Gone Girl

How a rare murder case is changing a nation’s attitudes towards law and order

Over 700 people, many of them volunteers, took part in the search for Brjansdottir. johannsson
01 September, 2017

On the evening of 13 January, Birna Brjansdottir—a 20-year-old woman who worked as a salesperson at a department store—went out with a friend to an indie bar in downtown Reykjavik, Iceland. Brjansdottir’s friend headed home at 2 am, but Brjansdottir wanted to stay out longer. Shortly after 5 am, she left the bar on her own.

After that, Brjansdottir was filmed by at least five CCTV cameras in the downtown area. In footage that would be viewed thousands of times in the coming weeks, she walks unsteadily down a well-lit street, bumps into a man, drops a few coins and almost falls over as she collects them. In the background, a red Kia drives by. At 5.25 am, the footage shows Brjansdottir turning left at a building of the Church of Iceland. This is the last image captured of her, alive.

The next day, Brjansdottir did not show up to work. Her phone was switched off. That evening, her family reported her missing.

In a press conference on 16 January, the chief superintendent of the Reykjavik Metropolitan Police, Asgeir Thor Ásgeirsson, asked the Icelandic public for help in the investigation into Brjansdottir’s disappearance. The police released the CCTV footage to news outlets and posted it on Facebook. Thousands of people in Iceland started to interpret, analyse and share the videos to find out what exactly happened in those early hours.

On 18 January, two fishermen from Greenland were arrested on suspicion of involvement in Brjansdottir’s disappearance. One of them has since been released from custody, and the other one, Thomas Moller Olsen, has been charged with murder. He was found to have rented the red Kia seen in the CCTV footage.

Over 700 people, many of them volunteers, participated in the search for Brjansdottir. Her body was found a few days after the arrests, on a beach around 65 kilometres from downtown Reykjavik. Her autopsy revealed that she had been thrown into the sea, alive, possibly from a bridge. The police later stated that she had been beaten in the face and strangled.

Iceland mourned Brjansdottir’s loss. Many people used the slogan “I am Birna” while posting on social media about her death. Around 10,000 people marched in a vigil in her honour—a staggering number, given that Iceland’s population is less than 350,000. Both the country’s president and prime minister went to her funeral, which was held in Reykjavik’s main church. In the service, which I attended, a group of Brjansdottir’s friends carried her white coffin. A cameraman of the public broadcaster RUV cried while filming them.

The case of Brjansdottir’s killing has convulsed Iceland so intensely, in part, because of how rare such events are in the country. According to national police statistics, on average, 1.8 murders were committed annually in Iceland between 2000 and 2014—with some years, such as 2008, having none recorded at all. The nation is also one of the least martial in the world, with no standing army, and police officers who largely patrol unarmed. In response to Brjansdottir’s case, however, a wave of anxiety has swept Iceland, starting a public debate about, and perhaps even changing, the small country’s attitudes towards public safety.

One of the first issues up for debate was that of the safety of young women. In general, in Iceland, it is not considered dangerous for women to walk home alone in the early hours. It is even common for them to hitch rides with strangers via Skutlarar, an open Facebook group through which people offer rides in their cars to strangers travelling in the same direction as them. After Brjansdottir’s body was found, some women started a female-only Skutlarar group. When I visited Reykjavik in early February, many women told me that they would refrain from using the conventional Skutlarar in the future.

I met Gudrun Kristinsdottir, a 27-year-old engineering student, in the cafeteria of Reykjavik University. “This case is such a reality check,” she said. “We always thought, nothing happens here.” She now carries pepper spray in her handbag and said she would avoid walking home alone.

Seventeen-year-old Birta Mjöll works as a waitress in an upmarket restaurant. “My mother wants me to call her as soon as I sit in the car after work,” she told me, while polishing cutlery during her shift. “Everyone in Iceland knows the Geirfinnur case,” she added, referring to the mysterious disappearances of two men in Iceland, in 1974. “And now everyone knows Birna’s case.”

