True crime doesn’t get more personal than this.
On 15h May 2003 Kai Salomaa, a man from Vaasa, Finland, disappeared. He was last seen leaving the yard of a house in Karvia, Finland, in his car. For some reason, his empty car was later returned to that yard. Kai was 46 years old when he vanished.
Around 11 o’clock on the night of his disappearance Kai’s cell phone, a Nokia 3210, was used to make an eerie phone call to Kai’s mother. A male voice on the other end of the line said: “Kai has been in an accident. He no longer has any debt.”
Below is my interview with Heidi, Kai’s daughter. She is a survivor who has endured years and years of sorrow and uncertainty, but stayed afloat, and is now working at helping young people with serious problems in their lives.
Thank you Heidi for your time!
(NOTE: questions with the letters “IG” after them are questions from followers of my Instagram profile)
(photo credit: YLE)
Who are you? Tell us a bit about yourself!
My name is Heidi Haapala. I am a 34-year-old female from Vaasa, Finland. I love wandering around in nature and I love being active with my horses. I have my own small stable with five adorable creatures.
I am a Bachelor of Social Services, and am currently completing studies toward a degree in social work at an open university. I work with young people as head of a housing unit under the child protective services. I love my work very much, and I feel I have a lot to offer.
I also do some side work as a counselor in a social pedagogic program where horses are used to activate clients; this is something that’s especially close to my heart.
Values important to me are family, fairness, responsibility and social relations.
Tell us about your father Kai! What kind of a man was he? What kinds of memories do you have of him?
My father Kai Salomaa was what you might call a “good guy”. He was kind, patient, had a sense of humor, and kept his feet on the ground. I don’t remember him raising his voice at me even once. He had a much better temper than I do. He was also good at making chocolate porridge, which was a childhood favorite of mine.
My own memories of Dad are sunny. I never saw my dad in, for example, fights with other people, although my dad’s alcohol-fueled life most likely included those…
However, he did use a lot of alcohol throughout my childhood. He later used drugs too, even so-called “hard drugs”. Dad had a criminal background, and he was in prison several times when I was young. My mom and dad were not living together at that time.
My mom, on the other hand, has never used alcohol; her life was the exact opposite of my dad’s. Despite this, she never prevented me from spending time with dad when he was sober. I’m still thankful to her for this. If my dad had not had serious substance abuse problems, I believe they would have been happy together for many years to come.
So, my dad and I had very warm relations right up until the end. As an adult now, I often think of how happy I am for the things my parents taught me, despite everything. For example, the importance of being social and open to encounters with various kinds of people.
Despite his shady background, deep down my dad was a very spiritual person, though this fact didn’t really show in our everyday life. he taught me important basic principles in life, such as “don’t judge others – our fates are not in our own hands”. Good piece of advice that has carried me far.
The last time you saw your father… what was it like?
I met with my dad just a few days before he disappeared. Dad was at a friend’s house drinking and playing yatzi. I was an 18-year-old youngster back then. I was determined to break off dad’s long drinking binge, so I turned up at his friend’s house and told my dad sternly: “This is enough! You’re coming with me, and I’m gonna take you to grandma’s house to clear your head!”
I can still remember that situation, in the third floor of an apartment building, as the two men sat at a large wooden desk. They were having fun at my expense, laughing at my determination. My dad suddenyl became very serious, and said, in a very determined manner, “As your father, I take care of you – not the other way round! It’s offensive that my own daughter is dictating rules to me.” I saw the seriousness in his eyes as he said this, and realized that he was not coming with me. So after a few more words were exchanged, I left, with a reasonably positive mindset.
As I was walking down the stairs of the apartment building, I heard Dad’s voice from above, calling my name. I turned around, and started walking back up. He walked downstairs to meet me halfway, and embraced me, saying “You know you will always be daddy’s little princess, don’t you?” I mumbled a response of some sort, and kept on going.
In retrospect, I’m thankful that our final meeting was so emotional, and I even got to hug my dad. Those words he spoke still have a lot of meaning for me – they’ve carried me over several bad periods in my life.
Take us to the day of Kai’s disappearance. What were the circumstances like? How did he actually disappear?
My dad disappeared from Karvia. I don’t know how he had ended up there. I had no idea he even spent any time there, ever…
During his last years, dad’s alcohol and drug use had really escalated, so when he disappeared, I could calculate in my mind that his disappearance was probably somehow related to his lifetyle and his circle of friends. Mom and dad’s relations had really gone cold some years before his disappearance, and this too had to do with dad’s drug use. I think maybe dad felt he had missed out on so much in life that he compensated this feeling with drugs.
