A Rocket Scientist, a Sub, and the Headless Torso Identified as Journalist Kim Wall

A journalist disappears. A headless, limbless torso washes up on a beach in Denmark. How Kim Walls lost her life covering the story of a homemade submarine.

Journalist Kim Walls, who disappeared reporting on the home-made submarine "UC3 Nautilus", built by Danish inventor Peter Madsen, who is charged with killing the Swedish journalist

TT News Agency/Reuters

Rocket scientist Peter Madsen was proud of his homemade submarine, which he called the UC3 Nautilus. Through crowdfunding, he’d raised nearly a quarter of a million dollars to build it, and when it launched in 2008, he won great acclaim for his endeavor. It was grounded in 2011 while Madsen made repairs and enhancements, and he launched it again in April, eventually inviting curious journalists like Kim Wall along for exclusive reporting trips.

Wall was an enterprising Columbia University grad who was a rising journalism star in her native Sweden. She took her own photos and shot her own video and often went alone on stories like the one that led to her macabre demise. She had written for big outfits like the The New York Times, looking at modern-day fairy-tale romances, or for Harper’s visiting the torture cells of the late Ugandan tyrant Idi Amin. She had also traveled to North Korea and Haiti to report.

Madsen was an interesting character and no doubt Wall saw a story in him that would have been fascinating had she lived to write it.

Wall went out to sea alone with Madsen on Aug. 10. She told friends this would be one of her last stories out of Europe for a while. She and her boyfriend had just signed a lease on a little apartment in Beijing, where they were planning to move after a summer holiday.

The reporting trip was supposed to take a few hours and then Wall was planning to go home to write. When she didn’t show up, her boyfriend raised the alarm. Police started searching for Madsen and his Nautilus.

When they caught up with him, he said the submarine sank a short time after he left Wall on shore near Copenhagen. He had managed miraculously to escape and was picked up by a passerby who put out an SOS. Police didn’t buy the story and arrested the scientist. A few days later, they located the sunken sub and brought it to the surface.

Then, according to a statement by police in Copenhagen, Madsen changed his story. He claimed that Wall had suffered an “accident on board the ship” and he had taken it upon himself to “bury her at sea,” which is an odd reaction for a death at sea on a one-day outing.

The police suspected foul play and charged Madsen with negligent manslaughter for the reporter’s death, but said little else about motive or what could have led Madsen to allegedly end Wall’s life.

“The defendant has explained to the police and the Court, that there was an accident on board which caused Kim Wall’s death and that he consequently buried her at sea at a non-defined location in the Bay of Køge,” according to the statement issued before the mysterious torso washed up on shore. “Copenhagen Police may additionally disclose that the preliminary charge of manslaughter is upheld. As the investigation of the case is still covered by ‘closed doors’ [a gag rule], no further information can be given.”

On Monday, as divers retraced the submarine’s route to search for Wall’s body, a bicyclist happened upon the rotting torso on the beach near Copenhagen. The head and limbs had been severed intentionally and it was in a state of advanced decomposition, investigators told the local press. A short time later, they confirmed a DNA match between the gruesome remains and the missing journalist.

“It appears that there are injuries on the torso aimed at [assuring] that air and gases would be released to ensure that the body would not float to the surface,” Jens Moeller Jensen, an investigator with the Copenhagen homicide squad said early Wednesday. In short, Walls was supposed to be gone forever. Jensen also told reporters that Walls’ blood was found inside Madsen’s submarine despite it having been flooded with seawater, and that metal had been strapped to the torso to ensure it sank.

“Of course, we are looking for the remaining parts of the body,” Jensen said at the press briefing.

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Madsen, who had once hoped to be the first private citizen in space on his own rocket, was described as “argumentative” and “short-fused.” According to the Times, Thomas Djursing, a biographer working on a book about the inventor, told a local newspaper, “He argues with every Tom, Dick, and Harry,” and was generally an angry man. “I’ve argued with him as well. But that’s what it’s like with people driven by deep passion.”