In 2012, Finland witnessed one of the most devastating crimes in its history. A little girl named Eerika was found dead in her home, killed by her own dad and stepmother.
Below is my interview with Vera Miettinen, Finnish crime journalist and author of the book Eerika, the definitive book on the incident. Hopefully, this book will be translated into English as soon as possible.
Thank you, Vera, for your time!
Extra special thanks to my good friend Bunny Sinister for her help with the interview!
In your own words, tell us who you are!
I’m Vera, I live in Helsinki with my family.
I love dancing and I like investing money. I like to learn new skills, it’s my thing.
I work as a crime and justice reporter, and I’m also a publisher.
Part of my identity leans towards entrepreneurship. I have been self employed for about 10 years.
What is your job as a Finnish crime journalist like? What’s your daily work schedule?
It varies. One day I might visit the Finnish Bureau of investigation and interview the lead Detective Inspector of a case I’m writing about, other times I might be in court reading documents. There are two primary sources for information: documents and people. Adding these two sets of information together, we get a whole picture of what has happened.
The tasks of crime journalists change all the time. I have written in magazines, and it’s very different from the job of a journalist who writes for mainstream media – they might write several articles in one day, whereas I can spend a month or two on one story. My work is much more slow-paced. I also write scripts for podcasts and host them.
Finnish crime journalists do the work of journalists in general, which means the work is gathering information. But the field is different from, let’s say, an economic journalist’s field. While the economic journalist interviews politicians, us crime journalists interview criminals, police and other authorities.
Are there dangers in your job? For example, some crime organisations are very careful with their image, etc. Do you have safety hazards you need to consider?
I have to be aware of the risks. But that being said, I don’t feel like I have ever been in true danger.
When I did a podcast about [Finnish former crime boss] Keijo Vilhunen and organized crime in Finland, I had to think about whether this might lead to some safety hazards. I did consult another crime journalist and also the Finnish FBI (“Keskusrikospoliisi”) about this.
There’s always a risk that someone gets angry and offended, but I believe that things can be talked through, and that’s what I’ve always done.
I know of situations where a crime organization member has gotten angry at reporters. Those situations too have been sorted out by talking.
I haven’t been threatened, but I know of this sort of thing happening.
Criminals haven’t threatened me, but the authorities once have! I wrote an article about an organization and sent it to their communications manager to be read through. This communication manager said that if this article is published, I can say goodbye to any collaboration with them from then on. So there was that, and other “power play”, too.
We published the story, of course – we won’t listen to bullying. Either way, I have still been able to work rather closely with this said organization. The communications manager no longer works there.
Where did you first hear about the Vilja Eerika case and what drew you to it?
I was working at Lehtiyhtymä at the time. They included the Helsingin Uutiset, Länsiväylä and Vantaan Sanomat (local newspapers from the capital city area). I was in charge of reporting police news. I heard about this case at the office. I remember going to the trial for the case; that’s where the case unraveled. Before the trial, after Vilja Eerika was killed, not even the police realized that we were dealing with a murder. The whole picture was drawn during the police investigation and trial.
They showed videos of Eerika being force-fed, and also a reconstruction video. That was the time I realized what sort of thing we were dealing with. This case got under everybody’s skin. Everyone was shocked, even the “old timer” police officers and long term journalists.
And after the trial I saw how the public dealt with this. Everybody was very emotional. That sparked a feeling in me that this case has to be turned into a book. But it wasn’t that simple and that’s why it took many years. It took me a long time to find the style I wanted the book to be written in. During the process, the feeling that I wanted to put the story between covers grew stronger. This case raised so much emotion in Finns.
The public narrative of this case was left halfway a bit. What was the entirety of this case, and what really happened? To the public, that was left unanswered.
The force that led me through the writing process was the fact that, for us as a nation to be able to deal with this, what happened to Eerika and what happened behind closed doors needs to be told.
It could have been exaggerated of me to think “this is the book I want to write”, but thankfully it happened like I thought it would, because the feedback I get from writing the book is “thank yous” for writing it.
Finns know this case but many of our readers come from English speaking countries, as well as many other countries outside Finland. So in your own words: who was Vilja Eerika, and why was this case so shocking to Finland?
