Sex slave dungeon: As dramatic family snaps emerge, the question is asked - how could NONE of Josef Fritzl's family known his horrific secret
A few weeks ago, Josef Fritzl treated his wife, Rosemarie, and their three 'above stairs' children to a pizza lunch at their favourite Italian restaurant - a regular Saturday ritual.
According to Wael Sahan, owner of the Casa Verona in Amstetten, they appeared to be the model, middle-class Austrian family, as always.
"They just seemed so very normal," he told me. "The two teenage girls and their younger brother were smartly dressed and really polite, unlike some kids we serve. And there was lots of laughter from their table, particularly when the father cracked a joke."
Compare this uplifting everyday scene to the grotesque indignities being suffered at that very moment, a short walk from the restaurant, by Josef Fritzl's secret 'below stairs' family.
As their three siblings enjoyed their weekend outing, Kerstin Fritzl, 19, and her brothers Stefan, 18, and Felix, five, were locked away in a dank cellar where they subsisted like Neanderthal cave-dwellers.
Condemned to a life without daylight or fresh air, they survived on meagre rations, scuttled around the low-ceilinged labyrinth on all fours, and communicated in an eerie dialect of growls and grunts.
As the world learned this week to its revulsion, Fritzl, 73, sired all six of these incestuous children (plus a seventh who died at birth and was hurled into a furnace) by his own daughter, Elisabeth, whom he kept as his sex-slave for an incredible 24 years.
The contrasting manner in which he treated his incestuous offspring - adopting and raising three with apparent normality, while damning the others to live in a subterranean nether world - is among the many conundrums of a story so nightmarish it beggars belief.
Among Amstetten's older generation, Fritzl's ability to enjoy a perfectly ordinary, and indeed successful, life while inflicting such terrible torment, evokes uncomfortable echoes of a chapter in their history they would prefer to forget.
During the War, the ruling Nazis built an extension of the notorious Mauthausen-Gusen concentration camp in this town, and its officers indulged themselves in Austrian beer and women while starving and torturing thousands of prisoners.
There is nothing new about familial child sex abuse, of course. According to Harvard Professor Judith Lewis Herman, author of an authoritative study Father-Daughter Incest, this most reviled taboo is more common than we care to imagine.
Yet, for all this, the Austrian House of Horrors saga is uniquely abhorrent. Never in modern times has there been a case quite as harrowing and repugnant as this. That much is clear from scenes inside the Mauer Clinic, near Amstetten, where Elisabeth and the children are being treated.
They are so utterly disoriented by life above ground that doctors have had a mock cellar built, complete with a 5ft 6in ceiling and impossibly narrow corridors, like the one that was for years their entire world.
And the Mail has been told how Elisabeth - whose white hair, emaciated frame and haggard features are those of an old woman, though she is only 42 - huddles forlornly inside it for hours, with the keening Felix clinging to her for comfort.
Meanwhile, last night, Kerstin - whose urgent need for hospital treatment finally persuaded Fritzl to release his captives last Saturday - clings to life by a thread.
Doctors refuse to disclose the precise nature of her illness, but she is suffering some form of auto-immune failure believed to result from her inbreeding. She has suffered multiple organ failure and is not expected to survive. If she dies, Fritzl could be charged with murder, on the grounds of negligence. He faces a similar charge over the baby whose body he incinerated.
As beleaguered Lower Austrian police chief Colonel Frank Polzer admits, the case raises 'a million and one unanswered questions'.
Faced with an international outcry, Polzer promises they will all be resolved, a task which will involve piecing together every detail of Fritzl's tortuous past, including the dreadful day in August 1984, when he drugged and handcuffed the then 18-year-old Elisabeth and bundled her into the cellar.
Yesterday, evidence was mounting that his daughter was by no means the only victim of his sick lust. A woman came forward to say she is '100 per cent sure' it was he who raped her in September 1967, when she was 20 years old; an attack she was then too humiliated to report.
Another woman is convinced Fritzl was the sex attacker whom she fought off around the same time. He was subsequently jailed for breaking into a nurse's ground-floor flat and raping her.
Meanwhile, police are reviewing 64 missing person cases. Yesterday, they ruled out fears that he may have committed the brutal murder of 17-year-old Martina Posch, who bore an 'uncanny' resemblance to Elisabeth.
Her body was found in Mondsee, a scenic lakeside resort where Fritzl then owned a holiday lodge. He claims to have an alibi for the day in November 1986 when she was killed and dumped in the lake. However, his close friend Andrea Schmitt told me her husband was staying there at the time - and she believes Fritzl was there too.
