1988. Rick Astley is rick rolling the world, and Bruce Willis is fighting bad guy in the Nakatomi building. The 1980s are coming close to their end, and the world has yet to see the collapse of the Soviet Union, the rise and fall of Nirvana, and other curious incidents of the early 90s.
Far away from the red carpets of Hollywood and the secret dealing of the Kremlin, in a small town, a young girl disappears, leaving behind an enduring mystery that lives on after the last time she herself is ever seen.
Piikkiö is the kind of town you pass by on your way somewhere else, most likely Turku, a bigger city about 20 kilometers away.
Home to about 7000 residents, walking down the streets there you can almost feel the gazes on your back as locals give you an extended glimpse when you pass them by, trying to guess who you are and which house you’re visiting. ”Is he the son of [enter name here], visiting from Helsinki? No, maybe it’s [insert name here] all grown up, visiting from Turku!” Having grown up in a small town myself, I understand this dynamic.
Near the town’s health center is a short street and on that street stands a grey house that gives the impression that it’s standing still in time. The exterior looks like it is not actively cared for, and the grass in the yard is overgrown. This is the home of a single dweller, an old man named Heikki Ristikankare, father of a young girl named Piia who went missing in 1988, leaving behind a creepy mystery that lingers in the public consciousness to this day.
The Ristikankare family had a tumultuous history. They were a Jehovah’s Witness family whose mother drank. A lot. So much, in fact, that during her lowest points she used the family’s savings to pay for booze for her drinking buddies. She was a loud drinker who would go off on her family, screaming at her husband and children. Finally, husband and father Heikki had enough, took his children, and separated them from their unstable mother.
He got custody, and became the sole provider for the kids.
In 1988 Piia was 14 years old, and the oldest of the children. Blonde-haired and blue-eyed, her school photograph shows her with a pretty, toothy smile and a knowing look in her eyes, as though she’s in on something funny you haven’t noticed yet. Nothing in her appearance is particularly exceptional; outwardly, she blends into the mass of late-80s working class teenagers.
Her diary bespeaks a reasonably normal youth, with its crushes and early attempts at flirting with the opposite sex. From her journal:
May 3rd 1988. Today we waved at two guys who passed us by in their car. They stopped, and we got in.
Two days later she writes about another encounter with the same guys:
May 5th 1988. Today after the disco we waved at them again. I got in [the guy’s] car. He was alone at the time. We went to the forest for a while.
Besides the early signs of a burgeoning love life, the writings hint at an inherent trust in people, even males: Piia gets in the car despite probably a lifetime of warnings from grown-ups in her religious community – or perhaps because of them, in teenage defiance of the paranoia of all parents towards prospective male pursuers? She also hints at being at a disco that night, and talks of accompanying her pursuer to the woods, perhaps for a walk and some alone time.
Piia’s life had its shadows, too. Friends and student peers report that Piia was bullied at school, sometimes harshly. The daughter of a Jehovah’s Witness family can’t escape her background in a small town, and will occasionally stick out from the bunch. The exact theology of this religion is generally somewhat mysterious to Finns, and many of them have an image of the religion’s followers as irritating door-knockers and doorbell-ringers who want to sit you down in your kitchen and tell you about The True Way to Salvation.
Regardless of Piia’s joyful personality, the reputation of her religion may have preceded her, and been a factor in the bullying. And regardless of whether she emphasized this aspect of her identity outwardly or not, for Piia, being a Witness was apparently not a matter of passing significance: she took part in religious services and sang religious songs at home, her father accompanying her with a harmonica.
The bullying, however, apparently seized after Piia started studying at the Vocational Institute in Turku. Piia got new friends there, and people who knew her report this transition as something of a fresh start for the young woman.
At home, however, Piia’s role as something of a surrogate mother (or at least female caregiver) for her younger siblings most likely grew after her parents’ divorce. This may have added to the young woman’s worries and stress, and ultimately caused some kind of a psychological strain to break the night of her disappearance when she stormed out of her home and into infamy.