Vilja Eerika was an 8-year-old girl who died in 2012, through the hands of her dad and stepmom. Before her death she faced severe violent abuse from her stepmom and dad. Eerika was a customer of child protective services since she was a baby. Unfortunately, her life was never that sort of life that would support her growth and development. Even when she lived with her mom, just the two of them, the police did some house calls.
Eerika fell through the cracks of bureaucracy. Information didn’t travel from one authority to another. Eerika had a visible bruise on her cheek a couple of times, but no one informed the police. Therefore no investigation of abuse was done. If there was an investigation, she could have perhaps been saved.
Also, cases of burnout among social workers were reported, and I think that resulted in things being done in a “half-assed” way. There was unnecessary secrecy between the adults and organisations that were meaningful in Eerikas life.
There were good times too. Not many, but there were some. I found out about this while writing the book. They were the moments Eerika spent with her grandparents, and the last few times she saw her mother. Eerika seemed quite happy during those times.
It is still important to remember, that even during the events of abuse nobody knew what was going on. Behind everything there is a very sick person: Eerika’s stepmom Sirpa Laamanen. She was found to have psychopathic features and we are dealing with people with personality disorders here.
It’s also the core of the story, not just the bureaucracy and child services, but the personality of an individual and what it can be in its worst. And for us to understand all of this we need to take a look in the childhood of the perpetrators. Childhood is where and when personality disorders start to grow and develop.
It also has to be remembered that no one thought a thing like this could happen, not Eerikas family members or the authorities. They should have noticed the abuse, but still nobody saw this coming.
And because your channel is international: there are a lot of cases just like this. One example is from California. An 8 year old boy Gabriel Fernandez died in the hands of his mom and step dad in 2013. Before his death he suffered long term abuse. The case is almost identical with Eerika’s case, because like with Eerika, many people reported signs of abuse on Gabriel to social workers.
There are lots of these kinds of cases internationally.
In the book you brought up that even the child protective services was worried even though they made mistakes – some child protective services workers got verdicts in court – but in the end they were people that wanted to save Vilja Eerika.
I think it was a surprise to the readers of my book how much work was done for Eerika. Perhaps it was done in the wrong way… But they did try.
I think the majority of Finns think that nobody listened to Eerika and that things we just “allowed” to happen.
Indeed. And I remember that in the papers it was said that nobody talked with Eerika alone, not even in the child protective services. But that’s not correct. Eerika was interviewed by many adults, but she wouldn’t speak. It’s of course not her fault, but everything else’s fault. I tried to point out the reasons why Eerika was afraid to talk to anyone, even when Touko Tarkki (father) and Sirpa Laamanen (stepmother) weren’t there
You mentioned force feeding and bruises. What was the physical violence like that Eerika had to endure? She was hit and force fed?
I try to avoid talking about the violence unless it has a significance. Although recently I have been wondering if we, in fact, should talk more about the violence, in the sense of “What is abuse and what does it sound like?”
In Eerika’s case, it turned out that a neighbor had heard the violence through the walls. The walls were so thin, it was like they were in the same room. The neighbor heard word to word what Laamanen yelled at Eerika. They heard Eerika crying and yelling out that she was in pain. The neighbor didn’t realize this was violence and wondered if the sounds were normal sounds that occur when raising a child. The neighbor didn’t inform the authorities.
And so I have wondered if we should talk more about violence. What does it sound like and what all can it possibly be? What could be going on next door if you hear these kinds of sounds through the wall?
The police have done some reconstructions of the case on video. From what I’ve understood, she ultimately suffocated to death after being wrapped in some kind of plastic?
Vilja Eerika passed away on Mother’s Day 2012. Her death took a long time. The coroner stated that her suffocating took about four hours.
She was wrapped in a tarp and tied to a bed, and when the tarp went over her face and blocked her respiratory organs, the suffocation process began.
What was Vilja Eerika’s family like?
Vilja Eerika was born in April of 2004. At that time she had a mom and a dad. Her dad was Touko Tarkki and her mother was Susanna. In public Eerika’s mom has been known only by her first name, Susanna. In my book the name has been changed.
