Grisly finding sheds light on a murder that gripped Iceland

By Dan Bilefsky and Egill Bjarnason, The New York Times - February 8, 2017

For weeks, the people of Iceland, a small Nordic country where the police do not usually carry guns and murders are exceedingly rare, have been horrified and riveted by the mysterious killing of a young woman.

The mystery of what happened to the woman, Birna Brjansdottir, an outgoing 20-year-old sales assistant, now appears to be at least partially solved. She died from drowning after she was thrown — possibly from a bridge — into the North Atlantic Ocean, according to an autopsy report leaked Monday night to the national broadcaster RUV.

Brjansdottir was alive when she was thrown, the report concluded, but it was not clear if the killer knew that, or if she was conscious.

Medical examiners found bruises on her neck, the broadcaster reported, and she was naked when her body was discovered near a lighthouse about 20 miles southeast of Reykjavik, Iceland, the capital.

Until now, the clues that had emerged since the victim disappeared on Jan. 14 after a night on the town in central Reykjavik have been jarring but elusive. She was last seen walking unsteadily down a street in the capital.

The police say a suspect, Thomas Moller Olsen, 25, a fisherman from Greenland, rented a red Kia in which Brjansdottir’s blood was found. Moller Olsen was arrested Jan. 18 by a squad of officers — called the Viking Squad, part of the only armed police force in Iceland — who pursued him by helicopter after his trawler, the Polar Nanoq, was on its way back to Greenland from Reykjavik.

The police said that Moller Olsen had a criminal record for dealing hashish in Greenland, and that about $2 million worth of the drug had been found on the ship when he was arrested. Moller Olsen has not yet been charged.

In Iceland, a country of 336,000 people, the killing has both shocked and united the nation, while spurring an outpouring of sympathy in Greenland. After Brjansdottir disappeared, nearly 800 Icelandic rescue workers searched for her body. Icelanders embraced her, referring to her simply as Birna.

At her funeral last Friday, hundreds of mourners, including President Gudni Thorlacius Johannesson of Iceland, paid their respects at the capital’s 244-foot high Hallgrimskirkja church, where Brjansdottir’s body lay in a simple white coffin covered with flowers. Many Icelanders took to Twitter to write, “I am Birna.”

Yrsa Sigurdardottir, a best-selling Icelandic crime writer, said the murder was right out of a Nordic noir novel and had devastated Icelanders. “She was just an innocent girl walking down the street,” Sigurdardottir said, adding that she had had trouble writing since hearing the news.

She said, “In the past we have only witnessed murders like this in works of fiction.”

Brjansdottir was last seen at 5 a.m. on Jan. 14, eating a falafel pita. The moment — caught by surveillance cameras — has been replayed over and over again in the Icelandic news media.

The friend who last saw her, Matthildur Jonsdottir, said in an interview that they had played a card game at a pub in the center of town, before dancing elsewhere. Brjansdottir won. “She was like that — an effortless winner in life,” she said.

Jonsdottir said she left the pub before her friend, who wanted to stay until last call. “We have no clue where she was planning to go,” she said.

She was declared missing after not reporting for work the next day. “It was very unusual that her phone was dead,” said Maria Bjarnadottir, a friend and co-worker in the department store Hagkaup where she worked. “She would never come in late.”

After several days of frenzied searching, the police found Brjansdottir’s Doc Martens shoes on a dock at Hafnarfjordur, a serene town about 10 miles south of Reykjavik. When her body was discovered a few days later, nearly 10,000 Icelanders converged on Laugavegur, the main shopping street in Reykjavik, where she was last seen.

Brjansdottir’s former boyfriend, Andrew Morgan, an industrial design student from Salt Lake City, Utah, met her on a vacation last summer.

He recalled in a phone interview that she mingled effortlessly with strangers. “She said she wanted to know someone from every nation and then visit them all,” he said. After he returned to Utah, he said she came to visit him, and the two decided a long-distance relationship would be too difficult.

While in Iceland, he said, the two had often walked late at night on Laugavegur, and he had scolded her for sometimes walking alone. “She insisted that it was fine to walk home alone, but coming from the United States I disagreed,” he said.

He said he could barely bring himself to watch the surveillance video. “I’ve only taken a look once.”