7th October 1988
The night of her disappearance was seemingly not too different from any Friday night in a small Finnish town. The only noticeable difference was that that night there were more youngsters out on the town than usual, possibly due to a disco being held at a local youth center. The weather for the weekend was rainy and gray.
Piia had originally made plans to spend the weekend with a friend in the town of Paimio, another small town roughly 10 kilometers (6 miles) from Piikkiö. But father Heikki, a bricklayer, had a work assignment for Saturday, so he had asked Piia to stay home and look after her younger siblings. The responsible Piia had agreed.
But as it turns out, the person Heikki would be working for had unexpectedly told him it would be possible for him to take the youngest child of the family with him to work, which again made it possible for Piia to go to Paimio. Ultimately, however, Piia decided to stay home.
On the evening of that Friday, 7th October, the Ristikankare family did what essentially every Finnish family does to mark the end of the week: heat up the sauna. This is the quintessential Finnish way to rinse the old work week off the skin and relax after a week on the job. There’s a touch of ”zen” to the practice, at least as much as a nation as practical and formal as Finns dare to engage in.
While father Heikki was in the sauna with a friend, Piia and her three siblings were in the living room watching television. At some point in the evening, Piia and her younger brother got into an argument over the ownership of the remote control, and as a result, Piia stormed out of the door and into the Friday night.
This is time she has been seen for certain.
She left with her regular clothes on, and had about 20 marks of money and a credit card.
When father Heikki got out of the sauna, the younger kids explained what had happened. At this point there wasn’t yet a reason to worry: maybe Piia had simply gone out to walk around the block and cool her head a bit. This wasn’t the first-ever argument between two siblings in the history of the world, after all.
Piia had occasionally spent weekends at relatives’ and friends’ houses, so Heikki was not yet terrified at Piia’s absence; his initial suspicion was that she had headed to some friend’s house once again, and would be present at that Sunday’s religious service.
Sunday came. The service came. Piia didn’t.
Heikki called the police to officially place a missing person report. The report is dated 08.45 the next Monday morning, October 10th. The police began their routine procedures: search parties, information gathering, interrogation of potential suspects.
Nothing. Something was seriously wrong.
Despite endless searches, sleepless nights, and silent sorrow and longing for a lost friend and family member, Piia remains missing. Millions of cars have passed through the highway that passes her hometown since then. None of them have brought her back.
In 2007 the lead detective in the case was interviewed for a Finnish television show entitled Kadonneet (”The Missing”). Of all the various details in the disappearance, one sticks out like a sore thumb.
As mentioned earlier, there were a lot of youngsters out on the town that night, probably gathered around the youth center and the disco. And even though Piikkiö is a small town, it isn’t a town-sized graveyard – there are people on the move on a Friday night, going out, walking their dogs, heading to the store for groceries to cook something special on the eve of the weekend, et cetera. And even if you discount the people outside, that still leaves many a family or couple sitting at their kitchens, looking out into the street as they sip their evening teas or eat their meals.
And yet, not a single verifiable sighting of Piia was made after she left home that night. Not one. It’s as though she walked into a vortex and disappeared into thin air.
The 1980s turned into the 1990s, and the 90s turned into a new millennium. The silence around the Piia Ristikankare case was like a still pond of black water, motionless, denying even the slightest glimpse at its murky bottom.
Until one day in 2002 someone took a big rock and broke the water’s surface, sending new ripples across the dead calm surface.
It had been mailed from Sweden, and bore the earmarks of having been written by someone under duress.
The writer didn’t seem to be accustomed to letter-writing; it seemed like a simple communique meant to convey something dramatic the author had held inside for years.
(the actual letter)
It was first received by the producers of a Finnish television show titled Poliisi-TV (”Police TV”), a show that features news on police investigations into famous crimes, as well as reports on the latest crimes, with requests to viewers to help identify their perpetrators. Think of it as Finland’s “Unsolved Mysteries”.
