In Focus: The Murder Case That Shook Iceland This Year


In Focus: The Murder Case That Shook Iceland This Year

By: Geir Finnsson
Search for Birna Brjánsdóttir.

In January this year, the entire Icelandic nation was shocked to learn that a local girl had gone missing. The main lead in the investigation was a red rental car captured on security cameras. In such a tight-knit community, a disappearance case can deeply affect everyone.

The disappearance
On Friday, January 13th, the 20-year-old Birna Brjánsdóttir was partying downtown with her friends, like most Icelanders her age would have. Once the nightclubs closed in the early morning, Birna enjoyed a late night snack in one of the town’s restaurants before walking up Laugavegur street. She was last seen on security camera footage at 5:25 AM, close to a red Kia Rio car.

Statistically speaking, Icelandic streets are considered the safest in the world, which made Birna’s disappearance all the more shocking. Homicides are very rare in the country, with none being committed in 2003, 2006 and 2008. A little over 340 thousand people live in the country, which makes the nightlife scene safer than most others.

Police traced signals from her phone, which showed her travelling to the nearby town of Hafnarfjörður shortly before 6 AM. After countless volunteers searched for any trace of the missing girl, her shoes were found near the Hafnarfjörður harbour on January 16th. This discovery was a turning point for the police, as security cameras had spotted a red Kia Rio car near the harbour on the morning of her disappearance. Exiting the car were two men who talked for a while before one of them boarded a trawler and the other returned to the car and drove away.

A day later, members of the police’s special forces boarded the Greenlandic trawler Polar Nanoq, which was on its way to Greenland. There they arrested two men and returned back to Iceland for interrogation. They were kept in isolation for a few days until one of the men was released while the other was kept under custody. Polar Nanoq returned to Hafnarfjörður harbour on January 19th, and on board were twenty kilograms of hashish, as well as Birna’s ID and other items belonging to her. Her blood was found in the confiscated red Kia Rio car as well.

The most extensive search in Iceland’s history
The fact remained, however, that Birna herself was still missing. The main suspect revealed nothing of importance under interrogation, only claiming his innocence. Search and rescue volunteers, under consultation with police, undertook the most extensive search in Iceland’s history, involving over eight hundred people. Eight days after her disappearance, Birna’s body was found naked on the beach near Selvogsviti lighthouse, on the Reykjanes peninsula in South-West Iceland.

The autopsy confirmed that Birna’s cause of death was drowning. Her neck had been constricted prior to being dumped into the ocean, where she died.

Later it was revealed that Greenlander Thomas Møller Olsen was the suspect in custody, as was made fairly certain as soon as the trawler was intercepted. Birna’s death was equally as shocking to Greenland as it was to Iceland. With a population of nearly 60 thousand people, learning that the murder suspect was from Greenland caused quite a distress among the nation, who paid their respects to Birna with candle-lit ceremonies. Discrimination towards Greenlanders was on the rise, prompting individuals such as Birna’s father and Guðni Th. Jóhannesson, the president of Iceland to warn against placing the blame against an entire nation.

The trials begin
The trials over Thomas were split into three phases. On July 18th, Faroese sailors on board Polar Nanoq went on record, detailing the events of when the ship was at the harbour in Hafnarfjörður. They described the relationship between Thomas and Nikolaj Olsen, the previous suspect who was also being interrogated. One person said in the trial that Thomas had been exceptionally agitated after receiving a text message from a news reporter who had managed to figure out that Thomas was a suspect, asking him about the case.

The bulk of the trials took place during August 21-22. Thomas plead not guilty to the charges of murdering Birna, hinting instead that Nikolaj might be the likelier suspect. Thomas’s testimony during the trials was very different from the explanations he gave the police during the interrogations. According to Thomas, this was due to the police’s harsh treatment and his confusion, as he was very drunk during the time of Birna’s disappearance.

Thomas’s lawyer claimed that his client couldn’t be sentenced for drug trafficking (twenty kilograms of hashish were found aboard the trawler, to which he admitted owning), the reason being that police had arrested him illegally outside of Iceland’s jurisdiction. The actions of the police, turning the trawler around to Reykjavík, were what brought the drugs to Iceland in the first place.

The prosecutor claimed that Thomas was without a doubt Birna’s murderer, seeing as every evidence pointed to that fact. The police and specialists told the court about the investigation, revealing that evidence showed struggle having taken place inside the car, which was covered with Birna’s blood. Her blood had been found on Thomas’s coat, his DNA had been found on her shoelaces and his fingerprints on her driver’s license.

The verdict
Yesterday, on September 29th, Thomas was sentenced to 19 years in prison for the murder of Birna, as well as the attempted smuggling of over 20 kilograms of hashish. The judgement was rendered in the district court of Reykjanes, South Iceland. At the time of this writing, it is unclear whether the case will be appealed to the Icelandic Supreme Court.

Olsen will also have to pay Birna’s parents approximately 29 million krona ($ 271917.49) in legal costs and settlement.

The penalty framework for manslaughter in Iceland is life imprisonment, although sentences almost never surpass 16 years in prison. The smuggling of drugs is punishable by up to 12 years.

In Focus is a series of articles intended to shed light on contemporary issues in Iceland, keeping readers informed on subjects and matters present in the national discussion.


Rescue workers searching for Birna in January, earlier this year.