Transcript: 196. The Tooth Murderer, Ismo Junni | Finland

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In August 1980, the police were dispatched to an apartment in eastern Helsinki, Finland, following a report of a woman who had accidentally died in her own home. At the door, the investigators were greeted by the woman's 37-year-old husband, Ismo Junni, who, without words, simply pointed in the direction of a walk-in closet. 

As the officers stepped in, they discovered the half-naked body of 36-year-old Kaija partially wrapped in a wool carpet. She had injuries on her head and one missing tooth, but nothing at the scene directly revealed what had happened. There was no way for the investigators to know they were looking at the very first victim of one of Finland’s few serial killers.

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Ismo and Kaija Junni lived in an apartment in Kontula, Helsinki with their three children. Theirs was a tumultuous household, with both Ismo and Kaija being heavy drinkers. In the eighties, Kontula was also not the most desirable neighbourhood, notorious for the prevalence of drugs and violence. This is not the case anymore, but back then, it was a bit different. 


Police often received calls, reporting incidents of drunken fights and even domestic violence. So when they arrived at the Junni home on that August day in 1980, to find Kaija deceased, they had their suspicions that her husband, Ismo had caused her harm. However, there was not enough physical evidence to charge him, and they had no immediate reason to arrest him.


While investigators waited for the results of Kaija Junni’s autopsy, Ismo and the couple's three young children were questioned. The children, who were all under 15 years old, remained mostly silent or replied to the questions with one or two words. Ismo however, explained to the officers his and Kaija's marriage had not been the happiest. They mainly spent time together drinking alcohol and fighting, so much so that the neighbours were well aware of the Junnis' marital problems. 


Based on the interviews alone, the police had a reason to doubt Ismo's version of the events, claiming Kaija had died because of falling while intoxicated—and the findings made by the medical examiner only strengthened the suspicion. According to the autopsy report, Kaija's healthy upper incisor had been knocked out before her death. Otherwise, the only visible injuries were bruises here and there. The likely reason for Kaija's death was found as her brain was examined—she had suffered extensive intracranial hemorrhage as a result of some kind of blow to the head.


Following the autopsy, Ismo was arrested, but he maintained he had nothing to do with his wife's death. After all, he and Kaija were both known to drink a lot, and people fall over all the time when drunk. In the end, the investigators had to admit that the crime scene and Kaija's injuries matched accidental death, no matter how suspicious they felt about Ismo. As there was no evidence of his involvement, the investigation was eventually closed and the case archived. For a long time, Kaija Junni's death was considered an unfortunate accident—until one phone call changed everything and ended up revealing much more than anyone could have ever imagined.


In 1990, emergency services were contacted by a young man who asked the police to re-investigate a death that happened ten years earlier. The caller was the eldest son of Ismo and Kaija Junni, who we will call "Antti," as his real name has not been made public. Antti explained to the police that his mother's case a decade earlier was closed without proper investigation, and the police’s conclusion was not even close to what really happened that day. It was not just that Antti suspected his father was involved in his mother's death, but apparently, he had seen the whole thing. Antti shocked the officers by telling them that he had witnessed his father kick his mother on the head. As a result, the investigation was reopened, and Ismo was brought in again for questioning.


Ismo recounted the events of the fateful evening, initially maintaining his story about Kaija falling in the bathroom and hitting her head on the edge of the bathtub.


According to Ismo, he and Kaija had been spending the evening the same way as many evenings before – drinking. At some point, an argument broke out simply because Ismo didn't like that Kaija was drinking the wine straight from the bottle. Soon, insults turned into a physical fight that was heard by the neighbors. Kaija was hit, kicked and thrown toward the furniture and eventually injured her head badly on a sink or edge of a cabinet—just not accidentally. 


Ismo admitted he had then carried Kaija to the bathtub, which he filled with hot water. During the autopsy, the medical examiner found water inside Kaija's lungs, so she was still alive at this point and submerging her in the water had played a part in her death. Ismo also told the investigators he had taken one of his wife's teeth as a memento that he kept inside his wallet. Ismo had used an electrician's tongs to remove the upper incisor while Kaija was still breathing but unresponsive. He said he did this, to check if she was still alive. When she didn’t react, he thought she was dead. He called the police, but by the time they arrived it was too late for anybody to help her.


