The Cursed Ship and the Murders
Viking Sally has more history than some empires.
Viking Sally via simplonpc.co.uk
The cruise ship was built in 1979 for Rederi AB Slite, a Swedish shipping company. The vessel had ten decks and was designed with all the modern conveniences, including a swimming pool, sauna, nightclub, cinema and numerous restaurants and bars.
Over a period of eight years, the vessel saw 855 deaths with its final demise in 1994, when it sank at full capacity. Two of those fatalities were murders, and one was solved in 2020, after 33 years.
The 1987 murder
On the 27th of July 1987, MS Viking Sally was due to depart from Stockholm, Sweden, in the late evening. With 1,400 passengers on board, the ship wasn’t full, but the 200 crew members made the ship bustle with activity.
Two of the passengers on board were a young couple, Klaus Schelkle, 20 and Bettina Taxis, 22. The pair were from West Germany and were touring the Nordics with their friend, Thomas Schmid, starting in Germany and crossing to Stockholm. Their next stop was Turku in Finland for the Ruisrock festival, and from there, they planned to travel up to Lapland and then back to Germany on Norway’s coastline.
Klaus Schelkle and Bettina Taxis via forenseek.app
The ship was the epitome of luxury, and the three were students and had little money for their trip. Instead of booking a cabin for the overnight voyage, they planned to sleep on the seating scattered around the ship. In July, the weather would have been cool, but the trio had sleeping bags for the ten-hour crossing.
Viking Sally via Tuomas Rimpiläinen
During their trip, the friends spoke to other passengers on board, including a Finnish car dealer returning from Germany and a British man who was meeting a Finnish woman the next day. However, Thomas was not as friendly as the couple and instead went to sleep with the trio’s belongings.
At around 1 am, Klaus and Bettina decided to go to sleep and took their belongings from the sleeping Thomas and headed for another part of the ship to find somewhere to rest for the few remaining hours of the crossing.
They ended up on the 9th deck of the ship, which was open air. Unfortunately, the spot they chose was next to the helipad and was badly lit because of a broken light.
At 3.45 am, three Danish boy scouts were exploring the ship when they came across the couple who were waking from their slumber. The boys thought the pair were drunk because they were stumbling, trying to get out of their sleeping bags, but they soon realised they were injured.
The couple had sustained severe head injuries and were almost unconscious, their faces covered in blood. One of the boys who knew first aid tried to help them but quickly understood that they needed more than simple aid.
The ship’s nurse and head of security arrived at the scene and saw how serious the couple’s injuries were. The Finnish Coast Guard Rescue was radioed, and a helicopter was dispatched to the ship.
Klaus was pronounced dead at 6 am when they arrived at Turku University Hospital, despite the nurse’s efforts during the helicopter rescue. The force of the murder weapon, likely an axe, was so aggressive that it had pierced his skull. Bettina’s condition was critical, receiving heavy blows to her head, but she miraculously survived the attempted murder.
By 6.30 am, the Turku Police Department and a crime scene team had arrived on the ship, taking the same helicopter that had transported the couple to the hospital. Police immediately secured the top deck and summoned help from local police departments when the ship reached its destination.
Despite the crime taking place in the jurisdiction of the Äland Islands, authorities understood that the resources needed in the case would be substantial, and the Turku force had the capacity to deal with the investigation.
The ship moored in the port of Turku at 8.10 am, ten minutes later than scheduled. The passengers were led off the ship via one exit while police boats circled in the water to ensure no one threw anything overboard.
Viking Sally docked after the murder via iltalehti.fi
Police brought in three cameras to film the passengers alighting the ship to guarantee that they had captured images of everyone. One of the cameras filmed the younger men, specifically, while another captured anyone who was acting suspiciously. Unfortunately, due to overcrowding, the children, elderly and families were told to leave and weren’t documented in the investigation.
Around 20 passengers were questioned at the police station, including the couple’s friend, Thomas Schmid. Klaus and Thomas had been friends for years and were members of FC Stuttgart, a football club in Germany, and studied mechanics together. He later told Yle, a Finnish newspaper, that he couldn’t remember how the idea of the trip came about, but it took them a while to save up for it.
Thomas was interrogated for hours, but he couldn’t help the police, and he was eventually released from the station.
Patrick Haley, the British man who spoke to the couple, was questioned multiple times during the investigation due to his conversations with the pair. Haley had been found in his sleeping bag that morning, covered in blood. However, he told police that he had a nosebleed in the night and the blood on his clothes was his own and not from Klaus or Bettina. The blood was forensically tested, and the results came back, confirming Haley’s story. He was eventually released.
