The Man in the Attic

Oesterreich murder trial

For years Fred Oesterreich was convinced he was hearing strange noises in his house but was always reassured by his wife, Dolly, that it was either his imagination or just some frisky mice.
 
It was odd, Fred thought, considering that the unexplained bumps in the night had followed him and Dolly not only through four houses in Milwaukee, where Fred operated a large apron sewing company, but to three more in Los Angeles, where the Oesterreichs moved in 1918.
 
Fred was apparently neither a superstitious nor a very curious man, because while he may have grumbled about the noises and the occasional disappearing item or empty humidor, he did nothing about it.
 
Dolly, whose given name was Walburga, felt neglected most of the time because Fred was always at his factory. As bad as being spurned felt, Dolly often preferred the loneliness to Fred’s company as he was a drinking man who like to get violent with his women when he was besotted. In 1913, the Oesterreichs were a childless, very wealthy and quite unhappy couple about to celebrate their 15th anniversary when the events that would culminate in Fred’s killing a decade later began.
 
It started innocently enough in Milwaukee on an average day when Dolly told Fred that her sewing machine was broken. Fred sent over one of the factory mechanics, a young man named Otto Sanhuber, described later in the memoirs of Beverly Hills Chief of Police Clinton Anderson as “a rather small man in horn-rimmed glasses.”
 
Another reporter was more descriptive, although it is a safe bet that the writer was operating with a bit of poetic license: “Little Otto stood just a smidgen under five feet, had a receding chin, buggy eyes and suffered from a severe case of acne. More often than not, his nose dripped.”
 
As is typical in stories like this, Dolly was attracted to the naive 17-year-old and soon Dolly was teaching Otto skills beyond sewing machine repair. He became a regular sight around the Oesterreich property, fixing Dolly’s frequently broken machine and performing other chores around the place for Fred.
 
“He had been popular with Mr. Oesterreich, too, until he took a trip to St. Louis with Dolly,” wrote Anderson. “After that, Oesterreich ordered Otto to stay away from both his door and his Dolly.”
 
As far as Fred was concerned, when Otto vanished after the confrontation the matter was closed. He and Dolly resumed their gloomy relationship, moving several times throughout their time in Milwaukee.
 
Near the end of the Great War, Fred looked to the west and opened another apron factory in Los Angeles. In 1918 he and Dolly settled in Southern California, upsizing their living arrangements as the business expansion proved more and more successful.
 
Fred occasionally complained about the cost of living in Southern California, as his grocery bill jumped significantly after the couple’s move from the Midwest. Dolly simply shrugged her shoulders and dismissed it like she did with his grumbling over the noises that she said were either mice or a settling house.
 
In August 1922, Beverly Hills police were called to the Oesterreich home by neighbors after a series of gunshots and a woman’s scream cut through the night. There officers found Fred lying on the floor of his living room, dead from three shots of a .25 caliber automatic. The autopsy showed that the gun was fired at very close range.
 
“The expensively furnished room showed evidence of a fierce struggle,” Anderson wrote. “An open French window, with the screen unlatched, suggested that the murderer had left the house hurridly.”
 
Locked in a walk-in closet, with the key on the ground in another room, was Dolly. She told investigators that she was hanging clothes in the closet when she heard a fight downstairs. As she turned to investigate, the closet door was slammed shut and locked. She could not provide any description of the killer or killers.
 
Further investigation revealed that while the house was disturbed, nothing was missing except Fred’s diamond-studded watch. Police were also confused about why a burglar would carry such a small firearm, “a gun more likely to be found in a lady’s purse,” one newspaper account said. Equally curious were the accounts of neighbors that they heard the Oesterreichs involved in a heated argument when the couple returned from an evening out.
 
Dolly OesterreichRigorous interrogation of the newly widowed woman yielded no leads. She acknowledged that she and Fred fought — frequently and loudly — but denied she had anything to do with his murder. Over the next few weeks police ran down their few leads, concentrating on discovering any secrets in Dolly’s background. There were none. No one who knew the couple or was friendly with either Fred or Dolly could shed any light on the possibility of a love triangle turned deadly. They had a reputation for bickering in public, but were never violent when others were around.
 
With no weapon, their main person of interest with a pretty solid alibi, and no sign of a lover, police let the case percolate — hoping for something helpful would brew up.
 
The Fates intervened about a year later when Captain Herman Cline, a Beverly Hills cop, dropped in on Herman Shapiro, the attorney handling Fred’s $1 million estate, to go over the facts of the case one more time. On Shapiro’s desk Cline saw a glittering, diamond-studded wristwatch. Shapiro confirmed that Dolly had given him the watch.
 
“Shapiro remembered a diamond studded watch had been taken from slain Fred’s wrist,” wrote crime reporter Max Haines. “When he mentioned this to Walburga, she smiled and said she had been mistaken. She found the watch under a cushion in the living room and simply wanted Shapiro to have it as a gift.”
 
Chief Anderson recalled in his memoirs that Dolly “had not considered it important enough to bother the police about.”
 
