Written by Arnaldo Teodorani
20th of July, 1951. It’s a Friday.
We are in the woods just outside Senec, today’s Czech Republic, back then Czechoslovakia.
Senec is located some 60 km west of Prague, and 60 km north of the city of Pilsen. Further 125km to the west lies the border with the German Federal Republic, or West Germany.
Beyond the iron curtain.
But today, a group of local kids have other matters in mind than international politics. They are just out and about in the forest, looking for the perfect spot to play out their adventures.
Finally, they find it.
It’s a small clearing, shaded by the surrounding trees. What makes it perfect is a sand pit, right in the middle of it!
The kids are soon jumping into the pit, digging holes and building castles.
Then, a scream rises above the canopies. One of the children has found something. The others draw near to inspect the mysterious object.
It’s a foot.
A human foot.
It’s one of those discoveries that we hope our own children would never come across. Those kids were shocked, surely, and could have done without it. But it was their chance encounter with the brutality of human nature that helped bring down the Beast of Senec, the Killer of Hope.
THE PEOPLE SMUGGLER
To better understand the events of that summer, we have to step backwards in time, precisely to late February 1948.
This is when a Soviet-backed coup installed a communist government in Prague, turning Czechoslovakia into a client state of the USSR. The new government launched a campaign of anti-communist purges and mass arrests.
This may have been an incident of the Cold War, but things were turning hot for many Czechoslovak citizens. Thousands of them fled abroad, beyond the ‘Iron Curtain’, not willing to live under a totalitarian state.
Well into the early 1950s, hundreds of refugees were still trying to escape the clutches of the StB, the feared secret police, by fleeing to Bavaria or Austria.
The border passes were difficult to negotiate, and authorities had set up some cunning traps.
Dissidents successfully crossed border fences and were welcomed with open arms by friendly West German soldiers. To their horror, they realised too late that they had just walked through a fake border, and those soldiers were StB agents in disguise.
A thriving industry then flourished: that of people smugglers, who thanks to their knowledge of the territory were able to spirit refugees to safety. In exchange of outrageous prices, of course, mainly exacted in jewellery.
Amongst one of the best, and most trusted exfiltrators was one Hubert Pilčík. Those who knew him described him as average, ordinary, inconspicuous. But overall a friendly and decent man, who liked to drink a glass of wine with strangers down at the pub.
Hubert was born on October 14, 1891 in Nový Hrozenkov, now in eastern Czechia. According to his own tales, he had travelled far and wide, working the most disparate jobs.
At the age of 21, apparently, he had been a sailor on a transatlantic ship. Not just any ship: the Titanic! And yes, he had survived the sinking, of course!
He ended up working at the Skoda factory in Pilsen, from which he had retired towards the end of the 1940s.
After that, he had settled in Senec with his wife Antonia.
The couple was childless and Hubert had plenty of spare time on his hands, which he dedicated to enjoying nature.
His great passions were ornithology and the collection of medicinal herbs. He knew the best spots were to find them, high above the Sumava mountains bordering Bavaria, about 80km south of Pilsen.
He quickly developed a reputation for being an effective herbalist, and people around the area travelled to see him, as a last resort to cure their ailments. Hubert took to inviting some of his patients to stay in his house for entire weeks. Sensing a business opportunity, he started to charge them for bed and breakfast!
Later, he stumbled across an even more profitable enterprise.
While exploring the Sumava range, he had come into contact with some people smugglers. He was also able to locate some convenient mountain passes to sneak into Southern Germany. How about he took to people smuggling himself?
Little by little, he became a trusted exfiltrator of dissidents. People who had fled to Bavaria thanks to his help wrote back home, praising his services. Through word of mouth, other interested parties turned to him.
His new business was flourishing!
THE ESCAPE OF THE BALLEYS‘
Sometime in early 1951, word of Hubert Pilcik’s services reached the ears of Renata Balley, a 31-year-old photographer living in Pilsen.
Renata was a beautiful woman, with several lovers wrapped around her little finger. As a free-spirited soul, she did not care much for the regime in Prague. Nor did her 65-year-old father Emanuel, a formerly successful businessman who surely missed the advantages of a free market economy.
Father and daughter started making plans to escape to Bavaria, where Emanuel could count on the help of his former business contacts. They also considered taking along the young Dana, the 12-year-old niece of Renata who was living with them.
