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Retired judge acquitted in Kampusch case

The Local · 28 Feb 2015, 09:33

Published: 28 Feb 2015 09:33 GMT+01:00

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A former supreme court president who has tirelessly criticized the Austrian legal system and police for their handling of the Natascha Kampusch child abduction case has been acquitted of perjury charges after more than three years of fighting with the system he once headed.

Retired judge Johann Rzeszut, who has maintained charges were concocted to shut him up, pledged after the verdict to continue his quest to prove that investigators botched the Kampusch case, overlooked two possible murders and ignored evidence of a second kidnapper.

“It was a huge relief. A weight has been lifted from my shoulders,” former Austrian Supreme Court president Johann Rzeszut told The Local after his acquittal Friday.

His outspoken criticism of investigators and prosecutors in the Natascha Kampusch case has made him many foes among former colleagues and he admitted: “I always felt at peace in the knowledge that I was innocent of course, but there's a large faction within the system that wanted to see me convicted, so it could easily have gone either way.”

Child abductee Natascha Kampusch's miraculous 2006 escape after eight and a half years' captivity at the house of her kidnapper made her an overnight global media sensation, but the spectacular case has also cast very long shadows over Austria's legal system. None have been more vocal in their criticism than 73-year old Johann Rzeszut. 

Rzeszut served as legal expert on a parliamentary probe into the Kampusch investigation that was launched in 2008. The probe raised serious concerns and sparked a re-opening of investigations, that eventually ended with a de facto confirmation of the first investigation and acquitted police and prosecutors of any negligence or wrongdoing.

"Never experienced anything remotely comparable"

The unsatisfactory result prompted Rzeszut to write a 25-page letter to the Austrian minister of justice and members of parliament, detailing mistakes and flaws in the investigations and the way they were handled by the public prosecutors. His letter ended: “In my 42 years in the legal system, I have never experienced anything remotely comparable.” His complaint resulted in yet another re-examination of the case as well as the roles of five state attorneys.

It all led nowhere at the end of the day, but it did make him plenty of powerful enemies and a target of public scorn.

He has been labelled senile and mentally ill by people who will hear none of his talk of intentionally botched police work, political meddling, two potentially unsolved murders and a second Kampusch kidnapper who got away with it. But it hasn't shut him up.

“There has been a concerted campaign to ruin my life and reputation – they were hoping to complete the job with this trial,” said Rzeszut.

The prosecution had claimed that Rzeszut perjured himself when denying during police questioning to having had dealings with a police officer who initiated an unauthorized investigation into the Kampusch case, and who allegedly used illegal methods in an attempt to dig up new information.

Kidnapper's secret daughter

The police officer, Josef Winkler, had turned up at a Vienna school to secure DNA-evidence from a girl he suspected to be the secret daughter of Natascha Kampusch and her kidnapper, Wolfgang Priklopil.

The plan was exposed by the girl's mother, and Josef Winkler was subsequently tried and convicted for abuse of power. But the Winkler case gained an added dimension when media reports suggested a group of vigilante investigators headed by Rzeszut had prompted Winkler to 'go rogue'.

Rzeszut was investigated over suspicion of abuse of power, but the case was soon dropped for lack of evidence. Instead, prosecutors charged him with perjury based on phone records that showed a number of contacts between the two men.

Winkler himself said in court: "During interrogations it quickly became apparent to me that the interesting thing was Dr Rzeszut, not me. They tried to get me to say that he put me up to it."

After the verdict, Judge Claudia Geiler said: “At first glance, the optics of the case were horrible. But the testimony has delivered plausible and convincing arguments. This trial could easily have been avoided if investigators had shown a little more sensitivity and flair to begin with."

For Rzeszut the seriousness of the case reached far beyond the hefty fine and suspended sentence he could have received if he had been found guilty. It was his professional reputation and integrity that was on trial, and a guilty verdict would have once and for all ended the Kampusch case, which he so vehemently has refused to let go of.

"Please help me"

The case started nine years ago this summer when a distressed teenage girl knocked on the door of an elderly lady in the Austrian town of Strasshof and said: “Please help me. I'm Natascha Kampusch”. The then 18-year old Kampusch had been snatched off the street one spring morning in 1998 as she was on her way to school.  She was 10 years old when she was kidnapped and held as a sex slave in a purpose-built cellar for more than eight years.

The kidnapper, an unemployed radio technician by the name Wolfgang Priklopil, killed himself by jumping from a railroad bridge on the same day Kampusch escaped. The ensuing investigation quickly reached the most convenient conclusion: Priklopil did it alone and never told anyone how a young girl came to live in a small enclosure under his garage.

