17/08/2017 07:52 BST | Updated 17/08/2017 07:52 BST

The Story Of The Biggest Criminal Investigation In Iceland's History

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'Every Icelander knows about this case.'

In 1974 two men vanished several months apart. At the time, Iceland had a population of just over 200,000 and was a close, tight knit community, where crime was relatively rare. This infamous case - which soon became a double murder investigation - shook the country and the police were under intense pressure to find the people responsible.

But the police got nowhere: there were no bodies, no witnesses and no forensic evidence. Then six suspects were arrested and confessed to the murders and faced long, harsh sentences. It appeared that justice had been done.

Nothing could be further from the truth...

Erla Bolladottir and her boyfriend, Saevar Ciesielski were the first to be arrested. They were two hippies riding the crest of the small, anti-establishment wave in Reykjavík. They had originally been convicted for petty fraud but were suddenly confessing to double murder. Erla, was terrified, she was only 20 at the time and had been separated from her small baby. Under intense pressure, she gave the police names of other people who were allegedly involved. Before long six people confessed to the murders. But something didn't add up - their stories didn't match.


In order to convict them for murder, the confessions would have to be consistent. Enter Karl Shultz. A German 'supercop' who had cracked the infamous Baader-Meinhof gang. He was brought to Iceland to solve the case, and he oversaw the interrogations to 'harmonise' these conflicting and often contradictory stories. The confessions had to be aligned. The suspects were kept in solitary confinement for long stretches. One of the accused - Trggvi Leifsson - spent the longest recorded stint outside Guantanamo Bay - 655 days - in solitary confinement. The suspects were also given powerful drugs and subjected to water torture and sleep deprivation. Police spent weeks taking them out to search the vast lava fields for the bodies and to re-enact the crimes again and again. They were denied legal counsel and assumed to be guilty.

Forty years later this notorious murder case was reopened when new evidence brought into question everything that had gone before. This led to a major government inquiry which exposed the great incompetence and abuses of the police investigation. This inquiry triggered a process which will be heard this autumn by Iceland's Supreme Court who will consider whether to acquit all those convicted of murder.


What makes this case so unique, is that five out of the six were said to suffer from Memory Distrust Syndrome. They started to distrust of their own minds and furthermore what was suggested to them during interrogation became more real than their own recollections. Memory Distrust Syndrome can create confusion so extreme that people may confess to crimes they didn't commit - even something as a serious as murder.

Today, most of the Icelandic population now believe them to be innocent. According to the former Minister of the Interior, Ogmundur Jonasson, the case will be a black mark upon Iceland's 'collective conscience' until 'justice [is] done'. But the defendants have had their lives and their very sense of self shattered by the experience. Even today, some of them still harbour doubts about whether they did it or not...

Out of Thin Air is on BBC Storyville, BBC Four on 14 August at 10pm and BBC iPlayer (from 15 August 2017). It will be available on Netflix from September 2017.