Transcript: 155. The Killing of Birna Brjánsdóttir | Iceland

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It was after 11pm on a cold and snowy January night in Hafnarfjördur, south of Reykjavik. Two brothers were outside, searching intently. And they weren’t the only ones… It had been three days since 20-year-old Birna Brjánsdóttir went missing after a night out in the city centre. She left a nightclub at closing time, but never made it home.

Police worked closely with the community to find any information about her whereabouts – everyone was looking for Birna. Thanks to cell phone tower pings, police were able to narrow down Birna’s last known location – about a 30-minute drive south from where she was last seen on CCTV footage. 

On Tuesday night, 17 January, the two brothers from Hafnarfjördur who were out searching for clues, did not know Birna. But they knew the industrial area around the harbour, and felt compelled to do something, to keep looking. It didn’t matter how late or how cold it was, people needed answers.

Then they saw something at the edge of a pier: two black boots, neatly placed next to each other. It was out of place on the otherwise untouched snow. It was a pair of black eight-hole Doc Martens, just like Birna was wearing the last time she was seen.

Within the hour the entire area was crawling with police and a forensic team. The Docs turned out to be Birna’s, but where was she? In the week that followed a case unfolded that gripped the entire nation, and the neighbouring North Atlantic countries of Greenland and the Faroe Islands. 

>>Intro Music

Birna Brjánsdóttir was born on the 28th of November 1996 and grew up in Iceland’s capital, Reykjavik. Her parents had split up but were on good terms. At the beginning of 2017, Birna lived with her father, Brján Guðjónsson in the suburb of Breiðholt. In the late 90s when Birna was born, Breiðholt was the most populous area in Reykjavik, with the highest concentration of international residents. 

Birna was outgoing and open-minded, and loved talking to a variety of people. She wanted to be able to say that she had had conversations with people from every country in the world. Friends and family were very important to Birna and she was just a lovely person to know. She loved music, any kind: hip-hop, more folksy stuff, anything. She had a good sense of humour and enjoyed sharing a laugh with friends. Her friends often referred to her as their ‘Happy Pill’: she was a tonic that made everyone feel good about themselves.

Together with Marìa, a childhood friend, Birna worked in the fashion department of the hypermarket, Hagkaup. She had a good income for a 20-year-old and wanted for nothing. Her dream was to become a professional make-up artist for film or theatre in America. She had planned a trip to New York for March of that year, with Marìa, and could hardly wait. Birna was somewhat familiar with the country, as her ex-boyfriend was from Salt Lake City. Theirs was a summer romance, turned long-distance relationship. But sadly, the distance made things too difficult, and they broke things off. 

On Friday night, the 13th of January 2017, Birna joined a bunch of friends for a game of cards at a cosy pub, before going dancing at Húrra, a nightclub in downtown Reykjavik. On a typical Friday night in Reykjavik, nightlife action only happens after midnight, and that night was no exception.

Birna was having a great time, so when her friends wanted to leave at 2am, she wasn’t ready to go yet. Reykjavik is one of the safest cities in the world and her friends weren’t concerned about her. She was sensible and she had her phone on her, there was no reason why she couldn’t stay. Húrra closed at 5am and Birna was one of the last patrons to leave. 

Winter nights in Iceland are long and the sun wouldn’t be out till 11am. It was -9 degrees Celsius, not uncommon for an early January morning in Reykjavik. The main stretch of Laugavegur where Birna found herself, was well-lit with lamppost every 10 metres and bright lights from shop windows illuminating the cobblestoned street.

