When most people think of Iceland they perhaps think of windswept grey tundras, long nights in the winter, and not much else. It is a sparsely populated country dominated by bitterly cold wilderness, but it is also one of the safest countries in the world, and has a unique and charming culture all its own. Yet despite its famed safety, sometimes bad things happen, and there are unsolved crimes even all the way out there in this faraway land. One of the most famous in Iceland, but still relatively unknown to the outside world, is a series of unsolved vanishings that would launch one of the longest, most intense, and weirdest the country has ever seen.
The whole strange tale begins at the bleak, wind blasted lava fields sprawled over much of the Reykjanes peninsula and passes near the Icelandic town of Hafnarfjordur, south of Reykjavik. Here lies a swath of gnarled, jagged lava frozen in its final death throes, concealing crevasses, fissures, cracks, and caves, that span for hundreds of miles and look like the surface of some surreal alien world, all covered with a sheen of green moss and concealed in a cold, perpetual night during the winter months. It was here in this dangerous realm of twisted rock where on January 24, 1974 an 18-year-old laborer by the name of Guðmundur Einarsson was taking a 6-mile hike home from a party at a community hall in Hafnarfjordur. It was a bad night to be out in this moonscape rocky wilderness, the snow falling heavily at the time, the relentless wind a howling, biting beast, and it seemed to have been getting the better of Guðmundur, who was seen by a passing motorist falling over by the side of the road to get back up again to keep stumbling along. As far as anyone knows, this is the last time anyone would ever see the young man, and he trekked off along those lava fields and off the face of the earth. He never returned home and an extensive search of the area would find no trace of the man. He had just vanished.
With no leads at all and nothing to go on, the case quickly went as cold as those rocky fields, and the disappearance of Guðmundur Einarsson was sort of forgotten, authorities convinced that he had tragically tumbled into one of the many fissure in the area and doomed to remain unfound in his icy grave. It may have remained that way if it wasn’t for another vanishing that would follow 10 months later, when on the endless night of November, 1974, 32-year-old Geirfinnur Einarsson, who was not related to Guðmundur despite his last name, received a phone call as he sat at his home in the town of Keflavik and got up to go out on an unknown errand. He allegedly drove out to a nearby café and proceeded to vanish into thin air, leaving behind his unlocked car with the keys still in the ignition. He was never seen again.
Although disappearances are not unheard of in Iceland, these two cases had happened in an otherwise quite area where nothing much happened within a year of each other, and considering their close geographical proximity were suspected to be perhaps linked somehow. Authorities quickly became certain that some sort of foul play had been involved, despite absolutely no evidence to that effect, and so began the most extensive, intense police investigation in Iceland history, which would go on to last decades. It began with a full search of the areas where the men had gone missing, including a thorough combing of the harbor at Keflavik, as well as complete background checks on the two missing men, including scouring their personal histories and bank account activity, but nothing suspicious at all was found.
In the case of Geirfinnur, police believed they had a lead in the person who had called him at his home before he vanished, but oddly the person could not be located anywhere despite a massive manhunt, just as much a specter as the victims had become. Interviews with family and friends found that the two men had had no known enemies, no nefarious dealings, just an unfounded rumor that Geirfinnur had maybe been involved in alcohol bootlegging, and they had not been on any drugs and no witnesses to any crime could be found, yet authorities still clung tightly to the idea that this had been murder.
By the middle of 1975 it was looking as if the case would never be solved, and the police became increasingly desperate to crack it, with pressure mounting by a minor mass hysteria among locals who demanded that they do something. This was around the time when authorities checked into some rumors they had heard that a Polish immigrant and known petty criminal named Saevar Ciesielski had had something to do with it all, or at least knew who did. He was rounded up for questioning, along with a motley crew of his associates, Kristjan Vídar Vídarsson, Tryggvi Rúnar Leifsson, Albert Klahn Skaftason, Guðjón Skarphéðinsson and Erla Bolladóttir, and so would begin one of the most bizarre interrogations ever, which would eventually span decades and not really do much to find real answers.
Police immediately absolutely went to town on these suspects, beginning with strong arm gestapo tactics of keeping them in custody despite any evidence and aggressive, long interrogations with no lawyer present, in which they were told over and over to confess to what they had done and that they knew something. They were also taken to the areas where the men had disappeared and asked to “re-enact” what had happened, forcing them to act out strangling or otherwise killing a stand in for the two missing men, in a sort of “If you did it how would it have gone down?” sort of scenario. This graduated to torture such as water boarding and sleep deprivation, and between rounds of questioning and torture they were kept separately in solitary confinement and given drugs. Former Icelandic detective Gísli Guðjónsson would in later years describe what these suspects went through:
I've worked on miscarriages of justice in many different countries. I've testified in several countries - hundreds of cases I’ve done, big cases. I'd never come across any case where there had been such intense interrogation, so many interrogations and such lengthy solitary confinement. I mean I was absolutely shocked when I saw that.
