A cold blast from the past by Quentin Bates

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Almost forty years ago two men disappeared in Iceland. In January 1974 the 18-year old Gudmundur Einarsson vanished after a dance in the town of Hafnarfjördur. It was assumed at the time that he had got lost at night in a snowstorm. His remains have never been found.

In November that same year, middle-aged digger driver Geirfinnur Einarsson answered a phone call at home one evening and went out to meet someone at a local kiosk, without telling his wife who had called. He was never seen again.

The local police in Keflavík struggled with Geirfinnur Einarsson’s disappearance, as did the Reykjavík force when they subsequently took over the case.

A group of young people on the fringes of what could be termed Iceland’s underworld of petty crime – running small scams and dealing in illicit booze and a little dope – were arrested, held for long periods, released, re-arrested and held again in a convoluted process of interrogations, wildly conflicting statements that were later withdrawn and contradictory testimony from confused suspects – plus that small-town staple, gossip. One of the suspects had supposedly been rumoured to have known what had happened to Geirfinnur Einarsson, which was enough for him to be implicated.

With attention from the newspapers and pressure to conclude two cases that had somehow become linked, a senior detective was brought in from Germany to manage the investigation that finally came to an unsatisfactory end in 1977.

The Gudmundur & Geirfinnur Case was a milestone as the first over which some serious questions had to be asked about the methods used to obtain the confessions that were the prosecution’s only evidence. Subsequently all of the suspects withdrew their statements, as did the few witnesses the prosecution was able to call.

Gudmundur Einarsson was thought to have been thrown into a deep crack in the lava fields south of Reykjavík, while Geirfinnur Einarsson was believed to have been killed in a fight on the slipway at Keflavík and his body buried far from habitation. Despite searches carried out where they were supposed to have been disposed of, albeit some time after their respective disappearances, nothing was found.

The case has cropped up sporadically in the media in Iceland, a reminder of what went wrong almost forty years ago and of a more innocent age. This was a very different Iceland with virtually non-existent serious crime and it’s no surprise that the police were at a loss.

Most recently the case has gathered attention once again with the death earlier this year of Sævar Ciesielski, one of the four sentenced for murders, and one of the two men who received the heaviest possible sentence for having been implicated in both killings.

He died of complications following an accident in Copenhagen where he had lived for some years after a highly troubled lifetime that saw him become one of the city’s street people.

Sævar Ciesielski had never ceased his unsuccessful battle to have the case re-opened, and the refusal by the Supreme Court to do so was a huge blow to him. This wasn’t a surprise. It’s understandable that there’s little stomach within the establishment for re-opening a 40-year old case with very little to work on other than a swathe of 10,000 pages of documents.

The authorities’ attitude has been that the case shouldn’t be re-opened without new evidence coming to light – not that there was any evidence to start with. There were no convincing motives, no forensic evidence, no murder weapons, no reliable witnesses – and no bodies.

Another of those convicted kept detailed diaries that have recently come to light since his death two years ago, and have been examined by a leading specialist in forensic psychology. Professor Gísli Gudjónsson, who was a key witness in overturning the wrongful convictions of the Birmingham Six and the Guildford Four in Britain, has said that Tryggvi Rúnar Leifsson’s diaries indicate that he had been, as he had always protested, an innocent man.

With many of the officials and politicians who presided over the fiasco no longer alive to defend their actions at the time, there are others of those who served time for this strange crime who still want to clear their names.

The case remains a sore point in the history of Iceland’s justice system, a reminder of what can go wrong when the rumour mill is running at full tilt, there’s a case of completely new dimensions to deal with and pressure from above to get things neatly sorted out.

The ball is now back in the government’s court once again. Interior Minister Ögmundur Jónasson is reportedly mulling the matter over and deciding on whether it should be pursued by a government that already has plenty on its plate.

A little belated housekeeping is needed in the Gudmundur & Geirfinnur Case, particularly as regards those convicted on evidence that required some significant leaps of imagination.

Looking in from the outside, the cracks in the system and what went wrong look pretty clear. But the real mystery is what did really happen to Gudmundur Einarsson and Geirfinnur Einarsson in 1974, almost certainly in unrelated incidents? Somewhere there have to be two sets of old bones that deserve to be laid to rest and two mysteries that still need to be unravelled.

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