Austrian Woman Escapes Kidnapper After 8 Years
VIENNA, Austria – In the quiet, small-town street where a kidnapped Austrian girl is believed to have been held for more than eight years, police searched on Thursday for clues about her captivity, her dramatic escape and the man who allegedly imprisoned her and has now killed himself.
Investigators questioning the young woman who was found in a nearby yard on Wednesday, awaited DNA verification of her claim that she is Natascha Kampusch. But the parents have met with her and said they are sure she is the daughter who disappeared on her way to school in Vienna on March 2, 1998.
Police have not revealed the name of the man accused of imprisoning her, but said he killed himself on Wednesday, throwing himself in front of train in Vienna.
They have cordoned off the street in Strasshof, less than 10 miles northeast of Vienna, where Wolfgang Priklopil lived, and released photos of the hiding place in his house where she is alleged to have been held.
One photograph appeared to show the small, cluttered interior of the cellar where she was kept and the narrow cement stairs that led down to it. Another photo showed a metal hatch that sealed the underground room. The entrance is so small that one would have to crawl to get through the opening.
Federal police spokesman Armin Halm said there was a bed and a toilet in the cramped space. Images on Austrian television showed that there was also a small television in the room, which had no windows.
He said police found Kampusch's passport in the house.
Few details of Wednesday's events have been made public. But the state broadcaster ORF carried remarks by Erich Zwettler of the Austrian federal police saying that the girl escaped from her captor when the door to her hiding place was open, and ran into a nearby garden where she told an elderly woman that her name was Natascha Kampusch and that she had been kidnapped.
Residents of the semi-rural community were reluctant to speak with reporters Thursday. Neighbors said they were shocked and saw no signs over the years that their community — a quiet place where many leave their doors open — was hiding such a terrible secret.
"I couldn't sleep last night after I heard the news," said a middle-aged woman who gave only her first name, Elisabeth. "What goes through the mind of someone like that?"
"I would have died in such a small space," she said, referring to the cellar were the woman was said to have been kept.
The woman said she saw the man from time to time during walks around the neighborhood with her family, but noticed nothing out of the ordinary.
"He was on the street and in front of the house," she said.
Neighbor Harald Mahr, standing in his garden, said "I noticed his car, but otherwise nothing."
Although waiting for formal verification of her identity, Halm said the woman had been identified by a scar on one of her upper arms that dates back to an operation she had when she was a child. "We are quite sure it's her," he said.
Natascha Kampusch's sister said in remarks broadcast on Austrian television that her mother almost had a breakdown when police notified her Wednesday afternoon of the discovery of the woman, adding that her mother always held onto the hope that her daughter would come back one day.
"She always said she was still alive," said the sister, identified by the broadcaster as Sabina Sirny.
Investigators say that the woman had been examined by a doctor and that she did not have signs of injuries. Still, police are investigating whether she was beaten or sexually abused.
Halm said the woman spent the night in "a secure location" in the presence of a female police officer who has specialized psychological training.
Zwettler of Austria's federal police was quoted by the Austria Press Agency as saying that the woman appeared to have a severe case of Stockholm Syndrome, a survival mechanism in which a hostage begins to empathize with his or her captors.
Although police have not identified the suspect, Austrian media have said he was 44-year-old Priklopil, described as a communications technician.
Nikolaus Koch, a lead investigator, said on Austrian television that the police had contact with the alleged kidnapper about three months after Kampusch disappeared in 1998 but that he had a "sturdy alibi" at the time.
In remarks carried on Austrian television, Kampusch's mother, Brigitta Sirny, said she was very proud of her daughter.
"She said 'mama mausi' to me, an emotional Sirny said, recalling the moment she saw her daughter again.