But she never made it home. The next morning, María called Birna’s mother, Silla Hreinsdóttir, from work to ask if she knew where Birna was. She hadn’t shown up for work and her phone was off – which was completely out of the ordinary. Birna was staying with her dad at the time, but he assumed she had crashed at a friend’s place, closer to the city. When he heard that none of her friends knew where she was, panic kicked in. Birna had never stayed away from home without letting them know and she would never skip out on work. And her phone was NEVER off. Something wasn’t right…

Birna’s parents and friends called around, asking friends and acquaintances if they had seen Birna, but no one had. Silla knew something must have happened and went to the police to report her missing. Police didn’t seem too concerned at first… It’s not terribly uncommon for young people to go off radar after a night of partying. They tried to assure Birna’s family that she would probably turn up soon. But Silla wasn’t convinced. Birna would have texted or called. And why did she skip out on work – something she had never done before. Desperate for help, Silla took to social media and posted about her daughter’s disappearance. She said:

“Dear friends… It’s not like her that we can’t reach her. Please share and let’s find her.”

What followed, was to become the largest missing persons search in Iceland’s history. No less than 800 volunteers showed up and assisted police in looking for Birna, or any clues that could help find her. Birna’s photo and a description of what she was wearing when she vanished was everywhere to be seen: 

“20-year-old girl, 170cm (5ft7) tall with light red hair. She is believed to be wearing black jeans, a grey sweater, and a black fleece jacket with a hood. She was wearing black laced boots.”

Police searchers, sniffer dogs, family, friends, and volunteers – everyone was out looking for Birna, covering an area of 7,000 kilometres of Reykjavik’s roads and shoreline. Ice-Sar (that’s Iceland’s Search and Rescue) project manager Guðbrandur Örn Arnarson echoed the sentiment everyone felt about Birna:

“Today she is our sister, our daughter – that is our mantra.”

Police looked at CCTV footage from the CBD, from the nightclub along the route that Birna would have walked. She can be seen walking down Laugavegur, with her black hoodie and white earphones dangling around her neck. She stopped to buy a falafel pita and ate it as she continued on her way. Birna was a bit unsteady on her feet, as can be expected after a long night of partying. Outside the red and white Lebowski Bar she dropped some coins and then she bumped into another pedestrian. Other than that, she was fine. The last footage of Birna is at 5:25am, near the intersection of Laugavegur and Klapparstígur Streets.

There are other pedestrians, some parked cars and a taxi drove passed, but it was something else that caught investigators’ attention: a red Kia Rio. It stopped at 31 Laugevegur, then moments later it drove off. Once the car is gone, Birna can no longer be seen on any other CCTV footage. Police had to consider two possibilities why she could not be seen: firstly, she could have ducked into a side road without CCTV cameras, or walked too close to the wall for the cameras to capture her. The other possibility was that Birna got into the red car, either willingly or by force. Frustratingly, the quality of the footage was not good enough to show the car’s registration number, or to identify the occupants. 

Police appealed to the public for information regarding the driver of the red car. Even if he or she did not harm Birna, they could have witnessed something of importance. But no one came forward, which made police suspect the driver was involved in Birna’s disappearance somehow.

By all accounts, Birna’s phone was always on and charged. Using cell phone towers to track her phone, police were able to establish that it last pinged off a tower at Hafnarfjörður, south of Reykjavik. Then, with ample battery power left, someone manually switched off her phone at 5:50am – 12 kilometres south of the CBD. Birna could not have walked there in the given timeframe, so either Birna, or Birna’s phone went to Hafnarfjördur by car.

Police knew the red Kia Rio held the key to their investigation. They were able to narrow it down: there were only 126 cars of the same make, model and colour in Iceland – and police tracked down every single one. A surveillance tape from a golf club in Kópavogur showed a Kia drive into the parking lot at 5:53, three minutes after Birna’s phone was turned off. The driver must have spotted the camera because before long the car speeds off suddenly.

Then, CCTV footage at Hafnafjörður harbour picked up a red Kia Rio at ten past six. A young man can be seen getting out on the passenger side. He talked to the driver for a bit, then stumbled, drunkenly onto a fishing trawler docked in the harbour, the Polar Nanoq. Meanwhile, the Kia drove off – and this time, the CCTV camera caught its registration number. 

On Tuesday 17 January – three days after Birna was last seen, police impounded a Kia Rio, and revealed to the media that it was a rental car, used by foreign nationals at the time of Birna’s disappearance. Everyone waited in anticipation as the car was taken in for forensic examination.