In my research I found no mention of Dana’s parents, therefore I can only assume that her parents had died during WWII, or maybe thay had been amongst the early victims of the Communist government.
So, Emanuel and Renata made first contact with Pilcik. Hubert advised that they should not travel together, as this would make the escape more risky.
First, they had to fake an internal relocation.
Then, Emanuel would cross the border first, followed by Renata, and eventually by Dana.
According to plan, in February 1951, the Balleys spread word that they were moving away from Pilsen, into a new house in the village of Zruč, right next to Senec.
They packed all their belongings and shipped to Zruc, but of course, they never showed up there. By early March, Renata and Dana were actually hiding in Pilsen, sheltered by an aunt of hers.
On the 6th, Emanuel travelled to Senec, to begin his perilous journey alongside Hubert Pilcik. They set off on a southwestern direction, and after driving some 50 km, the duo stopped for a rest at the Lipovka gamekeeper’s lodge, in the village of Nekmir.
Both men were in their sixties, and understandably tired. So, Pilčík suggested to Balley.
‘You should take a nap for a moment. We still have a long way to go and you have to be at least a little fresh’.
Some days later, Pilcik showed up at Renata’s aunts house in Pilsen. He was bringing some good news:
‘Your father is already on the other side,’ he told her.
‘Now it’s your turn.’
Renata Balley waited a few more days, and then decided it was time. She bade goodbye to Dana and her aunt, and set off for Senec, for her rendez-vous with Pilcik.
Some weeks went by: in May, Pilcik reappeared in Pilsen, to collect his last ward, little Dana. He told her that her aunt Renata and grandad Emanuel were settled in Bavaria, so it was her time to join them. Dana hugged for the last time her great-aunt and bravely set off to cross the border.
Some weeks later, the great-aunt was elated to receive a letter signed by Dana. It read:
“We are fine, we are doing well, we all greet you, come to us!”
But … no.
They were not fine, they were not doing well. And it certainly wasn’t advisable that she come to them …
THE FIRE AND THE SANDPIT
On the 6th of March, 1951, the gamekeeper’s lodge at Nekmir had burned down. It appeared as an ordinary incident, a routine matter, but authorities had to investigate nonetheless.
And upon inspecting the bedroom, local police immediately found the remains of a badly burned human body. All that remained was a severely charred head, part of the neck, and parts of the torso. The limbs had been completely consumed by the fire.
Was it an accident, or the result of foul play?
The police called for the experts at the Pilsen Insitute of Forensic Medicine, who immediately stated that the body had been probably covered with flammable material, and intentionally set on fire.
The Forensic staff sifted through the ashes and found some interesting clues: a small locket on a chain, two spectacle lenses, a shoe buckle and a piece of a necktie.
On the 8th of March, the remains were taken to Pilsen for an autopsy. The pathologists reported that the body parts had belonged to a man, aged 50 or 60, about 1.75 metres tall.
They also examined the corpse’s arteries and found that they contained so-called “boiled blood.” This finding proved that the victim was still alive when the fire had attacked his body.
Had he been dead at the time of the fire, the blood would have collected in the veins, leaving the arteries empty.
Local police in the meantime searched the area around Nemrik, looking for witnesses.
Unfortunately, nobody had seen two or more men entering the lodge on the 6th of March.
The cops also noted that there were no signs of pulling, or towing, on the soil surrounding the lodge. So, they concluded that the victim had entered the building on his own tow legs, and was murdered there.
But besides that, they had no further clues. The investigations fizzled out, and the case risked turning cold.
Until a fateful Friday in July, when a group of children discovered a human foot, buried under a sandpit in the Senec woods.
On Saturday the 21st of July, police and forensics dug away the sand in the clearing. They found the body of a young woman, dressed only in a bra, a shirt and a pair of earrings. A clothes line had been strung around her neck.
Strangulation appeared to be the cause of death, which must have taken place some time in March.
The investigators inspected the lady‘s teeth, and found that she had crowns on three of them. For more than a month, police officer patiently visited all hospital wards, dentists and dental technicians in the area.
At the end of August, they struck gold!
One of the dental technicians recognised the crowns as coming from his practice, and was able to produce the patient’s records.
The identity of the victim should come at no surprise, I guess.
