They Thought Killer-Turned-Writer Jack Unterweger Was Reformed — Then He Started Killing Again

Published January 1, 2019

Jack Unterweger was supposedly a model of prison rehabilitation. They let him go — but within one year, he murdered eight people.

Jack Unterweger

Serial Killers Documentaries/YouTubeJack Unterweger during a publicity campaign for his writings.

Jack Unterweger was a model prisoner. He was living proof that, no matter what a man had done in his life, it was never too late for him to turn things around.

After a life of crime including sexual assault and murder, this Austrian convict finally saw the light while serving his life sentence for that killing in 1976, when he was only in his early 20s. In prison, he even wrote an autobiography and a series of poems so beautiful that they were being taught in Austrian schools and held up as the outpourings of a true poet’s soul.

He was proof that anyone could change — or so his supporters that campaigned for his early release thought. But all of that went up in smoke when, shortly after his release in 1990, Jack Unterweger went on a killing spree that ended the lives of at least nine women.

A Murderer’s Redemption

Jack Unterweger Speaking

BiographyJack Unterweger speaking at a press conference. 1990.

In 1976, Jack Unterweger was arrested for the murder that earned him his life sentence. Two years earlier, he had dragged an 18-year-old woman named Margaret Schäfer out into the woods, sexually assaulted her, and then strangled her with her own bra.

It was by no means his first crime. Unterweger already had 16 convictions under his belt, most for sexually assaulting or violently abusing prostitutes. Just a few months before he killed for the first time, he beat a woman, tied her down, and raped her with a steel rod.

It was almost no surprise when he became a full-blown murderer, but nobody expected what happened next. Behind bars, Unterweger sat down and started writing poetry, fiction, and his autobiography, Purgatory. Overnight, one of Austria’s most dangerous men became one of its best-selling authors.

The Soul Of A Poet

Jack Unterweger Interview

The Specialist/YouTubeJack Unterweger being interviewed on television as an example of successful reintegration into free life after prison. 1990.

“No theme is more poetic than the death of a beautiful woman,” Jack Unterweger wrote. “There is an age at which a woman must be beautiful in order to be loved, and there is an age in which a woman must be loved in order to be beautiful.”

It was a strange sentiment to hear coming from a man who took pleasure in choking and brutalizing prostitutes, but it was the type of writing that won over many of the most respected members of Austria’s intellectual community while he was in prison.

His autobiography convinced the world that he was a sensitive soul who went mad because he had grown up without a mother, and his skill with words persuaded many people that he now deserved to be free.

The Movement To Free Jack Unterweger

Gunter Grass

Wikimedia CommonsGünter Grass (left), one of the Nobel Prize winners who fought for Jack Unterweger’s freedom, speaking at a conference.

Once word of Jack Unterweger’s writings spread, thousands called for his immediate release. It didn’t matter what he had done, they said, Jack Unterweger was proof that art could heal any tortured soul, and he needed to be freed. As a statement signed by supporters put it, “Austrian justice will be measured by the Unterweger case.”

Huge names supported him. Two Nobel Prize winners, Elfriede Jelinek and Günter Grass, joined the movement, calling for his freedom and praising his writing. Jelinek explained that she was impressed by “the clarity and great literary quality with which [he] described his childhood,” while another supporter, Peter Huemer, described the movement for his release by saying:

“Unterweger represented the great hope of intellectuals that, through the verbalization of problems, you can somehow get to grips with them. We wanted to believe him very badly.”

And Austria did believe him. In 1990, after he had served the minimum 15 years of his sentence, he was released. As Unterweger rejoined the public, the prison governor declared:

“We will never find a prisoner so well prepared for freedom.”

The Soul Of A Serial Killer

Hotel Cecil

Getty ImagesThe Cecil Hotel, where Jack Unterweger stayed while on his American murder spree.

Despite everything his supporters had claimed, in the first year after his release, Jack Unterweger murdered eight people.

The murders followed Unterweger’s modus operandi: the women were dragged out into the woods, beaten, and strangled with their own underwear. The media, perhaps unwilling to cast suspicion on the obvious suspect, attributed the deaths to the “Vienna Woods Killer.”

And while he was perpetrating this killing spree, Unterweger was interviewed on talk shows and praised both as a model of prison rehabilitation and as a brilliant writer. He was even hired by an Austrian magazine and at times reported on the very murders he was committing.

Such work also brought him to the United States on a mission to report on the “terrible conditions” suffered by American prostitutes. While there, he checked into the infamous Cecil Hotel, snuck out at night, and murdered women just like those on whom he had been sent to report.

A Poet’s Fall

Trial Of Jack Unterweger

Leopold Nekula/Sygma via Getty ImagesReporters swarm Jack Unterweger amid his trial. April 20, 1994.

Throughout the killings, the police questioned Jack Unterweger often enough that, by the time they had enough evidence to convict him, he was already well aware they were on his case. Unterweger then fled through Europe and North America, occasionally calling the press and the police to keep himself in the limelight and explain why he refused to turn himself in:

“I cannot bear going back into a cell, and this news has already destroyed me socially. There’s no sense in my staying in Austria.”

His obsession with how people saw him ended up being his undoing. The FBI caught him by convincing him they were reporters from Success magazine, ready to pay him $10,000 for the chance to hear his side of the story. Unterweger took the bait — and instead of sitting down with a doting reporter, walked into a room filled with U.S. Marshals.

On June 29, 1994, Jack Unterweger was found guilty on nine counts of murder — although it’s possible he’d killed even more.

“I will appeal,” Unterweger told the court.

He never did. That night, inside his prison cell, he hung himself with a rope made from the cord in his tracksuit and the laces on his shoes.

The knot he used was the same one they found on every woman he killed.

After this look at Jack Unterweger, find out about Christopher Thomas, the man let go after killing ten people, and Genene Jones, the serial killer who killed 60 children and may soon be released.

Mark Oliver
Mark Oliver is a writer, teacher, and father whose work has appeared on The Onion's StarWipe, Yahoo, and Cracked, and can be found on his website.