AMSTETTEN, Austria (AFP) — A former tenant in Austria's "house of horrors" told of a string of suspicious occurrences that could have pointed to the secret dungeon where a woman was held as a sex slave by her father for 24 years, in an interview published Friday.
While police continued to probe one of the most horrific cases of domestic abuse in European criminal history, Sepp Leitner told the daily Die Presse he had come eerily close to discovering the windowless prison a decade ago.
Leitner lived for four years in a small flat on the ground floor immediately above the cellar in the 1990s.
He said he could never understand why his electricity bill was so high, considering he was frequently absent and did not even have a washing machine.
Leitner only realised this month after the case emerged that he was paying the utility costs for the underground prison as well, which had an elaborate security system installed by owner Josef Fritzl, a former electrician.
"If I'd been a bit more persistent and not let it go until the mystery of the high electricity consumption had been resolved, perhaps we'd have found out about the dungeon earlier," Leitner said.
Fritzl, 73, has admitted to raping his daughter Elisabeth regularly during her near quarter-century of captivity and fathering seven children with her.
One died just after birth. Three "grandchildren" were adopted by Fritzl and his wife, whom he told had been abandoned by Elisabeth.
The other three were raised in the cramped chamber beneath the garden of the home on the main street of this town 100 kilometres (60 miles) west of Vienna, never seeing the light of day before their release last week.
Leitner said his dog Sam must have sensed something was amiss in the cellar because he always barked when they went past the door.
"We always wondered why he barked precisely there. We thought he was just happy to be going for a walk," he said.
The dog, Sam, could not stand Fritzl, either, Leitner added.
"Whenever he saw him, he growled. But no one could explain why. Sam never growled at anyone."
Fritzl, Leitner claimed, also had keys to all the flats in the house. And he and the other tenants noticed that food -- milk, pasta or bread -- mysteriously disappeared from their kitchens.
He also barred his tenants from using the house's spacious garden or to go anywhere near the cellar, Leitner said, "even when the weather was beautiful."
In hindsight it was clear why: the cellar could be reached via the garden. Fritzl also separated off the terrace, he added.
An image has emerged of Fritzl's double life in Amstetten, playing the respectable property owner and loving grandfather in public while becoming a cruel tyrant behind closed doors with his family.
He told police during initial questioning that he threatened to pump poison gas into the bunker if anything happened to him.
Authorities were examining whether the purpose-built prison had been equipped with a gas supply line.
"It may have just been an empty threat to intimidate his daughter Elisabeth and the children he fathered into not trying to overpower him," police spokesman Helmut Greiner said.
Austria has been reeling since the horrific details of the Fritzls' unfathomable ordeal at the hands of Josef emerged last weekend.
After an emotional reunion of Elisabeth and her children, three of whom she had not seen since they were babies, the family has been receiving round-the-clock care from a team of physicians and psychologists.
The eldest of the surviving children, 19-year-old Kerstin, is in a stable but serious condition in an intensive care unit.
Fritzl was remanded in custody Tuesday.
He is in isolation as a precaution because inmates locked up on paedophilia charges, particularly those who generate intense media coverage, are frequent targets of attacks by other prisoners, officials said.
"Based on our experience with shocking offences, particularly when children are the victims, there is a greater need to protect the suspect," Guenther Moerwald, head of the Sankt Poelten jail, told Austrian news agency APA.
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