Sloppy police work

The statements and interviews given by Natascha Kampusch confirmed this version. All should have been good and well, except sceptics kept complaining of sloppy police work and loose ends. The Adamovich Commission, on which Rzeszut served, was intended to silence those voices of concern, but eventually it created the loudest critic of them all: Rzeszut himself.

His concerns over the case are multifaceted and many and differ vastly from investigators' official conclusions on key points. For one, Rzeszut believes a second perpetrator helped Wolfgang Priklopil kidnap Natascha Kampusch, a popular theory that's supported by an eye witness who observed a second man in the van Kampusch was dragged into by Priklopil.

And he doesn't believe Priklopil committed suicide on August 23, 2006, upon learning that Natascha Kampusch had made a successful run for it while washing his car in the driveway. According to the official version, he jumped on to the tracks and was killed instantly by an oncoming train.

Throat cut from ear to ear

Photos from the scene, however, show wounds that don't match the usual train impact wounds. Priklopil's throat had been cut from ear to ear, but the neck section of the spine had not been severed as it would've been if train wheels were responsible for the cut throat.

“Whatever way you look at it, the evidence doesn't match up to the suicide it's described as,” Rzeszut said, declining to put names of suspects to the murder he assumes was committed. “There were potentially more people who could've wanted Priklopil dead to make sure he wouldn't involve them in the case if he was caught,” he said.

One person who keeps popping up in the case is the closest friend and colleague of Priklopil, Ernst Holzapfel. Holzapfel has told investigators that he picked up a visibly distressed Priklopil from outside a shopping center on the day of his death. They drove around for a while and talked before Priklopil was let out of the car. It was the last time Priklopil was seen alive. He allegedly never revealed to Holzapfel the true identity of Natascha Kampusch, whom Holzapfel had met on one occasion, thinking at the time that she might be Priklopil's girlfriend.

Holzapfel told investigators his relationship with Priklopil was rather superficial and mainly work-related, yet Natascha Kampusch has maintained contact with Holzapfel after her escape from Priklopil, and Priklopil's mother transferred ownership of three pieces of property to Holzapfel after Priklopil's death.

Closer scrutiny

Rzeszut refuses to connect Holzapfel directly to the death of Wolfgang Priklopil, nor will he accuse him of having been an accessory to kidnapping nor even to having knowledge of the abduction of Natascha Kampusch.

“I won't accuse anyone of anything, but I do believe that Holzapfel should have come under closer scrutiny than he did,” Rzeszut said.

Story continues below…

In fact Rzeszut was officially interviewed three times over the latest case, but Holzapfel was never once officially interviewed as a suspect.

The thing that has bothered him the most about the complex Kampusch case, however, is only indirectly linked to the investigation.  In the summer of 2010, Franz Kröll, who headed the second investigation prompted by the parliamentary probe which Rzeszut participated in, was found dead from a gunshot at his house in Vienna.

He had handed off the investigation's final report six months earlier and retired from duty. He was presumably depressed and lonely, the Kampusch case most likely having stolen the last spark, an investigation concluded. He had died from a single shot through the temple. It was deemed a suicide, a conclusion Rzeszut has never accepted. He is convinced that Kröll died because of the Kampusch case, and there are distinct indications that it wasn't by his own hand, Rzeszut said.

Exit wounds in his head

“He refused to show up at the press conference when the results of his investigation were presented. I know from what he told me that the conclusions did not reflect his personal conviction and the findings he had made,” Rzeszut said. Kröll presumably continued to pursue the Kampusch case privately after the investigation had been closed.

He was known to have kept records at his house, but they were never found after his death. He was found sitting in a chair on his patio, with reading glasses on the table beside him, but nothing to read or write in. The powder traces and blood stains on his hands didn't fit the entry and exit wounds in his head, explained Rzeszut. Kröll's death is the reason he hasn't been able to let the Kampusch case die.

“Had it just been about a young woman who escaped her kidnapper and is alive and well, it wouldn't really matter to me. But the Kampusch case is about so much more. It's about murder, abuse of power, a cover up and most importantly: It's about the death of my friend and good colleague,” he said.

He's ultimately hoping the whole Kampusch case will be looked into once again, but now, nine years later, he's slowly losing faith that it will ever happen.

“We have sent some of the evidence abroad to have it analyzed by experts. If this doesn't bring anything, we're slowly running out of options. But I definitely won't let it rest,” he said.

Natascha Kampusch is now 25 years old. She has written a book about her ordeal, “3096”, which alludes to the number of days she was a captive at the house of Wolfgang Priklopil. The book was made into a movie which premiered in cinemas in the fall of 2013.  

She now lives in an apartment in central Vienna.  She claimed the house where she was kept captive for eight years, although she doesn't want to live there.  She has since filled in the basement where she was held.

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