Following Ismo's confession, the police obviously began to suspect him of murder. The neighbours also told the investigators that Ismo had been heard to threaten Kaija's life many times before. But, to strengthen their case, the police continued to look for evidence and wanted to speak with one person specifically who was known to be close with Ismo at the time of the murder: a man named Matti Haapanen. 


Matti had been Ismo's good friend and neighbor, and the police believed he might have crucial information regarding Kaija's death. But as the investigators tried to get in contact with him, they found out he and his dog had died in the fire of the summer home in 1986 in Kivinokka, Helsinki. Matti's widow, who was described as a sharp-sighted and precise woman told the police that her husband's death still bothered her—not just because of Matti’s horrifying fate, but because Ismo’s behaviour after the incident made her feel uneasy. According to Matti's widow, her late husband's friend had told her he had been present at the time of the fire, which made no sense at all. When the police then began to look into Matti's death, they soon discovered a plethora of strange incidents connected to Ismo Junni.


Kivinokka was and still is a popular place for people to spend their summers in their allotments. Oddly, there had been an extraordinary number of cabin and warehouse fires during the 1980s, during which Ismo's friend Matti and three others died. The police discovered that Ismo had strong connections to the area—his parents had owned a summer cabin there that was later sold. Kivinokka was a place where Ismo felt at home, and so even though he didn't have his own summer home, he spent a lot of time there with Matti and other acquaintances. 


The deeper they dug; the more investigators felt something was not right. And so they asked for permission to open the investigation into the death of Matti Haapanen. The permission was quickly given, even though it came with a message saying something along the lines of "investigate as much as you want, but this was an accidental fire." Nevertheless, the detectives on the case immediately sat down again with Ismo and asked him about the fire. At first, Ismo told the detectives that he had seen Matti on the day of the fire in November 1986, but he was nowhere near Kivinokka that night at the time of the incident. However, as the detectives kept questioning Ismo day after day, his story changed. Each time, Ismo placed himself a bit closer to the fire until finally admitting it was him who had burned down his friend's summer home.


According to Ismo, he and Matti had gone to Matti's cabin to spend the evening and drink alcohol as they often did. At some point, an argument broke out. He couldn’t recall what it was about, and dismissed it, saying the reason was silly. The two men began wrestling. Eventually, things spiralled out of control, and Ismo hit Matti on the head with a plate and then again with a heavy glass vase. As a result, Matti's partial denture broke, and so did his own teeth. One of his upper incisors came through the upper lip, and it was that tooth Ismo pulled out with his bare hands and put in his pocket. 


During the fight, a candle had fallen over, but instead of putting out the fire, Ismo ensured it spread across the cabin. Satisfied with his work, Ismo picked up a burning lacquer jar and a bottle of alcohol and walked out, leaving Matti unconscious on the bed. Ismo then proceeded to throw the jar into the neighbouring cabin's wall before finding his way to a nearby stone wall where he could sit and watch the fires.


Ismo's confession was a huge breakthrough, but the police needed to confirm if he was really telling the truth. And so, they went through the original case files looking at the details that may have originally been thought to be caused by accident but matched Ismo's version of the events. One of those details was the fact that the neighbouring cabin's wall had burned very badly. The initial investigation concluded that the heat of the fire in Matti's summer home was enough to set another home on fire. However, Ismo's confession about the lacquer jar made much more sense. In addition, Ismo had this rather strange but remarkable ability to recall insignificant details. During questioning, Ismo was able to tell the investigators precisely about the interior of the cabin—he even drew a detailed layout on paper. He also remembered such things as what the colour of the oven mitt was, what fabric the drapes were made of and what kind of vase he used to hit Matti. 


The police then compared Ismo's account to old photographs they had acquired of the cabin. It was quickly confirmed Ismo was indeed telling the truth. Next, the investigators read through Matti's autopsy report. The fact that he had a blood alcohol level of 0.2 again fitted Ismo's version of the events. Disturbingly, the police also confirmed that Matti had still been alive when the fire broke out—his lungs showed signs of smoke inhalation. Furthermore, Ismo had told the investigators that when he walked out the cabin door, he heard his friend calling out in agony.