She was, of course, Miss Renata Balley.
The police kept a record of citizen‘s internal movements, according to which the Balleys had recently moved to the village of Zruč.
Detectives travelled there, hoping to speak with Renata’s family. To gather some clues, or simply to relate the bad news.
The locals reported that yes, the Balleys – father and daughter – had moved all of their stuff to the village, but no, they had never actually lived there. A witness reported how two unidentified men had come to collect some of their possessions in early March.
Unfortunately the accounts of this case have not peserved the names of the detectives or magistrates involved.
But whoever they might be, they were no amateur sleuths.
They had been capable of applying solid principles of forensic science so far. It was now time to put imagination and intuition at work.
Somebody in the team started to put two and two together … what they had was:
The charred corpse of a male, in his late fifities or sixties. Dead on the 6th of March.
The strangled corpse of Renata Balley. Also dead in March.
A father and daughter who organise a move to Zruc, but never show up. And their possessions are taken away in early March.
The investigative thesis was that the charred body belonged to Renata’s father, and the two had been killed by the same person.
The Pilsen police started digging into the Balleys’ background, especially Renata’s, looking for any thread they could pull at.
Very soon, it emerged that Renata was not a supporter of the Communist regime, and that she was making plans to disappear beyond the border. They also discovered that she led a relatively dissolute lifestyle and had had a string of lovers.
Investigators located Renata’s boyfriend and took him for questioning.
At this stage, he was the main and only suspect. Although the poor guy had no idea that Renata was dead! He thought the arrest was related to his lover’s plans to escape, and probably feared a close encounter with the secret police!
The young man revealed that he had last seen Renata on the 11th of March.
And then, nothing.
The man initially acted as if he didn’t care much for Renata’s fate.
But then he admitted looking for her, at the start of June. He knew that Renata had an aunt in Pilsen, and so he knocked at her door.
The aunt told him that Renata, dad Emanuel and even the little niece Dana had all fled the country and were now happily living in Bavaria.
The aunt also revealed that they had been taken across the border by
‘Some “uncle” in Senec’
In this case, the word ‘uncle’ did not indicate a relative, but rather a middle-aged friend.
It was now time to locate this friend. The next thread the detectives could clutch at was Renata’s aunt. They immediately drove to her house and questioned her. What did she know about the mysterious ‘uncle’?
Her first answer was disappointing
“I don’t know the uncle’s name,” she said.
OK, but did she know where he lived?
“I don’t even know his exact address” she continued.
Had the police hit a dead end? Not really, as the auntie revealed that she had once driven to Senec with Renata … and she had pointed the house he lived in!
The police immediately hit the road, heading to Senec with the auntie in tow.
She pointed the house of the ‘uncle’ to the officers, and they proceeded to knock on the door. As it swung open, the auntie recognised him straight away.
The friendly uncle, the man who should have smuggled the Balleys into Bavaria, was, of course Mr Hubert Pilcik.
THE PILCIK BOX
Pilcik at this stage was not a murder suspect. But the police had reasonable grounds to believe that he was a people smuggler and proceeded to raid his property.
The search initially returned two handguns, and several suitcases full of clothes clearly not belonging to him. The officers also found stashes of jewellery, proof that he had been collecting payments form refugees.
Amongst them, some jewels were identified as belonging to Renata.
The search continued in the goat shed located just outside Pilcik’s house. Here police found more suitcases of presumably stolen items, and … something else.
Something truly horrible which I will refrain from mentioning for the moment – please consider this a warning.
But their find confirmed the detectives’ hunch: that this friendly yet smuggling ‘uncle’ had murdered Emanuel and Renata Balley.
Pilcik was put under pressure by the police. From publicly available accounts, it is not entirely clear when it happened, but he eventually confessed.
Let’s now look again at the events of March to June 1951, from Pilcik’s perspective. I will refresh your memory:
On the 6th of March, Hubert Pilcik and Emanuel Balley had just reached the gamekeeper’s lodge at Nemrik. Following Pilcik’s suggestion, Balley laid down for a nap.
Pilcik was wide awake. He waited until Balley’s breathing had become regular and then pulled out a rubber baton, reinforced with metal, from his bag. He raised it in the air and then struck Balley in the head, with all his strength.
Emanuel did not move, but he was still breathing.
Hubert struck again. And then again.