No doubt this will interest the Austrian police.
Worryingly, however, one question they have decided not to pursue is whether Rosemarie Fritzl - who bore the monster six more children during their 51-year marriage - might have known all along what was going on in the cellar.
Asked why, Polzer blithely opined that it 'defies logic' that any wife could have remained silent while her husband created another family with their own daughter.
One hopes he is proved right, and that there is nothing of her namesake, Rosemary West (who was jailed for life for joining her husband Fred in a murder spree at their Gloucester home), about 68-year-old Rosemarie.
Given that the Austrian police are facing unprecedented criticism following serious blunders in the Natascha Kampusch case, however, it was a bold and worryingly premature assertion.
Particularly if there is any truth in the sensational claim made yesterday by one of Fritzl's neighbours, Alfred Dubanovsky. He says he witnessed Rosemarie helping her husband to stash wheelbarrows laden with food inside the cellar.
Yet if Josef Fritzl really did keep the dungeon's dark secrets hidden from his wife, what possessed him to keep his daughter locked up for a quarter of a century - and how did he get away with it?
This week, talking to those who knew the many sides of this chillingly enigmatic man, the full truth began to emerge.
We may care to imagine Josef Fritzl as some freakish character of low intelligence, but despite that cruelly arched right eyebrow and menacing smirk, the reality is very different.
Born into an Austria just before the Anschluss (union) with Hitler's Germany, he was, in fact, a very bright, resourceful boy who gained high qualifications in both electrics and engineering.
By all accounts, he was also something of a moustached charmer, though hardly in the David Niven mould. He was insufferably arrogant and self-absorbed, and from his lecherous innuendoes it was clear he was unnaturally obsessed with sex.
During the late Fifties, when he was 22, he married Rosemarie, then just 17, but her family distrusted him from the outset. Their view was confirmed years later, when he was jailed for raping the nurse.
"Josef is a despot," explains her 56-year-old sister, Christina. "I was 16 when he was locked up and I found the crime simply disgusting, not least because he already had four children with my sister.
"He treated the children as if they were in the army. When he entered a room, everyone went quiet. You could sense the fear of punishment."
At the time of the nurse's rape, Fritzl was working as an electrical engineer at a steel plant in Linz. When he was imprisoned he lost his job, but such was his penchant for inventing new devices that in 1969, after his release, he was immediately re-employed.
"My father often said he was an absolute genius," says a daughter of his late boss, Karl Zehetner. "He was amazed at what he could do."
Fritzl's ingenuity would later be put to use when constructing the elaborate dungeon, with its electronically-controlled sliding steel door, and a sound-proofed cell where he could rape the hapless Elisabeth just a few feet away from their muted children.
He had five daughters by Rosemarie (plus two sons) but with her picture-book Austrian good looks - high cheekbones, wide eyes and a rosebud smile - Elisabeth was always the apple of his eye. By 1977, when she was 11, what began as over-indulgence developed into a fixation, and he began abusing her.
He also became frighteningly possessive and flew into furious rages if she attempted to dress fashionably, wore make-up, or mentioned boys.
As she grew into a teenager, Elisabeth's best friend at Amstetten High School, Christa Woldrich, saw the effect this had on her.
"Elisabeth became very sullen and withdrawn," she told me. "She wasn't allowed out in the evenings or to invite friends to the house. I think she was comfortable only at school, though she wasn't very good at anything.
"She was so pretty she could have had boyfriends, but she never did. She just sat quietly and no one noticed her. When I think about it, I wonder why the teachers never realised something was wrong." Elisabeth left school at 15 and, unsurprisingly, was put to work under her father's constant gaze.
By now, Fritzl was an entrepreneur and small-time property owner, and - while her siblings escaped by marrying - she was ordered to help him run his lakeside campsite and restaurant.
Since the delicate process of debriefing Elisabeth has yet to begin (she has thus far managed just one, two-hour interview) and Fritzl's lawyer has instructed him to add nothing to his initial confession, no one yet knows what prompted him to drug his daughter and cast her into the cellar.
But it seems clear that by her 18th birthday he had recreated her in his warped mind's-eye as his 'mistress'. His sister-in-law, Christina, says he had by then ceased to have sex with his wife, whom he constantly criticised for being overweight and considered unworthy of him.
And later, after Elisabeth was installed in her prison, he bought her skimpy outfits and lingerie which no one, bar him, would ever see her wear.
