VIENNA, Austria – It was a balmy spring day, and the man thought he’d fetch some ice cream from the freezer he shared with other tenants in his apartment complex. But when he lifted the lid, he recoiled in horror at the gruesome sight of a frozen infant wrapped in plastic.
What happened next has held usually tranquil Austria spellbound: The discovery of another baby’s body in the chest freezer and of two others entombed in concrete-filled pails at the complex in the city of Graz.
A 32-year-old bookkeeper was arrested and confessed to killing her four newborns out of despair over her inability to pay the bills and her fear that having a child might drive away her longtime male partner, police said Friday.
Her 38-year-old companion, who denied involvement, also was arrested and placed under investigation.
The killings and disposals in Graz, about 120 miles south of Vienna, stunned the alpine nation where multiple homicides are rare and led to calls for more assistance for women with crisis pregnancies.
The first of the tiny bodies was discovered Monday by an unidentified tenant who wanted to get ice cream for his children from the freezer that the neighbors shared in the multifamily complex, Graz’s Kleine Zeitung newspaper reported.
Stunned, he called police, who later located another beneath the mound of frozen meat and vegetables. Both bodies were wrapped in plastic bags.
A trained dog led investigators to a third body – that of a newborn girl – that had been placed in a paint bucket filled with concrete to conceal the remains, Austrian state broadcaster ORF said.
Police found the fourth body Friday in a garden shed as they searched the premises for clues to the killings. It, too, had been placed in a plastic pail filled with concrete and hidden beneath a pile of debris, officials said.
Although officials initially considered the possibility that the infants may have been stillborn, evidence at the scene pointed to slayings, police said in a statement.
Police said they believed the bodies may have been placed in the freezer as long as three years ago.
The woman, whose name was not released because of Austrian privacy laws, lived in the building with her partner for the past eight years, authorities said. Neighbors described her as a hard worker who kept a tidy house and a beautiful yard.
She was not entirely coherent during police questioning but told investigators she gave birth to all the babies in her bathtub, Lt. Col. Werner Jud said.
Her partner allegedly told police he was unaware of her pregnancies and insisted he played no role in either the slayings or the hiding of the bodies.
“She was very thin – you would have noticed if she had been pregnant,” said a distraught middle-aged neighbor who gave her name only as Renate.
Autopsies were conducted, but results were not expected before Monday, officials said. The forensic examination was held up by the need to slowly thaw the frozen remains of the infants found in the freezer, they added.
DNA tests will be carried out on the woman’s companion, who is married but separated from the wife with whom he had three children, to determine if he was the father, Jud said.
“Various reasons can lead women into such violent situations that they can’t even think straight,” said Dr. Roswith Roth of the University of Graz’s Institute of Psychology.
“When a mother kills a child right after its birth, it’s clear that she does so because she sees no other way out,” Roth told the Austria Press Agency. “There is still an enormous amount of ignorance in how to prevent such things.”
Although the province of Styria where Graz is regional capital has had a program in place since 2001 allowing women who don’t want to keep their babies to give birth anonymously, women’s advocates called for greater attention to their plight.
“The climate in which a woman must deal with an unplanned pregnancy is not very supportive in Austria,” said Sylvia Groth, who heads a women’s health center in Graz.