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Austrian Slayer of L.A. Prostitutes Kills Self

June 30, 1994|ERIC MALNIC | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Just hours after he was convicted and sentenced to life in prison for strangling nine prostitutes in Austria and the Los Angeles area, an infamous author-inmate was found dead in his Austrian prison cell Wednesday, an apparent suicide victim.

The body of Jack Unterweger, 43, was found hanging from a curtain rod, according to the Austrian Ministry of Justice. Officials said he apparently had used a cord from his jogging pants to hang himself.

Unterweger, whose autobiography had made him the darling of the Viennese cafe intellectual set and helped win him parole in 1990 from an earlier murder sentence, was found guilty Tuesday of nine more murders--all of them committed while on parole.

Prosecutors said his latest victims included Shannon Exley, 35, Irene Rodriguez, 33, and Peggy Jean Booth, 26, all of whom were slain during the summer of 1991, when Unterweger was visiting Los Angeles.

During the trial in Graz that concluded Tuesday, Unterweger maintained his innocence in the nine latest murders, begging the jury to spare him from a life behind bars. One of his defense lawyers, Hans Lehofer, said Unterweger "broke down inside" when he heard the verdict.

Unterweger, the son of an Austrian streetwalker and an American soldier, was raised among prostitutes in an Austrian village.

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At the age of 25, he was arrested and charged with beating a prostitute and strangling her with her bra. Convicted of murder, he was sentenced to life in prison. He subsequently admitted the crime, explaining that "I envisioned my mother in front of me and I killed her."

While in prison, Unterweger wrote stories, plays and an autobiography. His widely publicized work won him the praise and support of his nation's literary elite. Hailed as a model of rehabilitation, he was released from prison in 1990.

Profitable offers poured in, and within months, Unterweger was wearing expensive suits, driving a flashy American convertible with personalized license plates and appearing regularly on television talk shows. But during those same months, prosecutors say, six more prostitutes in Austria were strangled, in most cases with their bras.

In 1991, hired to write articles about street crime for several Austrian magazines, Unterweger traveled to the United States, arriving in Los Angeles in June.

During his visit, he wangled a ride in a Los Angeles Police Department patrol car, saying he was researching prostitution in the city. While he was here, three local prostitutes were strangled with their bras, the LAPD and the county Sheriff's Department realized later.

Exley's body was found June 20 on a brush-covered hillside on the shoulder of the Pomona Freeway in Boyle Heights. Rodriquez's was discovered June 30 beside a truck dock in Boyle Heights. The body of Booth, who also used the name Sherry Ann Long, was found July 10 in a rugged, brush-filled canyon in Malibu.

At the time, Unterweger was not connected to the crimes, and he returned to Austria. When evidence linking him to the European slayings began to mount, police raided his apartment in Vienna. Unterweger, who reportedly had gotten word of the spreading investigation, could not be located.

Police eventually learned that he and his 18-year-old girlfriend had traveled to Switzerland, Paris and New York, pausing along the way to call newspapers and a popular Austrian television show to taunt officials and proclaim his innocence.

Then, in February, 1992, tracking a trail of credit card charges, agents from the U.S. Marshal's Office arrested Unterweger in Miami. He was subsequently extradited to Austria.

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Through Interpol--the international police agency--prosecutors in Austria talked with police and sheriff's deputies in Los Angeles, who soon became convinced that Unterweger was responsible for the slayings here. In August, he was indicted in Vienna in the slayings of 11 prostitutes, including the three in the Los Angeles area.

Prosecutor Heimo Lambauer said that although there were no witnesses linking Unterweger to any of the killings, there was "an amazing similarity in the way the murders were committed."

In addition, Lambauer said, Unterweger's proximity to the crimes when they occurred was a matter of record.

On Tuesday afternoon--after a bomb planted by an unknown attacker damaged the courthouse, but caused no injuries and failed to delay final arguments--a jury in Graz found Unterweger guilty of nine of the murders, acquitting him of the other two. He was sentenced to life imprisonment in a penitentiary for dangerous and psychologically disturbed convicts.

At 3:40 a.m. Wednesday, prison guards found him dead in his cell. Police said tape-recordings were found in the cell, but they declined to reveal the contents.

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