Kim Wall has almost given up on hearing from Peter Madsen.
Madsen was something of a local celebrity-inventor in his native Denmark, his exploits often featured in magazine profiles and on television, where his arrogant personality fascinated the reticent Scandinavians. He had recently fallen out with some of his fellow rocket enthusiasts, this time over the building of a spaceship that he planned to pilot. Wall, an impressively credentialed 30-year-old journalist, wanted to interview the 46-year-old self-styled “inventrepreneur” for a freelance article about his efforts and his growing rivalry with other amateur rocket builders in Copenhagen. But Madsen was proving a difficult get.
Wall would interview Madsen aboard the 55-foot submarine UC3 Nautilus, which had taken Madsen three years to construct and had cost approximately $200,000, most of which was crowd-funded. “The world’s biggest privately built submarine” had been launched on May 3, 2008, at Copenhagen Harbor amid much fanfare, including an all-night party.
Copenhagen was proud of this welded-together leviathan, if a bit wary of its Captain Nemo. Thomas Djursing, the author of Rocket Madsen: Denmark’s D.I.Y. Astronaut, a 2014 biography, described the inventor to a Danish newspaper as “angry with God and everyone.... He has a hard time getting along with other people.” Even in high school, a fellow member of DARK (Danish Amateur Rocket Club) reportedly said that the mere mention of Madsen’s name could set off the fire sprinklers.
Wall had finessed far more challenging subjects than Peter Madsen. She had traveled to Haiti after the devastating 2010 earthquake; she’d toured Idi Amin’s torture chambers, in Uganda; she’d written about the poaching of tigers in India and about the Sri Lankan civil war; she’d investigated the lingering effects of radiation and future impact of climate change on the Marshall Islands (for which she was awarded the Hansel Mieth Prize for Best Digital Reportage the previous year).
She has no reason to think this will be anything more than an interview with an eccentric amateur engineer on the 55-foot-long submarine he has built with his own hands.
If she can get the interview.
Copenhagen was proud of this welded-together leviathan, if a bit wary of its Captain Nemo.
Wall and her partner, Ole Stobbe, are preparing for a going-away party in Refshaleøen—the couple are bound for Beijing the following week—when Kim suddenly receives a text from Madsen. She quickly responds, agreeing to meet him for tea and then join him on the Nautilus.
Stobbe doesn’t want her to go alone. He asks to go with her, just for protection, even though she probably doesn’t need it—but she tells him not to worry and goes off on her own to board the vessel. Just after meeting Madsen, Wall texts Stobbe, “I’m still alive btw. But I’m going down now. I love you! He brought coffee and cookies.”
At seven p.m. on Thursday, August 10, 2017, Kim boards the Nautilus at Refshaleøen Island at the entrance to Copenhagen Harbor, in Denmark. The last photograph taken of Kim alive shows her smiling and waving from the tower of the midget sub, heading out into the Strait of Øresund. (The Øresund Bridge runs between the Danish capital of Copenhagen and the Swedish city of Malmö, near where Kim was born, in Trelleborg.)
Wall and Madsen could not have been more different. The year that the Nautilus was launched, Kim Wall was a student at the London School of Economics, after having attended high school in Malmö and studying at the Sorbonne. Madsen’s obsessions left him little time for school, and so he abandoned his engineering studies and came to Refshaleøen around 2004, at the age of 33.
Whereas Madsen was described as a quarrelsome loner, the product of a broken home raised mostly by an allegedly abusive, authoritarian father, Kim was the beloved daughter of a journalist and a photographer; her intrepid spirit, deep curiosity, and loving embrace of the world brought her a vast number of friends.
Madsen’s parents divorced when he was six, and he went to live with his 69-year-old innkeeper father, Carl, whom Madsen once compared to a Nazi concentration-camp commander. But Madsen’s father encouraged his son’s obsessions with submarines, rockets, and balloons, even building him a workshop.
In Copenhagen, Madsen became associated with Illutron, a floating alternative-art-and-music collective on an industrial barge, and with Half Machine, another collective, given to parties with robots, flashing lights, and floating platforms set on fire. Artists, musicians, and inventors in Refshaleøen were housed in deserted buildings surrounded by corroding fences that transformed the island into a dystopian landscape, dotted with machines welded out of scrap metal. Madsen could weld, and so he was welcome there.
It was on a rusty, graffiti-covered barge that Madsen had begun building the Nautilus.
Three hours after Wall’s departure, as darkness descends, Stobbe begins to worry. He’s already regretting that he didn’t accompany her on the submarine. By 2:30 a.m. on August 11, there’s still no sign of the Nautilus, so Stobbe alerts the coast guard and the police. He searches all over Refshaleøen and even wakes up Madsen’s wife to ask her if she knows anything.
The last photograph taken of Kim alive shows her smiling and waving from the tower of the midget sub, heading out into the Strait of Øresund.