Eerika’s parents divorced soon after she was born, about four months after Eerika’s birth. Her mom had problems with alcohol even before Eerika was born. Documents and Tarkki state that she quit drinking after she gave birth to Eerika.
Eerika had a step brother. Her mom had a son, a couple of years older than Eerika. He was taken to custody before Eerika.
Eerika was a client of child protective services since she was only 18 months, maybe even earlier but official records state 18 months.
Eerika had grandparents. Tarkki’s mom and dad. They tried to help quite a bit.
Eerika’s parent were poor, and they couldn’t afford a child. The grandparents bought them food, a stroller and so on.
If I remember correctly, Eerika was roughly 2 when Laamanen came into the picture. She moved in with Tarkki almost instantly. They lived in Helsinki, Puotila.
Eerika was placed in the custody of her dad, and so Eerika lived with Tarkki and Laamanen.
At some point in 2011, Eerika was placed in a family support center (a housing system for children that need help) called “Meripiha” in Herttoniemi, Helsinki.
On the shores of Herttoniemi, Eerika lived for 4 months before she was relocated back to her dad’s home.
Often when this case is talked about, the stepmom comes up. As you mentioned, she has psychopatic tendencies and a personality disorder. Who was she really, and where did she suddenly appear?
Laamanen and Tarkki met in a restaurant. One of the people I interviewed told me this is a so-called “classic case”, meaning that a manipulative, psychopathic person found someone who is easy to manipulate. And that is exactly the case here.
I don’t know how knowingly Laamanen was looking for a person to manipulate, possibly not very consciously. She doesn’t appear to be a so-called white collar psychopath. And she is not like that, she is in prison. Many psychopaths aren’t in prison, since they have the common sense to exit the “grey zone”.
But, to get back to the question: they met like anybody else.
It’s actually hard for me to think that either one of them, Laaamanen or Tarkki, intentionally murdered Eerika. They didn’t think “so here’s what we are going to do”. They were acting on the impulses of their sick minds. This doesn’t mean to imply that I somehow sympathize with the killers, or consider their crime any less severe – I’m simply illuminating what went on “behind the scenes” of the killing.
How much do we know about Laamanen’s childhood, youth and overall life before this case?
A good and interesting question.
When I contacted Laamanen for an interview, she declined at first. It took a while before she agreed to be interviewed. She didn’t directly talk about her childhood, though I did ask. But what I found out was that her mother was the kind of a person that belittled her, and in every way indicated to Sirpa Laamanen that she thought she was worthless This makes a good soil to grow a personality disorder: if you don’t receive love from anywhere, disorders begin to blossom. Of course, it takes more to develop psychopathic features, but this is one of the factors.
That is all I know about her childhood.
I didn’t use all of the interview as a source. Like Laamanen herself stated, she is prone to lie. Ever since she was a child, she has lied. I couldn’t know for sure what was true and what was a lie. Some things I was able to check from the case files. For example, Laamanen herself said that she had a diagnosis of schizophrenia, but psychiatric assessment states she does not have schizophrenia.
Her lies don’t have any intention. Lying is a part of her personality. Psychiatric assessment verified that she is prone to lie and manipulate.
In terms of her childhood, it cannot have been good, not even close.
I don’t believe that people are born evil. Everything that happens after birth affects a person. I don’t even want to use the word “evil” when describing a person. It’s not a case of evil, but a case of the disruption of personality. Personality disorders are disruptions of a persona. Disruptions become disorders when they start to harm someone else. The narcissistic personality disorder is commonly known in a way, that a spouse is a narcissist.
Laamanen pretended to be someone else at first, telling everyone she was a specialist doctor of some sort from France. Why was this?
Yes, she came up with a story she told Tarkki. She introduced herself as a French-Moroccan doctor and who knows what else.
I saw many papers found in Tarkki’s home; his parents found these papers. The papers had different kinds of drawings and formulas Laamanen had written, she had been counting something… The writings didn’t make any sense. Just by looking at them you could tell something was off about her mentally.
