Sunday 24 September 2017

Secrets of the Kampusch kidnap

The events which followed the escape of Natascha Kampusch, middle Europe's most famous stolen child, were almost as strange as the kidnapping itself. The suicide (or was it murder?) of the lead investigator, the behaviour of Kampusch's parents, the endless police blunders and the question of whether Wolfgang Priklopil, her deeply disturbed kidnapper, acted alone. As a movie starring Irish actress Antonia Campbell-Hughes in the Kampusch role is made, Donal Lynch reports

Franz Kroell was troubled by his conscience. The meticulous 58-year-old Viennese police chief, renowned for his precision, had been put in charge of the long and complicated investigation into the kidnapping of Natascha Kampusch, middle Europe's most famous stolen child. Austria and the world eagerly awaited the results of Kroell's investigation, which would reveal the answers we all wanted to know.



Had Kampusch been pregnant? Did Wolfgang Priklopil, her deeply disturbed kidnapper, act alone? How had police blundered so enormously in the investigation of her disappearance? Kroell would have the answers. And yet what should have been the high point of his career left him deeply disturbed. As the investigation approached its conclusion he told a confidante, "I'm not going to just sit there and lie to everyone's face". His brother, Karl, said that a harried Franz had told him he was, "on to something big".

Then, on January 8, 2010, the police department in Vienna called a press conference. It was announced that there had been "definitively" only one man acting alone. Case closed, so to speak. Kroell, who had led the original investigation, and who had found "over two dozen indicators" that a second person was involved, was not present. Later, it would become clear that he had been removed from the case but had secretly continued to investigate it. But the verdict of the police chief was supported by Kampusch herself as well as by the national broadcaster in Austria, which gave her an ample platform to contradict the swirling conspiracy theories.

Barely six months later, Franz Kroell was found dead on the balcony of his apartment in Graz, a picturesque skiing town. He had been killed by a single gunshot wound to the head. In his hand was his own 'work pistol'. Colleagues found his will and a suicide note on the kitchen counter. A devastated and furious Karl Kroell spoke out, saying he did not want any police at the funeral. He felt his brother had been betrayed.

Franz's death sent shockwaves through Austria. In its aftermath, a cross-party committee of 25 Austrian politicians met to decide whether the Kampusch case should be opened again. Recently it was decided that the FBI and the German Federal Criminal Agency be drafted in to investigate possible slip-ups by the investigating authorities in Austria. The country's highest state prosecution body, the Oberstaatsanwaltschaft, is also to become involved. Karl Kroell, meanwhile, has filed a criminal complaint against the public prosecutor, which was in charge of the case, and against the Graz city police. Kroell has spoken out, saying, "A file that my brother always had with him vanished after his death, and the suicide note, which wasn't even in his handwriting, only appeared a few days later. When I tried to raise the matter I was arrested and my house searched." Kampusch has said she is dismayed at the suggestions of foul play. She told Austrian media that they were "wounding" and only "prolonged" her trauma.

It's been just more than six years since her captor, Wolfgang Priklopil, was found dead in a train station in Vienna. At about ten to nine on August 23, 2006, train number 23786 had left the northern Bahnhof in Vienna, travelling toward Floriddorf, when the driver saw something lying sideways across the track. He hit the brakes but it was too late. Priklopil had apparently laid his neck on one of the tracks. The head was not totally severed, and the wounds to the rest of his body were superficial. No alcohol, medication or illegal drugs were found in his body. There have been suggestions -- including one from an official state commission charged with looking at the case -- that Priklopil may have already been dead when he landed on the track.

A few hours before Priklopil brought the train station to a standstill, his "little slave" had finally found the strength to seize her chance. He had ordered her to clean his car, and through the drone of the vacuum cleaner she made out the sound of him talking on the phone. Someone was interested in buying an apartment from Priklopil and he was momentarily absorbed in the conversation. As the possibility of escape dawned on her, "my ribcage felt as though it were encased in an iron corset. I could hardly breathe. Slowly my hand holding the vacuum cleaner sank," she later recalled in her memoir. Images rushed through her head: "Him looking for me and going on a shooting spree. A train speeding along. My lifeless body. His lifeless body. Police cars. My mother. My mother's smile." She looked behind her one last time, and ran. She encountered a man and his son on the street but the man refused to call the police, saying he had not brought his mobile. She fled over back gardens, feeling certain she would be dead soon anyway. Eventually she caught sight of an old woman through a window. She called out to her and identified herself. "It was the first time in eight years that I had spoken my own name," she recalled.