At 11:30pm of the same day, volunteer-searchers found a pair of shoes on the edge of the harbour at Hafnarfjörður, near the water. It was Birna’s recognisable Doc Marten’s placed neatly next to each other. It was in the same vicinity where her phone signal was last picked up. Police searched the area but could find no other trace of Birna. It was puzzling, and investigators felt that the shoes looked out-of-place, like it had been planted there. Divers 

searched the ice-cold water surrounding the pier but could not find anything. Search parties were sent out into the lava fields, but again, there was nothing to be found. 

All they had in evidence was Birna’s Doc Martens. The soles had snow on them, indicating that the person who wore it walked in the snow. When Birna disappeared, it was unusually warm, and snow only fell on Monday, two days after her disappearance – so, why was there snow under her shoes?

The lead investigator on the case was renowned Detective Grímur Grímsson, who later became Iceland's representative to Europol. He assured Birna’s family that police would leave no stone unturned in finding out what happened to their daughter. He also urged the public to remain calm, as interest in the case had reached fever pitch. 

Police announced that the Kia Rio had been hired by a crew member of the Greenlandic trawler Polar Nanoq. The vessel was docked at Hafnarfjörður from the Wednesday before Birna went missing, and left on the Saturday afternoon, hours after she vanished. Birna’s shoes were found 300m from where the ship had been docked. By the time police had linked the vehicle to one of the trawler’s crew members, it was fishing off Greenland’s east coast. 

Onboard the Polar Nanoq, one of the crew members received a Facebook Message from an Icelandic journalist, asking him about the car he rented in Reykjavik. While reading the message, he reportedly went pale and went straight to his captain. The captain saw that he was shaken up and tried to calm him down. He assured him that everything would be okay if he hadn’t done anything wrong. The captain gave Thomas some sedatives, to sleep off the stress of the situation. However, the captain found the young man’s reaction Birna’s disappearance unsettling. He had read that his ship’s name had come up in the investigation and decided it would be best to set sail for Iceland. He did not inform his crew why they were returning, he only told them that one of the engines had malfunctioned. The captain also disabled the WiFi on the ship, so none of his crew would be able to read media reports and social media posts about the case.

Back in Iceland, everyone was involved in the search, which meant everyone had their own opinions and suspicions about what happened to Birna. Speculation arose that she was being held captive on the Polar Nanoq. However, local newspapers reported that security footage showed that Birna never boarded the ship.

Reykjavik Police sent a request to the Polar Nanoq to return to Iceland, and the captain informed them they were already on their way. Police received help from the Danish Coast guard in establishing the ship’s exact location. Officers from the Police Special Unit, the Viking Squad, were airlifted to the trawler by an Icelandic coast guard helicopter on the 18th of January, and as soon as it entered Icelandic waters, they took control of the ship.

While still heading back to Reykjavik, some officers searched all the cabins and others commenced interrogation of the crew member who had rented the Kia Rio and another sailor. At 12pm, 25-year-old Thomas Møller Olsen and 29-year-old Nikolaj Olsen, both citizens of Greenland (and despite a shared last name, there was no relation) were arrested on suspicion of Birna’s murder. The men denied any knowledge of Birna’s disappearance and said they did not know what had happened to her.

After finding 23kg of hashish in Thomas Olsen’s cabin – he had no choice but to confess that it belonged to him, and drug charges were also brought against him. He would later retract this statement, claiming he had no idea where the drugs had come from.

A third sailor was also arrested on drug charges at 8:30pm, a couple of hours before the Polar Nanoq arrived back in Iceland. It seemed like the entire Reykjavik police force waited for the trawler to dock that night. The suspects were taken straight into police cars that transported them to police headquarters. Birna’s friends, family and members of the public waited outside the police station as the men arrived. It was just before midnight on a freezing Reykjavik evening, but they did not feel the cold: they needed answers, they were standing there for Birna.