She didn’t just have psychopathic features but other mental health issues too. They didn’t find any clear mental illnesses during the psychiatric assessment, but I don’t know…
During the interview I asked about her alter ego, Nadja. I wanted to know what was up with that. She couldn’t answer me. She said that she just introduced herself as that to Tarkki and lied so long she couldn’t take it back anymore and correct herself. The chain of lies just continued and she couldn’t break it.
We have to remember that a psychopath knows what other people want to hear. They have taught themselves how they need to act around other people.
Pleasing others doesn’t come naturally to psychopaths, it isn’t sincere; everything has been learned. The things she told me about the reasons for her behavior were probably something Laamanen assumed I wanted to hear.
What was Vilja Eerika’s father like? Did he have any previous violent or criminal background?
Tarkki has a sexual offence on his record. Also, while living with Eerika’s mother, the arguments the couple had led to a restraining order against Tarkki, so he cannot go near Eerikas mom. If I remember correctly, there was no actual conviction of an assault.
This is all the background we know of.
Do we know anything about Tarkki’s childhood? What was his life like as a child?
Not really. Of course, his parents told everyone his childhood was all dandy, but…
The public part of his psychiatric assessment states he is a person that is easy to manipulate. He has been easily led by other adults, ever since he was a child. The personality disorder Tarkki has, can develop just by having indifferent parents. A psychopath is born from belittling and mental and physical violence. But what Tarkki has can spur from the slightest indifference, and from experiencing a sense of worthlessness.
How did the case unravel ultimately? How did this house of horrors come to light after Eerika’s passing?
At first Tarkki called 112 [Finland’s emergency number. -admin], saying his daughter isn’t breathing, or it appears that she is not breathing. They sent an ambulance and the staff found her already dead. They noted that a police investigation has to be carried out. If they hadn’t reported the death to the police, the whole thing would have gone unknown, as simply a coroner’s report for the cause of death. In that case the media wouldn’t have known, because it would have been secret, confidential information.
Once the police got involved, the case was investigated as grievous bodily harm and involuntary manslaughter. After a reconstruction was done, everything came to light. Tarkki and Laamanen volunteered to show the police what they had done to Eerika.
When I interviewed Detective Inspector Juha Rautaheimo of the Helsinki Police, he told me that as he was watching the reconstruction with prosecutor Eija Velitski, Velitski wrote “murder” on a piece of paper and showed the paper to him. Rautaheimo agreed. That was the point where everybody realized this wasn’t a case of grievous bodily harm or involuntary manslaughter, but a murder.
Eerika had 29 different visible signs of physical abuse when they found her. It was noted early on that they were afflicted “pre mortem”. Some of the bruises were a couple of weeks old.
How did this affect the police? Even a homicide department legend like Rautaheimo was emotionally affected, from what I’ve heard…
It was hard on him, yes. Rautaheimo read the book just before I finished it, and he was very disturbed, even though he had already dealt with the case, as a member of the law enforcement community. While reading the book he felt frustrated: “How could this happen?!”
The truth is that, even though as a Detective Inspector you know a lot, you still cannot see all that was done, the way you can see the complete story when it’s written into a book. The story continued to shock him, and that says everything about how vile the whole thing was. Rautaheimo has publicly stated this case as the worst case of his career, as did prosecutor Velitski, who is an experienced district attorney. She said that this is by far the most disgusting case in criminal history.
As a crime journalist you probably know: What is the logic behind keeping some documents secret and others are public? For example in Eerika’s case, a lot was kept secret, but the reconstruction tapes are public. How so?
Actually, most of Eerikas case files are open. First, there was the judicial process of the murder, which was a component onto itself. Then, there were the malfeasance prosecutions for the child service officials in 2015. Those documents are almost entirely public.
The police and the detective inspector decide how public the pre-trial documents are. Then the court decides how public the trial and its documents will be.
All this is under the act on the openness of government activities. Due to this law, officials can’t make decisions subjectively how they please.
Eerika’s case was special, because of how public it actually was. Especially as the victim was a child. Usually these cases and the documents are kept private. Same goes with cases of a sexual nature. They are usually handled behind closed doors, and the documents are kept secret for the next 60 years.
