“Sugar Paper Theories” and the Reykjavik Confessions

There was huge pressure on the Icelandic Police to solve the mystery of Geirfinnur Einarsson’s sudden vanishing. One day, an officer asked Erla Bolladottir if she knew anything about his disappearance. “Maybe”, she said. The following day, the lead investigator turned up at the tiny apartment she lived in, saying, we will help you remember what happened to this one too.

On the evening of November 19, 1974, Geirfinnur Einarsson was at home with his wife and two young children in the town of Keflavik, just over 30 miles from the Icelandic capital of Reykjavik. When the phone rang, his ten year old son answered it. A male voice asked for Geirfinnur. “I came”, his wife heard him say. A pause. “Well, then I will come.”

On finishing the call, Geirfinnur took his car keys and left the house without saying anything, something his wife would later say was quite normal for him. He drove down to the Harbour Shop in Keflavik where he bought cigarettes. The shop assistant, whose name was Gudlaug and who knew Geirfinnur well, said that he seemed to be in a hurry and did not stop to chat, as he usually did. Gudlaug was the last person to see Geirfinnur Einarsson alive.

Thirteen months after his disappearance, police in Hafnarfjordur, 24 miles from Keflavik, arrested 20 year old Erla Bolladottir and her boyfriend Saevar Ciesielski for cashing bad cheques. Saevar in particular was known to police as a strictly small time crook dabbling in financial fraud and cannabis smuggling. Although the offence for which they were arrested occurred a year earlier, police had known about it all along, but it was only now that they came to pick the couple up. Just eleven weeks before their arrest, Erla and Saevar had become parents for the first time.

At a time when the tiny Icelandic police force was already under scrutiny because of their failure in a 1968 investigation into the shooting of a taxi driver – violent fatal crimes are rare in Iceland – there was tremendous pressure on them to solve the mystery of Geirfinnur Einarsson’s sudden vanishing. One day, an officer asked Erla if she knew anything about his disappearance.

“Maybe”, she said.

The following day, the lead investigator turned up at the tiny apartment the three lived in, saying, we will help you remember what happened to this one too.

*     *     *

Almost two years earlier, in January 1974, there had been another disappearance. An 18 year old youth called Gudmundar Einarsson, no relation to Geirfinnur Einarsson, had been partying in Hafnarfjordur. At the end of the night he announced to friends that he would walk the six or seven miles back home. There was a storm that night, the snow was bad and Gudmundar was already quite the worse for wear. Twice during that journey he was spotted making his way home, once alone and once in the company of another man. He was so unsteady that he almost slipped and fell under a moving car. That was the last time that Gudmundar Einarsson was ever seen alive.

Disappearances in Iceland are surprisingly common. Harsh terrain, bad weather, vicious cold and dangerous conditions account for many of the disappeared, but perhaps not all. Some disappearances are attributed to the huldufolk, the secret people who appear in Icelandic and Faroese mythology. Their influence and existence, whilst perhaps not formally recognised in Iceland, is at least informally acknowledged. In a 1975 survey, 55% of Icelanders polled said that it was at least possible that the huldufolk existed, whilst the number increased by just less than 1% when the survey was rerun in 2006. With no evidence of a crime, no witnesses, no weapon, no motive, no body and a victim unprepared in every way for a long walk in treacherous conditions through a strong storm, abduction by huldufolk was probably as likely as any other nefarious outcome.

Whilst Erla was being questioned over the minor fraud charges in December 1975, one of the policeman pulled out a photo of Gudmundar Einarsson and in possibly the most stunning piece of police intuition on record, decided to ask Erla if she recognised him.

She did. In fact, some years earlier, Gudmundar Einarsson had spoken to Erla at a school disco. She remember being flattered. She remembered him being good looking, and she remembered they had had a pleasant time talking. Moreover, she remembered the night that he disappeared vividly. She’d had a bad dream, thinking that she could hear mysterious voices – her boyfriend Saevar, plus a few others – talking underneath her bedroom window in Hafnarfjordur.The dream scared her so much that, according to some reports, she actually wet the bed.

Seizing on this the Police convinced themselves that what Erla had experienced was not a dream but the repression of a memory so terrible, it was breaking free into her consciousness in fragments and half-truths. Perhaps she had not dreamed the voices, they said; she might have actually heard them. She might have participated in the conversation. And she might have participated in the murder of Gudmundar Einarsson.