After opening the letter, the producers of the show had determined that the letter needs to be forwarded to the police, so they sent it to Kaarina police department, Kaarina being the town where the investigation into Piia Ristikankare’s disappearance had initially began. The Kaarina police forwarded it to Keskusrikospoliisi (”Central Bureau of Investigations”; basically Finland’s equivalent to the American FBI), where the Ristikankare investigation had been delegated after local police departments failed
to solve the mystery.
The author of the letter claimed to remember something shattering from the night of the disappearance. According to his letter, he had been on his way to eastern Finland, and had passed Piikkiö on his way. Driving through the highway, he had noticed a young girl fitting Piia’s description entering a car.
And as if that wasn’t eerie enough, there was an additional shocker to the author’s story: he claimed to remember the license plate number of that very car.
The police immediately ran the number through their system, and came up with a name. The person whose name it was lived in the Turku region (close to Piikkiö, in other words), and had a criminal record – for sexual assault.
He was brought to the department and interrogated. He swore he had no connection to Piia’s disappearance, and eventually the police came to believe him. He was released for lack of evidence.
The lead detective believes the letter writer may have tried to take revenge for something by accusing the suspect of this notorious disappearance. Nevertheless, the police believe this letter is still an essential piece of the puzzle, and that the author most likely knows more than he’s telling.
Investigative threads currently employed by the police to solve this disappearance are easy to articulate: none. The police lieautenant currently in charge of the investigation openly admits that in light of the existing evidence (or lack thereof, rather), the case is a total mystery. The only thing that can realistically solve it is a phone call or email from someone who remembers something conclusive from the night of Piia’s vanishing.
The possibility of suicide has been ruled out. Piia’s personal diary reflects an overall sunny disposition and attitude towards life, and hints at an emerging interest in boys – and even courage to engage in some light flirting. It’s also reasonable to assume that, had Piia taken her own life, her remains would most likely have been discovered by now. Local forests were searched thoroughly and local rivers drenched.
An intentional dropping off the map can confidently be ruled out as well. Such a maneuver demands an enormous supply of funds and social contacts across the country (and possibly beyond), neither of which Piia possessed. Finns who disappear intentionally are generally well-to-do individuals who have gotten into some kind of trouble, often financially.
This leaves homicide as the only realistic option. But who, and why?
The most likely scenario for murder in this case goes like this.
After Piia leaves home, she walks to the nearby highway, intending on hitchhiking to Turku and the nightlife of a bigger city, or to Paimio and her original plans for that Friday. The destination, I believe, is not essential – ”away” is the key word.
As she stands by the road with her thumb in the air, someone with a dark intent spots her, a lonely female figure moving under the streetlights in the darkness. He is almost unable to believe his luck; this opportunity is not to be wasted!
He drives his car to the side of the lane and stops. The girl standing outside in the chilly evening air walks to him and bends down to talk through the open car window. She explains that she needs a ride. The man nods his head: ”Get in”.
The car takes off, its wheels crunching on the ground as the driver steers them back into the lane, the car’s rear lights casting a long red glow onto the dark ground.
The glow slowly fades as the car takes off, transporting the unlikely pair into the dark.
(exclusive artwork done for this blog post by artist Ninni Rönkkö)
It’s 2016, and though the case makes the occasional appearance in the papers, there’s nothing to show that the investigation into Piia’s disappearance would have gathered any new wind under its wings in the passing decades. The case is official open, but badly needs a new clue for the police to chew on.
July, 2016. My wife and I walk down a street in Piikkiö Piia may have chosen as her path that night.
My wife notices two raspberries growing in a tiny bush next to the paved road and stops to pick them. There’s a house nearby, and its living room window is open. I can hear the music blaring in the stereo inside.
The song is ”I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” by U2.