The Murder That Devastated An Entire Country
Iceland would never be the same again after one of their own was murdered by an outsider.
With a population of 368,000, Iceland is home to fewer people than Anaheim, California. The country known as the Land of Ice and Fire has long summers and even longer dark winters, with some days only getting a few hours of sunlight.
The country is so tiny that drawing a map instead of an address on a letter will ensure that it’s still delivered to its recipient.
Icelandic mail via mentalfloss.com
Because of the welcoming nature of Iceland’s inhabitants, when Birna Brjánsdóttir got into a car she didn’t know, she wasn’t wary of the driver or his friend. Instead, she believed she would get the lift home that she had been offered.
20-year-old Birna lived with her father in a suburb of Reykjavík called Breiðholt. She was outgoing but sensible, holding down a job at the Hagkaup department store in the city. There was no shortage of friends for Birna, with them calling her their “happy pill”.
Birna Brjánsdóttir via thesun.co.uk
On the 13th of January 2017, Birna went out with her friends to a club called Húrra in the city centre of Reykjavík. In the early hours of the 14th, Birna’s friends were ready to leave the club, but Birna told them she would stay a little longer. She left three hours later, around 5 am as the club was closing.
In January, the sun wouldn’t rise until just before 11 am, so Birna left the club in the dark and began her walk home. It was -9°C (15.8°F), but she wasn’t deterred by the cold. On her journey, she stopped to buy some food that she ate as she walked along Laugavegur, the main shopping street in the city. She was drunk, and footage showed her bumping into a stranger along the way and also dropped money, but it was Iceland; it was safe.
Walking alone in Reykjavík at night wasn’t unusual. Crime rates are low, with the homicide rate at less than 1% a year. Police are unarmed, and the rare drug offence was often settled with a fine rather than imprisonment. However, if Birna was planning to walk back to her father’s house in Breiðholt, it would have taken her almost two hours, so she would likely take a lift from a passing car at some point.
Surveillance footage from one of the few cameras in the city centre showed a red Kia Rio stopping alongside Birna, who then proceeded to get into the car. From here, she disappeared.
The red Kia Rio via guidetoiceland.is
When Birna didn’t show up for work the next day, her friends immediately tried to contact her on her mobile phone, but it was turned off. Birna was never late for work, and her phone was always turned on, so her absence was a cause for concern. Her friend and colleague, Marìa, called the friends that went clubbing with Birna the night before. They believed that she had gone straight home after leaving Hùrra and thought she’d made it to her father’s house.
Birna’s mother, Silla Hreinsdóttir, was called soon after, and by that evening, after too many hours of absence, a missing person’s report was filed with the Lögreglan, the Icelandic police.
Silla posted a message on Facebook to find out if any of Birna’s friends had seen her daughter that day. The post was shared thousands of times throughout the night and in the following days, but Birna hadn’t been sighted.
The police traced Birna’s phone, which pinged a tower at 5.50 am on Saturday morning before it had been turned off. The triangulation showed the phone was located 6 miles away in a port near Hafnarfjörður.
The police hadn’t started a formal search for Birna yet, as they didn’t believe she was actually missing because people didn’t just disappear in Iceland. So instead, Silla took some friends and family to the port and began to knock on doors of the houses around the harbour in the hope of finding her daughter, who had now been missing for 36 hours.
The media quickly picked up on the story, and Silla agreed to interviews. However, her insistence that Birna would not just disappear made the police begin their pursuit for the 20-year-old, and the search became the most extensive manhunt in Iceland’s history.
The manhunt via Icelandmonitor.mbl.is
Two brothers who were part of the search headed to the harbour at Hafnarfjörður, where Birna’s phone had pinged. Here, they found Birna’s Dr Martens boots.
Divers were sent into the freezing water, and drones were deployed for an ariel view of the area. Investigators began to review the surveillance footage from the port and came across the red car, stopping to let a man out at 6 am on Saturday morning. The man staggered onto a waiting ship, the Polar Nanoq, a fishing trawler. The car then left and wasn’t seen again until 11 am.
Investigators couldn’t read the number plate from the footage in Laugavegur, but this recording was much clearer, and they quickly traced the car to a local rental company. The vehicle had been hired by Thomas Olsen, who worked on the Polar Nanoq. The 25-year-old was from Greenland and had decided to go drinking with his friend and crewmate, Nikolaj Olsen, in Reykjavík on the Friday night before departing for work on the ship.
Thomas Olsen via Iceland Magazine
Police wanted to question the two fishermen, but the issue they had was that the Polar Nanoq was now in the middle of the sea, fishing off Greenland. A diplomatic nightmare now faced the investigators, and they began to plan their unusual strategy to get the two men back on Iceland’s soil.
They planned to fly four Icelandic officers onto the Triton, a Danish warship and sail to Greenland, which was a territory of Denmark, and pick up police officers from there and transport them onto the Polar Nanoq to make the arrest.
However, this extravagant plan never came to fruition as the Polar Nanoq’s captain had other ideas.
A journalistic reporting on the case found a private Facebook page for crew members and messaged Olsen about the Kia Rio. Concerned, Olsen showed the message to the ship’s captain, as he was worried about keeping his job. The captain told him not to worry and sent him on his way with some sleeping tablets.
The captain began to read more about the case slowly unravelling in Iceland and quickly found out that his ship was linked to the disappearance of Birna. He decided to take action and return his two crew members to the police.