They set about helping Erla to remember more about what happened that on night with the help of long interrogations and longer periods in solitary confinement. Moreover, they set about helping her boyfriend Saevar to remember too. After 10 hours of continuous interrogation following Erla’s admission of recognising the 18 year old, Police produced a statement saying that Saevar and three friends – Kristjan Vidar Vidarsson, Tryggvi Runar Leifsson, and Albert Klahn Skaftason – were responsible for Gudmundar’s death, and that Erla had witnessed the four men with Gudmundar’s body, wrapped in a bed sheet. It was this, according to the police’s theory, that Erla was recalling.

Over the following weeks of lengthy interrogations, sometimes continuing through the night and punctuated only by long spells of solitary confinement (under threat of indefinite solitary detention, which was within their powers), the police developed their theory further. Apparently a bottle of spirits was the root cause. There was a disagreement over who should pay for it and as a result Saevar, Kristjan and Tryggvi had murdered Gudmundar. Unable to cope with the interrogations and the isolation of solitary confinement, Albert admitted to driving the car by which they transported Gudmundar’s body to the lava fields to hide it. The huldufolk were off the hook.

The Icelandic Police had two unsolved mysteries that they needed to clear off their books. They had already arrested these five young people, living on the edge of civilised society and dabbling in low level crime, and proved beyond (their own) doubt that they were responsible for one of them regardless of the lack of any evidence.Through the use of prolonged interrogation and solitary confinement they had induced such a level of doubt and lack of faith in their own memories that the people they arrested couldn’t even be sure whether they had been involved in the murder of Gudmundar Einarsson from one day to the next. It was therefore only the second most stunning piece of police intuition when they produced a picture of Geirfinnur Einarsson and asked Erla if she knew anything about his disappearance too.

“Maybe”, she said.

*     *     *

“Sugar Paper Theories” is not an in-depth exploration of a violent crime in the manner of Vincent Bugliosi’s “Helter Skelter” or “True Blood” by Truman Capote. At the same time it’s not a coffee table book of beautiful landscape images like Sebastiao Salgado’s “Genesis” or “This Land” by Joe Cornish. It’s more like an investigation file, full of clippings, explanations, diagrams, crime scene photos and original photography. It’s co-created by Professor Gisli Gudjonsson CBE and photographer Jack Latham and published by Here Press and The Photographer’s Gallery.

‘Sugar Paper Theories’ published by @herepress September 6th, @TPGallery

Booking Essential

— Jack Latham (@JackLatham) August 18, 2016

Gudjonsson is a former Reykjavik police officer who was in the force at the time of the disappearances. Now a renowned memory expert and forensic psychologist, it was his theory of memory distrust syndrome that helped to free the Guildford Four and Birmingham Six. He provides the original written material for the book, covering the background, the crime, the investigation, and the aftermath.

Jack Latham is a photographer and recipient of the Bar Tur Photobook Award for 2016 for “Sugar Paper Theories”. He provides the original photography throughout the book, and it’s stunning. Each landscape shot does an amazing job of establishing a sense of space and isolation. The palette is muted and predominantly white, to the extent that some of the landscape shots are so monotone that it’s difficult to tell whether it’s a colour or black and white shot.

Picture of "Sugar Paper Theories" by Jack LathamPicture of “Sugar Paper Theories” by Jack Latham

The book itself is an experience. Alongside Latham’s original photography, which is presented on beautiful, high-quality glossy paper, many of the crime scene photos are also reproduced. They’re presented as black, almost photocopied print on dark, rough paper. They cover two pages, but not facing sides – they’re printed on one continuous piece of paper, folded in the middle with the image facing outwards in opposite directions, with both edges are glued to the spine to form a loop of paper that you can’t unfold. You suddenly realise that it’s an artistic decision and a statement about the case. You have to distort the scene to accommodate your vision and see the picture you think is there.

*     *     *

As the police developed each person’s account of the crime to fit the everchanging theory of how police thought the crime took place, a character called The Foreigner started to appear in accounts. Police combed the nation and asked the population of 300,000 people to help locate this mysterious Foreigner. Eventually they settled for arresting an Icelandic man, Gudjon Skarphedinsson, on little more than the fact that he knew Saevar and had dark hair which (according to police) made him look a bit foreign. Gudjon’s association with Saevar was linked to cannabis smuggling and use, which was something that the police despaired at when they were trying to get Gudjon to remember specific things about a night two and a half years prior to his arrest in August 1976.

