A seasoned freelance journalist, Kim Wall wrote hard-hitting stories for The New York Times and The Atlantic. She journeyed to dangerous corners of the world — Uganda, Haiti, and Sri Lanka — focusing on what she called “undercurrents of rebellion.”
So when Wall traveled to Copenhagen — just 40 miles from the Swedish town where she was raised — in August 2017 to interview Peter Madsen, a quirky aerospace engineer famous for his homemade submarine, no one could have guessed it would be her final assignment. Ten days after she was reported missing, a human torso was found out at sea. Police revealed it had 15 stab wounds — and it was Wall’s.
Oddball Danish inventor Peter Madsen first attracted attention in 2008 when he launched his self-built submarine, UC3 Nautilus, named after the fictional submarine in the 1954 film 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.
Soon afterward, he joined forces with former NASA contractor Kristian von Bengtson, and they cofounded Copenhagen Suborbitals, a company with the goal of launching the first manned DIY rocket, to open up space travel to the public. But soon their project — and friendship — fell apart, and the rival rocket-makers set up separate workshops.
In March 2017, Kim Wall was visiting her boyfriend, Ole Stobbe, in Copenhagen, when she learned about the Danish “space race.” The 30-year-old reporter was thrilled to find such a story in her own backyard, and reached out to Madsen, 47, for an interview.
Wall didn’t hear back until August 10, at which point she was preparing to move to China with her boyfriend. That evening, as they were getting ready to host a goodbye barbecue on the quay, Wall got a text from Madsen inviting her to his nearby workshop.
About half an hour later, she told Stobbe she was going out for a ride on the famous submarine. About to get the scoop she’d been chasing for months, she decided to skip her own farewell party.
As the sun set, the friends who’d assembled to say goodbye saw the sub out at sea, with Wall waving toward them.
When Wall wasn’t home by midnight, Stobbe raised the alarm. Madsen’s sub had been sighted by a merchant ship around that time, but because it had no satellite tracking, authorities were unable to contact him.
The vessel was spotted again the next morning — but as a rescue helicopter flew overhead, the pilot realized it was sinking. The inventor was pulled out, but his passenger was missing.
Madsen initially claimed he’d dropped Wall off on land the night before, but the next day he changed his story. He told authorities there had been a “terrible accident,” that Wall had hit her head on the sub’s heavy hatch and died. He was placed in police custody.
But on August 21, when Wall’s torso was discovered, the public learned that what had actually transpired on that fateful voyage was far more sinister. Police revealed that Wall’s arms, legs and head had been “removed as a result of deliberate cutting.”
The torso had been stabbed 15 times, mostly in the groin, and a coroner later revealed these wounds were inflicted before death.
Several weeks later, police divers found the rest of Wall’s remains in bags that had been weighed down with metal pieces.
Madsen changed his story for a third time, claiming Wall had died of carbon monoxide poisoning, and that he’d dismembered her body because he couldn’t push it out of the submarine.
On January 16, 2018, Madsen was charged with murder, indecent handling of a corpse and sexual assault. Police said the homicide “took place with prior planning and preparation.” Later, they revealed that the engineer had brought a saw, knife, sharpened screwdrivers, straps, zip ties, and pipes on board.
In court, the prosecution stated that he used these instruments to restrain and torture Wall before her death, and that he’d sunk the submarine intentionally.
Once Madsen’s trial began, on March 8, 2018, a disturbing portrait of the local celebrity quickly emerged. According to evidence, Madsen had run an internet search for the terms “beheading,” “girl,” and “agony” the night before the murder — a search that led him to a video of a throat-slitting.
According to the coroner, the cause of Wall’s death was “either strangulation, throat cutting or drowning.”
It was not Madsen’s first foray into this type of macabre material. A search of his hard drive revealed an archive of about 100 torture, snuff and execution videos. And Madsen’s wife — who filed for divorce while he was awaiting trial — told investigators he spoke openly about attending fetish parties without her.
Several of his mistresses also appeared in court and testified that he was interested in BDSM and that they’d experimented with strangulation during intercourse. Still, they said, Madsen had never actually crossed the line into violence. So, why now?
It appears Madsen may have been pushed over the edge in the days leading up to the grisly slaying. His rocket had been scheduled for takeoff on August 26, but on August 8, cash-flow problems prompted him to abort the launch.
According to his friends, his moods teetered between downcast and manic. Film-maker Emma Sullivan, who was working with Madsen on a documentary, interviewed him the afternoon of August 10, before Wall’s visit, and described him as having “a strange energy.” During their meeting, Madsen suggested he might be “psychopathic”; psychiatrists later confirmed that hunch, but added “narcissistic tendencies” and a “severely aberrant” sexuality to their diagnosis in court.
Prosecutors uncovered several text messages from Madsen telling a friend that he’d planned the perfect murder — one that would be a “great pleasure.” And texts sent on August 8, the day Madsen had canceled his rocket launch, revealed he’d invited three other women onto his vessel. All of them declined.
On April 25, 2018, Madsen was convicted on charges of sexual assault, murder, and defilement of a corpse. He was sentenced to life in prison.
On May 7, Madsen appealed the court’s decision, but prosecutors said his move related “solely” to the sentence and “not the issue of guilt.” A life sentence is a rare penalty in Denmark — even in murder cases. Life prisoners are eligible for release after 12 years, and serve, on average, just 16.
There was to be one last twist. On 20 October 2020 Madsen briefly escaped from prison by threatening a prison employee, but was surrounded and apprehended by police less than a mile from the prison and subsequently taken back into custody.