Tuesday, May 4, 2010

In February of 1997 a bizarre trial took place in Krems near Vienna. A sixty-six year old woman was in court. She could have been anyone’s grandmother and her charming, helpful demeanour showed no trace of the horrific crime of which she was accused. It was a crime that had shocked all of Austria and attracted worldwide media attention. She stood accused of poisoning her husband and at least two other men.

The woman was Elfriede Blaunensteiner. Her partner, Alois Pichler had died only two months after meeting her. He was not the only one and her victims were all her age group, both male and female who were lonely with few or no relatives. In all the cases that could be proven she was the sole inheritor of the victim’s property, thus providing greed as the sole motive.
A murderess is not common in Europe and especially not one so cold and calculating. In many ways she fitted the profile associated with murderesses. Female killers tend to kill differently to their male counterparts. In accordance with this pattern, Blauensteiner was careful, precise and methodical in her work. She poisoned her victims with drugs that were easy to obtain. Nobody can be too careful though, and it was when Blauensteiner made her first mistake that she was apprehended.

Little is known about Blaunensteiner’s early life. There was nothing special about it and perhaps this is one reason why she would later enjoy the media attention. It would to be her brief moment of attention. She was very much an ordinary woman, who was born in Vienna in 1931. Her father died in the war, which was a fate thousands of families had to suffer at the time and therefore grew up without a father figure in her life. The family was extremely poor and lived in squalor and dirt. Blauensteiner saw only one way to break out of this- with money. She married relatively young but the marriage failed, which left her with embittered towards men, a bitterness that was to have terrible consequences.

She had met the 76-year-old age pensioner, Alois Pichler who came from the village of Rossatzbach in the beautiful wine region of the Wachau, in the autumn of 1995 through an ad in the lonely-hearts column of popular newspaper the Kronen Zeitung. The ad she had placed read simply ‘looking for a lonely man, who longs for a home-loving widow’. It was exactly what the postmaster Pichler had been looking for- a caring companion with whom he could live out his days. Blauensteiner would oblige him in the latter, though sooner than he had thought.
He had no major health problems but suddenly fell into a comma, only two days after meeting Blauensteiner. He died in November, only two months after meeting her, leaving her his entire inheritance. She had earlier forged the will, quite possibly with the knowledge of her lawyer, one Harald Schmidt, who would later receive a prison sentence for his role as an accessory to murder. It wasn’t long before the inheritance had been spent in the casino at the roulette table, for Blauensteiner was addicted to gambling.

It would later emerge that Pichler, who had become bedridden since meeting her, had been locked in his room. As part of his ‘treatment’ she had covered him with wet blankets and left the window open although it was winter. She also gave him hot and cold baths to speed up his demise.
Pichler was where Blauensteiner had become careless. His sister, a 91-year-old nun who had become suspicious of her brother’s sudden deterioration in health and a nephew who wondered why he had been suddenly disinherited when it was expected that he would inherit his uncle’s estate, survived him. How was it that his uncle had left everything to a woman he had known for such a short time? He challenged the will and contacted the police. Once the police were involved and autopsy had to be carried out. The body was removed to Vienna, where the autopsy revealed large quantities of the anti-depressant anafranil in Pichler’s body. Pichler had obviously not died a natural death and Blauensteiner was the only suspect but how could it be proven that she had murdered him? After all, it could have been an accidental death.
In the meantime, the funeral, having been delayed because of the autopsy took place in December and Blauensteiner’s behaviour did little to dispel rumours in the village that she was nothing but a gold digger, who had probably sent Pichler to his grave. She did not appear to be in mourning and arrived late for the funeral, wearing a fur coat in the company of two bodyguards to protect her from the angry villagers. She walked up to the grave and with the words ‘adieu, Alois’ threw in a bunch of red roses into the open grave, turned and left. It was later claimed that she wrote a new ad for the lonely-hearts column while being driven away from the graveside.