By this time the Icelandic authorities had called in the help of an expert. Karl Schulz had previously beaten the Baader-Meinhof gang, a group of domestic terrorists in Germany. Schulz set up an expert task force with the aim of ensuring that the six arrested got their stories straight before the case went to trial. Although they now had confessions, some of the details proved troubling, such as the fact that the stories did not agree with each other. The accused were also frustratingly unclear about which parts of the crime they were responsible for, and where key events had happened.

Once the police had settled on their theory that the bodies had been disposed of in the lava fields (for some time the theories revolved round boats and the harbour), they started taking the six out to identify the location of the bodies. There were over 60 such trips. Every time the question “is there where the bodies are?” was asked, it was met with a variation of, “I don’t know, maybe?”

*     *     *

Whilst he was in prison, Gudjon kept a diary. It covers the 14 months that he was held on remand. Extracts from it are reproduced in Sugar Paper Theories. They appear on different sized paper to the other pages, small, like a diary’s pages would be. They illustrate the slow process of losing one’s mind, of beginning to doubt whether one’s own memory can be trusted.

*     *     *

All six were found guilty of the offences with which they were charged in the murders of Gudmundar and Geirfinnur. Saevar was given 17 years for his role in both murders. Erla, only implicated in Gudmundar’s demise, was given three. To this date there is still no forensic evidence nor eyewitness testimony suggesting that a crime took place at all.

In 1975 Valtyr Siggurdsson was a young lawyer in charge of the investigation. By 2014, he was Iceland’s Director of Public Prosecutions. Interviewed by the BBC in that year, he said:

“Of course we never found the bodies but I think they’re guilty. There were many, many clues, that if you put together, you can prove they had done it, not only the confessions…”

At one point or another, all six had confessed to being involved in the two murders. Their confessions came after multiple interrogations and excessive periods in solitary confinement – at this point, police were only trying to prove they were involved in the crime. The solitary confinement was not part of the punishment for committing the crime, it was a tactic used to induce people into agreeing that they had taken part in the crime before going to trial.

Erla, suffering from post-natal depression and desperate to get back to her baby, spent 105 days in isolation and was interrogated over 100 times for up to 10 hours at a time. She was allowed to see her lawyer only three times in that period. Tryggvi fared worst of the group. He spent 655 days in isolation out of the 1522 that he was in custody, and was also given diazepam and mogadon by police, ostensibly to help him sleep. Saevar was in custody for 1533 days and in isolation for 615 days, whilst Gudjon was isolated for 412 days out of the 1202 he was detailed for. Even for his minor role (police eventually decided his role was just to help cover up Gudmundar’s death) Albert was in isolation for 87 days.

*     *     *

In Iceland the clamour is growing to open an investigation into whether the six were victims of a miscarriage of justice. Albert refuses to speak to anyone except Gisli Gudjonsson about it:

“The sad thing is after almost 40 years, Albert Klahn doesn’t know what happened. He doesn’t know whether he is guilty or innocent. Can you imagine? After 40 years, you’re living in the dread that perhaps you were involved and you can’t remember anything.”

Perhaps the police’s own files hold the answer. Amongst the maps, diagrams, notes and other crime scene photos are a series of black and white A5 photos. In one, a dummy lies in the street, playing the part of one of the murder victims. Kristjan is in the photo, standing nearby, looking on. In another Kristjan is photographed pretending to strangle a policeman who is playing the part of Geirfinnur.

As the police became more and more desperate to make a case, they asked the six to ‘reenact’ the crimes as the police told them they had happened. Between the incessant interrogation, the threats, the solitary confinement, the drugs and being asked to physically reenact the crimes, it’s little wonder that they struggled to tell the difference between what had actually happened, and what the police told them had happened.

“It is beyond a reasonable doubt, as we criminal experts like to put it, that it’s safe to assume it’s an open and shut case.”

Karl Schulz


Purchasing “Sugar Paper Theories”

“Sugar Paper Theories” is available in a limited run of 1000 copies from Here Press. It’s an incredible, beautiful, head-scratching piece of work that deserves to be seen by as many people as possible. To purchase it, click here:

Picture of "Sugar Paper Theories" by Jack LathamPicture of “Sugar Paper Theories” by Jack Latham



Sources and further reading

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