In Austria, 8 years of a life stolen

Professionals say victim's readjustment to outside world will be long, difficult

August 26, 2006|By Alissa J. Rubin and Elisabeth Penz | Alissa J. Rubin and Elisabeth Penz,Los Angeles Times

VIENNA -- Natascha Kampusch is a sad, withdrawn-looking young woman, a lifetime apart from the ruddy-cheeked, open-faced 10-year-old who disappeared eight years ago.

She weighs less than 100 pounds, and police who interviewed her shortly after she escaped from her kidnapper earlier this week described her as having a pallor that comes from a lack of natural light.

Kampusch's reappearance brought joy to her parents, who gave a tearful interview on television, and has transfixed Austria. But psychiatrists emphasize how hard it will be and how long it could take before she can feel at home again in the world.

"Of course the experience is a very severe psychological trauma, especially for a young person like Natascha," said Professor Ernst Berger, a child and adolescent psychiatrist at Vienna University.

"There are two sides of the coin: on one hand the victim experiences suffering and pain because of the violence, but on the other hand, strong emotional bonding is involved as well."

Kept in a cramped, windowless underground bedroom for the years when most girls socialize with friends, chat on cell phones and begin to date, Kampusch was isolated, completely controlled by the man who grabbed her as she was walking to school.

She was educated to some extent by her captor, an information specialist named Wolfgang Priklopil, 44, who committed suicide by leaping in front of a train after Kampusch escaped. He occasionally took her on walks in the neighborhood, but no one took note of the odd pair: a young, shy girl and the far older, clean-cut man. People keep to themselves in the area, a bedroom community of Vienna.

A policewoman, Sabine Freudenberger, who interviewed Kampusch shortly after her escape, said that when Kampusch was asked whether she had been sexually abused: "She said everything she has done she has done voluntarily; He didn't force her."

The policewoman added, however, that she believed Kampusch had been abused and "is not aware of it."

Police halted their questioning of Kampusch over the weekend to allow her to rest and spend time with her family. They are continuing to question her because her abduction is believed to have involved a second man, who has not been caught.

Cases of children surviving long abductions are rare. Berger said he could think of no similar ones in Europe in recent decades. In the United States, Steven Stayner, a California boy, was kidnapped at the age of 7 and sexually abused for seven years. He escaped but died in a hit-and-run motorcycle accident when he was 24.

Similarly notorious, but far briefer, was the case of Elisabeth Smart, a 14-year-old Utah girl kidnapped in 2002 and held for nine months before she was rescued by police.

Kampusch's prison was a well cut in the garage floor - the type used by professional mechanics. A steep flight of stairs led to a tiny crawl space, sealed off with a 300-pound locked door.

Behind the door was the small room in which Priklopil kept the girl. It was equipped with a toilet and sink, a bookshelf and a small table and chair. It had ventilation but no windows.

The fact that Kampusch escaped speaks to the depth of her survival instincts and might suggest as well that her captor had become careless.

While Kampusch was vacuuming his car, Priklopil apparently received a telephone call and moved away from the noise to hear better. The door was unlocked, and Kampusch bolted to a neighbor's house, according to the police report.

The neighbors called police and said, according to the police report, "that a young woman was semi-disoriented in the garden." It is not clear when she identified herself, but a short time later she said, "I am Natascha Kampusch."

Initially she was identified by a small scar on her arm. DNA test results confirmed her identity. The details that have emerged of her captivity are disturbing. She told Freudenberger that during the first years after she was kidnapped she had to refer to her captor as "master."

Over and over, she tried to persuade Priklopil to let her go. "She wanted family, children, freedom but he wouldn't let her go. He threatened her; he said he would harm her family and her if she escaped," said Freudenberger.

He was not simply a monster. When she escaped, the girl was clean and relatively healthy, except for rashes. Freudenberger described her as "very well educated; she is highly intelligent. This vocabulary - incredible."

Her daily regime was to eat breakfast with him and spend time with him in the house or garden. When he left, she was locked in her room and listened to the radio, she said. He gave her books and stuffed animals.

Alissa J. Rubin and Elisabeth Penz write for the Los Angeles Times.

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