Austrian woman says held in basement for 24 years

VIENNA Sun Apr 27, 2008 7:25pm EDT

1 of 6. A police officer looks towards a house in Amstetten, eastern Austria April 27, 2008.

Credit: Reuters/Heinz-Peter Bader

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VIENNA (Reuters) - Austrian police have arrested a man they believe imprisoned his daughter in a windowless basement for 24 years, abused her and fathered seven children with her.

Police said the woman, identified as 42-year-old Elisabeth F, told them her father Josef had lured her into the basement of the block where they lived in the town of Amstetten in 1984, and drugged and handcuffed her before imprisoning her.

Three of her children were locked up since birth in the basement of the drab, grey building along with their mother and had never seen sunlight or received any education, police said.

Authorities in Amstetten, 130 km (80 miles) west of Vienna, were still piecing together details of the case, reminiscent of that of Austrian Natascha Kampusch who spent eight years locked up in a windowless cell before escaping in August 2006.

"We are faced with a crime that is incomprehensible," Interior Minister Guenther Platter said on Austrian television. "Everything that has happened here goes beyond one's imagination".

Josef, a 73-year-old electrical engineering technician by training, told investigators how to enter the basement prison through a hidden door operated by secret code, police said.

"There was a shelf with plenty of cans and containers, and behind the shelf was a door made of reinforced concrete, secured electronically and running on steel rails, and only the suspect knew the code," said local official Heinz Lenze.

The hideout itself was a sophisticated network of chambers with facilities for sleeping, cooking and washing, Franz Polzer, head of the criminal investigations unit in the province of Lower Austria, told broadcaster ORF.

WIFE UNAWARE

Josef's wife Rosemarie had been unaware of what happened to her daughter and it was assumed Elisabeth had disappeared voluntarily when her parents received a letter from her saying they should not search for her.

Elisabeth gave birth to seven children during her ordeal, one of whom died shortly after being born, police said.

Three of the younger children were brought up by Josef and his wife after they were left at the building, the first child accompanied by a note from Elisabeth saying she was unable to care for the baby herself.

Three others, including the two eldest aged 18 and 19, and the youngest, aged 5, had been locked up in the basement with their mother since birth.

The case only came to light when the oldest child became seriously ill and was taken to hospital in Amstetten. Josef said that child had also been left unconscious on his doorstep, according to media reports.

A 19-year-old girl, who was seriously ill and is still fighting for her life, was last weekend dropped off at the hospital in Amstetten.

Doctors appealed for the girl's mother, who at that time was believed to have disappeared, to come forward to provide more details about the daughter's medical history.

Josef then brought Elisabeth and her remaining two children out of the basement, telling his wife that their "missing" daughter had chosen to return home, police said.

"This is not a mother abandoning her child which then had to be admitted to hospital in a serious condition ... We know that she herself has been kept imprisoned by her own father for 24 years in the basement and furthermore she obviously was also subjected to sexual abuse," Polzer said.

After questioning and assurances that she would have no further contact with her father -- who she said abused her from the age of 11 -- Elisabeth agreed to make a "comprehensive statement".

"It is so horrible, I can see the house from my balcony and from my window and when I think now of who was in there, I can simply not imagine that," neighbor Corina Schmid told ORF.

"I spoke to (Rosemarie) at Christmas, and she told me they didn't know where the daughter was, she had simply vanished," neighbor Margarete Gollonitsch said as onlookers gathered in the street outside the three-storey building and investigators in white suits continued their search of the premises.

Rosemarie, as well as Elisabeth and her children were receiving psychological counseling. DNA samples of all those involved were taken and would be analyzed, police said.

(Writing by Karin Strohecker; Editing by Dominic Evans)

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