There was an unspoken sense of relief that the suspects were foreigners, that the misdeed had not been committed by one of their own. Murmurs floated around, speculating that no Icelander would ever have done anything like this. One bystander commented that it was…

“…a blessing that allowed up to be united as people.”

Police only had 24 hours to detain the suspects, and it was a race against the clock to collect enough evidence to lay formal charges. In the 11th hour, a judge ruled police could detain Thomas Olsen and Nikolaj Olsen for two more weeks, while the third man was released. A fourth sailor who was arrested after the Polar Nanoq’s arrival in Reykjavik, was still detained on drug charges – having had 1 million US dollars’ street value worth of hash in his possession. Police made it clear that the drug smuggling was separate to Birna’s case, but that the two men suspected of being involved with Birna’s disappearance were also connected to the smuggling operation.

The fact that the suspects were charged with murder, did not bode well for Birna’s family. Although Birna’s body had not been found, there was an abundance of evidence in the Kia Rio. A forensic search determined that the vehicle was cleaned thoroughly before it was returned. But they could not conceal the traces of Birna’s blood inside the car. Most of the blood evidence were smears, from an attempt to clean it. But the sheer amount of blood indicated that a violent attack had taken place. Unfortunately, because the blood splatter had been wiped clean, forensic investigators were not able to determine exactly how the attack took place. But there was so much blood that police believed Birna was killed inside the car. 

Damage to the exterior of the car showed that it had been driven off-road, perhaps on the lava fields. He also drove a staggering 300km in one night, which meant the search area for Birna’s body had to be increased. 

CCTV from Hafnarfjördur harbour shows driver, Thomas Olsen and a male passenger Nikolaj Olsen arriving at the Polar Nanoq at 6:10am. Nikolaj gets out of the car, and talks to Thomas in the driver’s seat, then he and stumbles onto the trawler, obviously inebriated. The car drives off and Thomas only returns at 11:30. Later that afternoon, the trawler left Iceland for Greenland, with all crew onboard. 

After the Polar Nanoq’s return to Hafnarfjördur harbour, all crew were removed for a thorough forensic examination of the trawler. They found Birna’s driver’s licence, folded and discarded in a trash can onboard. However, police released a statement confirming that there was no evidence that Birna was ever on the ship.

Then, where was Birna? That was the unanswered question that gave most Icelanders to sleepless nights. Where was her phone? Was she alive or dead? If she was killed, how did she die? And was there murder weapon to be found? Her phone was switched off at 5:25. The Kia is seen screeching away from the golf course parking lot at 5:53am and arrives at Hafnarfjördur harbour at 6:10, then it leaves again and Thomas returns at 11:30. 

Police believed that Birna was killed, and that her murderer or murderers disposed of her body in the window between 5:25 and 11:30am.

Then, on the 22nd of January, a week after she disappeared, Birna’s naked body was spotted from a search helicopter on a black lava rock beach. She had washed near the Selvogsviti lighthouse – more than 40 kilometres from where she was last captured on CCTV. The Icelandic Meteorological Office was asked to assist police with information of currents in the preceding week, to help them find the location from where her body was thrown into the sea. 

After the discovery of Birna’s body, a candlelit vigil was held so people could pay their respect to Birna and her family in Iceland, as well as in Greenland. At the end of January, 8,000 people attended a memorial held for her in Reykjavik. The president and the prime minister, along with 2,000 mourners paid their respects at her funeral at Hallgrímskirkja. Distraught Greenlanders also had a vigil outside the Icelandic Consulate in -17 Degrees Celsius in Nuuk. As a gesture of reconciliation, the Polar Nanoq donated 1.6 million krónur to those who assisted in the search.

Birna’s was a case of national grief. And people wanted to help in any way they could. Police embraced the community’s assistance and asked the public to come forward with any information about Birna, or of the suspects the night before the murder. Police also asked searchers to look for any clues, seeing as they had yet to establish where her body was thrown into the water. With the sea current information supplied by Meteorologists, police were able to narrow the dumping spot down to Vogsós estuary, 6 kilometres from where her body was found.

