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Crime News Serial Killers

Who Is Jack Unterweger, Who Lived A Double Life As A Writer And Serial Killer?

While serving a life sentence for his first murder, Austrian serial killer Jack Unterweger manipulated his supporters into believing that he had been reformed. Once released, he secretly began a spree of murders while embarking on a new career as a literary celebrity.

By Kate Zincone
Killer Motive: What Drives People To Kill?

In 1991, an Austrian writer checked into the Cecil Hotel in Los Angeles on assignment to write about the differences between Austrians and Americans in sex work.

But this was no ordinary writer.

Jack Unterweger was a convicted murderer who became an acclaimed author behind bars and a celebrated figure after his release from prison.

He also, unbeknownst to the public, continued killing, primarily targeting the same sex workers he was ostensibly studying, and by the time his trip to Los Angeles had ended, three more sex workers were dead.

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Unterweger was born in Judenburg, Austria in 1950. His father, an American GI from whom he was estranged, met Unterweger’s mother Theresia, while he was stationed in Europe. She was an Austrian waitress and, by some accounts, a prostitute, the New York Daily News reported.

When Unterweger’s mother found herself in legal trouble, he moved in with his grandfather, spending much of his childhood in the alpine countryside in Carinthia, Austria.

Serial Killer Jack Unterweger

His mother’s arrest resulted in a deep-seated hatred for sex workers that would define Unterweger’s own criminal history. His grandfather was also reportedly violent. 

By the time he was a teenager, Unterweger had an extensive criminal record, including the assault of a sex worker, the NY Daily News noted.

Unterweger was first sent to prison in 1976 for the murder of 18-year-old Margret Schäfer. Authorities found Schäfer’s body in the woods, strangled to death with her bra, which had been tied into complex knots.

While serving a life sentence, Unterweger discovered the public’s fascination with true crime. Though he was largely uneducated, Unterweger began teaching himself to read and write. He ultimately published an autobiographical novel, “Purgatory or the Trip to Jail – Report of a Guilty Man”, that was celebrated as a successful example of resocialization.

Successfully marketing himself as a killer turned "reformed" writer, Unterweger eventually began earning literary awards for his stories and plays, the Los Angeles Times reported. He also convinced his supporters that he deserved another shot at freedom.

Unterweger was granted parole on May 23, 1990, with the prison warden stating “we will never find a prisoner so well prepared for freedom,” noted the Washington Post.

Upon his release, however, Unterweger immediately embarked on a double life as both a revered author and a serial killer, targeting sex workers and often strangling them with their own undergarments. One victim, Blanka Bočková, was murdered in then-Czechoslovakia. Seven more victims – Brunhilde Masser, 39; Heidi Hammerer, 31; Elfriede Schrempf, 35; Silvia Zagler, 23; Sabine Moitzl, 25; Karin Eroglu-Sladky, 25; and Regina Prem, 32 – were all found murdered in Austria within a year of Unterweger's release.

Amidst the killings, Unterweger decided to pursue a career in journalism, and he was eventually sent to Los Angeles as a freelancer to work on a piece about the differing perceptions of sex work in the U.S. and Europe. During his time there, three sex workers –  Shannon Exley, Irene Rodriguez, and Peggy Booth – were found dead, beaten and strangled with their own bras, just like Unterweger's victims in Europe.

By this time, investigators in Austria began noticing the new victims there and Margret Schäfer, the woman for whose murder Unterweger had been convicted. Unterweger quickly became a suspect in investigations across the United States, Austria, and Prague, and went into hiding with his 18-year-old girlfriend Bianca Mrak.

Authorities followed Unterweger across Europe to the United States, where federal agents eventually arrested him in Miami Beach on an Austrian warrant 31 years ago, on February 27, 1992, according to the LA Times.

Unterweger was found guilty in 1994 of murdering nine prostitutes after a two-month long trial in Graz. By the end of his life, no one in Austrian history had been accused of as many murders as him

Unterweger put an end to his double life as a brutal killer and literary celebrity soon after his conviction. He died by suicide in his cell, hanging himself with a drawstring from his pants.  

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