This was a fatal path he never returned from.
I can clearly remember that feeling when I realized something bad had happened to Kai. I can’t explain, nor do I think it’s really even “explainable”. It was a Thursday evening. I was suddenly overcome by a feeling that something is about to happen. At that time I had no idea how far-reaching the implications of that feeling would turn out to be.
I had slept poorly. In the morning, my first thought was “I should give dad a call.” As I grabbed my old Nokia phone, the screen showed me what time it was, and I realized I needed to hurry to school so I wouldn’t be late from an exam. I had a bus to catch, but I made it, albeit barely.
While on the bus, the thought of calling my dad re-emerged, so I picked up my phone again. As I picked it up, it rang immediately; the caller was student peer of mine. We talked for a while, and agreed to see each other at the exam.
I sat down at the exam room at school, and I can remember staring out the window the whole time, unable to produce a single word onto the exam paper. I got out of there as soon as I could. I went outside, picked up the phone once again, an dialed dad’s number. A pre-programmed generic female voice on the other end of the line said: “The number you have dialed cannot be reached.”
I knew immediately that something was wrong.
When I got home that night, I called Mom. I cried on the phone that “Dad is dead!” Mom came over immediately. She never questioned my words.
That was the beginning of a major turning point in my life.
(CCTV camera footage of Kai shortly before his disappearance)
When Kai’s disappearance is discussed in the Finnish media or on discussion boards, the phrase “He was involved in shady circles” is often mentioned. What does this mean, exactly? Did the police initially investigate the case properly, in your opinion?
It’s an undeniable fact that dad moved around in circles made up of shady people. It’s also an undeniable fact that one of his acquaintances from these very circles is responsible for his death. What makes me sad is that, because of dad’s background, our current Finnish society views his value as less than that of other people.
I got this feeling when I was filing a Missing Person report on him at the Vaasa Police Department. They simply said to me, “We haven’t seen him, but he’ll turned up at some point. Don’t worry – the chickens always come back home to roost.” Well, not in this case.
As a layman, I would imagine a case like my father’s would be relatively easy to solve. The suspect is a drug user from a certain age group, is probably already known to the local police, who know his criminal background. But it didn’t turn out that way. They didn’t take dad’s case seriously until months after he had gone missing, despite the fact that I contacted the police about him constantly.
Finally, in July 2003, I exploded at the police chief, screaming “If my dad was a regular factory worker living in a condo with two kids and a golden retriever, driving around in a BMW, you would have found him already!” I also asked the Chief if he would take it more seriously if it was his father instead of mine – would something more concrete be done then?
A couple of days after that phone call the Finnish Bureau of Investigations called. That was the first time I got the feeling that someone actually listened to what I had to say. Somebody considered my dad a human being, and was prepared to actually search for him. The FBI asked questions nobody had asked me before, such as “what was Kai wearing the day of his disappearance?”, “What model cell phone did he use?” and “Where did you see him for the last time?”
Overall, do you feel that the police investigation into your dad’s disappearance was sufficient?
The initial investigation was not sufficient, but the cooperation with FBI worked well. Unfortunately that changed when the FBI office was moved from Vaasa to Vantaa. [city in southern Finland, far away from Vaasa. -admin] The knowledge of the local scene disappeared with that move.
I appreciate the FBI investigators, and was in contact with them for years. They walked beside me in my sorrow for many years.
Kai’s disappearance also involves aspects that could be described with the term “paranormal”, such as a dream you had and the visions of a medium. Can you elaborate on these?
That’s correct. As I’ve mentioned before, I can’t explain or justify these experiences, but they have gone along with this missing person case through the years.
Right away when dad disappeared, I knew it was going to happen. I remember saying to a friend: “Someone has died.” I cried and cried, and the tears just would not stop coming. The next day I knew dad was dead. I’ve always known it. Later on, in conversations and police interviews I have heard it being suggested that dad wanted to disppear. I haven’t even considered this hypothesis; I haven’t had the need to ponder it. The sense of dad’s death is so strong in me.
I’ve also experienced all kinds of coincidences and other incidents over the years. One of these was on Christmas Eve a few years after dad had disappeared.
I was on my way to celebrate Christmas at my spouse’s family’s place. My spouse went to the balcony to put out a candle that already had a short line. We went off to the celebration, and when we got back in the evening my spouse noticed that the candle was burning again! He told me about this and was really flabbergasted by what had happened. He doesn’t believe in these types of things, but was absolutely certain he had put out the flame on the candle. For me, this wasn’t scary at all.