Balley was still alive! But Pilcik decided to proceed to the next stage anyhow.
He poured two bottles of flammable oil over the body, covered it with straw and hay, and set it on fire. As the flames engulfed the lodge, Pilcik hurried back to Senec.
He waited a few days before moving to part two of his plan: it was Renata’s turn, now.
Do you remember what he had told her, when they had met in Pilsen?
‘Your father is already on the other side. Now it’s your turn.’
And it was indeed her turn.
On the 17th of March, Renata and Pilcik met in Senec. At the first occasion, he stunned her with his rubber baton. He then stuffed a handkerchief into her mouth, wrapped a clothesline around her neck and pulled, until she was on the other side.
Pilcik could not set hs own house on fire. To hide Emanuela’s body and hinder identification, he stripped it almost completely naked, took it to the woods outside Senec and buried it in the sandpit.
What were his motives? Until now, pure greed. All he wanted was to steal the Balley’s money and jewellery, without having to risk an actual smuggling operation.
What happened next is what set Pilcik apart from an ordinary murderous robber, and made him a Beast.
He returned for Dana.
In May, he took the young girl to his house in Senec, and told her to hide in the goats shed, waiting for the right moment to brave the border passes.
As time wore on, Pilcik progressively restricted her movements. First, she was not allowed to leave the property. Then, she was confined to the shed.
Pilcik asked her to write some fake letters for the great-auntie and other relatives, reassuring them that everything was perfectly fine, and that they were all having a great time in Bavaria.
Dana of course realised that something was profoundly wrong. Why couldn’t she join her grandpa and auntie Renata in Germany? Why didn’t they write any letters back to her?
She grew restless, looking for ways to escape Pilcik clutches.
This is when the Beast took a radical measure, the results of which would be found by the police search.
And this is the „something truly horrible“ I was referring to earlier.
The Beast took two wooden planks and joined them together, to create a sourt of rough, uncomfortable bed. He then fastened straps at one end of the bed, and in the middle.
At the other end, he fixed a contraption he had constructed. It was a wooden box, slightly larger than the size of an average head. This box was contained within a larger one. And the spaces between the inner and outer boxes were filled with old rags.
Pilcik forced Dana to lay on this wooden bed, fastened the straps to constrain her movements and locked her head inside the double-box.
Dana could breathe by holding a metal tube in her mouth, but there was little else that she could do. Crying for help was futile, as the double walls of the contraption, and the rags, proved to be sound proof.
She was the only one who could hear her own deafening screams.
Dana spent 12 to 16 hours everyday, for more than two months, locked inside the Pilcik Box, unable to move, to drink, to eat. She shirked everytime insects, mice, even rats scurried over her body – but her cries were only for her to hear.
But the Beast was not satisfied yet. It is difficult to tell what went wrong with his head at this stage.
It is true that there is very little information about his previous life, but what is known does not suggest any instance of suffered or inflicted trauma, which may explain what happened next.
As Dana – twelve-year-old Dana – lay bound in her wooden prison, the slumber of reason took hold, and monsters burst forth from the predatory, cowardly mind of Hubert Pilcik.
It is not known how frequently it had happened; I can only hope as few times as possible. But the man who had murdered two of Dana’s relatives, proceeded to kill the innocence of her body and mind.
Made defenseless and blinded by the wooden box, she must have wondered in terror what was happening, what was that man doing to her.
Outside the box: silence.
Inside: her cries, reverberating in the void between the wooden walls.
Too often in these cases, protracted agony ends with inevitable horror.
But not this time.
When the police raided Pilcik’s house and shed they found Dana still alive. Locked inside the instrument of her torture, but still alive.
And just on time, it seems. Pilcik confessed that, come September, he would have enacted part three of his plan: kill Dana, kill the great-auntie, kill his wife Antonia and then escape to Germany.
But Dana was released thankfully. She returned to normal life, however possible. And later even married and had children.
END OF THE BEAST
As per Hubert Pilcik, the Beast of Senec, he was taken into custody, awaiting trial.
Detectives rummaged through the suitcases found at his house, finding evidence that he may have robbed and murdered at least three more refugees, in addition to the Balleys.
The number of victims was never established with certainty, but it could have been easily in the dozens. Every time, his modus operandi was the same: Pilcik would first collect payment from the would-be escapees, then lure them to a secluded location and stun them with his baton. Next, he proceeded to destroy or conceal the bodies.
