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Following a Killing Trail : Crime: Police will question a paroled Austrian murderer--now a famed writer--about deaths that occurred when he was in L.A. last year. He is under arrest in Florida.

March 13, 1992|ERIC MALNIC | TIMES STAFF WRITER

That Jack Unterweger is a murderer is not in question. He admits strangling a prostitute in his native Austria in 1973, explaining that "I envisioned my mother in front of me, and I killed her."

The question now, police say, is whether he has slain more, and where.

Until this week, investigators thought the former disc jockey may have killed eight other Austrian women--most of them prostitutes and most of them strangled. Now they say he may have killed women in Los Angeles as well.

Unterweger, 42, first came to public attention in the 1980s. It was then, while serving time in an Austrian prison for the 1973 murder, that he wrote an autobiography that made him the darling of Viennese cafe intellectuals.

Pressure from the literary set got him paroled, and his writing skills got him work as a free-lance journalist. He visited Los Angeles, where police took him for a ride in a patrol car and he wrote some stories about young prostitutes in Hollywood.

Meanwhile, back in Austria, police started looking into eight unsolved murders of women. Last month, a warrant was issued for Unterweger's arrest in connection with two of them. But by then, the suspect had fled Austria with his 18-year-old girlfriend, Bianca Mrak.

Two weeks ago, the couple was arrested in Miami on the Austrian warrant.

On Thursday, a Los Angeles Police Department homicide investigator flew to Florida to ask Unterweger about the deaths of some women while he was visiting Los Angeles.

"We would like to question him concerning some cases," Detective Fred Miller said before he left. "Our primary interest now is with one case, a murder. . . . There are other cases."

Unterweger, the out-of-wedlock son of an Austrian streetwalker and an American soldier, was reared among prostitutes in a rural village in the province of Styria, according to European press reports. By all accounts, his upbringing was a troubled one, with numerous arrests for robbery, burglary and assault.

At 25, he was charged with beating an 18-year-old streetwalker with a metal club before strangling her with her bra. Convicted of murder, he was sentenced to life in prison and later admitted the killing.

While behind bars, Unterweger wrote stories, plays and an autobiography. His widely publicized work earned him literary awards and the support of his nation's intellectual elite, including such prominent Austrian writers as Ernst Jandl and Erich Fried. With these and other celebrities hailing him as a model of rehabilitation, Unterweger was released from prison in 1990.

His freedom intensified his fame, according to published accounts. Profitable offers poured in, and within months Unterweger was sporting expensive silk suits, driving a Mustang convertible with personalized plates and appearing regularly on television talk shows.

During those same months, Austrian police say, seven more prostitutes were murdered, six of them strangled.

Last year, hired to write free-lance articles for several Austrian magazines, Unterweger traveled to the United States, arriving in Los Angeles on June 11.

While here, Miller said, Unterweger contacted the Los Angeles Police Department and wangled a ride in a patrol car, saying he was researching crime in the city.

In the weeks that followed, he wrote two articles that were published in Austrian magazines. The articles described the crime scene in Los Angeles, concentrating heavily on the girls and women who work as prostitutes in Hollywood.

While police here have declined to discuss any cases about which they wish to question Unterweger, it is known that during the five weeks that Unterweger was here at least three women were strangled in unsolved murders. No one suggested at the time that he might be connected to any of them, and he returned to his writing tasks in Austria.

Seven months later, police there, armed with warrants naming him as a suspect in the slayings of two prostitutes in the city of Graz in 1990 and 1991, raided Unterweger's apartment in Vienna. But Unterweger had vanished.

Police say Unterweger and his girlfriend traveled to Switzerland, Paris and New York, pausing along the way to call newspapers and a widely watched television show in Austria to proclaim his innocence.

But the accusations against him mounted. Four weeks ago, Austrian investigators named him as the chief suspect in seven murders since his parole and one other in 1973, three years before he was sent to prison.

Austrian publicist Guenther Nenning, who headed the campaign to free Unterweger from prison in 1990, offered a public apology. When Austrian news media criticized police for failing to supervise Unterweger's parole, the nation's Interior Ministry banned further news coverage.

Last month, following a credit card trail that he had left, Interpol--the international police agency--traced Unterweger to Florida. Armed with photographs of the suspect, federal agents staked out tourist areas in Miami Beach.

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