On one of his holidays in the tacky fleshpots of Thailand, Fritzl's best friend, Paul Hoerer, surprised him as he was buying a dress that was far too small for his wife. "I have to admit I've got a young bit on the side," he said sheepishly.
To impress Elisabeth, her father also dressed smartly for his nocturnal visits to the cellar, and - ludicrously - covered his bald pate with an expensive Viennese hairpiece.
We now know that after Elisabeth vanished, Fritzl invented the story that she had gone off to join a religious sect - a story that might just be plausible in the United States, but is preposterous in Austria, where there are none.
He embellished the ruse by sending himself and Rosemarie letters, purportedly written by Elisabeth.
When she bore his children - alone and unaided in the cellar - he allowed her to keep the first two, Kerstin and Stefan, and the last, Felix.
Oddly, however, he decided to care for Lisa, now 16, Monika, 15, and Alexander, 12, above stairs at number 40 Ybstrasse, a three-storey house with daunting, sheer concrete walls and small, cell-like windows.
Having staged their Moses-like appearance on his doorstep shortly after their birth, he persuaded the breathtakingly gullible local social services department to allow him to adopt them.
The ploy was made easier by the fact that his rape conviction, and another, for burning down one of his own properties in an apparent insurance scam, were, unbelievably, expunged from the records under Austrian law.
The only small mercy is that these adopted children appear remarkably well-adjusted.
According to his sister-in-law, Christine, while he was raising them, Fritzl's life followed a regular pattern. "Every day, at 9pm, he'd go down to the cellar, allegedly to draw plans of machines that he sold to companies.
"Often he would stay down there for the whole night and Rosemarie was not even allowed to bring him a cup of coffee."
Whatever did his wife think he was doing for all those hours? In 24 years did she never once hear a plaintive female cry?
If Rosemary Fritzl did know something, then a series of photographs exclusively obtained by the Mail reveal her to have been incredibly sanguine about her role as the wife of a man who was both father and grandfather to six children.
Taken on a day trip with friends in 1994, they show the frumpy frau in a crimson dress, tending to her 'vanished' daughter's third child, Lisa, then aged two.
However, by then, the Fritzls ran a restaurant and guesthouse in Aschbach, a village near Amstetten, and according to Roswita Zmug, who later took over the business from them, her happiness was illusory.
"The marriage was over," she told me. "There was a coldness between them and they didn't even talk to each other.
"Fritzl would just sit in the bar all day, ogling the women customers and grinning as if he had no care in the world, while she ran around doing all the hard work.
"Once, after a child had mysteriously appeared on their doorstep, I asked how it could possibly have happened. Rosemarie told me all about her daughter going off to join the cult.
"It seemed incredible to me, but not to her. Still, I'm convinced she didn't then know anything about her husband's life below stairs."
Perhaps not, though many Amstetten residents remain sceptical that he could have preserved the grim secret for a further 14 years.
Whatever the truth, why ever did Fritzl allow his daughter to escape last Saturday after keeping her for so long in his clutches?
If we believe his own explanation, he was suddenly stricken with compassion after Kerstin collapsed, so took her to hospital accompanied by her mother.
It now seems, however, that there is a more predictable reason. For according to the police, this abominably vain man was no longer attracted to his prematurely aged daughter, and was making plans for her dramatic 'return' from the cult which had supposedly spirited her away.
Additionally, I am told, Elisabeth had become increasingly confident as she grew older, and her septuagenarian father began to buckle under her demands for improved conditions for herself and her children.
So what does the future hold for all the players in this dark tale?
Though Josef Fritzl will make an audacious appeal for bail when he appears in court in a fortnight's time, he seems sure to see out his days in captivity, albeit considerably more spacious and comfortable than the labyrinth where he kept his twilight family.
His wife and daughter, who were emotionally reunited in the clinic this week, face many months of therapy, and it is difficult to countenance how Elisabeth, in particular, can ever live normally, much less find peace of mind.
And what of her children, who, as one psychologist put it starkly this week, were effectively 'captive-bred like laboratory animals'?
For Kerstin, racked by some untold genetically mutated ailment, death might come as a mercy. For Stefan, a young man now but barely able to speak, physically weak and cursed with a prehistoric gait, the future also appears bleak.
The real hope lies with Felix who, at five years old, might just be young enough to recover. This week, when not clinging to his mother, he has experienced the thrill of riding in a car and marvelled at his first sighting of the Moon.
'Is that God up there?' he asked his doctors poignantly. We can only pray that as this poor little boy attempts to come to terms with the horrors of his creation, the heavens will look kindly on him.