One of the reasons I grabbed Eerikas case was because it was so public. Prosecutor Velitski and Detective Inspector Rautaheimo decided early on that this would be an openly handled case – they saw the social significance of the case. Velitski decided to show, in court, videos of Eerika crying and being forcefully fed. I remember members of the media asking her why she decided to do so, as it is uncommon in Finland. Velitski answered that if an 8-year old girl suffered so greatly, we as a society have to be able to have the nerve to witness her suffering.
But most of this is decided by the court and as a rule, all the documents are public. In the past few years this has changed, so it is ambiguous nowadays.
I keep wondering about “Nadja”, Laamanen’s alter ego. How was she able to lie about all of this for years? She even lied about being pregnant several times over a long period of time. You did mention she was a pathological liar, but how did this lying manage to fall through the cracks?
This is my guess as to how it all went down.
Her lies were noticed very early on. In the notes of the child protective service officials, it was mentioned that they didn’t believe in Laamanen’s claims of pregnancy. She claimed she was pregnant with triplets – perhaps even more. But because Laamanen wasn’t Eerika’s legal guardian, and her lies didn’t directly compromise Eerika’s well-being, the lies were bypassed.
The problem is that if the lies had been considered hazardous to Eerika, they would have been noted properly, and there would have been a police investigation.
Also, the backgrounds of Tarkki and Laamanen weren’t properly researched. If they had investigated Tarkkis background, they would have known about his sexual offense and the restraining order. The Child Protective Services didn’t know about these things.
I think this is why Laamanen’s lies fell through the cracks.
Nearing the murder Laamanen falsely stated, that she doesn’t live with Tarkki anymore and she has nothing to do with Eerika. This happened after the social services demanded her ID. This was her way of playing more time on the chain of lies she had created.
It’s hard for me to understand, too, that even when the responsible officials at child protective services said that Eerika cannot be sent home before “Nadja” proves she is who she says she is, she was still sent home! Legally, the child services stated that there weren’t enough good reasons to keep her in the Meripiha care center.
While reading your book, I wondered how you were able to write such a gruesome story with such neutrality; it’s truly admirable. Is this journalistic professionalism?
Thank you. It’s probably certain confidence that comes with years of experience. It’s my job to tell what has happened – my job is not to judge or change the story. I’m also not supposed to show my feelings during the process. I think the basis of a journalist’s work is to be objective.
If I handled this differently, through my feelings and emotions, it would have been a book full of hate speech.
Was it hard to remain neutral?
No. It’s probably professionalism; it comes naturally. While writing the Eerika book, I of course felt frustration, sadness and anger. But those are things I will handle separate from writing. I didn’t want to put the feelings in the book. They don’t belong there.
In the beginning and the end of the book, I go through things that have to do with writing the book. The feelings do not belong there, nor will they further anyone.
As a crime journalist, do you think the legal process that followed Eerika’s death was carried out properly?
And the guilty parties received the sentences they deserved, in your opinion?
Crime journalists and reporters usually don’t take a stance on the rulings of the court, since Finland is a constitutional state. Verdicts are handed by the court of law, and that’s it.
But if we think about Tarkki and Laamanen, they have the hardest possible sentences one can get in this country. In Finland, life sentence means life sentence, but after the prisoner has been in for 12 years, they can apply to be freed.
It’s true that in Finland, the life sentence never means a de facto “lifetime in prison”. On average a life sentence in Finland is 14,5 years long, and the longest sentence has been a tad over 20 years. Deadline Publishing is releasing a book by the end of the year, in which we aim to address this very matter.
But yes, after 12 years you can apply for a pardon from the court of appeal or the President of Finland, though I think Tarkki and Laamanen will be in for longer than 12 years.
Do you believe they will ever walk through the prison gates to their freedom?
Yes, they will walk free one day.
There isn’t any legal “instrument” available to the authorities, any discretion they could evoke to prevent them from being freed?
Unfortunately no. The verdict is given by the court, but after that the responsibility for the prisoners is handed to the Institute of Criminal Law.