At 10:30 a.m., the Drogden Lighthouse spots the Nautilus south of the Øresund Bridge. A helicopter is dispatched just as the submarine suddenly sinks beneath the waves. Madsen manages to abandon the vessel and is pulled out of the icy strait by the crew of a pleasure boat. When they reach the port of Dragor, a clutch of reporters and a TV 2 crew are already waiting with questions about his dramatic rescue.
Madsen greets the press with a thumbs-up. He describes the Nautilus’s last moments, blaming one of the ballast tanks for the submarine’s demise.
But where is Kim Wall? Police ask Madsen if he knows where she is, as she’s been reported as a missing person. “Do you have any contact information for her?”
“It’s in my phone at the bottom of the ocean,” he replies. He says that all he knows about her is her first name. “I don’t check the background of a journalist—they call and ask, ‘Can I have an interview?’” The police take DNA samples of Madsen.
Madsen then nervously offers the first of a series of lies to explain the journalist’s absence, saying that he had dropped her off the previous day at Halvandet, a popular restaurant on the northern tip of Refshaleøen. The owner, Bo Petersen, gives the Danish police the CCTV video footage for that night. When they examine it and find no sign of Kim, they become suspicious of Madsen.
The following day, August 12, salvage operations begin. A hearing is held later that day in Copenhagen, and Kim Wall’s disappearance is announced to the public. Madsen is held for “negligence” in possibly causing her death.
The Nautilus is towed to Nordhavnen on August 13, emptied of 9,000 gallons of water, and searched by a forensic team for any traces of Kim. Blood is found, and the chief of police, Jens Moller Jensen, claims to have evidence that the vessel was intentionally sunk, despite Madsen’s denials. The search for Wall continues.
On August 21, 11 days after her disappearance, the Copenhagen police announce that Madsen said Wall died on board as a result of an accident. That same day, a bicyclist finds a torso weighed down with scrap metal in the waters off Amager Island. It’s determined to be that of a woman. Ingrid and Joachim Wall, Kim’s parents, and Stobbe had provided a hairbrush and toothbrush for a DNA comparison, and the awful news comes: the remains are confirmed to be Wall’s.
Madsen continues to insist that he is innocent of murder.
On August 30, specially trained dogs, brought in from Sweden, work with divers to assist the Danish police in their search for additional body parts.
What began as a missing-person case has now turned into a murder investigation.
The Submarine Case
Wall had no way of knowing that just before she boarded the submarine, Madsen had texted three other women to invite them onto the Nautilus. They all declined. He had also texted another woman that she should be tied up and tortured aboard the sub, and he told a friend that he had planned the perfect murder, one that would be a “great pleasure.”
As would come out in the trial, once aboard the Nautilus, Madsen had murdered Kim by either strangling her or cutting her throat. There are signs of sexual abuse as well. Madsen later admits that, after she died, he took a long nap, and then decided to bury her body at sea.
He first tried for an hour to push her out of the sub, but when that didn’t work, he set about dismembering her body. He had already brought on board the tools for the job: ropes, knives, a saw, and heavy metal pipes to weigh down her remains.
On September 3, Madsen asks to be released from custody, but his request is denied. Two days later he returns to court for an open hearing. It would become known as “Ubadssagen”—the Submarine Case—among the most famous and sensational murders in Scandinavian history.
The chief of police claims to have evidence that the vessel was intentionally sunk, despite Madsen’s denials.
Madsen now says that Kim died on board the vessel when the 155-pound hatch accidentally struck her on the head, killing her. He objects to surrendering his computer or to undergo a psychiatric examination, but the court overrules his objections and Madsen is held until his trial at Vestre Faengsel, the largest prison in Denmark.
In a new hearing four weeks later, it’s revealed that graphic animated videos of women being tortured, murdered, and beheaded—death porn—were found on Madsen’s computer.
On October 7, the police announce that the rest of Kim’s remains—a plastic bag containing her head, and another bag with her clothes, a knife, and her legs—were found in Koge Bay, 30 miles south of Copenhagen. A postmortem examination finds no signs of blunt trauma to the cranium, but there are 15 stab wounds on the torso and groin.
Two and a half months after Kim’s disappearance, Madsen admits to dismembering Kim’s body but still claims that she died accidentally—this time, he says, by carbon-monoxide poisoning.
Kim’s left arm, and then her right arm, are found in Koge Bay on November 22 and 29, again weighed down with metal pipes.
On January 16, 2018, Peter Madsen is finally charged with “murder, sexual crimes, desecration of a grave, and crimes against maritime law.”
On March 8, 2018, the trial officially begins.
The amount of media attention paid throughout Europe is overwhelming. “It’s complete hysteria—a tsunami of inquiries, articles, videos, and everything else that has a connection to the submarine case,” write Wall’s parents in A Silenced Voice: The Life of Journalist Kim Wall. “Every day, several hundred new articles tumble into our news-monitoring platforms.… Submarine, Copenhagen, and Kim Wall are words that orbit the world at high speed, around and around.”
Throughout the trial and massive press coverage of the Submarine Case, Kim Wall’s photograph—her long auburn hair, her Gioconda smile—appears everywhere.
