GROSSPRIEL, Austria – In Austria, hunting game such as deer and wild boar is a hallowed way of life, one that follows age-old codes of honor and requires a license bestowed only after passing rigorous exams. In that exalted world, Alois Huber was a brazen outlaw even before he went on a murderous rampage that left four people dead.
Not only did he poach game illegally in the middle of the night, he violated one of hunting's most sacred rules: Kill for meat, not just the trophy of the wild animal's head.
Huber shot countless deer in the forests outside Vienna, sawed off their antlered heads to mount at home — and left their decapitated bodies to rot in the underbrush.
Until this week.
Police had gotten wind of Huber's nocturnal poaching and went to confront him in the early hours of Wednesday. Enraged, Huber's illegal hunting turned to murder: He embarked on a shooting rampage that left three officers and a paramedic dead. Then he set his farmhouse bunker full of trophies on fire, and killed himself with a gunshot to the head. It was one of the worst multiple slayings in Austria's postwar history.
Villagers are baffled by the shocking violence — and say Huber led a double life. They describe the trucker as an upstanding neighbor, a welcome guest at birthday parties who gladly helped out when asked for a favor.
"He was a quiet, pleasant person who never did anyone any harm," said Adelheid Wieder, just hours after Huber's charred body was found. "Nobody imagined that he could be so without scruples and so aggressive."
But Huber had good reason to keep his passion a secret: Poaching is severely punished in this tightly regulated country where it can draw up to three years in prison.
Hunters are licensed only after passing exams that test their knowledge of weapons, ballistics, hunting traditions, different kinds of game and their diseases — and a host of other disciplines. Police followed up on more than 300 reported hunting violations last year.
Among licensed hunters, rogues are held in the highest contempt.
Interior Ministry spokesman Karl-Heinz Grundboeck says that police moved in on Huber after monitoring phone calls in which he acknowledged being the illegal trophy hunter being sought in the vicinity of Annaberg, about 80 kilometers (50 miles) southwest of Vienna. Additionally, said Grundboeck, a search of his farm on the outskirts of the village of Grosspriel turned up hundreds of deer antlers and other game trophies — and about 100 guns, "many taken from other hunter's huts."
"We have no doubt that we found our man," he told The Associated Press.
State Prosecutor Michaela Schnell says Huber is suspected in the illegal killing of numerous stags since 2005 and is also thought to have been the masked man who attacked a hunter with a knife two years ago, in what investigators now consider attempted murder.
In past centuries, poachers in Austria were often seen as cunning Robin Hood-like figures outwitting the noble owners of lands that they illegally hunted on for food. Now, says expert Roland Girtler, some "drive in the night with SUVs in the forest, blind the game so that it stands still and then shoot. That is pathetic."
No one in Grosspriel or the cluster of surrounding hamlets about 70 kilometers (40 miles) west of Vienna suggests that Huber used such methods.
They describe the 55-year-old as an expert who hunted legally and whose hobby turned into an obsession after his wife died about 15 years ago, leaving the childless widower with no close family. Those willing to talk about him after the trauma left by his rampage still don't believe that he was the man leaving the headless carcasses of deer in his wake.
"We often went hunting for rabbits and pheasant," says innkeeper Martin Jaeger between bites of schnitzel and gulps of cloudy wheat beer. "He was a frequent guest."
For experts, analyzing Huber's motives without knowing him is difficult. Speculation runs freely. But psychiatrist Reinhard Haller says his rampage could have been linked in part to a romantic view of himself as a poacher of old on the run from repressive authorities.
From the start of his illicit hunts to his standoff with police, it was a "struggle to see who is better," he told the Austria Press Agency, describing Huber's suicide as "an expression of his determination not to accept defeat."
Some of Huber's last words as police closed in support that image of a defiant outlaw proud of his illegal shoots.
"I am the poacher of Annaberg," he told his friend, Herbert Huthansl, by cellphone, in comments cited by the daily Kronen Zeitung.
"They're not going to get me."