was the Boston Strangler? 

During his early childhood, Unterweger began to commit petty crimes, which soon escalated into assaults of prostitutes in his area. Between the ages of 16 and 25, Unterweger was convicted of 16 crimes, most of which were sexual assaults. He spent the majority of these years in prison, only remaining free for months or even weeks at a time.

jack unterweger
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In 1974, Unterweger committed his first murder. He killed a German citizen, 18-year-old Margaret Schafer, by strangling her with her bra. He was convicted for the crime in 1976 and was sentenced to life in prison. When Unterweger confessed to the 1976 murder, he said that he had envisioned the victim as his mother, causing an intense rage to come over him.

While Unterweger was in prison, he started writing. He wrote poems, short stories, plays, and eventually a widely successful autobiography called Purgatory. It became a bestseller, leading Austrian citizens to campaign for Unterweger’s release, saying that his writing demonstrated his rehabilitation. Some schools even used his book as required reading. He was released after completing the minimum term for a life sentence in Austria–15 years.

Related: 8 Chilling Books Written by Convicted Killers 

After his release, Unterweger went on a national tour discussing his books on various television and radio shows. He was a celebrity in Austria. He bought a Ford Mustang and donned designer clothing for his press tour. He became a working journalist and reporter–and he even reported on later murders that he committed. 

His first post-prison murder was that of Blanka Bockova. Her body was found floating in the Vitava River, near Prague, Czech Republic. Her body was found, covered in leaves with a set of gray stockings tied around her neck.

Friends had seen her the previous night getting drinks. When they left shortly before midnight, they noted that Bockova was talking to a man in his forties. 

A few weeks later, a well-known sex worker in Unterweger’s hometown went missing. Her body was found several months later, and she was killed the same way as Bockova. A third woman, Heidemarie Hammerer, was killed shortly after the others. She was found on her back, also covered in leaves. All three were strangled either with their bras or stockings.

The fourth woman Unterweger killed was different. She, too, was a sex worker, but Unterweger took a different approach in the days leading up to her killing. He called her parents a few times beforehand, and he taunted them about how their daughter earned her living. Her corpse was found six months later. She, like the three previous victims, was also found with lingerie around her neck. 

Four more prostitutes who worked in Vienna went missing within one month of each other. They were all strangled with an article of their own clothes. It was clear to the Austrian police now that they were dealing with a dangerous serial killer.

Related: The Little-Known Serial Killer Who Murdered 23 Men

August Schenner was 70 years old at the time of the slayings. He was a retired investigator who told the Austrian police that the circumstances of prostitutes’ deaths reminded him of a killer he had caught nearly 20 years older. That killer was none other than Jack Unterweger.

As police began to close in on him, Unterweger was hired by an Austrian magazine to write an article on crime in LA that focused on the differences between the Austrian and American perceptions of prostitution. While on his trip to Los Angeles, Untweger went on ride-alongs with the LAPD and gave them insight on catching killers. 

Jack Jnterweger
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While seemingly assisting the LAPD, Unterweger also found the time to kill three more women. Each woman was sexually assaulted with tree branches and strangled with their own bras. 

He went to Miami with his girlfriend, even as the Austrian police collected evidence to prove that Unterweger was the killer. The pair went to collect wired money from a Western Union bank, where the police were waiting nearby to arrest him. 

Related: These Killer Cousins Terrified the Hollywood Hills 

Proclaiming his innocence, Unterweger spoke to the Austrian media to try to convince viewers he was not the murderer. But this time, the Austrian people were not in Unterweger’s corner. He was extradited to Austria where he would be tried for 11 homicides. He was found guilty of nine of these murders, and he was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. 

Unterweger only served one night of his prison sentence. He committed suicide the night of his sentencing with a rope he made out of his prison uniform. The knot was the same kind he had used to kill his victims. 

Because Unterweger never had the time to appeal his conviction, under Austrian law, he is technically considered to be not guilty, as his verdict was not yet legally binding. The man known as the Vienna Strangler eluded capture for years, all while he was right under their noses, on their radios, and in their newspapers. 

All photos: Murderpedia