The prosecution, led by Jakob Buch-Jepsen, accuses Madsen of having tortured Wall before killing her by either cutting her throat or strangling her. He argues that the murder was pre-meditated, because of the tools he had brought along that normally he would not have.
Madsen continues to insist that Kim’s death was accidental—now saying that “a vacuum effect” had prevented him from opening the hatch door to rescue her as deadly fumes filled the vessel. A scientist from the Danish Technological Institute testifies in court that it is possible that Wall died from exhaust fumes, but only if temperatures on board the vessel had soared. The animated videos on Madsen’s computer of women being impaled or beheaded are shown to the court, and those sadistic images will likely help convict him. Another video—this one not animated—is shown only to members of the legal team due to its disturbing nature. The computer’s search log also reveals that several hours before Madsen’s meeting with Kim, he had searched the Internet for “beheading girl agony.”
He told a friend that he had planned the perfect murder, one that would be a “great pleasure.”
Madsen finally admits to lying to investigators about how Kim Wall died, saying he had only lied “to spare her family … because it is gruesome.” He cut up her body in order to perform a burial at sea, denying that he took any sexual gratification from the act. But a court psychiatrist describes Madsen as a “perverted polymorph and highly sexually deviant … with narcissistic and psychopathic traits, and is manipulative, with a severe lack of empathy and remorse.”
In his closing argument, Buch-Jepsen describes Kim Wall’s murder as “a case so heinous and repulsive that as a prosecutor, it renders you speechless.... Peter Madsen is not normal,” Buch-Jepsen tells the court. “He is a danger to society.”
The public lines up early for seats as more than 100 reporters from 16 countries crowd the courthouse in Copenhagen, waiting for the sentence to be handed down. It’s likely that some of the same journalists—Wall’s compatriots—who had covered the launch of the Nautilus are now gathered in the cold morning air to await the verdict.
On April 25, 2018, the court delivers the verdict. It is read by Judge Anette Burko: “Given all the evidence, the court has concluded that Madsen is guilty of murdering Kim Wall.”
As the verdict is being read, Madsen sits very still, transfixed, as if he were watching koi swimming beneath the defense table. Dressed in a black blazer and black T-shirt, he removes his glasses, perhaps not wanting to see the anguish of Kim’s parents and brother, Tom, not realizing that they are absent during the sentencing, instead attending a memorial for their daughter.
Madsen is pronounced guilty of all charges and sentenced to life in prison, although, in Denmark, a life sentence averages 16 years, with its emphasis on rehabilitation. Madsen and his lawyer, Betina Hald Engmark, quickly exit the courtroom. Later, Engmark announces that they would appeal—not the verdict but the penalty.
On September 26, 2018, the life sentence is officially upheld by Denmark’s Eastern High Court.
After all the dangerous places Kim Wall had traveled—often alone—she met her death in the Strait of Øresund, not 45 minutes from the town where she was born. It’s as if she were fated to live out a reverse of the Middle Eastern parable “Appointment in Samarra,” escaping death in far corners of the world but finally meeting it, unexpectedly, close to home.
Unwilling to see Wall’s identity reduced to that of murder victim, her parents set about to celebrate her life. First, there was a scholarship set up in her name by the International Women’s Media Foundation, the Kim Wall Memorial Fund, which eventually raised more than $150,000. In October of 2017, three months after her death, Wall was posthumously nominated for Prix Europa’s award for European Journalist of the Year.
Then there were the memorials, beginning with the one at Columbia University’s School of Journalism on October 11, 2017, just four years after Wall’s graduation with honors. Her friends and classmates delivered their eulogies, some reading excerpts from her work. Wall’s mother, Ingrid, spoke, saying, “Humanity needs more courageous women like Kim, women who … dare to tell, give their voices to the weak ones, and make this planet a better place to live.”
After the memorial, Ingrid visited the financial district in Lower Manhattan and was struck by how much Fearless Girl—the bronze sculpture of a brave little girl standing up to the Wall Street bull—reminded her of her daughter. (Fearless Girl has since been moved and is no longer facing the bull.)
There were the private remembrances, such as a heart fashioned out of stones near the water in Trelleborg, created by a neighbor. At one point the stones were washed back out to sea, like Kim herself, so the stone heart was reconstructed further inland.
There was Ingrid and Joachim Wall’s book, A Silenced Voice. If Kim’s life taught journalists how to “go and find out,” the Wall family taught the world how to preserve the best memories of their lost daughter, transforming her status as the victim of a ghoulish crime to an inspiration for young journalists everywhere. In a moving video made by the family, Wall’s brother, Tom, reminds us that she was “on her way to establishing herself at the top tier of journalism.… There were so many stories that Kim would have liked to tell, so many fates she would have liked the world to hear about.”
It’s been open season on journalists around the world. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, 877 have been murdered since 1992.
But Kim Wall did not die because she was a journalist. She was murdered because she was a woman.
Sam Kashner is a Writer at Large for Air Mail. Nancy Schoenberger is a writer and playwright whose most recent work is The Whitechapel Arias