When 18-year-old Elisabeth Fritzl suddenly went missing from the family home where she’d grown up, her parents were understandably frantic with worry.
Her mother Rosemarie hastily filed a missing persons report, while her father Josef thanked concerned friends for their sympathy and support.
As weeks went by with no word from her, everybody started to fear the worst.
Then out of nowhere a letter arrived from Elisabeth, claiming she had grown tired of living with them in their house in Amstetten, Austria, and decided to run away.
Josef told police he had no idea where she had gone, but that she had likely joined a religious cult, something she had talked about doing before.
But the apparently concerned, middle-class father, a respectable salesman and good family man, knew exactly where his daughter was – and it just a few feet below where the officers were standing.
Only 24 years later would anyone discover the truth – that Fritzl had imprisoned his daughter inside the dirt-walled cellar underneath this home.
He raped her almost daily and where, surviving depravity and cruelty in squalid darkness, she gave birth to seven children, one of whom died.
His crimes were so terrible that, even today, their retelling still has the power to profoundly shock.
Just under a year after Elisabeth was finally rescued, aged 42, Fritzl got a taste of life under lock and key himself when he was sentenced to life on his 74th birthday – 10 years ago on Tuesday.
In fact Elisabeth’s nightmare began years before her father tricked her into going downstairs to the hidden cellar underneath their house at 40 Ybbsstrasse, when he started sexually abusing her from the age of 11.
Frizl, who admitted raping his daughter more than 3,000 times, would later say: “I knew that Elisabeth did not want the things I did to her.
"I knew that I was hurting her. But the urge to finally be able to taste the forbidden fruit was too strong.”
After finishing school aged 15 she started a course to become a waitress but before she had finished ran away from home and went into hiding in Vienna with a friend.
She was found by police three weeks later and returned home, where she rejoined and completed the course and was offered a job in the nearby city of Linz.
It was her chance to finally get away from her abusive dad and have a new start in life – but Josef had other ideas.
For last three years he had secretly been turning the cellar into a prison cell.
On August 28, 1984, Josef called his daughter to the basement, asking her to help carry the new door which would complete his renovations.
There, he knocked her unconscious with an ether-soaked towel before dragging her into the cramped, windowless cellar hidden behind shelving in his workshop, that was to be her prison for the next 24 years.
And as, over the next few years, the police investigation into her whereabouts ran cold and was filed away, Elisabeth found herself at the mercy of her evil, merciless father.
To the outside world, Josef was the smartly-dressed engineer who drove a Mercedes, had a number of other properties, and worked hard to provide for his wife Rosemarie and their seven children.
But in the dark subterranean world where Elisabeth was trapped, he was a depraved monster.
The level of depravity and suffering Elizabeth was forced to endure in the dungeon – just metres underneath her obvious mother – is difficult to comprehend.
At first tied up or shackled to an iron pipe, for 8,642 terror-filled days and nights her father repeated visited the cellar to rape her and often punished her by leaving her without food or electricity, sometimes leaving in complete darkness for up to 10 days at a time.
For the first nine years Fritzl, now 73, did not utter a single word.
In later years he raped her in front of the three children he had imprisoned alongside her and forced her to watch pornographic videos, which he made her reenact with him while her children watched on.
At his trial prosecutor Christiane Burkheiser told a jury: "He tied her up and then the next day he secured her by tying a leash around her waist that further limited her movement.
"This was an 18 square metre room, the same size as the jury bench where you are sitting.
"She had a small basin, no bath, no shower, often no heat. He would come, switch the lights off, rape her, leave.
"There was nothing there to make her life more bearable. There was no daylight.
"He would turn down the lights when he came down, attacking her in front of their little children.
She added: "There was no communication between him and her during the first few years when he raped her.
"He attacked, left and said nothing. The worst thing for Elisabeth was not the rapes themselves, nor the appalling conditions.
“It was the uncertainty. How long would he stay? When would he come back once he had gone? Would he come back at all after he left her for his holidays?
"She was always wondering if she was ever going to get out of there alive. She was a broken person. He was the absolute ruler. He had complete control.
"He decided what would be eaten, what medicines would be allowed downstairs, who could leave and when.
“The electricity was switched off for hours at a time, sometimes deliberately, sometimes due to a power cut that he would not repair.
