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L.A. Scene / The City Then and Now

'Bat Man' Case: a Lurid Tale of Love and Death

March 20, 1995|Cecilia Rasmussen

Even by the standards of the day, this was one of the most outrageous slayings of the age. And it fed the front pages for eight years. Walburga (Dolly) Oesterreich was at the center of one of the city's most sensational love affairs, a tale feasted on by the city's newspapers in the 1920s and '30s, when brassy headlines reflected the cutthroat competition.

Newspapers described her as a "naughty vamp" and "comely." Her eyes and her appetites would bring a long line of men into her life--and send one to his death.

She had been a Milwaukee housewife, married to a dour, hard-drinking apron manufacturer named Fred Oesterreich. But the housewife, and the house, had a secret: Her lover, Otto Sanhuber, a small, quiet sewing machine repairman who had worked for Oesterreich, lived for 10 years in the attic over the apron manufacturer's bed, hidden there by Dolly.

When the Oesterreiches moved to Los Angeles, Sanhuber came along and took up residence in the attic of a house above Sunset Boulevard.

One summer night, when he heard the Oesterreiches quarreling, Sanhuber came out of his hideaway and shot Fred Oesterreich to death.

The investigations and trial were to last eight years and end in a mistrial. Dolly Oesterreich was never retried on charges of conspiracy to commit murder. However her "sex slave," Sanhuber, was convicted.

*

Their bizarre arrangement began in 1913, when Dolly Oesterreich, 26, called her husband at the apron factory, complaining that her sewing machine did not work. Her husband sent Sanhuber, 17, to fix it. Dolly Oesterreich, who had noticed Sanhuber at the factory, greeted him in a silk robe, stockings, heavy perfume and nothing else. It was the beginning of a decade-long affair.

In 1918, when the Oesterreiches moved to Lafayette Park Place in Los Angeles, Sanhuber quietly moved in right over them. At night, he read mysteries by candlelight and wrote stories of adventure and lust. By day he made love to Dolly Oesterreich, helped her keep house and made bathtub gin.

On Aug. 22, 1922, the Oesterreiches returned home arguing. As the fight grew louder, Sanhuber hurried down from the attic to protect her, carrying two .25-caliber guns. When Oesterreich recognized Sanhuber, he flew into a rage. They struggled, the guns went off and Oesterreich was shot.

Thinking fast, Sanhuber locked Dolly in a closet, then hurried upstairs to his hideaway before police arrived, summoned by a neighbor who heard the shots.

She told police that a burglar had shot her husband, taken his expensive watch, locked her up and fled.

But the detective became suspicious when she said that she and her husband had never quarreled. Fred Oesterreich was a wealthy man, and although the detective considered that motive for murder, he had no evidence.

Dolly moved to a house nearby, and Sanhuber stayed in that attic too, writing on a typewriter he bought with proceeds from the sale of his stories and with the nickels and dimes--never anything larger--bestowed on him by Dolly.

Freed from her marriage, she became fond of her estate attorney, Herman S. Shapiro. She gave him a diamond watch, which he recognized as the one that the supposed burglar had stolen the night her husband was slain. She explained that she had found it later under a window seat cushion.

While Sanhuber wrote and Shapiro spent long hours in court, Oesterreich took up with a businessman named Roy H. Klumb. She begged him for a favor: She had a gun that looked just like the one that killed her husband. And she worried that the police might find it and suspect her of murder. Would he get rid of it for her? Dutifully, Klumb threw the gun into the La Brea Tar Pits.

She told the same story to a neighbor, who buried the second gun in his yard.

When Oesterreich broke off with Klumb, he told police about the gun and the tar pits. On July 12, 1923, 11 months after the murder, police found the gun near the oozing tar and Oesterreich was arrested.

The day the headlines hit, the neighbor walked into the police station with the second gun.

But both were too rusted to determine whether they had fired the fatal bullets.

From jail, Oesterreich pleaded with Shapiro to buy groceries for Sanhuber and to tap on the ceiling of the bedroom closet to let him know he should come out.

Sanhuber, starved for conversation, began telling the attorney lurid tales about his 10 years with Dolly. Shapiro issued an ultimatum, and Sanhuber left the state.

After Oesterreich was released on bail, Shapiro moved in with her--but not into the attic. The charges were eventually dropped.

But in 1930, after seven stormy years with Oesterreich, Shapiro moved out and came clean. He told authorities what he knew.

A second warrant was issued for Oesterreich's arrest; she was charged with conspiracy, and Sanhuber was charged with murder.

The papers dubbed it the "Bat Man" case after learning that Sanhuber had led a cave-like existence in the attic.

The jury found Sanhuber guilty of manslaughter, in spite of his defense that he had been enslaved by her. But the statute of limitations had run out and Sanhuber, now 43, walked free.

At Oesterreich's conspiracy trial, famed attorney Jerry Giesler won a hung jury, and Oesterreich was free.

In 1961, she died at age 75, less than two weeks after marrying her second husband and 30-year companion, Ray Bert Hedrick.

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