Of course the newspapers trumpeted the development, which prompted two informants to come forward independently with even more damning evidence against Dolly. Each man had disposed of a small-caliber pistol at Dolly’s request, they both said. One of guns was later recovered from the La Brea Tar Pits, while the other was found beneath a rose bush at the man’s home.
 
Again, Dolly had a ready — if unbelievable — excuse: “She explained the guns were old things kept around the house for many years,” Anderson said. “She had decided to get rid of them because, under the circumstances of her husband’s death, their presence in her home might prove embarrassing.”
 
It proved much more than awkward for Dolly. Although the newspaper reports do not say whether either gun was the murder weapon, their mere existence was good enough for the cops. In July 1923, Dolly was arrested for killing her husband.
 
“The District Attorney’s investigators hacked away tirelessly at her story, but without success,” Anderson wrote. “After they had tested and discarded every possible theory which might link her to the crime, the murder complaint against the widow was dismissed.”
 
Seven years passed and the case was all but forgotten when the Beverly Hills police received a strange phone call from attorney Shapiro. He and Dolly had apparently had a falling out and the attorney decided to tell police what he knew about Fred’s death. The attorney announced that he had a client who wanted to confess to the killing.
 
Investigators hurried to Shapiro’s office where they were met by the attorney and his client, Otto Sanhuber. The story he told borders on the incredible, but savvy readers who have been keeping track of the clues probably have an idea just what happened that August night in 1922.
 
It began back in 1913 when the broken sewing machine helped ignite a passionate affair between the handyman and the boss’s wife. When Fred fired Otto after the trip to St. Louis, Dolly was not prepared to give up her lover. Instead, she secretly installed him in a living space beneath the rafters in the attic of her home.
 
The arrangement continued for 10 years, through seven moves, including one across the country.
 
“Sanhuber ticked off four attics in Milwaukee and three in Los Angeles in which he lived before the murder ended his rent-free existence,” Anderson wrote. “When the family moved to Los Angeles in 1918, Otto had wanted to get out and join the army, but Mrs. Oesterreich wouldn’t hear of it.”
 
Sex and affection were the primary reason for the bizarre arrangement, but the relationship between Dolly and Otto evolved into something akin to a marriage.
 
“Through the years, every morning after the straight man of the house left for work among the aprons, Sanhuber would descend from his garret hideaway and help Mrs. Oesterreich with her housework,” according to one newspaper account. “At night he would steal back into his attic and read newspapers and magazines by candlelight until bedtime.”
 
One report — not confirmed in any other paper — said that Otto earned a small income by writing fiction for magazines: “To pass the time when he wasn’t performing at his specialty, Otto wrote adventure stories. Walburga typed them and sent them off to the pulps.” This should be taken with a grain of salt as the reporter also calls Dolly “a gorgeous woman with a figure that could wake a corpse,” and claims Fred was “filled with more holes than your average Swiss cheese” (The official account indicates Fred was struck three times).”
 
Occasionally Dolly would join him in his strange studio apartment.
 
Otto said that on the night of August 22, 1922 it was business as usual in the Oesterreich house, which meant an argument between the drunken Fred and his wife while Otto hid in the attic.
 
This night, however, would start violent and escalate into killing. In his confession Otto said he was listening to Dolly and Fred argue when Fred became physically abusive. Enraged to the point of irrationality, Otto burst from the attic and shot Fred to death.
 
Dolly immediately took command and set the stage to look like a burglary. She then told Otto to vanish.
 
In the ensuing years Dolly moved out of her mansion to a luxury apartment where she lived comfortably managing her investments. Otto finally moved out, married, and got a job as a janitor. Eventually, the guilt of his crime made him contact Shapiro.
 
Dolly was again arrested for her husband’s murder and jailed awaiting trial.
 
Otto went on trial first in 1930, and tried to back away from his strange confession without success. However, the case would hold one final twist.
 
The jury did not take long to convict Otto, but instead of finding him guilty of murder, he was convicted of manslaughter. At the time the statute of limitations on manslaughter was seven years and Fred’s killing occurred eight years before Otto’s trial. Otto’s attorney argued that he could not be convicted of manslaughter and thus could not be punished. The district attorney did not object and the judge ordered Otto freed.
 
Dolly went on trial several months later, defended by one of Hollywood’s elite attorneys, Jerry Geisler, who defended such notables as Errol Flynn (statutory rape), Busby Berkeley (murder), Benny (Bugsy) Siegel and Charlie Chaplin. Dolly took the stand in her own defense and put the blame all on Otto. The jury was unable to reach a verdict and a mistrial was declared. The DA opted not to try the case again.
 
After the trial Dolly and Otto went their separate ways (Otto’s wife had vowed to stay with him through thick and thin). She lived in luxury to the ripe old age of 75, dying in April 1961. She left her multimillion dollar estate to her business manager whom she married two weeks before her death.
 
Otto’s fate is unknown.

  • Tabby1

    Dolly and Otto were immortalized in a comedy, “The Bliss of Mrs. Blossom,” starring Shirley MacLaine as Dolly.