The next morning, as my spouse went to the balcony for a cigarette, the candle was still burning, and didn’t go out until that afternoon. This just should not have been possible, and I can’t explain it… But throughout this incident, I felt warm and good.
I’ve also experienced quite a coincidence while doing anti-drugs volunteer work. I was awarded with a bouquet of flowers. The flowers had been wrapped in old newspaper pages. I went home and opened the package – and there was my father’s face, looking at me from the pages of the newspaper that had been used as wrapping material! I felt really good upon seeing that.
I’ve also gone to a medium once. As I walked into the room where she was waiting for me, she was sitting with her back to me. I stepped into the room, and her first words were “My, that was quite a lot of rain!” She turned around and said “You have something to ask.”
I obviously asked about Dad, and immediately felt a hand on my shoulder. I knew it was dad’s hand.
Furthermore, a couple of years ago I came home from work on a sunny day in February. As I opened the front door to our house I was spooked: there was music coming from my child’s room, despite the fact that I knew I was home alone. I went to check my kid’s room and found that the music was blaring from a CD containing children’s music. That very moment I realized – it was dad’s birthday!
I’m a professional in psychiatric care, and I don’t consider myself strange, but I have immense respect for these types of phenomena. I’ve never felt disturbed by them.
Do you believe psychics/mediums can actually help solve cases like these?
Not really. I don’t know of any cases where a psychic’s contribution had led to a case being solved. I do, however, that psychics can know some things.
If you were presented with this choice, which would you choose: certain knowledge that your dad is dead, or a lingering hope that he might still be alive but you would never know for sure?
Certain knowledge. No question about. Death is cruel, death is so very final, but for a loved one it would be more merciful to know for sure what happened. I’ve officially declared Kai dead. The process was surprisingly emotionally taxing. I wanted to hold a memorial for dad, and at that memorial I realized how important such an event was for us family members. In Finnish culture, as in many other cultures as well, the body is supposed to be present when it’s blessed for it’s final journey. My dad’s body was not there to be buried, but the event was so important.
What is it like living on a day-to-day level with a missing person case in your family?
The beginning was the hardest. I searched for dad every single day. I called everybody dad had ever known. I looked and looked, without finding an answer. Fear, frustration, anxiety every day.
At some point, I was forced to make decisions about practical things, such as what to do with dad’s apartment, his bills, his bank account, et cetera. Big decisions that felt so final.
When it rained, I was afraid that dad was laying in a ditch somewhere, hurt and unable to get up. When the first frost came, I found myself thinking if dad was cold.
You hope and you fear. You wait and you get frustrated. Everyday life should still somehow be upheld: going to work, going to school. That was hard, too, because I couldn’t sleep at night, but still had to take care of necessary routines during the day.
At some point the case became public. People started asking questions and speculating. They claimed to “know” what had happened, when in reality none of them knew anything. Some people didn’t have the courage to say anything – they just stared and wondered, as though there was something bizarre about me all of a sudden, something contagious. Some can’t find the words, while others ask invading, overly personal questions. At some point in time, their thinking changes, and everyone starts to forget – “oh, it’s been sooo long since it happened…” As though the pain and sorrow of loved ones disappear like their own memories of the incident.
The pain doesn’t go away, and you never really learn to live with the uncertainty. For me, for years the disappearance felt like it happened yesterday. Similar, in a way, to the birth of a child: you notice the child growing, but still feel like he/she was just born yesterday!
It wasn’t really until my dad was officially pronounced dead that everyday life has returned to balance. Although I still have hope, and at the same time know that the hope is pointless.
Did you father’s disappearance change your worldview? IG
I’ve been asked this before. Back then I think I responded with a “no”, but this time, I’m going to reply with a “yes”. The trauma of the disappearance is very deep, and it didn’t just concern me: my dad’s mother, my grandmother, went to her grave over her son’s disappearance. Dad’s siblings have also suffered immensely.
I stepped into the big boots of a grown-up at a very early age. According to the Finnish law, I was officially an adult at that time, but in my own opinion, I was just a kid when all this happened. And suddenly, as a next-of-kin, I was forced to take responsibility for big things, to carry a big burden. The evils of the world had become a part of my own story.
Had the media portrayed your father’s disappearance accurately? IG
For the most part, yes. I’ve always wanted to read newspaper articles myself before giving permission to publish. Some members of the media do try to find elements that are not truthful or integral to the story. The media holds a lot of power.
Have you tried to find your missing loved one yourself?
Yes, many times. I’ve gone to the strangest places in trying to find dad. To no avail, unfortunately.