She was soon reunited with her parents and two adult half-sisters and learned that her grandmother, with whom she had been close as a child, had passed away two years before. After the tearful hugs she noticed a stilted awkwardness with her family. She was now a young woman and virtually a stranger to them.

Kampusch had considered her escape often, replaying many different possibilities in her mind. She even anticipated the media interest her discovery would provoke. The police who found her were taken completely by surprise, however, especially as journalists from all over the world descended on Austria. As the police incessantly leaked details of the case, Kampusch felt herself forced to give a trio of interviews to Austrian press and TV outlets. Finally, squinting like a frightened mole into the bright TV lights, she told the story the world wanted to hear.

She recounted the moment that Priklopil had snatched her from the street on her way to school when she was 10, and told of the horror of being driven away in a white van -- "a choreography of terror".

He brought her to his home in a well-to-do suburb called Strasshof and carried her into a tiny cellar room he'd evidently spent a long time preparing. It was beneath a trapdoor in the garage, down some stairs, through a hollowed-out concrete wall hidden on the other side of a small metal hatch concealed behind a shelf. It was so secret and fortified, it took half an hour to get inside. The chamber was five by five metres, bare of furniture, soundproofed, windowless and filled with the constant irritating rattle of a plastic ventilator fan.

She thought he would kill her or at least molest her but Priklopil, she said, "did not seem at all like someone who had just fulfiled a longed-for wish but rather a man who had been saddled with a relative's unwanted child." In the first days after her abduction she demanded fruit tea and croissants from him and he brought them.

She would later write that the kidnapping had produced a "shift in my reality" and the lack of control of her surroundings forced her to regress to the mental state of a toddler. When he bathed her it was "neither tender nor salacious" and she pretended to herself that she was at a spa. Nevertheless, she found it humiliating. There was some sexual abuse but she says it was not severe and mostly he just wanted to cuddle. When she asked him why he had picked her -- she felt herself too "cloddish and unattractive" to be a source of fascination to a child molester -- he told her "I saw you in a school photo and picked you out. You came to me like a stray cat."

By her early teenage years, she found being a compliant accomplice in his delusional life more difficult, so began fighting back with small acts of rebellion. She also adamantly refused, for instance, to call him 'Maestro', as he had demanded. She viewed him as a pathetic figure. She also wanted to assert her will and show him that she was not a plaything. His response to this was to try to break her will. He began beating her up and would deny her food, also keeping her in darkness for long stretches of time. Further torture came as he took to staying up late at night, screaming abuse into an intercom system he had constructed. The beatings continued over the next six years. Sometimes the only way to avert them was to punch herself in the face, until he begged her to stop. There were suicide attempts, too. She tried to slit her wrists with a knitting needle when she was 14. But there were also moments of tenderness. Sometimes he would apologise to her, buy her gifts and tell her of his dreams of their life together.

He took her on trips, to a hardware shop, to a chemist and to empty flats, which he was renovating for a friend, Ernst Holzapfel. He once took her skiing, having convinced her that any attempt to escape would result in her own death and those of bystanders. He forced her to dye her hair and told her that Jews were responsible for 9/11. He wanted her to be his "perfect Aryan slave".

Then she turned 18. She weighed almost exactly the same as at the moment she was abducted. She had hardly grown. On the day of her birthday she looked at him and said, "You have brought a situation upon us in which only one of us can make it through alive. I really am grateful to you for not killing me and for taking such good care of me. That is very nice of you. But you can't force me to stay with you. I am my own person with my own needs. This situation must come to an end." She closed her eyes expecting him to hit her, but the anticipated beating never came. Instead, she opened her eyes to see him looking crumpled and defeated. He knew the end was near.

After her escape, Kampusch was dismayed to find "more walls" surrounding her. She was now a celebrity and her every move was watched and analysed. The Josef Fritzl case, which followed, made it seem like something was wrong with Austrian society but that case was almost too nauseating for the media to digest and did not have a pretty and articulate young protagonist. Natascha, on the other hand, was a 24/7 topic of discussion in Austria. She was irritated by amateur psychologists who glibly claimed she was suffering from Stockholm syndrome. She felt like an animal in a zoo and felt compelled to buy the Strasshof house, using proceeds from the interviews, to prevent it becoming a shrine for "crazy fans". She could not go on the street without being accosted, she said. She briefly attempted to harness her notoriety by becoming a talk show host, but it was cancelled after a short time.