At this point, the police had already re-opened two cases that were initially considered accidents. Now the question was: was Ismo responsible for the rest of the fires? There had not just been strange cabin fires in Kivinokka in the 1980s, but somebody had also set fires to outhouses and garbage cans. Pretty much wherever they could. If there was a connection between all the incidents, it would mean the police had not just an arsonist in their hands—but a serial killer. When the police looked into the fatal fires in the area, they found a case that took place just a few months before Matti's death in July 1986. Two men had died in another cabin fire in very similar circumstances. When the investigators then asked Ismo about the fire, it didn't take long for him to admit he was indeed responsible for the deaths of Seppo Mäntyniemi and Juha Väre and began explaining what had happened. Ismo said:


"Well, I wasn't asked if they could have a drink, but they just took the bottle without asking. So we fought."


According to Ismo, he had met Seppo and Juha while they were fishing near Kivinokka. The three men had drinks together and eventually headed to a cabin to continue drinking—but as Ismo said, things eventually took a turn for the worse. What started as an argument escalated to a full-on fight which resulted in Ismo being kicked out of the cabin. He then walked to the stone wall, where he sat for some time. But instead of calming down, Ismo felt more and more angry and resentful and eventually decided to return to the cabin. 


At this point, Seppo and Juha had already fallen asleep and didn't wake up when Ismo quietly entered the summer home again. He then picked up a candle and dropped it between the two men on the bed. As the fire began to spread on the sheets, Ismo walked out and poured lamp oil under the cabin. It took only a few moments before the fire was totally out of control—Seppo and Juha never had a chance to get out on time. Meanwhile, Ismo stood a short distance away, watching how the cabin and the two men inside it burned to the ground.


Once again, the investigators asked Ismo to describe the interiors of the summer house and requested pictures from the relatives of the two men to confirm the story. Straight away, as they were checking the photographs from the crime scene, the investigators noticed the bottle of lamp oil next to what was left of the cabin. In addition, Ismo was able to recall accurately what Seppo and Juha looked like—especially their body types. Ismo explained to the police that he had basically measured the physiques of the two men. He said he had thought the younger man was quite slim and would not cause trouble during a fight, but the older one had big fists and strong-looking arms. So even though Ismo claimed the argument had started over drinking etiquette, he had known from the beginning what he was about to do.


Ismo's interrogations continued for weeks, and not that surprisingly, his mental state began to deteriorate. One day, Ismo requested a meeting with his priest and that wish was granted. Meanwhile, the investigation continued, and the police reopened another odd cabin fire case, this time from 1988. The investigators learned that everyone who spent time in Kivinokka knew a man named Pauli Sironen, who was often seen in the area with his bicycle. One day in November of 1988, Pauli's cabin burned down with him inside, and just like all the other fires, the case was quickly closed and marked as a tragic accident. But, when the investigators mentioned the third fatal fire in Kivinokka and asked if Ismo had something to do with it, he immediately said: 


"Well, yes." 


Apparently, Ismo had been buying liquor in Herttoniemi when he accidentally stepped on the toes of a man standing in line behind him. The man in question was Pauli Sironen, who didn't mind his foot but instead made friends with Ismo. The two men headed to Pauli's cabin together and, just like in the other cases, drank and had fun until a fight ensued over some unknown, probably trivial, reason. As a result, Ismo was once again thrown out, and instead of just letting it go, he waited somewhere hidden for the right moment to return to the cabin. Pauli was either sleeping or passed out after drinking too much and didn't wake up when Ismo walked back in and picked up a bottle of lamp oil. He then poured most of the oil on the cabin floor and lit it on fire before going out and throwing the rest of the oil on the wooden stairs. Again, Ismo stayed there watching how the fire developed and only left when emergency services arrived at the scene.


At this point, the investigators were astounded. What had begun with a phone call about the suspicious death of a mother 10 years ago had become an investigation into the murders of five people. After months of putting pieces together, the case went to the Municipal Court in Helsinki, where every single detail was gone through again. Ismo didn't have anything to say about the crimes he had already admitted. That was until the very last fire, the one that killed Pauli Sironen. All of a sudden, after very long legal proceedings, Ismo recanted his confession. He told the court that he could not have been present at the time of the crime as he was being treated for alcoholism in a facility located 50km from Helsinki. In a blink of an eye, the case everybody thought was going to be open-and-shut was put on hold until further investigation had been conducted.