The suspect list would soon grow longer, as more people were detained and subjected to the same harsh treatment. At first all of the suspects flat out denied it, but the tactics being used slowly started to whittle away at their psyches, making them doubt whether they remembered correctly or not, and they began to wonder if they really had done it after all, whether they remembered it or not. In the end, many of these people were kept in solitary confinement for months or in some cases well over a year, all without any evidence and constantly tricked into incriminating themselves, and they began to mentally deteriorate, one by one caving in and signing confessions to murdering the men just to get out of solitary and get it over with. It made no difference at all that their stories were completely all over the place and contradictory, or that they still said they couldn’t really remember much. It didn’t matter that some of the “confessions” were more or less admitting to being in the same area at around the same time as the vanishings. For the authorities, confessions were confessions, case closed, and the police took it and went with it, proclaiming that they had solved the case.
When the smoke cleared, all six of the original suspects were found guilty in December of 1977, receiving varying prison sentences ranging from 3 years to life. Sævar Ciesielski, Kristján Viðar and Tryggvi Rúnar were convicted for killing Guðmundur, with an accomplice, Albert Klahn, accused of hiding the body in the lava fields and a Erla Bolladóttir convicted of perjury for giving false leads to the police. As for the death of Geirfinnur, he was deemed to have been killed by Sævar Ciesielski, Kristján Viðar and Guðjón, allegedly over a failed illegal alcohol deal. And so the police had their criminals, despite any bodies, no physical evidence at all, and varying versions of supposed events. Case closed right? Even as their sentences were read out none of them could actually remember anything they had been accused of, and their minds were addled and foggy.
It is perhaps no surprise at all that the whole thing was rather suspicious, and it did not take long at all for people to begin complaining that this had been a gross miscarriage of justice, and that these supposed criminals had been coerced into giving false confessions. Experts who looked at the treatment and interrogation techniques used pointed out that this had likely been an example of memory implantation, meaning that the torture and interrogation techniques used had sown doubts in the suspects’ minds. Essentially, they were told so many times that they had done it, mislead into incriminating themselves, asked to reenact things, and taken to the scenes of the vanishings so often, not to mention being locked away in solitary, tortured, and sleep deprived, that they had started to believe and been infected with the delusion that maybe they had something to do with it after all. Over the years there was mounting suspicion that the police had harangued and arrested innocent people, but the convicted remained languishing behind bars. It would not be until decades later that they would finally see any action on their behalf.
When word got out in the mainstream European press in outlets such as the BBC in 2014, the world was shocked. How had this gross violation of the law and miscarriage of justice happened? The outrage, publicity, scrutiny, criticism, and growing pressure from the international community had the Icelandic government do an about face, reopen the case in 2016, and set up a retrial with the Supreme Court of Iceland in 2018, during which five of the six convicted suspects were acquitted, with only Erla Bolladóttir remaining guilty of perjury. Sadly, Rúnar and Ciesielski were acquitted posthumously, with both of them having died years before without ever being able to see their names exonerated.
It is important to note that even after all of this, we are still left with the mystery of who actually did it, and what happened to the two missing men. On this front there have been very few clues or leads, but there was a promising new piece of information given to police as recently as 2016. In October of that year a man claimed that the night before Geirfinnur disappeared back in 1974 he had seen two strangers at the docks guiding a third, weaker looking man between them onto a boat to head into the harbor. When the boat came back, there were only two who got off. He would later find out from missing persons posters that the third man was Geirfinnur, but telephone threats from a mysterious party had kept him from coming forward with what he had seen. It is a curious potential lead, but so far has not led to anything groundbreaking.
In the end, the disappearances of Guðmundur and Geirfinnur Einarsson have never been solved, their bodies never found, and now no suspects or solid clues at all remain, all of it made even muddier by the false confessions and retrial. The case has become legendary in its native Iceland, where it has been hotly talked about and discussed for decades, and in 2017 it was introduced to a wider audience through a 2104 BBC program called The Reykjavík Confessions, and more recently with the Netflix documentary Out of Thin Air, released in 2016. It is an amazing odyssey of strange vanishings, blurry clues, police cover-ups and case mishandling, and sheer bizarreness in the frozen wilds of a faraway, exotic land that most people know little about, and it seems like the mystery will remain buried out there in that grey alien landscape forevermore.