"She spent up to 10 days at a time in complete darkness. In the winter it was bitingly cold, in the summer it was blisteringly hot. You had to wipe the moisture from the walls.
"There was no torch, no candles, no warm food. Even when she had babies to take care of the electricity would go off."
Two years into her captivity, Elisabeth became pregnant, though she miscarried 10 weeks later.
Two years later, however, she fell pregnant again, and this time gave birth in August 1988 to a baby girl called Kerstin. Two years later, another baby was born, a boy named Stefan.
But Fritzl refused to allow her to leave the dungeon to give birth, instead just giving her a book on childbirth and a box of aspirins for the pain.
"When Elizabeth gave birth it was in a damp cellar on a dirty blanket. She never had any proper medical attention, just aspirin or cough medicine.
"She was expected to fend for herself even through childbirth,” said prosecutor Mrs Burkheiser.
Over the next 24 years, Elisabeth would give birth to five more children.
One more was allowed to remain in the basement with her, one died shortly after birth, and the other three were taken upstairs to live with their grandparents.
In order to conceal what he was doing from Rosemarie, Fritzl staged elaborate discoveries of the children, often placing them on bushes near the home or on the doorstep, along with a note written by Elisabeth claiming she couldn’t take care of the baby and was leaving it with her parents.
Social services never questioned the appearance of the children and allowed the Fritzls to keep them as their own children.
Despite the horrific circumstances, Elisabeth cared for her children who stayed with her, Kerstin, Stefan and Felix, and tried to teach them with the rudimentary education she herself had.
In this damp, fetid prison the children who were weakened by lack of oxygen and who had never seen daylight were assured by their mother: “Heaven is up there.”
The ceiling of the cellar was just 5ft from the ground, meaning that Elisabeth and her children, who were between six and 19 when they were rescued, spent their days either crouching or lying down.
In 1993 Fritzl agreed to Elisabeth’s repeated requests to enlarge the prison by an extra 20 squared metres, putting her and her children to work for years digging out soil with their bare hands.
Elisabeth later said she and her children were too terrified to try to escape because her father had told her the heavy concrete and steel door, opened using a remote-control combination lock, was booby-trapped.
"He told Elisabeth there was a light trigger which would either electrocute her or gas her, killing everyone in the cellar.
"In addition there were three locked doors and she never tried to get out of them,” Mrs Burkheiser said.
It is not known how long Fritzl intended to keep his daughter and her three children, who had never seen the outside world or even breathed its air, captive in the basement.
But in 2008 her eldest child Kerstin became critically ill, from what was later believed to be kidney failure.
Elisabeth begged her father to allow the 19-year-old to get medical attention and when she eventually became unconscious in the early hours of the morning of April 19 2008, he let Elisabeth help him carry Kirsten out of the dungeon and called an ambulance.
He claimed that he had found the girl leaning against the wall of his house, clutching a note from her cult member mother Elisabeth.
When doctors were unable to diagnose the cause of Kerstin’s illness they put out a public plea in the media for Elisabeth to come forward.
Unluckily for Fritzl, Austrian TV picked up on the case, portraying him as a man in despair as he tried to find Kerstin’s mother in time to get the information needed to save the 19-year-old’s life.
As his lies collapsed in on him, he took the enormous gamble of taking Elisabeth to the hospital.
But police, tipped off by doctors suspicious at the signs of neglect they saw in the sick teenager, were waiting for them on the grounds of at least charging the mother with child cruelty.
Elisabeth was at first reluctant to talk and only opened up when the police officers promised her she would never have to see her father again.
She began with the words: “No-one will believe me.”
It took Elisabeth two hours to give the officers the basic details of what she had suffered as she told a story which would soon shock the world and make Josef Fritzl’s name synonymous with pure evil.
Fritzl himself never showed any remorse, insisting during an interview in prison “it’s normal to have a family in the cellar".
But more importantly, the unthinkable depravity Elisabeth and her children had endured for so long was finally over.
Mark Perry, a British journalist who first broke the story, recalled: “One thing that sticks in my mind is the first time the little five-year-old lad, Felix, came out of his prison.
“The policeman said he was pressing his nose on the car window and just looking -looking at the stars, looking at the light.
"For the first time in his life he was seeing the stars. And he was just quiet, pressing his nose against the car window and being astounded by everything.”
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