Iceland in shock after woman's murder

Ms Brjansdottir, 20, (above) was seen on surveillance video walking down an empty street in Reykjavik.
Ms Brjansdottir, 20, (above) was seen on surveillance video walking down an empty street in Reykjavik.PHOTOS: REYKJAVIK METROPOLITAN POLICE
Ms Brjansdottir, 20, (above) was seen on surveillance video walking down an empty street in Reykjavik.
Ms Brjansdottir, 20, was seen on surveillance video walking down an empty street in Reykjavik.PHOTOS: REYKJAVIK METROPOLITAN POLICE

Killing is anomaly in nation with annual murder rate of two

There are few places in the world where someone is less likely to be murdered than in Iceland.

Over the past two decades, an average of about two people have been murdered annually in the small and prosperous nation of 336,000, where police officers do not carry firearms. It has had entire years - 2003, 2006 and 2008 - without a single victim.

But, this year, Iceland has been horrified and riveted by the killing of 20-year-old Birna Brjansdottir, a department store sales assistant in the capital Reykjavik.

On Jan 14, her mother called the police after she failed to return home from a bar crawl.

Surveillance cameras showed Ms Brjansdottir eating a falafel pita at about 5am that Saturday morning, and then walking unsteadily down a deserted street, the police said, except when a red vehicle passed her. That was the last time she was seen alive.

"I think she might have (got) into a car with someone she didn't know," her mother said.

The friend who last saw her, Ms Matthildur Jonsdottir, said in an interview that they had played a card game at a pub. Ms Brjansdottir had won. "She was like that - an effortless winner in life," said Ms Jonsdottir, who said she left the pub before her friend.

After Ms Brjansdottir did not report for work the next day, police declared her missing.

Icelanders embraced Ms Brjansdottir, referring to the redhead simply as Birna. Icelandic newspapers and television reported that in her last post on Facebook on Jan 12, she had lamented that it was "two minutes until the worst day of the year", because "Kiss a Ginger Day" - a day of empowerment for redheads - was nearly over and no one had kissed her.

Around the country, shocked people began buzzing about Birna, CNN reported. Thousands retraced her final steps, crossing the same street where Iceland's SlutWalk march for women's rights is held each year.

About 775 rescue workers volunteered to search for her, covering more than 7,000km in cold and stormy weather. A few days later, the police found her Doc Martens on a dock at Hafnarfjordur, a town on the outskirts of Reykjavik.

Then they noticed something else in a surveillance video from 6.30am on the morning of her disappearance: a fishing trawler from Greenland, the Polar Nanoq, moored near a small red car. It was the same model as the vehicle seen passing Ms Brjansdottir on the street cameras.

There was just one problem. The Polar Nanoq had set off for Greenland days earlier, probably with the men who may have been responsible for her death.

Fearful that the suspects would get beyond their reach, the Icelandic Coast Guard on Jan 18 sent a helicopter with a squad of six special forces officers to intercept the vessel, a spokesman for the Icelandic Coast Guard said. About 90 minutes later, the squad rappelled onto the trawler and arrested two men, Mr Thomas Moeller Olsen, 25, and Mr Nikolaj Olsen, 30.

On Jan 22, the body of Ms Brjansdottir was found on a beach near a lighthouse in the Reykjanes peninsula, about an hour's drive from the capital. An autopsy report later leaked to national broadcaster RUV revealed that she had drowned after being thrown alive - possibly from a bridge - into the ocean. Medical examiners found bruises on her neck.

Last Monday, Iceland Magazine reported police as saying Mr Moeller Olsen had rented the red car in which Ms Brjansdottir's blood was found. He had a criminal record for drug dealing, and about US$2 million (S$2.8 million) worth of hashish was found on the ship when he was arrested.

Security cameras showed him and Mr Nikolaj Olsen driving up to the ship at 6.10am on Jan 14. They were seen conversing and then, while Mr Nikolaj Olsen boarded the ship, Mr Moeller Olsen drove off, before returning to the harbour area at 11.30am, Iceland Magazine reported. Ms Brjansdottir's shoes were found in that area.

The case has been classified as murder. Police released Mr Nikolaj Olsenbut as they believe Mr Moeller Olsen had acted alone.

Icelanders remain in mourning, with many taking to Facebook to pour out their emotions under the words "I am Birna" .

Greenland has joined in their grief. CNN reported that hundreds braved minus 17 deg C temperatures to light candles at the Icelandic consulate in Nuuk in a memorial to Ms Brjansdottir.

The killing has spurred soul-searching and mourning in Greenland, the autonomous territory of Denmark. With a population of about 58,000, Greenland has no traditional prisons and instead takes a progressive attitude towards the rehabilitation of criminals.

In 2011, a young woman in Greenland had accused Mr Moeller Olsen of raping her after a heavy night of drinking but he was acquitted, according to Iceland Magazine. Now the case has opened a conversation in Greenland about the dangers of a misogynist culture of violence and alcoholism, the magazine said.

In Iceland, deejay Sigrun Skaftadottir said the killing was already changing the way people behaved.

"Girls in my circle are either walking home with someone or taking a taxi," she said. "I can't stop thinking of all the times I walked home alone in Reykjavik, sometimes drunk, sometimes with music in my ears, engaging with strangers, even inviting random people at the bar to an after-party," said the 28-year-old.

"Now, I won't do that again."

•With additional information from NYTimes

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on February 12, 2017, with the headline 'Iceland in shock after woman's murder'. Print Edition | Subscribe