The second aspect of public debate focussed on the issue of CCTV surveillance. The footage of Brjansdottir had been too blurry to identify the car, and some argued that this indicated the need for a technical upgrade. In the January press conference, a journalist had asked Chief Superintendent Ásgeirsson: “Isn’t it clear that this security system downtown and here on Laugarvegur would have come to better use if it were in order? Don’t we need a better system?” Ásgeirsson affirmed the journalist’s point: “I can say that I would have liked clearer footage to work with.”

In early February, Sigridur Andersen, Iceland’s justice minister, announced that the number of CCTV cameras in Reykjavik would be increased from 20 to 30 by the summer. (An article from August states that there are now, in fact, 40 cameras downtown.) But Andersen also expressed her unease with the notion that more security leads to more safety. “Even if people can show that a crime happened, is this the price we want to pay for it?” she asked. “I would call it an invasion into privacy, when people are recorded everywhere.”

Some believe that Iceland’s general peacefulness is unlikely to be irreparably shifted due to a single crime. Helgi Gunlaugsson, a sociologist and criminologist at the University of Iceland, studies public safety in the country. When I emailed him in March 2017, he wrote that he attributed Iceland’s peaceful history and outlook to its climate conditions: “With short summers and cold winters, it was essential that everyone worked together.” He said that, even today, crimes might rattle public morale, but largely on a temporary basis. “Incidents downtown on weekends involving violence have an impact—increase public unsafety and you also see a drop in the number going there immediately after the incidents. Most of the time this is a temporary effect and does not last long.”

The case of Brjansdottir’s murder could also change Iceland’s infrastructure for dealing with such crimes. There is no forensic laboratory in the country. When the police found Brjansdottir’s blood in the car rented by the suspect Thomas Moller Olsen, the evidence had to be flown to Sweden for analysis. To address this lack, on 23 January, Kari Stefansson, an internationally acclaimed biologist, told the Icelandic news outlet VISIR that he would help fund the creation of a forensic centre on the island.

Another incident, a month after Brjansdottir‘s murder, has added to Iceland‘s anxieties about safety. On 19 February, Eyvindur Agust Runolfsson, a young man from Reykjavik, was brutally assaulted by strangers in the city centre after a night out. His skull was fractured. His father, Runolfur Agustsson, the former director of a university near Reykjavik, posted on Facebook, calling for more security: “We must have zero tolerance for violence. Law enforcement must be visible and active.”

Police officers in Iceland generally occupy an unobtrusive position in public spaces. This might be changing. In March, I emailed the Reykjavik Metropolitan Police to ask them whether they are taking extra precautions now. Jonas Jonasson, a crime analyst with the police, wrote back to me and confirmed that they are. “Now we have at least two patrol cars in the downtown are after midnight on weekends,” he said.

The investigation into Brjansdottir’s case closed in mid March, and court hearings for the trial began on 21 August. Icelandic news outlets are covering the trial extensively, reporting live from the courtroom.

Olsen has pleaded innocent, but there seems to be a wealth of forensic evidence against him. Not only was Brjansdottir’s blood found inside his rental car, but some of her blood was also found on his anorak. Some of his DNA was found on her shoelaces. His fingerprints were on her driver’s licence, which was in a rubbish bag on board the trawler he worked on.

“We still do not have the full picture of the case yet but I hope it will be cleared soon,” Gunlaugsson said. “If not, it is a blow to the community and to our local police authorities which have received so much praise and public approval.”

The print version of this piece stated that some of Thomas Olsen’s blood was found on Birna Brjansdottir’s anorak; in fact, some of Brjansdottir’s blood was found on Olsen's anorak. The piece also stated that some of Olsen’s blood was found on Brjansdottir’s shoelaces; in fact, some of his DNA was found there. The Caravan regrets the errors.