VIENNA -- Udo Proksch could bake a mean Linzer torte.
His skill at making pastry confections was as legendary as his skill at making political connections. A confidant of Austria's political leadership and a darling of Viennese social life, Proksch owned the celebrated chandeliered pastry shop Demel's, where he whipped up delicacies for the Austro-Hungarian imperial court and the Socialist Party elite.
He also whipped up fraud, and murder.
Proksch was convicted this week of masterminding a 1977 plot that blew up a freighter in the Indian Ocean -- killing six crew members -- as part of a spectacular insurance fraud that sank not only the ship but also the careers of at least two government ministers.
The ship went down under mysterious circumstances Proksch never believed would be sorted out. But in a costly court-ordered expedition, the wreck was located last month more than 14,000 feet deep off the Maldive Islands, laden with scrap metal instead of the $20 million worth of uranium processing equipment for which it was insured.
When the ship, the Lucona, left the Italian port of Chioggia in January 1977, Proksch presented the crew with one of Demel's famed chocolate tortes. Less than three weeks later, the vessel sank upon detonation of explosives rigged to a timer. "The cake was not a travel provision but an executioner's meal," the prosecution told the Vienna District Court jury that followed the complex proceedings for the past 13 months.
State prosecutor Robert Schindler said that bringing Proksch, 56, to justice represented a major triumph over the "cynical arrogance of power" with which then-Interior Minister Karl Blecha, Foreign Minister Leopold Gratz and Justice Minister Harald Offner sought to cover up the scandal.
Blecha and Gratz, who later became Austrian parliamentary president and a co-founder of the "Club 45" above the kitchen where Demel's baked its treats, were both forced to quit their posts as a result of their ties to Proksch.
The court sentenced him to 20 years in prison, but Proksch said he would appeal. An army explosives expert, Maj. Johann Edelmaier, confessed to supplying Proksch with a limited amount of explosives a year before the ship sank. Edelmaier, a codefendant who was acquitted, testified that Proksch had been given special permission to attend an army explosives training course. Then-Defense Minister Karl Luetgendorf had instructed that Proksch be given full cooperation.
Luetgendorf, a shareholder in Proksch's Swiss-based company that owned the Lucona's cargo, died in 1981 in an apparent suicide. When fraud was first suspected after the insurance firm began to probe the claim, Proksch still enjoyed the services of the Socialist Party's official lawyer, who charged that the campaign against his client was orchestrated by opposition parties eager to disgrace the ministers.
Police investigations were blocked for more than a decade, and only after the Socialists suffered an electoral setback in 1986 and entered a coalition government did the wheels of justice begin a slow grind into motion.
When a warrant was issued for Proksch's arrest in 1988, he fled to the Philippines, where he underwent plastic surgery to alter his appearance. Nonetheless, customs officials managed to recognize and arrest him in October 1989 at Vienna's international airport, where he had flown for a connecting flight.
The search for the Lucona wreckage was carried out by a U.S. maritime salvage firm, Eastport, based in Upper Marlboro, Md. Proksch will be required to pay back the nearly $2 million it cost the Austrian taxpayers, the court ruled.
Socialist Chancellor Franz Vranitzky has sought to sweep his party clean of involvement with Proksch, but the notorious figure still casts a long shadow over Austria's political scene. When Vranitzky nominated former state television chief Otto Oberhammer to become justice minister last December, the conservative People's Party balked and thwarted his appointment, alleging Oberhammer had indirect contacts with Proksch while the accused was on the lam in the Philippines. Oberhammer withdrew his candidacy but denied any wrongdoing.
A European television consortium, including Germany's ZDF network, has announced plans to make a feature film about the Lucona scandal. Austria's leading actor, Klaus Maria Brandauer, is among those mentioned to play the title role of Udo Proksch.