The police changed the officer who was responsible for interviewing Ismo to ensure he told the same version of the events to everyone. This detective also went and questioned employees at the detoxification center and checked their records of the patients. It was quickly learned that even though Ismo may have been treated for alcoholism in the facility, there was no way to confirm if he was present on the night of the murder. The facility's patients were not exactly forced to stay in the building, and due to the number of patients being close to 100, nobody would have noticed if one of them had snuck out and were absent. On top of that, during the second round of questioning, Ismo himself admitted he could leave the facility whenever he wanted and only had to put something in his bed, so it appeared he was sleeping there in case a nightguard was checking. In the end, there was no difference in the stories Ismo told to the two detectives, and he mentioned details of Pauli's cabin that he could not know in any other way than actually visiting the summer home. This time, Ismo even told the detectives that he had tried to take Pauli's bicycle but couldn't break the chain lock. That bicycle can be seen on the crime scene photos with sheet metal shears next to it. There was no question whether Ismo had been present on the night of the fire or not.


It took two years altogether before the court gave a verdict in February 1992. Ismo Junni was eventually found guilty of the murder Seppo Mäntyniemi, Juha Väre, Matti Haapanen and Pauli Sironen. In the case of his wife, Kaija, Ismo was initially convicted of an act according to the Finnish Criminal Law that is equivalent to manslaughter. But the Helsinki Court of Appeal changed the conviction to aggravated assault and negligent homicide. 


Furthermore, Ismo was found guilty of arson and destruction of property—one of the detectives in the case later mentioned Ismo was even found guilty of destroying trees in the city area. For all these counts, Ismo Junni was sentenced to life imprisonment. 


In Finland, the law does not specify a maximum or minimum term for life imprisonment, but on average, the sentence lasts 14 years. After 12 years, the Helsinki Court of Appeal will automatically deal with the continuation of life imprisonment or decide on the prisoner's release. However, in Ismo's case, that would never happen. After his conviction, he served just three years of his sentence before he died at the age of 51 in 1995 due to complications following heart surgery—taking answers to many unanswered questions to his grave.


During the investigation, Ismo's motives for his crimes were never fully revealed. Investigators, however, speculated that this was Ismo's way of showing superiority and proving he was capable of such things. According to Matti's wife, after killing Kaija, Ismo began to threaten people regularly and said he would take revenge on everyone who had done him harm. Ismo seemed like a person who was jealous of what others had and easily expressed his discontent in a violent way. During the investigation, Ismo underwent a mental examination, which concluded he held a grudge even after minor incidents with others. Even if a person said one word wrong to him, Ismo remembered it and waited for his moment to strike back. That explains why he refused to leave after an argument with his drinking buddies and instead sat there waiting before burning their cabins down as an act of revenge. It's also believed Ismo felt resentment because he had spent many happy summers in Kivinokka at his parent's summer home, but the cabin was eventually sold to a stranger, making Ismo suddenly feel like an outsider, in the place he loved most.


In the end, Ismo was said to have shown some signs of remorse after the whole process was over. But it was clear he had been proud of his acts at the time—he had taken the teeth of his victims as souvenirs and stood there watching the fires. But as he only ever spoke about the crimes that he was asked about and never opened up about his motives, many details of what drove Ismo to kill were left in the dark. Also, almost nothing has been said publicly about Ismo's upbringing, his childhood—besides the summers in Kivinokka—and the years leading to his marriage with Kaija. However, Matti Haapanen's wife, Eila, gave an interview to a Finnish magazine focused on crimes called Alibi in May 1992 and revealed the events leading to Ismo's wife's and her husband's death from her point of view.


According to Eila, Ismo and Matti met during one of their drunken trips. The two men eventually became friends, and their families began hanging out togther. After the sudden death of Matti and Eila's baby girl due to meningitis which led to blood poisoning, Matti drowned his sorrow by drinking continually for a year. As Eile didn't allow alcohol in their home, Matti spent a lot of time at Ismo's home. As a result, Kaija, who didn't even like drinking, began to get drunk just so she could stand her husband’s behaviour. Eila explained the situation by saying:


"Matti could stay there for days, even weeks. Sometimes men came to us just to get pissed as I didn't tolerate drunkenness in our house. Ismo was jealous as hell. He suspected that Kaija was sleeping with other men. Sometimes Ismo drank too much and needed to go to sleep first, so Kaija stayed to keep Matti and other friends’ company. When he woke up, Ismo didn't know what had happened while he was sleeping and began to suspect the worst, so his wife got a beating just to be sure. I think Matti and Kaija got along very well. They were somehow on the same wavelength. I was a little jealous of this myself at first. However, I soon realised that I can't do anything if two people like each other."


