Austrian serial killer hunted near the Cecil Hotel downtown

The developer who recently bought the Cecil Hotel on Main Street and announced a $7 million facelift of the 1927 landmark probably won'tt be drawing attention to the fact that Austrian serial killer Jack Unterweger stayed there while murdering L.A. streetwalkers in 1991.

But then again, such a factoid might appeal to those who embrace the macabre. If people pay good money for clown paintings by boy killer John Wayne Gacy, can the Jack Unterweger Suite be far behind?

The single room occupancy hotel between 6th and 7th streets has long been plagued by crime and drug-dealing but it also offers dirt-cheap rates for hardy travelers and affordable rents for downtown's poor. For several years, it's been in transition, caught in downtown's gentrifying wave. Now Central City mover and shaker Fred Cordova has embarked on a five-year-plan to renovate much of the premises into a boutique hotel for budget travelers, complete with flat-screen TVs.

But back in 1991, the Cecil Hotel was just the type of Dante-esque place that would have drawn the charismatic, sinister Unterweger, a writer whose murder spree took him from Austria to Prague and Los Angeles at the same time that he reported on those crimes for the Austrian media. At $25 a night, its faded glamour and decay was irresistible.

�The hotel�embodied a motif that ran through all Jack�s magazine articles about L.A � the existence of extreme destitution in the heart of a city known for its wealth. In the low-rent districts of Vienna�it was impossible to find such seediness,� writes John Leake, whose fascinating biography of Unterweger, �Entering Hades, the Double Life of a Serial Killer,� was published last month.

Unterweger landed at LAX in July of 1991, wearing a white suit, white snakeskin cowboy boots, gold chains, a white hat, a Navajo vest and a white coat emblazoned with a bright hibiscus print. Looking, in other words, like a pimp beamed straight out of a 1974 B movie.

By day he hung out at Parker Center and used his Austrian press credentials to finagle a ride-along with the LAPD. At night, Unterweger welcomed the hookers who climbed up the Cecil�s fire escape to his room to earn $30.

He also picked up streetwalkers on Seventh Avenue, (then a hub for prostitution) strangled them with their own bra-straps, then dumped their bodies nearby, naked and posed obscenely. Police suspect Unterweger scoped out the sites ahead of time. One dump site behind a grove of eucalyptus trees across the L.A. River in Boyle Heights wasn�t even visible from the street.

Unterweger also started a relationship with one of the Cecil Hotel receptionists and invited her to live with him in Vienna, where they were briefly engaged. (She flew home after he tried to drown her in the bathtub but claimed he was just horsing around.)

During his five-week sojourn in L.A., this �malignant narcissist� also visited Malibu (where he dumped another body), ate at Hugo�s on Santa Monica Boulevard, hunted in vain for Bukowski at Hollywood Park, strolled around Silverlake, went to a festival at Echo Park Lake and attended a Gay Pride Parade in Hollywood (where he disapproved of the simulated sex acts with serpents and masochists piercing themselves with needles).

Plenty of neighborhoods in LA still retain the sleaze factor that Unterweger both craved and deplored in his dispatches home. But the 16 years since his visit have seen an explosion of restaurants, loft dwellers, art galleries and businesses to L.A.�s historic core. It�s still got problems, but it�s a safer, less desolate place.

Cordova hopes his renovation will bring in European budget tourists. Jack Unterweger won�t be among them. He hung himself in his jail cell in 1994, the day he was found guilty of nine murders, including the three L.A. women who were desperate and drug-sick enough to get into the rented car of a killer who fooled people about his true nature for so long.


More by Denise Hamilton:
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A Hot Date with Libros Schmibros
My LA Times Festival of Books Top/Bottom 10
A journalist of the old school
Grim-Lit Serial Killer Strikes Again in Westwood!
Previous Native Intelligence story: Raymond Chandler and the woman he loved

Next Native Intelligence story: The case for letting us camp in Malibu

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