One of the world’s most infamous serial killers, Jack Unterweger, just so happened to stay at one of the world’s most infamous hotels: the Cecil Hotel. Netflix’s new documentary, Crime Scene: The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel examines the mysterious drowning of Canadian student Elisa Lam in 2013, but not without also acknowledging the hotel's history of murders and suicides. And one can’t mention the Cecil Hotel without nodding to Jack Unterweger.
Unlike the likes of Ted Bundy and Richard Ramirez, Jack Unterweger was an Austrian serial killer who just happened to be visiting Los Angeles. While in the states, Unterweger stayed at the Cecil Hotel in the early 1990s, when he was believed to have brutally murdered three prostitutes in the Los Angeles area. Unterweger’s story, however, is not unlike many other serial killers’ stories.
Jack Unterweger had a long history before he stayed at the Cecil Hotel.
Jack Unterweger, like many serial killers, had a troubling childhood back in Austria. Born in 1950, his mother spent time in jail for fraud and Jack was sent to live with his reportedly abusive grandfather. At the young age of five, Unterweger was already drinking alcohol, and by his high school years, he was in and out of jail for robberies and even pimping. It’s also possible his mother or his aunt were prostitutes, so he had a long history with prostitution and crime.
Before making it to the Cecil Hotel, Unterweger was put into Austrian prison in 1974 for murdering an 18-year-old German woman, Margaret Schafer. He murdered her by strangulation with her own bra (this detail will become important as we delve deeper), testifying that he saw his mother’s face in Margaret and felt the sting of her abandonment. He was sentenced to life in prison.
Jack Unterweger’s first life-in-prison sentence didn’t stop him from getting to the Cecil Hotel.
While in prison, Unterweger became a poster boy for prison reform. He read and wrote, becoming somewhat of a revered literary philosopher and thinker. He wrote his own autobiography, Purgatory or the Trip to Jail - Report of a Guilty Man, which was the basis for a 1988 documentary about Jack Unterweger’s life, Purgatory or the Journey to Jail. His story was so well-read and widely known that several intellectuals, most famously Peter Huemer, advocated for his release.
Thanks to Unterweger’s charm and his intelligent way with words, he was released after serving a mandatory 15-year sentence in 1990. What a mistake that would end up being. He was in jail for murdering one woman, but after his release from prison, he supposedly went on to murder 10 more, for a total of 11 murders. When he was first released, Unterweger was somewhat of a celebrity, appearing on television talk shows and publishing his writing.
Jack Unterweger’s murderous streak eventually led him to the Cecil Hotel and his impending demise.
Only a few months after his release, the body count started up again. A Czech prostitute was found strangled by her own underwear (sound familiar?) while Unterweger was in Prague, but there was no concrete evidence tying him to her murder. There were several other bodies found in the area, but they could not be traced back to him. In 1991, he had made a name for himself as a journalist.
Unterweger was sent to Los Angeles to cover crime stories for an Austrian magazine, and he would frequently go on calls with policemen. To the police, they believed he was learning about the crime of LA, but in reality, experts now believed he used those trips to scout for his next victims. At the time, Unterweger was also staying in the Cecil Hotel.
The Cecil Hotel was home to many strange instances and serial killers, not just Jack Unterweger.
The Cecil Hotel is notorious for its dark past. The summary for Netflix’s upcoming Crime Scene: The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel explains, “For nearly a century the Cecil Hotel in Downtown Los Angeles has been linked to some of the city’s most notorious activity, from untimely deaths to housing serial killers.” The Cecil Hotel was originally intended for businessmen in the 1920s, but nicer hotels started popping up in the 1930s, resulting in the Cecil Hotel becoming an SRO, or single room occupancy business.
This meant that there were single rooms and shared bathrooms, not unlike a hostel, so rooms were very cheap. One of the most famous serial killers to have stayed there, Richard Ramirez, aka the Night Stalker, likely paid just about $14 during his stint there when he killed at least 13 women. Jack Unterweger likely didn’t need to stay at the Cecil Hotel, but experts now suggest he did as a tribute to the Night Stalker.
Unterweger was eventually caught in Miami, when he was on the run after three of his victims were found dead in Los Angeles with his mark of strangulation by undergarment. At that point, he was extradited back to Austria where he was once again sentenced to life in prison. Not one to shy away from speaking of death, he eventually took his own life, hanging himself with the same knots that took the lives of his victims.
Crime Scene: The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel premieres on Netflix on Feb. 10.