The murder investigation began in earnest after the funeral. As part of the investigation Blauensteiner’s phone was tapped. The police officers, who listened, were shocked at what they heard. Not only was she talking to her lawyer matter of factly about the murder, but she also made reference to other murders. A serial killer had been found, of whose activities the full horrid details had yet to emerge.
The telephone conversations were enough for the police to move in and she was arrested in her Viennese apartment in Margarentenstrasse in January of 1996. She made no attempt to deny the accusations and spoke freely and in great detail about her activities, even giving herself the nickname the ‘black widow’, sending a cold shiver down the spine of the policemen interviewing her. She admitted to the murder of her partner and two other men. From the way she described her victims it was clear that she despised them. Had Blauensteiner not volunteered so much information to the police many of the deaths would have gone unnoticed. She did not see herself as a murderess though. She believed she had merely helped put them out of their misery.

Her first known victim was an old age pensioner by the name of Otto Reinl. She administered euglucon to him. Euglucon is a drug used for diabetics, which lowers the blood sugar level. Tan overdose of it can be fatal. The advantage for her of using euglucon and the anti-depressant anafranil was that they were tasteless and could therefore be added and dissolved in any hot drink. Thus her victims may not have been aware in the initial stages that Blauensteiner was poisoning them. By the time they realised she did not have their best interests at heart it was too late and like the spider who paralyses the fly they could only lie there and await their terrible fate. They drugs had been easy to get and she had simply made an appointment with a doctor and slipped him a little money. The official cause of death was diabetes mellitus and no suspicions were aroused.
In August 1992, her second husband, Rudolf Blaunensteiner then aged 52, fell ill and was nursed by his wife. Again euglucon was given to him as part of his ‘treatment’ although he was not even diabetic. He eventually went into a comma brought on by her ‘treatment’ and she continued giving him his ‘medicine’ until it killed him a week later. Blauensteiner was careful about disposing the body and had her late husband cremated.

A chance to get more money arose when the next-door neighbour, Franziska Köberl, became ill and Blauensteiner offered to nurse her back to health, but the patient’s health did not improve. It took somewhat longer for the euglucon to work on Köberl for she was a bit of a sweet tooth but once Blauensteiner became aware of this she increased the dose until Köberl also died on the 15 December 1992. Köberl left everything to Blauensteiner.

Friederich Döcker, a 65 year old bachelor also fell victim to her Blauensteiner’s care on 11 June 1995 after he answered her ad in the paper. According to his wishes his body was given to medical research, making a later autopsy impossible. She also helped her 61-year-old janitor to commit suicide.
The gaps between her murders were now narrowing and she was going out of control. The more she murdered the more difficult it would be to conceal it. She was bound to make a mistake soon and it would only be a matter of time before she was discovered. Alois Pichler was her last murder.

Her trial began in February of 1997 in Krems. She basked in the media attention and behaved like some kind of star who had just been invited to a talk show, doing her best to entertain her audience. Had her crimes not being so cold it would have been entertaining. Displaying her religious belief she even brought a golden crucifix into the trial and proclaimed before the judge ‘I wash my hands in innocence. I would never kill’. She seemed to have forgotten that she earlier admitted to everything. At no stage did she express any form of regret.
The only motive for her cold-hearted murders that could ever be established was simply greed. According to her own statement Blauensteiner spent 21 days a month in casinos playing roulette. She needed the money to feed her addiction. Sometimes she won and sometimes she lost. It has been estimated that she lost over a million euro in the casino.
There was insufficient evidence to link her to the murder of her husband and the charge was dropped, but not that of Pichler.
She was given life imprisonment for the murder of Pichler. True to character, at her sentencing she turned to the media and quipped ‘take all the photos you want of me. I’m a star now.’
Thus, she began her life in prison, where the other prisoners received her well and she became something of a mother to them. Ever aware of a fresh opportunity to make money she began work on her memoirs, expressing the hope that Steven Spielberg would buy the rights and make a movie about her life, with maybe Elisabeth Taylor in the lead role. A TV film was actually made for Austrian TV but was not as glamorous as Blauensteiner had hoped.
At a later trial in 2001, she was found guilty of murdering two other people. Her only concern was the lack of media attention and only wanted to discuss the recent film on her life with the media. Because she had already been given life she could not be, according to Austrian law, be sentenced any further. The judge proclaimed that while he could not sentence her further the case was of such an unfair dimension that is was too much for an earthly court to pass judgement on.
Thus she was officially charged and found guilty of the murder of three people, though it is more likely that she killed five or even more, but this could never be proven. Much to her disdain she faded into insignificance after this. Nobody cared about her anymore and her death of a brain tumour in 2003, while still in prison, failed to make the headlines.

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