Authorities speculated that Pilcik was usually extremely competent at hiding bodies, that is why no other victims of his were ever found. But when he targeted the Balleys, he had somehow become sloppy, leaving too many clues behind.
Especially in the case of Renata, the grave he had dug into the sandpit was too shallow. Had he had the patience to dig for longer, the children would have never found her foot.
In preparation for the trial, the Beast was indicted with five murders, arson, illegal escape across the border, restriction of personal liberty, abuse of the entrusted person, fraud, theft and endangerment of the moral upbringing of young people.
But Pilcik would not live to see the day of his trial. On the 9th of September 1951, Hubert Pilcik fashioned a rope by tying two handkerchiefs and hung himself in his cell.
None of his relatives, not even his wife, declared any interest to authorities in collecting his body. It was fitting, after all, that such a vile beast would not receive a decent burial.
His remains were then donated for medical and scientific purposes.
If you were to visit the beautiful city of Pilsen, after you have exhausted the usual tourist landmarks, make sure to pay a visit to the Institute of Central Medicine.
On one of its shelves, you may still be able to find a large formalin jar. Inside the jar, the head of the Beast of Senec is still preserved, for a time unknown.
I hope that whatever hell he has been plunged into is a narrow, suffocating room from which his screams cannot be heard.
And so ends the tale of Hubert Pilcik.
His confirmed body count would not rank him amongst the deadliest serial killers in history.
But his story sure does send chills down one’s spine and a gagging feeling at the back of the throat.
As he murdered at least five people for gain, he killed something else. Something intangible but no less important: hope.
Dissidents wanting to escape a totalitarian regime had placed all their hopes, their trust and what little valuables they had into the hands of this seemingly benign middle-aged man. And he betrayed them by callously striking at them behind their backs.
And of course, how could we forget the ordeal of Dana. All freedom denied to her, even the freedom to let out a scream of help. Condemned to hear nothing but her own cries.
Within his goats shed, Pilcik had created a microcosm, in which he had replicated the conditions of entire populations who had lived, and still live, under the heel of selfish tyrannies.
Tied down and incapacitated, their freedom violated with no one to hear their voices.
There could be more to Pilcik story, more than callous murder and abuse. I am talking about government intrigue!
In August 2008, online news outlet denik.cz published an article about a group of true crime enthusiast revisiting the scene of Emanuel Balley’s murder. One of them, Mr Švarc, claimed having accessed documents related to the case at the Police Archives in Brno. A report stated that when Pilcik’s body was found in his cell, there was only one mark, or ‘groove’ on the front of his neck.
This may indicate that Pilcik did not hang himself, but was actually strangled from behind.
Švarc speculated that Pilcik may have been part of the secret police plot I described at the start of this story: the ruse by which StB agents lured dissidents to fake German border posts, and then made them ‘disappear’.
This plot had been terminated by early 1951, and Pilcik may have been eliminated to prevent him from revealing details to the public.
The crimes of the Beast of Senec have inspired at least two pieces of fiction. The first one was ‘The Beast’, an episode of the Czechoslovak crime TV series ‘Thirty Cases by Major Zeman’, aired in the 1970s.
The second one was a play by Spanish author Carlos Be,
[Sounds like the ‘be’ in ‘Ben’]
which premiered on the 13th of November 2009 at the Santurtzi Theatre Festival, northern Spain.
[Sun Tour tsee]
I was able to locate only a partial excerpt of this play online, which appears to be very intriguing, with alternating scenes offering the perspective of two Inspectors and a character called ‘Petr’ – later revealed to be Pilcik the Beast. Playwright Carlos Be also introduces the concept that Pilcik was an StB agent, luring dissidents to fake border controls.
This was the same theory described by Mr Švarc, in the August 2008 article. I wonder if Be was influenced by that very article? Maybe they were both referring an earlier source? Or maybe is it just a coincidence? Surely one worth exploring in the future!
The title of the piece by the way is ‘The Pilcik Box’, a phrase which I borrowed for one of the sections of this script, hence I wanted to recognise the author.
Cerna Kniha Ceskych Bestialnich Vrahu, by Jaromir Slusny
The Pilcik Box, by Carlos Be