Of the twenty potential suspects interviewed concerning the murder, none of their stories gave police suspicion to interrogate them further and eventually; all twenty were cleared.
In August, two fishermen found a bag of clothes off the shore of Lilla Björnholm Island. The clothes found in a rubbish bag included size 41 shoes, light-coloured shorts, a red jumper and a pair of work gloves bearing the initials “H.K”. The majority of the clothes were Finnish-made, and because of wind direction, these clothes could have easily come from a passenger onboard Viking Sally.
Route Map showing where the clothes washed up. Map via rail.cc
Over the years, the video footage of the passengers has been combed through time and time again, with investigators looking for something or someone they haven’t yet questioned. Police continued to ride the ship long after the murder, looking for clues as to the suspect or missed evidence but to no avail. Until recently.
Break in the case
In September 2020, the Turku Police Department announced that they had solved the case. Authorities confirmed that they now have answers for the 33-year-old mystery, but the suspect has not yet been apprehended.
Once the preliminary investigation’s been submitted to prosecutors to ensure there’s enough evidence, they will arrest the suspect, says Veli-Matti Soikkeli, Director of Investigation, who also confirmed that an axe was not the murder weapon.
“The fire axe is not suitable as a tool for injuries. They (recorded injuries) have since been compared by experts, and it has been concluded that it is not suitable as a tool.” — Soikkeli in Aamulehti.
If the suspect is charged with murder, the case will most likely to go court. Unfortunately, if the suspect is only charged with manslaughter, the case is unlikely to see the courtroom.
Due to the Finnish statute of limitations, charges must be brought to a court within 20 years, and in the case of Klaus Schelkle and Bettina Taxis, the investigation is over 30 years old.
We wait with bated breath to see who they arrest.
The 1986 murder
The year before Klaus and Bettina would be brutally murdered, there was another killing aboard the Viking Sally.
On the 10th of July, Reijo Hammar killed Antti Eljaala, a businessman, who Hammar was stealing money from. When Antti caught Hammar stealing from his cabin, he went to report the theft to onboard security, but Hammar stabbed him in the throat with a dinner knife. He then finished the killing by strangling Antti to death with a bedsheet.
Hammar was found guilty of the murder and was sentenced to life at Kakola Prison in Finland. Two years later, he escaped with a fellow inmate and shot a guard in the process. He eventually killed the other inmate with an axe and was later recaptured in Stockholm, Sweden. He was pardoned by Finnish President, Tarja Halonen in 2004.
Reijo Hammar via Ilta-Sanomat
Viking Sally was renamed several times. It was known as the Silja Star and the Wasa King between 1990 and 1993 and was eventually given the name Estonia.
On the 28th September 1994, MS Estonia was in the middle of its voyage, crossing the Baltic Sea, setting off from Tallinn, Estonia and would eventually arrive in Stockholm. Onboard were 989 people, including the 186 crew members needed to operate the enormous ship.
However, capacity was at its limit, and the vessel was listing because of the unbalanced distribution of passenger cargo, which included cars.
The seas were rough that night, and the waves were high, but the ship was large and could withstand the characteristic Baltic weather.
Around 1 am, a huge wave hit the bow doors, and over the next ten minutes, the doors had opened and began to fill with water. By 1.30 am, the ship had rolled 60 degrees, and water began to flood the top decks. Passengers were trapped due to the rapid flooding, and soon the windows smashed, and more water poured in, ensuring no safe passage for many of the ten decks.
A mayday call was made at 1.22 am to Silja Europa, a nearby ship. Unfortunately, the Estonia crew couldn’t give their location straight away because of a loss of power, which stole vital minutes from the trapped passengers.
The ship sank at 1.50 am, 25 miles from Utö island, off the Swedish coast. Eight hundred fifty-two people lost their lives that morning, and it’s considered the second deadliest peacetime sinking of a European ship after the Titanic.
MS Estonia hull being salvaged via maritimecyprus.com
After the ship was built, Rederi Ab Sally completed changed the structure of the vessel. It was lengthened by 60 feet, and the bow design was altered to enable ramps for cars. Instead of the usual pair of bow doors, it had a visor that could be lifted and rotated. This was the first part of the ship to break during the enormous waves.
There was also a hole in the hull, and last year, an investigation has been opened into the sinking of the vessel to finally give answers to the families of the victims.