He turned the ship around and headed back to Iceland, telling the crew that the engine had malfunctioned. He then turned off the WIFI so no one else would be able to read the news, which alluded to a killer on board his ship. He didn’t want any evidence to be thrown overboard during the voyage.
On Wednesday the 18th of January, the Polar Nanoq docked back in Hafnarfjörður, with the Icelandic counter-terrorism unit, the Víkingasveitin, onboard.
The harbour was closed to the public and other ships, and most of the Reykjavík police force was positioned along the dock in 12 waiting police cars.
The Polar Nanoq. via icelandmonitor.mbl.is
The Kia Rio had been impounded from the family who had rented it after Thomas Olsen and forensics were taken from the interior. Birna’s blood was found on the back seat despite the deep clean the car had been given.
Because of the mounting evidence, the interrogations began immediately at the police headquarters in Reykjavík.
According to both men’s accounts, Nikolaj took a cab from the harbour into Reykjavík and began drinking in The English Pub. He won eight beers on a Lucky Wheelspin and continued his last night of drinking before his departure on the Polar Nanoq.
By the time Thomas Olsen had driven into the city in the hire car, his friend was incredibly drunk on the eight beers he had begun to consume. Police would learn that the staggering man at the harbour was Nikolaj.
The pair visited another bar along Laugavegur before getting back into the Kia. They were then seen on the CCTV with Birna.
Both Thomas and Nikolaj told investigators that two women got in the car, but Nikolaj was so drunk he fell asleep and didn’t remember anything about them. After dropping his drunken friend off at the ship, Thomas claimed to have taken the girls into the back of the car to fool around. He claimed to let the girls out of the car around an hour later, nearby.
However, Thomas’ version of events was very different from the story told by the accumulating evidence the police had.
Thomas’ phone was turned off for four hours after he dropped Nikolaj off at the Polar Nanoq. He was also seen buying cleaning products, bags and clothing from a supermarket nearby. He told investigators that the cleaning fluid was to remove vomit, but when forensics used luminol on the impounded car to test for blood, it lit up like a Christmas tree.
The car wasn’t seen on the few surveillance cameras throughout the city until 11 am when Thomas returned to the ship. He claimed he slept in the car, but the mileage showed he had taken a long drive during that time.
When examined by doctors, Thomas had scratches all over his chest, and when his cabin was searched, officers found over 20kg of hashish, which he brought on board in Denmark. The drugs had a street value of £1.4million.
Birna’s driving licence was also found in the ship’s refuse bins. Forensics dusted for fingerprints, and the results concluded that Thomas’ prints were all over the card.
Nikolaj was released from custody after two weeks, as investigators believed he had nothing to do with Birna’s disappearance. Still, Thomas was kept and eventually charged on the 30th of March for possession of drugs and the murder of Birna Brjánsdóttir.
On Sunday the 22nd of January, Birna’s body was found. Over 800 volunteers and 80 vehicles searched the country for her, but it would be a low-flying helicopter that made the discovery.
Selvogsviti lighthouse via icelandmonitor.mbl.is
Thirty miles from Hafnarfjörður harbour, Birna’s body was found at the edge of the water by Selvogsviti lighthouse. She was found naked, but her autopsy showed that she hadn’t been sexually assaulted. She had been hit in the face and strangled, but her cause of death was drowning, and it was likely she was still alive when she was dumped in the sea.
In August 2017, Thomas Olsen pled guilty to the drugs charge but not the murder. However, more evidence had mounted against the fisherman since his arrest, with his fingerprints present on the shoelaces of Birna’s Dr Martens.
He admitted that Birna was the only woman in the car with him that night, but his account of the night changed drastically.
When on the stand, he told the three judges presiding over his case that it was actually Nikolaj who drove off with Birna when Thomas got out of the car to urinate. He claimed Nikolaj picked him up later that night without Birna in the vehicle.
Thomas’ new, desperate statement was almost comical with the amount of evidence stacked against him. The blood in the car he had rented, his fingerprints on Birna’s driving licence and boots, the security footage of him buying cleaning products and the long drive that would have taken him to the lighthouse at Selvogsviti and back was more than enough to convict him.
A month later, Thomas Olsen was sentenced to 19 years in prison by the three judges. His appeal was rejected in February 2019.
Thomas Olsen arrested via thesun.co.uk
Birna’s murder didn’t just devastate Iceland; it also profoundly affected Greenland. With two countries in mourning for such a terrible loss of life, the people of Greenland held vigils for Birna and placed candles in their windows. Denmark and the Faroe Islands also paid their respects to the fallen daughter.
“Two nations, united in grief over a young woman who could have been anyone’s sister, daughter or girlfriend. When you live in such a small society, the victim doesn’t feel like a stranger, but part of your family.” Anna Margret Bjornsson, in the Iceland Monitor.
Birna’s funeral was attended by 2,000 grieving family members, friends and locals. Small memorials popped up around Reykjavík, with soft toys and cards of condolence among the sea of candles, and people took to Facebook to remember the happy girl.
Candle vigils via icenews.is
The country is changing quickly with immigration and tourism, and outsiders are descending on the tiny country, which has reportedly made its inhabitants warier of strangers.
Because of Birna’s death, young women are now more careful when they’re out at night in Iceland. As a result, the Facebook group offering car rides around the country has become less active than it used to be, and instead, a sister group has been created, specifically for women.
Before Birna’s disappearance, the argument against additional surveillance cameras was a hot topic in Iceland but quickly diminished after the murder. This led to more security cameras in the area to protect its citizens and prevent anything like this from ever happening again.