Eila continued by saying that she and Kaija often spoke about how they should swap out husbands. Ismo tried to force Kaija under his command, but she refused to keep her mouth shut and kowtow to her husband. Meanwhile, Eila didn't mind a man being the head of the family, and she didn't drink—just how Ismo liked it. When Matti then managed to stay sober for a long time, Ismo also tried to quit drinking and go to work but with poor results. 


According to Eila, Ismo's life was nothing but trying—he always started something but never finished. But there was one thing Eila was afraid Ismo would eventually carry through to the end. For some time, Eila saw the signs of Kaija's life being in danger, but unfortunately, in their residential area in Kontula, Helsinki, it was a norm that no one contacted the authorities but tried to manage everything on their own. If the police started asking questions on their own, nobody would know anything. Eila tried to talk about the situation to Matti and her mother, but both ignored her worries, saying that nothing could be done about these things anyway. Then came that one day in August 1980, when Ismo walked to Eila and Matti's apartment looking unusually neat with a fresh shave and combed hair. As Ismo stood there in his clean pants and pressed shirt, he calmly stated:


"Kaija is dead."


According to Eila, Ismo told them he was sure the police would try to blame him for his wife's death. But after police  questioning, Ismo returned home happy, explaining that the investigators had tried to put the murder on him, but they had nothing to prove it. Ismo then proceeded to tell Eila and Matti how Kaija had fallen on the stairs before having a bath. She was drunk at the time and had accidentally fallen into the bathtub, causing her to drown. After the death was ruled an accident, Ismo received life insurance and pension money of 50,000 marks, equivalent to about 27,000 euros or dollars today. Together with Matti, Ismo used that money to buy copious amounts of alcohol. 


Strangely, when Ismo was drunk, he told many different versions of Kaija's death to his friends. Eventually, Matti and Eila became suspicious and wondered if it really was Ismo who had killed Kaija—and just then, he admitted to pushing his wife's head under the water. During her interview, Eila claimed she spoke about Ismo's confession with her husband many times, saying she wanted to go to the police—but Matti refused. And so, for years, nobody else, except Ismo's children, knew what really had happened to Kaija Junni.

Afterward, life carried on as normal. Ismo and Matti continued drinking and having wrestling matches. But Eila noticed that at some point, Ismo stopped fighting and let Matti smack and mock him, calling him the "Bathtub Man." Ismo only calmly replied that in the end, they would see what would happen to Matti. And to Eila, Ismo said, "don't worry, it will soon be easier for you too.


That remark made Eila think, as she explained in the interview:


"Afterwards, I have thought about Ismo's words many times and came to the conclusion that Ismo had decided to kill Matti and was just waiting for an opportunity. He wanted to get rid of the witness, and secondly, he wanted to make my life easier."


In addition, Ismo, in his drunken state, sometimes spoke about his eldest son because the boy had told his father he knew the truth about his mother's death. Matti even once saved that boy's life. One day, Ismo had hit his son's head against the concrete wall and would have killed the boy if Matti hadn't intervened.


Around this time, Ismo's father made the decision to sell their cabin in Kivinokka, making his son very bitter. However, as Matti and Eila then bought a summer home in the area, Ismo still had a place to go. In Juli 1986, the first cabin burned down, killing Juha Väre ja Seppo Mäntyniemi. According to Eila, she believed the fire was just an accident, but Matti immediately thought Ismo had something to do with the incident. That, however, didn't save him as on November 25, 1986, the second cabin burned down with Matti inside. Now, Eila had no questions about Ismo's guilt, and eventually she told the investigators everything she knew. And yet, Eila's statement was brushed off as insignificant, and she was basically ridiculed because everybody thought the fire was just an accident. Eila described the following years by saying:


"After the death of Kaija and Matti, Ismo became anxious. I, too, lived with anxiety for more than five years. I knew Ismo had killed his wife and my husband, so I ran

away with my thoughts to work. I spent more than four years in two jobs. Working days were constantly stretched to 16 hours. I felt immense relief when the investigations were restarted in January 1990. In court, Ismo's eldest son said he would doff the hat to me because I had told the truth."


It is shocking that most of the crimes of Ismo Junni would likely have gone unrevealed if it wasn't for his own son. Without that one phone call, one of Finland's worst serial killer and arsonist’s crimes could have been only remembered as tragic drunken accidents—and who knows how many more cabins he would have burned down.


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