Justice scandal in Iceland was led by German commissioner

In 1977, six Icelandic nationals were sentenced to heavy prison sentences in two homicide cases without corpses. The highest court acquitted the partially deceased 41 years later and fully rehabilitated them. Now the involvement of the German Federal Criminal Police Office comes into focus.

The mysterious disappearance of Guðmundur Einarsson and Geirfinnur Einarsson 45 years ago still occupies the Icelandic public today. According to the findings, both did not know each other, their cases were only linked in the course of the investigation. According to the Icelandic police, the men were beaten to death and buried with an interval of eleven months. However, their bodies were never found.

The main suspect was 20 year old Saevar Ciesielski, later his partner of the same age Erla Bolladottir and four other Icelanders were targeted by the investigators. The then government had a great interest in an early closure, especially of the Geirfinnur case, because the police investigations revealed the involvement of the then Minister of Justice, Ólafur Jóhannesson, in organised crime networks. Iceland was therefore in a government crisis; if the Social Democratic Party had won the elections, the country’s NATO membership would have been at stake.

Horst Herold mediates support through BKA

Karl Schütz (right in the middle) in the circle of Icelandic investigators (Police Iceland/ National Archive).

The government decided to advance the faltering investigations with the help of the German Federal Criminal Police Office (BKA). The authority in Wiesbaden was then headed by President Horst Herold, who, on the margins of a NATO meeting in Athens in the summer of 1976, mediated contact between the Icelandic secretary in the Foreign Office Petúr Eggerz, and the Chief Commissioner Karl Schütz, who had just retired at the age of 64. The newly pensioned Schütz then took over as head of the Icelandic investigation team, which at the time consisted of around a dozen detectives. Eggerz became his personal translator.

At that time, Schütz was known in Germany as „Kommissar Kugelblitz“ („commissioner ball lightning“). He belonged to the „Sicherungsgruppe Bonn“, which had searched and occupied the central office of the newspaper SPIEGEL in 1962. Schütz also investigated the murder of soldiers in Lebach and later in the State Security Department the Red Army Fraction.

Until his retirement, Schütz headed the investigation and evaluation units of the BKA in Bad Godesberg (and, according to a report by SPIEGEL, was only moderately successful). BKA chief Herold had offered the government in Rejkjavik to also use the BKA’s forensic laboratories for Icelandic investigations.

BKA laboratory unsuccessful

Crime scene sketch based on false confessions.

Schütz then sent parts of the interior of a VW beetle used in the alleged murders, a knife, the suspects‘ clothing, carpet remains and blood samples to the BKA for examination. This results from investigation files that can be searched online.

The possible evidence should be examined at the BKA for traces of blood and „adhesion of vomit or faeces“. None of the objects matched, nor were any other anomalies found. Schütz, who regularly reported his steps to the Icelandic newspapers, therefore concentrated on the graphological investigation of entries in a guest book that became known during the investigation.

The signatures did not lead to any conclusion either, but this did not result in any relief for the suspects. In a note, the BKA wrote that the written samples forced into custody could have been „deliberately disguised“. Schütz then ordered Icelandic school records to be obtained „if possible completely since 1900“ in order to compare the writing used by the accused.

Schütz seeks „interrogation gaps“

Karl Schütz’s note on the „Raumraffersystem“.

The forensic investigations did not lead to the desired success of the investigation. In a note, Schütz, who did not speak Icelandic and was permamently accompanied by a translator, confirmed the shaky evidence against the accused. According to this, the investigators would have to find out „whether the course of events could have been thought up or agreed or whether it had taken place with sufficient certainty to convict“.

The retired Chief Commissioner therefore focused on reassessing the „partly different and contradictory statements“ in the preliminary proceedings. The investigators related the interrogation protocols to each other in a so-called „Raumraffersystem“. With this method, the investigation team wanted to identify „weaknesses in evidence“ and „gaps in interrogation“.

Under the leadership of President Herold, the BKA had developed electronic data processing since 1971. Within the framework of this computer-assisted police work, findings could be indexed and searched. Schütz had similarly set up a register in Iceland and processed traces in the Geirfinnur case.

Solitary confinement and torture

By the time Karl Schütz took over the investigations, the six arrested had already been interrogated several dozen times, but further interrogations still followed. The detainees were held in solitary confinement for up to two years, which one of them subsequently described this as torture.

The investigators reportedly used coercion and waterboarding. The suspects were also given hypnotic and psychoactive drugs, allegedly mogadon, diazepam and chlorpromazine.

After about 200 interrogations, some of the defendants finally made confessions, which they changed and revoked several times.