When the results of Birna’s autopsy that her body was bruised all over and it was clear that she had suffered a brutal beating to the face, and there were strangulation marks on her neck. No signs of sexual assault were found. She was unconscious, but still alive when she was thrown into the unforgiving artic ocean – and her cause of death was drowning.

On March 30th, Thomas Møller Olsen, the sailor who had rented the Kia Rio, was charged with Birna’s murder. By the 2nd of February, the second suspect, Nikolaj Olsen was released. Police believed that they knew enough about Birna’s last moments, to only charge Thomas with her murder. 

Thomas had a criminal record for drug dealing in Greenland. The outgoing 25-year-old was skilled in martial arts. Thomas was confident and Nikolaj, with no criminal record, was more reserved and – although he was the older of the two – was easily led. 

He was reportedly very drunk on the night before Birna’s disappearance. A local woman said that she knew Nikolaj, because he always visited the English Pub in downtown Reykjavik whenever he was on shore leave. She said that he was polite and gentle and didn’t drink as much as his sailor friends. The woman, who worked as a bartender said she never saw Thomas Olsen with Nikolaj before. 

She recalled that on the night of Friday the 13th of January, Nikolaj came into the English Pub, just before midnight. He sat down at the bar and chatted for a while, then took part in a drink-promotion. He spun a lucky wheel on the bar and won eight beers. He was excited about winning, and, in addition to his eight beers, ordered some shots. He was alone for the most part and talked to a couple of other patrons. At some point, Thomas joined him at the bar, for a beer and a shot. The bartender said that Thomas was not drunk, and left his intoxicated friend, nursing a beer. Eventually Nikolaj was asked to leave when he fell asleep at one of the tables.

A drunken Nikolaj then called the bartender from the kerb outside. He called repeatedly, but she didn’t answer. The last call came at 4:30am. She assumed he had taken a taxi back to the trawler, but Nikolaj caught a ride with Thomas is his rental car. 

During his initial questioning, Thomas confirmed that he had offered Nikolaj a ride back to the docks. He said after dropping Nikolaj off at the Polar Nanoq just after 6am, he went to the industrial area, where he parked the car, hopped into the backseat with the two women. He kissed Birna, but then got out of the car, back into the drivers’ seat and dropped them both at a roundabout.

Nikolaj, whose memory of those hours was not very good, agreed that there were two women at first. But later he admitted that he didn’t know for sure. He was aware of someone in the back of the car, but it could have been only one person.

The trial began in August 2017, and everyone in Iceland followed proceedings, blow-by-blow. There were so many questions that needed answers, and the nation was bracing themselves to hear what happened to Birna.

Nikolaj Olsen, the crew member who was arrested with Thomas Olsen, was a vital witness in the Prosecution’s case. He was in the car when they picked Birna up, but he could not recall too much, seeing as he was very drunk. How it came that Birna got into the car, remains a mystery. Nikolaj testified that he fell asleep on the way to Hafnarfjördur, and when Thomas dropped him off at the Polar Nanoq, there was someone in the backseat. Nikolaj also said that, in the days following their shore leave in Reykjavik, Thomas tried to confuse him about what happened in the car after Birna got in. Nikolaj’s memory was patchy, by the knew he never harmed anyone. None of Nikolaj’s clothes had any blood or evidence connecting him to Birna’s attack.

In court, Thomas Møller Olsen changed his original story of making out with Birna and another girl after dropping Nikolaj off. This time he placed the blame of what happened to Birna wholly on Nikolaj. Thomas said that the drunken Nikolaj harassed women all night. He met up with him outside the English Pub they went to the American Bar where Nikolaj’s misogynistic behaviour continued. Thomas went his own way, but Nikolaj found him again and asked for a ride back to the Polar Nanoq. According to Thomas, Birna got into the car and spoke in Icelandic. He tried to explain to her that the car was not a taxi, but she didn’t seem to understand. She didn’t want to get out and he thought she might need help, so he left it at that. In this version, there was only one woman, Birna, not two as in his initial story. Thomas said they drove to Hafnarfjördur, where he pulled over and got out to take a leak. While he was doing so, he saw Nikolaj moving in behind the steering wheel. This is Thomas’ account:

“Then I see that he drives off away from me, and I’m not sure how long he was gone for. I didn’t have my phone with me. I was just looking at the starts. Then Nikolaj came back and was alone. I asked him where she was, and he told me that her home had been close-by and that she had decided to walk back.”

