Book review: The Vienna Woods Killer, by John Leake
John Leake, an American writer who lived nearly a decade in Vienna, wrote this definitive account of Austrian serial killer Jack Unterweger. Unterweger’s is quite the interesting story, not least because the crime of serial murder is far from common in Austria. Combined with his background of alleged rehabilitation and crime spree across Austria and internationally, it makes for a morbidly fascinating story.
Originally published in the US in 2007 as Entering Hades: The Double Life of a Serial Killer (I prefer the UK title The Vienna Woods Killer, plus any cover not featuring Unterweger’s face) Leake writes well-paced narrative nonfiction outlining Unterweger’s crimes and the course of his life mostly after those crimes began, told from the perspective of those close to him who survived, as well as the various international law enforcement agencies who’d pursued him.
I preferred this kind of storytelling of the events and their context to anything focusing too heavily on Unterweger’s life or psychology, although I could see where that could be a drawback in the book overall. But what comes across most strongly about his mental state is that Unterweger has a lying problem connected to narcissism, dramatic stories he told about his tortured upbringing were most likely fabrications, and his story overall works better as the bizarre narrative of his prison release, strange details of his crimes, and some attention for his victims instead of focusing too much on him personally. With his penchant for lying and a carefully maintained “double life”, going too in-depth on his background probably wouldn’t have revealed much confirmable or concrete.
He was raised by his grandparents, and his father was allegedly an American serviceman stationed in Austria after the Second World War. At a relatively young age and already a petty criminal, thief, and pimp, he participated in the murder of a young woman in Germany in the mid-1970s. He went to prison for it, where he began writing autobiographical stories and plays, especially winning acclaim for his memoir, Purgatory, which laid a foundation of a tortured childhood and subsequent rehabilitation. The Austrian intelligentsia, a lofty, extremely liberal upper class group in Vienna, trumpeted the cause of his supposed reform and early release.
This was an odd element, because in Austria a “life” sentence isn’t anywhere near that – it’s more like 20-25 years, and Unterweger had been incarcerated so young and had already served more than a decade (I think around 15 years or so) when he was released thanks to the aggressive public campaigning of the Austrian smartsy-artsy crowd. So it’s not like it bought him THAT much extra time, but the bigger issue seemed to be the confident assertions of this snobby set that he was reformed, rehabilitated, and his literary contributions proved it – far outweighing the brutality of the crime he’d committed.
He effectively became the model for criminal rehabilitation in the social democratic system, held up as proof that artistic contribution could overcome a criminal past. Even while imprisoned, he was allowed to attend the opening of his play. His favor with the intelligentsia clearly bought him special privilege and began to change the thinking of what was possible in reforming criminals.
Freed in 1990, he managed a few months before he began killing again. This whole situation mirrors that of Jack Henry Abbott, the murderer who became the pet project of Norman Mailer and the New York literati who helped secure his parole as a sensitive, rehabilitated artist with much to contribute to literature based on his prison-penned book In the Belly of the Beast. Shortly after his release, he killed a Greenwich Village waiter after having a disagreement. A story the Austrians should’ve followed a little more closely. But at least Abbott only committed one murder, not to sound callous. Unterweger committed more than a dozen, killing with seeming impunity in Austria, the Czech Republic, and the US.
In Vienna, he inserted himself into the investigation through journalistic work. He went on ride-alongs with police while interviewing them for articles he wrote about the murders. It seems his protected status as a literary elite gave him a sense of invincibility.
He then traveled to his father’s native US, continuing his habit of going on drives with detectives while they investigated a spate of murders of sex workers in Los Angeles, which just happened to begin shortly after he arrived wearing the most hilarious outfit ever to have found its way onto a human body.
During his time in LA, he stayed at the infamous Cecil Hotel, the Skid Row hotel that was also a onetime home to Night Stalker Richard Ramirez and was a magnet for suicides and strange happenings, later to become even more notorious for the 2013 death of Elisa Lam and the mysterious, still-unexplained circumstances surrounding it.
These crimes are only a small part of Unterweger’s convoluted story. Leake organizes the book well and uses extraordinary detail, clearly extensively researched. And despite the many location changes and important but segueing side stories, it doesn’t feel chaotic or hard to follow, which was impressive.
He also includes great cultural context, neatly inserted into the crime narrative, to explain the general stuffiness of Austria and the weird, overbearing morality that factors in with best social intentions but minimal due diligence. This includes what a big deal Unterweger’s rehabilitation was, and how big of a national celebrity he was after his release. Some of Unterweger’s crimes, dotted across multiple Austrian states, were even facilitated with the government’s dime.
“The idea that the poster boy for rehabilitation cruised around the country strangling hookers, paying for gas, food, and lodging with state subsidies, was too embarrassing to contemplate.” The Austrian Ministry of Arts and Education had given him money for traveling to give talks (some to schoolchildren) and readings, and receipts he submitted for reimbursement placed him in towns when murders matching his MO were committed. It was to be only one of many embarrassments Unterweger caused the Austrian government and the elites who lobbied for him.
Unterweger’s spree included escaping to the US with his teenage girlfriend, who danced in a Miami go-go club on his orders to fund their life on the lam while he taunted Austrian authorities and media in phone calls. Eventually US marshals apprehended him and he decided he wanted extradited to Austria in a hurry, which baffled American lawyers at the time, when the full extent of his crimes hadn’t yet been uncovered.
Leake’s account is thorough, and I hate to say it, but thanks to the general oddness and numerous belief-defying twists and turns of Unterweger’s story, it’s highly entertaining reading. It also reveals a lot, both directly and indirectly, about Austrian society, culture, and politics. Even knowing something of the story beforehand, Leake’s telling ensures that it contains more surprises than seem possible for the relatively short time covered. I haven’t even mentioned the half of what’s covered, like the women who become obsessed with Unterweger.
It read just a little sensationalized here and there, and elsewhere the writing sometimes is a bit straightforward or stilted, but it doesn’t keep this from being impossible to put down.
Detailed and engrossing narrative of a crime spree made possible by a misguided focus on rehabilitation that paid neither attention nor effort to actually reforming. 4/5