In the late evening hours of May 17th 1953 an old man sits in the kitchen of his home in a small town named Isojoki in rural Finland. He awaits his daughter, who should be arriving home any minute now from a religious service in town. After the clock strikes midnight, the man gives up and goes to bed, sleeping restlessly in his bed.
Kyllikki is not home.
The story of Kyllikki Saari and her sad departure from among the living begins on that night. In the dark of a rural country road, the young country named Finland receives its first enduring murder mystery, a story that will be written about in tabloid papers and books and discussed in true crime television shows for the next five decades.
Kyllikki Saari was exactly the kind of person an entire nation mourns. She was quiet, hard working, and seemingly innocent in all regards. Even the most famous photo of her shows her in her Christian confirmation dress, like a maiden dressed for a bizarre sacrifice where innocence is corrupted in the name of taming some dark, irressistible force.
She was a country girl, used to hard work and fear of her Lord. Her great passions in life were related to service to the evangelical church, and she was a frequent visitor to various religious happenings in her town. Even her parents had had a relatively easy time bringing up the teenager, something not many parents can say without sarcasm.
On that night in May in the early 1950s Kyllikki was preparing to make the short cycling trip back home from a religious service in downtown Isojoki. Kyllikki lived in the rural part of town, and the trek home would take her through a pleasant scenery trees, fields and other natural wonders.
Tonight, however, Kyllikki was afraid. The night has a way of throwing eerie shadows at even the most picturesque labdscapes, and Kyllikki was not excited to be making part of the trip alone. The beginning of the journey would be pedaled in the company of a good friend, but the final stretch of road, leading through a dense forest of trees, Kyllikki would have to face alone.
As the two friends reached their point of departure, they said their goodbyes, and headed to their respective destinations alone.
On that final, lonely section of the journey home, surrounded by the dark forest, someone attacked Kyllikki and murdered her.
To the rest of the community in Isojoki, Kyllikki was initially simply lost. She did not come home, and ultimately her father filed a missing person report to the police.
A huge investigation was kicked into gear. The area where Kyllikki was assumed to have disappeared was searched with a canvas of around 600 people, all volunteering to look for the missing hometown girl.
Nothing was found. Not a trace.
After about two months, two locals picking berries in the woods came across a bicycle, and reported their discovery to the police. The bicycle was indeed Kyllikki’s, and this morbid finding unlocked a new series of searches. This time, with the canvas more concentrated, the search parties found Kyllikki’s shoe and, finally, Kyllikki herself.
She had been buried in a swampy grave, quickly improvised in the dark by her killer. Standing on top of the burial mound was a branch from aa tree, clearly snapped off and placed there to mask the presence of anything unusual in the topography.
Upon investigating Kyllikki’s body the police learned that she had most likely been the victim of a sexual attack before the killer had finished his victim off.
As can be imagined, no stone was left unturned in trying to find the culprit. The popular opinion was that if Kyllikki’s killer was found, Finland should implement a special law on him and sentence him to death. Her death was felt deeply around the country, and everyone was curious to know who had murdered this good Christian girl.
Alas, despite years and years of police work, amateur sleuthing, books, movies and television programs, Kyllikki’s killer remains unidentified. The murder is probably the most famous unsolved homicide in Finland’s history (save for the Lake Bodom triple homicide in 1960), and it still frequently features in newspapers and on television. The case even has its own drink, if you can believe that: if you’re ever in a bar in Finland, ask the bartender for a “Kyllikki Saaren suohauta” (“Kyllikki Saari’s Swampy Grave”).
Over the years, several people have come forward to claim they know who killed the poor girl; these people’s backgrounds vary from psychics to actual homicide detectives. But stories are meaningless unless they can be backed up by actual evidence, and that has been the shortcoming of all of these well-meaning hopefuls.
The likelihood that this case will ever be solved is essentially non-existent. Decades have gone by, people have died and memories have faded.
That is, the memories of specifics.
Kyllikki herself will most likely never be forgotten.
(sign directing visitors to the site where Kyllikki’s body was found)