Robert Petersen produces the podcast The Hidden History of Los Angeles and shares it with KPCC's Off-Ramp. This time: the weirdest love story you've ever heard. Make sure to listen to the audio — we knock on the door of the murder house!
“If there is any sympathy to be felt in this case, do not waste it on this woman. All your sympathy should be with the dead man who wanted a home and a loving wife and who was shot down in his own home when he discovered the lover of his unfaithful wife in his own living room.”
In 1922, police were called to a home in Silver Lake after there were reports of gunshots. When the police arrived, they found a man lying dead in the living room with multiple gunshot wounds, including one to the back of the head. The dead man’s wife, Dolly Oesterreich, was found alive, locked in the closet. Dolly told the police that there was a robbery, and that the robber locked her in closet. But the police were suspicious of Dolly, and her story.
Dolly told the detective that she and her husband never fought. Not even once. The intensity of her denial made the detective skeptical. What married couple doesn’t fight? Plus, her husband was killed with a .25 caliber pistol, a very small caliber, generally considered a woman’s gun. What kind of robber carries a woman’s gun? But the police could not figure out how Dolly could have killed her husband when she was locked in the closet. They would later learn that there was much more to this L.A. housewife than anyone could have expected.
The story behind the murder actually started in Milwaukee a decade earlier, when, in 1913, Dolly met a 17-year-old boy named Otto Sanhuber.
At the time Dolly was in her thirties and young Otto worked as a sewing machine repairman. One day Dolly called her husband at work and told him that her sewing machine was broken. When Otto arrived to fix the machine, Dolly answered the door wearing nothing but stockings and a silk robe. The two became lovers and soon Otto, who had become fixated with Dolly, moved into her attic so he could be close to her.
Dolly’s husband had no idea what was going on inside his own home. Dolly would let Otto out of the attic during the day while her husband was at work so he could do household chores and perform his duties as a lover, before being stowed away back in the attic at night when Dolly’s husband returned home. Otto would later describe himself as Dolly’s sex slave.
This routine continued year after year, after year.
In 1918, Dolly and her husband decided to leave Milwaukee and move to Los Angeles. Dolly had only one condition for the move — the new house had to have an attic. A suitable house with an attic was located in Silver Lake, and Otto also made the trip to LA.
The routine continued in Los Angeles for several more years, and Otto stayed in the attic until one night in 1922. That night, Dolly and her husband got into a loud argument. Otto listened as the argument became more heated. Fearing Dolly was in danger of physical harm, Otto rushed out of the attic with a .25 caliber pistol.
When Dolly’s husband saw Otto, he became enraged and rushed toward him. During the struggle, Dolly’s husband was shot three times, and he died. In a panic, Dolly and Otto staged the scene to look like a robbery. Otto took the husband’s watch and Dolly hid herself in the closet. Otto locked the closet door from the outside and returned to the attic. The police never found Otto and therefore could not explain how Dolly could have killed her husband and then lock herself in the closet.
After her husband’s death, Dolly moved into a different house, which also had an attic. Otto moved in as well. But Otto was not enough for Dolly, and she started having affairs with multiple other men.
The murder of her husband finally caught up to Dolly after she gave her dead husband’s watch to a lover, the same watch that was allegedly stolen during the robbery. Then she asked a different lover to dispose of the .25 caliber gun. He threw it into the La Brea Tar Pits. She even asked one of her lovers, who was also her attorney, to bring groceries to Otto in the attic. When these men started telling the police what Dolly had asked from them, the police finally started to piece together what really happened the night of the murder.
Eight years after the death of her husband, Dolly was charged with conspiracy to commit murder. Otto was charged with murder.
Otto initially confessed and told the police the whole story. He told investigators that he had an overpowering love for Dolly. On that fateful night, he explained, he believed Dolly was going to be killed, and he shot the husband to protect her. He even took officers to the house and showed them where he hid in the attic.
Later, when the case progressed to trial, Otto recanted. But law enforcement had already put the pieces of the puzzle together. The case became a media sensation and was referred to as the love slave murder, or the "bat man" case.
During trial, Dolly admitted that Otto shot her husband and covered it up to look like a robbery, but contended that she took no part in either, and only lied to the police to protect Otto.
“I didn’t believe he meant to do it, and I didn’t want to expose my life to the world — having him in the house," she said.
Dolly testified that she loved her husband, despite the fact that she hid Otto in the attic for ten years.
However, the prosecutor painted her as a cold-blooded murderer who aided and abetted the “garret ghost” lover in perpetrating the murder.
“If there is any sympathy to be felt in this case, do not waste it on this woman," the prosecutor said. "All your sympathy should be with the dead man who wanted a home and a loving wife and who was shot down in his own home when he discovered the lover of his unfaithful wife in his own living room.”
The prosecutor's final words to the jury were simple: “Hang this woman.”
Otto was found guilty of manslaughter but was released because the statute of limitations for manslaughter had expired. The case against Dolly ended with a hung jury, and she was also released.
After the trial, Dolly found a new lover with whom she actually ended up staying with for 30 years. Dolly died in 1961 at the age of 75. We don’t know what happened to Otto.
The street name is changed, but the house where Dolly’s husband was killed and Otto lived in the attic still stands.
Listen to the audio as we talk with two of the current tenants, and check in with a Realtor to find out whether new owners would have to be told about this episode in the Hidden History of Los Angeles.