'Deep down, I knew it didn't happen': The woman who imagined a murder

When two men disappeared in 1974, Erla Bolladottir’s testimony put her boyfriend and his friends in prison for murder. She tells us how the case made her the most notorious woman in Iceland – and why they may be innocent after all

By Paula Cocozza @CocozzaPaula
In 1974, two men vanished in Iceland within the space of 10 months. The country’s population was only 220,000, small enough for people to feel they knew each other. Crime was scant. But neither man was found. There were no witnesses, no forensic evidence – no bodies. After an intensive police investigation, six young men confessed to their part in the murders.

Their confessions were spurred in part by the testimony of Erla Bolladottir, girlfriend of the group’s alleged ringleader, Sævar Ciesielski. Despite retracting their confessions, Ciesielski and four friends were convicted of murder; Bolladottir was convicted of perjury for attempting to implicate four other innocent men. The case, and Bolladottir’s name, remain notorious in Iceland – at the time of the trial, she says that Ciesielski was painted by the media as a Charles Manson figure, and her as one of his devoted Family members. But over the decades, horror at the supposed crimes has been replaced with fears that an atrocious miscarriage of justice occurred. Now, more than 40 years later, with the special prosecutor in Iceland recommending that the case be reopened, Bolladottir has turned chief witness in Out of Thin Air, a feature-length documentary for BBC Storyville.

The film, directed by Dylan Howitt, has a noirish feel, appropriately for a mystery which in Iceland is regarded as “a black hole”. But this is no whodunnit. The film raises many more questions than answers, and even talking to Bolladottir – during her visit to the UK to view the documentary – takes the story further into uncertainty.

Bolladottir’s part in the murder investigation began on 13 December 1975 when, aged 20, she was arrested for embezzlement. She confessed to the crime, which she had committed with Ciesielski. As the interview concluded she felt relieved to have got the story off her chest. She was also looking forward to going home; she and Ciesielski had an 11-week-old girl. But instead of letting her leave, the police officers threw her a question about Guðmundur Einarsson, the first of the two men to have gone missing 11 months earlier. “I was really tired. I was trying to accommodate them, but I didn’t know anything,” Bolladottir says. She told the police about a nightmare she had had on the night of Einarsson’s disappearance. She dreamt that she lay in bed listening to voices outside the window. “They were whispering, ‘Is she awake? Is she asleep?’”

From those fragments, Bolladottir says, the police began to construct an alternate reality: “They tried to convince me that this had not been a nightmare.” She was sent back to her cell, where over the next nine days, the questioning continued. “They really went into details. ‘Why was a bedsheet in the bin? Had it been used to wrap the body?’ I was trying to picture everything they told me.” At a certain point, the effort to visualise the details described by the police produced in her mind a picture that was vivid enough to seem real. Now the bedsheet, which hadn’t previously figured in Bolladottir’s dream, was not only imaginable but memorable too.

When the police asked, “Could it have been like this?” suddenly all things seemed possible. “I couldn’t deny that it could have been,” she says. “Somehow, between me and them, this story formed. And I never knew, did it come from me, or did it come from them?” It seems unthinkable that Bolladottir, on the basis of such unstable recollections, would provide the testimony that helped to convict her boyfriend and his friends of murder. At one point, she claimed that she herself had killed Geirfinnur Einarsson with a shotgun. At another, she implicated her half-brother Einar along with three other men, all of whom were held for 105 days before being released without charge. It is the instability of memory itself that Howitt investigates. The film has the atmosphere of a thriller – it opens in darkness, a gun fires, snow falls, a door thunks shut on a green cell. And the softly spoken Bolladottir, reliving it all with undisguised bewilderment, is the ultimate unreliable narrator. Even now, she finds it hard to know what she knew.

How much does she really remember of that night? She knows that she had the nightmare; and that she never had it again. And that the mental pictures of the murder have stayed in her head, “as if it happened, you know? But it didn’t happen.” She now views these images as symptomatic of memory distrust syndrome, a condition originally identified by Gísli Guðjónsson, a professor of forensic psychology whose expert testimony helped overturn the convictions of the Birmingham Six and Guildford Four.

Central to the case is the amount of time Bolladottir, Ciesielski and his associates spent in solitary confinement. One of the group, Tryggvi Rúnar Leifsson, spent 655 days in solitary, the longest recorded stint outside Guantánamo Bay, while Bolladottir herself spent 242 days alone. All had infrequent access to lawyers. “It’s almost like you’re a split personality,” she says. “Deep down I knew it didn’t happen. But somehow I wasn’t sure at the same time.”

“Time is so difficult to talk about [in detention]. It’s all just one big universal time,” she says. She became so distrusting of her own memory that she began to doubt she had even given birth. “I tried to see my daughter’s face, and I couldn’t see it. I didn’t want to ask anybody.” She was scared if she did that she would never see her daughter again. “I just waited and waited for something to confirm for me that I didn’t imagine it.”

These days Bolladottir works as a project manager for an adult education centre that helps immigrants integrate in Reykjavik. But it took decades to integrate herself. “There was no life for me in the community,” she says. People spat at her on the street. She struggled to find work. She lived for a while in Hawaii, with her sister, then after getting married she spent a few years in South Africa. She had two more daughters, now aged 27 and 21.

When Bolladottir came back to Iceland in 1998, Ciesielski had been out of prison for more than a decade, fighting to clear his name. He had become homeless, and alcoholic, but before his death in 2011, the two managed to talk. So did Bolladottir apologise to Ciesielski for her part in his conviction?

“I did, I did,” she says. “For a long time, no matter how drunk he was, that man … would come to my house and I couldn’t take him inside because I had a family there. So we had an arrangement. He would ring the bell and I would go down to where we kept the bicycles. We had total peace there. We would just sit on the floor and talk for hours.” It was during these conversations, she says, that she “came out of all uncertainty” about his innocence.

She is crying now. Life “never went back to normal”, she says. Nor can it. Julia, her eldest daughter, is now 41 and, Bolladottir says, in touch with her half-siblings, Ciesielski’s other children, who are also hoping to prove their father’s innocence.

But even if Ciesielski’s conviction is overturned, along with that of his friends, Bolladottir will not be found innocent. Her own perjury conviction is unlikely to be re-examined. She plans to take her case to a private court. In the meantime, she hopes the film will tell the story of a miscarriage of justice for younger generations. “Because it’s always going to surface,” she says. “The film is my hope.”

Out of Thin Air will be broadcast on BBC Four on Monday 14 August and available on Netflix from September.