The ideal for the criminal sanctions agency is that the prisoner will become a part of our society again. This can be surprising to many of your followers: “How can it be like this in Finland, when the sentencing in the US, for example, is completely different?!” They don’t think the way we do in Finland. As far as I know, the prisons in the US are nearly full because of the long, severe sentences they hand out.
In Finland the idea is that a prisoner will eventually be freed, and can continue his/her life in this society.
Some day Tarkki and Laamanen will be freed, that is a fact. But when, well that is another thing.
Do you have any information about the everyday lives of Laamanen and Tarkki in prison? It’s probably clear that they are at the bottom of the hierarchy among the prisoners, but do you know if this shows in their daily lives? Do they get beaten up or something?
This is crazy and says a lot about Laamanen’s nature and personality disorder, but when I interviewed her, she wanted to tell me that they were treating her badly in prison.
It is natural that a person who has committed a very brutal crime will deny doing anything, even when they have done it fully knowing that it’s wrong. And they are embarrassed by the act, knowing you shouldn’t take someone else’s life. But usually, remorse and very heavy feelings emerge after some therapy and other treatment in the criminal facilities. The worse the crime, the worse the guilt.
But in either Laamanen or Tarkki, I didn’t witness anything resembling remorse. Tarkki agreed to be interviewed because he wanted to talk about the reasons why he shouldn’t have been given a life sentence, while Laamanen wanted to talk about how she felt she was mistreated.
The answer to the question is, Tarkki has been assaulted at least once. Laamanen has told that she has been bullied.
They truly aren’t high in the so-called inmate hierarchy.
Tarkki is located in a unit where they locate prisoners who are at high risk for their own safety. I’m not sure about Laamanen, but I know for a fact that Tarkki is in a special department so that he won’t get assaulted anymore.
How about you, after all these years, do you still think about this case other than on the days you are giving interviews? Do you still think about Eerika on a daily basis?
Not on a daily basis no. My thoughts have been more in the big picture; what next, what can I do more to change things for the better?
This summer Deadline publishing will publish a book about the Koskela teen murder. Tiia Palmén from MTV (Finnish TV channel) is writing the book. It’s going to be kind of a sequel to “Eerika”. This book is also written as objectively as possible.
So Eerika occupies my thoughts daily in this regard, as the inspiration for the question “What’s next?”
Is there a TV series based on your book in the works, or is it being worked into any other media format?
Actually, no. I thought about that when I noticed how popular the book became. I thought about the different formats the story could be told in, and came to the conclusion that I don’t think it would translate to TV due to the sheer brutality of the crime. People wouldn’t be able to watch it. The book is already hard to read – TV would be too much.
But I hope this book will be published in English, and in other countries, too, besides Finland. A case like this not a uniquely Finnish problem: these kinds of incidents happen all over the world. I believe this book would be useful in other countries as well.
There has been a lot of talk that things have to change, but has anything actually changed? Are Finnish child protective services any different “post-Eerika”?
If we think about what happened to the Koskela victim (teen murder victim) then no, it hasn’t. How did we let this happen, too?It hasn’t changed enough. Maybe the police are now contacted earlier.
But thinking about Eerika and Koskela victim, they are just the tip of the iceberg, cases that rise to the public consciousness. There are thousands of children that have been abused and when it comes to domestic violence, Finland is in the top tier on the statistics. Finland is a very unsafe country for a child, and the reason is alcohol drugs.I don’t know what more we could do, than raise awareness. What I tried to underline in the book is that the mindless secrecy between the officials needs to end, we need to get rid of it. Thankfully a change in that can already be seen, but these are things that take time – more than 8 years, it seems…I hope that in the future the child protective services would pass the investigation request to the police faster and earlier.
But still, this won’t be the last time tragedies like this happen.At the release event for my book, we had an expert speaker from the Finnish Institute of Health and Welfare. Last year they started a new project called “Barnahus”. It works to prevent and identify violence and abuse towards children. This expert stated in their speech that it would be amazing to say something like this will never happen again, but that can’t be said.I hope that my book helps in noticing and recognizing what might be brewing and happening in Finnish homes; I hope this is something I can help with.
The whole story is in this one book. If social workers would read it, it might help them understand what could possibly be going on. More would be done to help.