How does one get their life back on track after a loved one goes missing? IG
Some people never do. The experience is extremely traumatic. Some need long-term therapy, some need crisis counseling. Some people have innate survival mechanisms they employ in dealing with what has happened.
In retrospect, I myself would have needed crisis counseling or therapy, but I never received either. I got into a tight spot at school, because I couldn’t wake up in time in the mornings. I ultimately told the staff at school about what had happened to my dad, but the reception I got was very cold, not empathetic at all. I remember deciding then that I myself would never treat someone who needs help in the same way.
My father’s mother fell seriously ill after dad disappeared. I believe such a reaction is not uncommon.
Do you believe your father will ever be found? IG
One should never abandon all hope. I don’t believe he will ever be found, but in my heart hope lives on, though I do accept the odds.
Have you ever wondered if there is a “plot” behind your dad’s disappearance, perhaps even something involving people from your circle of acquaintes? IG
No. I know such plots don’t exist in this case. Of course the rollercoaster of emotions you go on when something tragic happens can take you up and down, and involve all kinds of thoughts, including judgment, guilt, hate and despair. Thankfully, at this point such thoughts are rare, and the voice of reason has always ultimately prevailed.
What kinds of advice would you give to others who find themselves in similar circumstances as you? IG
Thankfully, nowadays the need for therapy and psychological first aid are recognized. Get yourself help. It can feel hard to do and useless at the moment, but it isn’t. Take care of yourself and those close to you. Give yourself time. Breathe. Eat. Sleep. Secure the basic necessities. Talk, talk, and ask for help.
In your current life, can you be happy, despite everything? IG
Yes, absolutely. Several things affect one’s happiness. I try to live life so that I can be happy. I can’t be responsible for my dad’s life, or it’s ending, but I can be responsible for my own. Of course, dealing with all this has taken a lot of time. On the other hand, I’ve been young throughout all this, so I’ve lived with it all my adult life. I’ve also had to work on dealing with this a lot.
But I want to live happily, and my Dad would want me to do so, too. But often think about the fact that these people who have killed dad and hidden his body, they probably had no idea how many souls their actions would affect.
What do you do on your dad’s birthday? IG
I light a candle each year. I also now have a memorial to go to at the cemetery, with my father’s engraved onto a rock; I take a candle there and wish him a happy birthday. I didn’t used to have anything like that, which made me sad. I often wish I had a proper gravestone to go to.
Do you have nightmares about your father’s disappearance? IG
Not for years, fortunately. For the first few years I had devastating nightmares. I sleepwalked, and would often wake up with a feeling of being choked to death. In retrospect, I suspect these were symptoms of a panic disorder.
What can friends do to help a person with a missing loved one? IG
Remain close to them; they need your help. Be there for them, no matter how emotionally taxing it can sometimes be to listen to them talk about the same things over and over again. This is how the human mind works; there is a need to talk to someone. The loved one of a dead person acts in the same way as the loved one of a missing person. The difference is that the loved one of a dead person is able to finish the process of grief at some point. With a missing person in the family, the grief process is different in this regard – there are too many open questions.
Take care and be close to each other. Help your friend secure the routines and basic necessities of life. This will take you far.
Does the sorrow ever really ease up? IG
The form of the grief alters, at least. Longing and sorrow will remain, but you can live with them. Memories change over time, and the better memories will prevail in the end. Then again, almost anything can re-ignite the grieving.
What coping mechanisms do you employ in dealing with grief? IG
Good question. I believe that, for me, one factor that has saved me has been my hectic everyday life, one that involves a lot of people. In the beginning, grief was physical, something that you could feel with your entire body, and I don’t even remember all that much about the first few years anymore.
I’m also a reflective person, a thinker; maybe that’s been a benefit as well.
I still consider it very important to go out to nature on my horse if I find myself depressed. Oftentimes this helps.
What could the general public do to decrease the number of disappearances, if anything? IG
I can’t answer that question – there are so many different kinds of missing person cases. There are victims of crime such as my father, but also accidents and voluntary disapperances.
It’s important to realize that a missing person case doesn’t just concern the missing person’s inner circle – it affects so many people.
Have the internet or improvements in technology made it any easier to investigate your dad’s disappearance? IG
As far as I know, yes they have, but I don’t know the extent. For example, there have been laboratory experiments done to determine whether certain items have belonged to my dad or not, so in this way, technology has been of assistance. They’ve also used some sort of new tech in searching for him.
What is the “status” of your dad’s case at this moment? Are the police still actively investigating it?
Not as far as I know, at least unless there are new tips. But new tips come in very rarely these days.