VIENNA – When Elisabeth Fritzl emerged in April 2008 to her first breath of fresh air and ray of sunlight in a quarter of a century, she had been raped countless times by her father, Josef, and had borne him seven children.
Five years after the horrors of Austria’s Fritzl case shocked the world, revealing 24 years of incest rape, captivity and childbirth in a damp cellar, the perpetrator and his victims are noticeable by their absence from the public eye.
International media initially converged on the small town of Amstetten, 100 km west of Vienna, to report on this shocking case, and paparazzi besieged the clinic where the victims were held.
But even today, there is no snapshot of Elisabeth, now 47, and the six surviving children whom she gave birth to in the windowless dungeon below her parents’ apartment.
The family was given new identities and moved to an undisclosed location where they have lived quietly, with no details seeping out even in the Austrian tabloids, usually so eager to report on scandalous cases.
Josef Fritzl, now 78, has been similarly quiet.
Found guilty of murder for the death of one of Elisabeth’s babies, as well as incest, sequestration, grievous assault and 3,000 instances of rape, he was jailed for life in 2009 — a sentence that carries a minimum of 15 years in Austria.
His name has now become synonymous with horror and depravity, with foreign media quick to label particularly horrific incest cases as the Brazilian, Chinese or British “Fritzl.”
But the “Monster of Amstetten,” as he was dubbed by the Austrian press, has given only one interview since his trial, telling the German daily Bild in November 2010 that he loved his wife, Rosemarie — with whom he also had seven children — and hoped to get out of prison one day to take care of her.
He refused to comment on his crime.
Elisabeth was 18 when she was locked in her father’s specially built cellar in 1984.
Fritzl told his trusting wife that their daughter had joined a sect.
Over the years, he brought three of the children born in the dungeon upstairs to live with him and Rosemarie, pretending that Elisabeth had left them at their door for her parents to take care of.
Three other children lived their entire lives underground, never seeing the sun.
The Amstetten case eventually broke in the media on April 27, 2008, after the oldest cellar child, 19-year-old Kerstin, fell ill and had to be hospitalized.
The search for the young woman’s mother brought the 24-year incest ordeal to the surface, quite literally.
What will happen to the “House of Horrors” has long been a topic of debate, with authorities initially concerned it may become a gruesome tourist attraction.
Walter Anzboeck, Fritzl’s lawyer, said in 2011 that a precondition of any sale of the building, which Fritzl owns, will be to fill in the basement.
“Nobody will ever enter the cellar again,” he said.
At Stein Prison in northern Austria where he is serving his sentence, Fritzl is well-integrated and there are “no noticeable problems,” according to prison authorities.
His only appearance in the news recently was an Austrian report that he had divorced his wife because she never visited him in prison.
Earlier reports said the children he had with Rosemarie want nothing to do with him.
The noticeable silence on the Fritzl case has stood in sharp contrast to the never-ending media obsession with another shocking Austrian criminal case, that of Natascha Kampusch, kidnapped at age 10 and held captive for eight years before she managed to escape in 2006.
While investigators regularly pore over the Kampusch case, looking for missed clues and alleged accomplices, international media coverage on Fritzl has died down since his March 2009 trial.
The two cases, which occurred within two years of each other, prompted much soul-searching in Austria, amid fears the country could be known as a “Land of Dungeons.”
New cases of incest — confirmed or not — have immediately made national headlines.
Filmmakers like Markus Schleinzer and Ulrich Seidl have also drawn from these cases for their work, including the Palme d’Or-nominated “Michael.”
But five years after their first taste of freedom, Elisabeth and her children have been allowed an anonymous life, away from scrutiny.