Thomas said he then dropped Nikolaj at the Polar Nanoq and drove into the industrial area nearby. He found a secluded spot where he pulled over and slept until 11am. 

However, this version of events contradicted all evidence. Firstly, Nikolaj was in no state to drive. In fact, he was barely conscious at that point. In court, Nikolaj said:

“I doubt that I could have driven the car. I doubt that I spoke to {Birna} because I had fallen asleep in the car. If I had driven the car in my condition, we would probably have had an accident… I was so very drunk; I don’t have a license and no experience driving.”

Cell phone evidence showed that Nikolaj tried calling the bartender after he was dropped off – three more times before 7am. According to Nikolaj, he fell asleep and woke up around 11am. He went looking for Thomas, but he wasn’t in his cabin. Thomas came back after 11:30 and with another crew member’s jacket. This sailor had caught a ride into Reykjavik that night and left it on the backseat of the Kia. He was confused when Thomas returned a damp jacket the next morning and said that he had cleaned it.

CCTV footage from a local store showed Thomas buying cleaning products, specifically car cleaning products. If one only rented a car for one night, you wouldn’t have to clean it before returning it. Thomas insinuated that Nikolaj had vomited in the car, also on their friend’s jacket, and he had to clean it. However, forensic testing of the car ruled out that anyone had vomited.

When asked why there were traces of Birna’s blood in the car, Thomas could not explain it. In fact, Birna’s blood was also on Thomas’ jacket found on the Polar Nanoq. His DNA was found on the shoelaces of Birna’s Doc Martins and his fingerprints were on her driver’s license. Birna’s blood was also on the other crew member’s jacket, the one he had washed. Witnesses confirmed that the man had left the jacket in Thomas’ rental car that night. Furthermore, Thomas switched off his cell phone at 7am that morning, for four hours. He drove 300kms, cleaned the car and then returned it. When he was examined after his arrest, Thomas had scratch marks on his chest. Doctors who examined him after his arrest on 18 January estimated the scratches were made 4-6 days before – exactly when Birna was killed.  

He claimed that he had scratched himself in his sleep. This explanation did not hold a lot of weight.

The Prosecution laid out their case against Thomas Møller Olsen. He was an assertive, sometimes aggressive man with a criminal past. In fact, back in 2011 in his home of Greenland, he was accused of rape. A young woman woke up in her own bed after a night out, with Thomas forcing himself on her. She had had a lot to drink and was unable to fend him off. She reported the incident the following morning and had herself examined. Thomas’ DNA was found but he claimed the sex was consensual. A friend of his backed him up, claiming that he had heard the woman inviting Thomas into her room. In this he-said, she-said case, Thomas Olsen was acquitted.

But this gave the Prosecution in Birna’s case some insight into Thomas’ past. Because there was no clear motive for the attack, and the assumption was that Birna had rebuffed Thomas’ sexual advances, and he snapped.

Based on evidence, the Prosecution could reveal what happened to Birna Brjánsdóttir on Saturday morning, the 14th of January. After dropping Nikolaj off at the Polar Nanoq, Thomas and Birna drove to a secluded spot, with no CCTV cameras, near the location where her shoes were found. Once he was sure there were no witnesses, he attacked her, beating her repeatedly in the head and face, so forceful the attack broke her nose. Then he strangled her. She was most likely rendered unconscious inside the car between 6:10 and 7am. When Birna passed out, Thomas panicked and set out to dispose of her body. He switched off his phone and drove along the shoreline, to find a place to throw her into the sea – somewhere he would not be seen. Once he had decided on the location, he

took off all her clothes, threw her lifeless body into the icy ocean at Vogsós estuary, her tomb for eight days until she washed up near Selvogsviti lighthouse. Why he took off her clothes, or how he disposed of it, only Thomas knows. Tragically, Birna’s cause of death was drowning; she was still alive when she was thrown into the ocean.

