AMSTETTEN, Austria (Reuters) - The concrete housing block where Josef Fritzl hid and abused his daughter for 24 years has nothing to distinguish it from others on the street apart from a faded police no entry sign on the back gate.

The garden next door is littered with abandoned toys and a brittle Christmas tree. The windows at the front of the building are decorated with children's drawings from the other families that still live there.

Fritzl, 73, who fathered seven children by his daughter Elisabeth in a soundproofed cellar he built at the back of the block, goes on trial on March 16 charged with crimes that sent a shudder of shame and revulsion through Austria and its town of Amstetten.

He is charged with the murder of a twin boy who died shortly after birth underground, the rape and enslavement of Elisabeth and with imprisoning her for most of her adult life and three of her children since birth.

According to his lawyer, Fritzl will contest the murder charge at his trial in St Poelten, near Vienna, but will plead guilty to nearly all the other charges.

Fritzl told his wife and neighbors that Elisabeth had run away to join a sect and he forced her to write letters telling people not to look for her. He could face life in jail.

I have asked myself many times since how it was possible he could have hid what he did for 24 years, 37-year-old Regina Schoeller said, pausing from stacking shelves in a small store across the street from where Fritzl lived until last April when his crimes came to light.

He was a man with two faces, one friendly and one wicked. Schoeller says she will follow the trial next week because of the shock the case induced in her at the time.

But I am tired of hearing about evil Amstetten and evil Austria. It could happen anywhere in the world and it has.

The Fritzl case came less than two years after Austrian teenager Natascha Kampusch escaped from a basement where she had been held for eight years.

The chancellor at the time, Alfred Gusenbauer, rejected the idea that country was to blame for Fritzl's crimes, saying Austria should not be held hostage by one man. Police said authorities had done their job and were not to blame for failing to detect the abuse.

It was not a case of people ignoring suspicions and sweeping unpleasantness under the carpet, Bernhard Sklenar, 39, said.

Fritzl simply knew how to hide every single sign, just look at how he constructed the cellar so carefully, he thought of everything, Sklenar said, serving customers at a busy petrol station near the former Fritzl house.

Fritzl fitted locks on eight doors in the 60 sq meter (650 sq foot) windowless cellar complex where he said he lived his second life, watching adventure videos with the children while Elisabeth cooked dinner.

Elisabeth has told police she was restrained on a leash in the early months of her captivity. Fritzl told police he had threatened to kill them using gas if they tried to escape.


Prosecutors say he was responsible for murdering the twin boy because he failed to seek help despite knowing the newborn's life was in danger. He burned the baby's body in a furnace.

The next serious charge is enslavement of Elisabeth.

He shut her away in the cellar and made her totally dependent on him, forcing her into sexual acts and treating her as if she was his own property, the charge sheet reads.

A psychiatric assessment in October showed Fritzl was fit for trial and aware of his actions during the 24-year period despite a severe personality disorder.

His lawyer says his client is not a sex monster but he expects to spend the rest of his life behind bars.

Three of the children born in the cellar were raised above ground by Fritzl and his wife Rosemarie after he pretended Elisabeth had abandoned them.

The case unfolded when one of the three children who had never seen sunlight, 19-year-old Kerstin, was taken to hospital by Fritzl.

She had to be put in an artificial coma after she suffered cramping fits due to oxygen deficiency and kidney problems but left hospital in the summer and joined her mother and siblings who are living under new identities.

It is the most horrible case in Austrian criminal history, said district governor Hans-Heinz Lenze. But people here want to forget it now. They have had enough of hearing about it. In Amstetten it is 'business as usual,'

One way or another he will be punished, said 37-year-old builder Hubert Rab walking though the town square where local people held a candle-lit vigil last April shortly after the cellar's discovery.

I hope the verdict will help draw a line under all that has happened, he said.

(Editing by Richard Balmforth)