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Elisa Lam Is The Cecil Hotel’s Most Famous Guest, But Serial Killer Jack Unterweger Is Its Deadliest

The creepy connection between the missing student and one of Austria's most notorious killers

If you, like us, have been captivated by the puzzling and chill-inducing Netflix docuseries, Crime Scene: The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel, you’ll have perhaps heard of a few names associated with the infamous downtown Los Angeles location: Elisa Lam, who after mysteriously disappearing was found dead in the hotel’s water tank; Jack Unterweger, who resided in the hotel in 1991 while murdering sex workers; and, Richard Ramirez, the Night Stalker, who stayed on the hotel’s 14th floor while terrorising the neighbourhood. 

But while the documentary lightly tells the story of Unterweger, the real story is something much more sinister. Soon after Unterweger arrived to stay at the Cecil, sex workers started getting murdered—but just who exactly is Unterweger and what crimes did he committ? Below, we do a deep dive into the Austrian serial killer’s life, and his eerie connection to the Cecil Hotel

Who Is Jack Unterweger? 

To those who may have encountered Unterweger upon his arrival in Los Angeles, they would have known him simply as an Austrian journalist in the U.S. on assignment. But, Unterweger had already crafted a ruthless reputation in his home country. In 1974, he abducted and murdered 18-year-old Margaret Schäfer by strangling her in her own bra, and in 1976 he was sentenced to life in prison for the crime. 

Unterweger spent most of his time in jail writing short stories, poems, plays, and an autobiography, Purgatory or the Trip to Prison—Report of a Guilty Man, that later served as the basis for a documentary. 

hotel cecil
(Credit: Getty Images)

How Did He End Up In Los Angeles & At The Cecil Hotel? 

Becoming a literary success while incarcerated, Unterweger was granted parole in 1990. His writing career took off, and he was in demand for bookstore readings and talk shows as he produced books, plays, and stories. His autobiography was taught in schools and his stories for children were performed on Austrian radio. 

In September 1990, prior to Unterweger’s move to the U.S., a murder spree unfolded while the Austrian writer was quickly becoming a celebrity. 

Moving to Prague to study its red-light district, Blanka Bockova, a Czech sex worker, was strangled with her underwear. Seven other prostitutes later died this same way in Austria over the next six months. 

Unterweger headed for L.A. to further study the red-light district, with claims he even rode with LAPD to be given an official tour of the downtown area. 

During his stay, where he set up at the Cecil Hotel, three sex workers—Shannon Exley, Irene Rodriguez, and Peggy Jean Booth—were strangled with their bras, with a signature knot favoured by Unterweger.

How Was Jack Unterweger Caught? 

After having him under surveillance under the suspicion of murders in Austria, police in Graz eventually found enough evidence to arrest Unterweger. However, by the time police arrived at his home, he had escaped with his girlfriend Bianca Mrak, through Switzerland and France. 

Unterweger became a fugitive until he was eventually captured in Miami, Florida, in 1992. He was extradited back to Austria and charged with 11 murders, with the jury later finding him guilty of nine. 

In 1994, Unterweger was sentenced to life in prison without possibility of parole. That night, Unterweger died by suicide at the Graz-Karlau Prison. 

Where Has Jack Unterweger Appeared In Popular Culture? 

For years since his death, Unterweger has gone on to inspire several series and films. 

In 2015, Elisabeth Scharang directed the thriller film, Jack, documenting a fictional retelling of the serial killer’s life. Austrian actor Johannes Krisch took on the title role. The story of the police investigation, pursuit and prosecution of Unterweger is the subject of an episode of The FBI Files titled “Killer Abroad”.

And of course, most recently, Unterweger’s story appeared in Netflix’s latest true-crime series, Crime Scene: The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel.

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