„Taken away a nightmare“

Schütz considers the confessions obtained under torture in a note to be true.

At a press conference in early February 1977, just over five months after taking over the investigation, Schütz declared the alleged murders to be solved and ready for trial. According to SPIEGEL, the Icelandic Minister of Justice, Ogmundur Jonasson, praised „Commissioner Kugelblitz“ as he had „taken away a nightmare from the Icelandic people“.

However, the investigators found neither a murder weapon nor other forensic evidence such as fingerprints, blood, hair or skin. Also, none of the accused had any motive. Nevertheless, the Six were convicted of murder by a court in Iceland in December 1977. Two of them received life imprisonment, the others were sentenced to between 15 months and 16 years by the judges. Iceland’s highest court upheld the sentences in 1980, partially reducing the sentence.

Acquittal after 41 years

Since then, some of the convicts have unsuccessfully demanded the retrial. Only the left-green Minister of Justice Ögmundur Jónasson ordered the investigation of the case in 2011. The results of the working group finally led to a new trial.

Four of the suspects in an investigation file at the time.

On 27 September 2018, 41 years after their first conviction, the then defendants Sævar Ciesielski, Kristján Viðar Viðarsson, Tryggvi Rúnar Leifsson, Albert Klahn Skaftason, Guðjón Skarphéðinsson were subsequently acquitted and rehabilitated.

Only the verdict for Erla Bolladóttir for perjury remained, together with her daughter she also fights for rehabilitation. For two of the convicts, the subsequent justice comes too late, they have died.

Forensic scientist calls for reappraisal

According to a police spokesman, new investigations into the disappearances of Guðmundur Einarsson and Geirfinnur Einarsson could now follow. According to the police, there are also new testimonies.

With the annulment of the verdicts, the role of the BKA in the investigations must also be investigated. Gísli Guðjónsson, an expert on false confessions and a member of the working group on the processing of convictions, calls for this. The forensic scientist describes the dynamics of false statements as „memory distrust syndrome“ when the accused in solitary confinement are repeatedly confronted with alleged facts until they finally believe them to be true and confirm them.

Decorations for BKA and Ministry of the Interior

After the investigations had been concluded, the Icelandic government had thanked the German criminalists with great effort. Schütz received the order „Grand Knight’s Cross“, one of the highest awards of the Icelandic government, for the alleged clarification of the cases and the associated rescue of the government. Ex-BKA President Herold was awarded the „Grand Cross with a Star“, and Siegfried Fröhlich, State Secretary at the Federal Ministry of the Interior, also received medals. He had assisted Schütz in the investigation.

Like Herold, Schütz probably died a long time ago, so a subsequent investigation of the BKA’s cooperation in the Icelandic investigations is complicated.

The other members of the BKA who were involved in the Icelandic investigations and also received awards from Iceland may also no longer be alive. Among them were Horst-Hilmar Driesen, head of the scientific department at the BKA, Ekkehard Kissling, director of criminal investigation, and Christfried Leszczynski, former government director of criminal investigation.

„At late hour, plotting conspiracies“

Ekkehard Kissling’s report to Icelandic investigators.

Guðjónsson’s demand for a subsequent review should also illuminate the circle of the „Old Charlottenburgers“, the network of former officers of the 3rd Reich Criminal Police Office who worked in West German criminal investigation offices until the 1960s. From this milieu came also high personnel of the new BKA department „Terrorism“, established in 1975, which supplemented the existing departments „State Security“ and „Security Group Bonn“. The first head of this new „Department T“ became Gerhard Boeden, a close confidant of Schütz.

The former BKA President Hans-Ludwig Zachert, who, like Schütz, belonged to the „Sicherungsgruppe Bonn“, also refers to the „Spießbratenfest“ („spit-roast festival“), which was founded by Schütz and celebrated into the present century, at which high BKA officials are said to have „occasionally plotted or discussed conspiracies with ministers and the Office of the Attorney General of the Federal Republic at late hour“. Perhaps the deployment of Schütz to Iceland was arranged there.

The judicial scandal is known in Iceland under the names Guðmundur and Geirfinnur case. In 2014 the BBC calls it in a documentation "one of the most shocking miscarriages of justice Europe has ever witnessed". In 2016 the photographer Jack Latham published the photo book "Sugar Paper Theories". Further details were described in 2017 in the film "Out of Thin Air", a long version of which can be seen on YouTube. The German filmmaker Boris Quatram has now processed the investigation under the title "Scandal". One of his protagonists comments on the use of Karl Schütz with the words that he wasn't brought to solve the cases, but "should end them".

Image: Reconstruction of the crime by Icelandic investigators (Police Iceland/ National Archive).