His defence argued that Thomas had a shoulder injury that would have prevented him from carrying out such a brutal attack and carrying Birna’s body to the water’s edge. However, a medical examination after his arrest concluded that Thomas was physically fit and strong and would have been able to overpower a female of Birna’s size. 

The evidence against Thomas was staggering. In September 2017, the Reykjanes District Court found Thomas Møller Olsen guilty of Birna Brjándottir’s murder. He was also found guilty on drug smuggling charges. He confessed to the drug smuggling but denied any involvement in Birna’s murder. 

Altogether, Thomas Olsen was sentenced to 19 years in prison. In addition, he was required to pay Birna’s family seven million kronúr (that’s about 66,000 US dollars) in damages, as well as 28 million krónur (about 264,000 dollars) in to cover legal costs. He appealed his conviction, but the High Court upheld the verdict and denied him any further appeals. 

In October 2019, Thomas Olsen was transferred to Denmark, to serve out the remainder of his sentence It is not uncommon for Iceland to send prisoners to their home countries to serve out their sentences. As a citizen of Greenland, Thomas Olsen holds a Danish passport. And Greenland, with an open-prison-system, usually sends serious offenders to serve their time behind lock and key in the higher security prisons of Denmark.

The community outcry was massive. Iceland has one of the lowest murder rates in the world. The island-nation boasts a small population, of only 368,000 people. There is always a sense that everyone knows each other, and people look out for one another. Murders are rare, and if it does occur, it’s mostly people who are known to each other – a brawl gone wrong or a crime of passion. Random murder is a foreign concept. Police are unarmed prisons are underpopulated. In fact, there is only one high security prison, with a capacity of 45. All-up, Iceland’s five prisons can only house 153 prisoners.

Before Birna’s murder, women felt safe walking home in the small city of Reykjavik. But knowing that they could be picked off the street by a random stranger, changed that. "Ég er Birna" (or ‘I am Birna’) trended on social media, and women came forward in protest: if this could happen to Birna, it could happen to anyone. The city of Reykjavik increased the number of CCTV cameras throughout the city, as this case highlighted its importance, but also its shortcomings. The young women of the city banded together and a female-only ride-service called Skutlarar was set up. 

Typically, in Iceland the media would avoid using a suspect’s full name, due to privacy laws. However, this case was so intense, the people of Iceland needed more: they had to know who had shattered their peaceful existence. Undistorted photos of Thomas Møller Olsen and Nikolaj Olsen were published in newspapers all over the small island country.

In March 2018, the Polar Nanoq crew laid wreath on Birna’s grave to commemorate the first anniversary of her death. 

Much has been made about WHY Birna’s case struck such a cord with the nation of Iceland. With a recent influx of foreigners to travel or work in Iceland, there was an underlying fear that their innocence would be taken away somehow. Birna’s case confirmed the fear and caused them to band together. Where Iceland’s crime rate is low, Greenland’s violent crime statistics are disconcerting. Most of the crimes are alcohol-fuelled, and violence towards women is rife. Icelanders felt that a Greenlander had brought this terror onto their shores. However, the people of Greenland wanted to show their shared sorrow with their North Atlantic neighbours. 

Birna’s mother Silla refuses to make her daughter a martyr for a cause. She also does not want the case to be called the ‘Birna Murder’, because that will forever link her daughter’s memory to the horrid events that ended her life. Sirra said in an interview with Icelandic broadcaster RUV:

"I think it's very important that Birna is allowed to maintain her dignity, that she is spoken of in such a way that she is respected, that she is spoken of with respect and that her innocence is protected."

Birna was a young woman with dreams, ambitions and a lust for life. She loved her friends and family and her death left a void that will never be filled. 

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