The fascination with her story has endured, however. A number of documentaries have been made and last spring filming began in Munich on a e6m movie version of the story, which will star Irish actress Antonia Campbell-Hughes in the leading role. Cinematographer Michael Ballhaus, who has collaborated with directors such as Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola, agreed to come out of retirement to work on 3,096 (the number of days Kampusch spent in captivity), at the request of its director, his wife Sherry Hormann. The screenplay was drafted by Bernd Eichinger, one of the creative forces behind the 2007 film Downfall, which depicted Hitler's last days. Eichinger based his screenplay on several long conversations with Kampusch in the months before his death in January of last year. Campbell-Hughes has been reported to have undergone a dramatic weight loss in preparation for the role.

There has been speculation as to what extent the film will focus on the unanswered questions in the Kampusch story. While Natascha wrote that she had established a "loving" relationship with her mother since her escape, her memoir of her ordeal didn't do much to quell rumours that her mother had somehow been involved. In the book she depicted a pre-abduction home life of emotional and physical abuse and neglect in which she lived in terror of being humiliated for wetting the bed. She would spend long nights at bars and cafes, with her father, being alternatively coddled and ignored by the adults present.

An Austrian judge and child abduction expert, Martin Wabl, wrote a book in which he claimed Natascha's mother, Brigitte Sirny, was involved in the sexual abuse of her daughter -- he presented a childhood photo of Natascha, naked except for a pair of riding boots, as proof. He further claimed that Sirny then arranged for her daughter to be taken by Priklopil to cover up her crimes. After Kampusch's disappearance, Wabl had offered help with the search. He said: "From the first moment I met her (Sirny) it was obvious to me that she wasn't interested in finding her daughter. When she said so soon that she had lost all hope, I realised something was wrong. In my experience of missing children cases, no mother gives up finding her child that fast." In 2009 a court in Graz confirmed that Sirny had not been involved in her daughter's disappearance and banned Wabl from repeating this. Sirny later adopted her daughter's last name (which was her own maiden name) and in 2007 wrote a book about the disappearance from her own perspective.

Ludwig Koch, Natascha's father, was earlier this year reported to have filed a civil case for damages against Priklopil's best friend, Ernst Holzapfel, whom he accuses of knowing about the crime. In May 2009, Koch received a two-month suspended sentence for assaulting him. Holzapfel knew of Natascha and often met with her when Priklopil brought her along to flats that the pair of them refurbished in Vienna for profit. He later told police he thought she was a girlfriend of his.

Another rumour that persisted in the case was that Kampusch had become pregnant by her captor. The documents released by Karl Kroell include an interview with the doctor who examined Natascha after her escape. This medic claimed that Natascha asked him how long after the event was it possible to tell whether a woman had been pregnant. Kampusch later went on national television in Austria to denounce the rumours. She admitted that she had asked the question, but claimed it was because she was curious about the subject. She added: "I must admit that on this subject I didn't formulate the question the way it was reported by the doctor. It is true that I did enquire about the subject because biologyis of interest to me and I'm interested in the human body. But it didn't have anything to do with me personally."

According to documents, Priklopil is supposed to have driven around for six hours following Natascha's escape, during which he met a friend who was ruled out as a suspect. However, investigators also found DNA traces of a third person in Priklopil's car, and this person has never been identified. Johann Rzeszut, the former president of the High Court in Vienna, has said he does not believe that Priklopil acted alone. He has called Priklopil's scant and halting suicide note "an extremely mysterious piece of evidence which questions the suicide thesis.

"Doubts about the suicide theory are legitimate. I personally have them too. Holzapfel's version -- that Priklopil began to write to his mother and stopped after writing the word 'mummy' -- is completely implausible to me. A 40-year-old man who wants to say goodbye to his mother writes at least one or two sentences, in which he can say, 'I am done with suffering', or, 'thanks for everything', or something in this direction."

Dead men can't talk, but still the Kampusch case will not go away. Karl Kroell does not believe his brother willingly took his own life. He has publicly wondered where the diary that Franz carried around with him disappeared to. He finds it odd that his right-handed brother is supposed to have shot himself in his left temple. Karl now says it doesn't matter whether his brother was killed or took his own life but in that last moment of desperation he knows "work business, the investigation of the Kampusch case and its abrupt end" were playing on his mind.

Franz didn't die in vain, says his brother. "He was on the right track."

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