Peering through the barnacle-encrusted portholes of the abandoned submarine, lashed to a capstan in a secluded corner of Copenhagen docks, I felt a chill run down my spine.
I tried to imagine how it must have felt for a young journalist to be trapped in the claustrophobic cabin with an inventor who had seemed so engaging and charismatic when he invited her aboard for an exciting underwater interview. But who, when they were alone and fathoms deep, revealed himself to be a psychopath who had lured her into his eccentric craft so he could torture her to death.
Three summers ago, this was the appalling fate of Kim Wall, 30, a free-spirited and adventurous freelance reporter who had studied at the London School of Economics and wrote for several British newspapers.
The story of her mutilation and murder at the hands of Peter Madsen -who had not only constructed the 60ft submarine himself but planned to launch the world’s first privately built manned space rocket – sent shockwaves far beyond his home country of Denmark.
Kim Wall, 30, (pictured) a free-spirited and adventurous freelance reporter who had studied at the London School of Economics and wrote for several British newspapers, was murdered at the hands of Peter Madsen in 2017
It was a story so macabre, it might have emanated from the mind of a Scandi-Noir thriller writer. Indeed, when Kim’s dismembered body parts and clothes were found floating off the coast, it almost evoked echoes of the opening scene from The Bridge, the acclaimed Danish/Swedish TV crime series. The grim finds were made in the stretch of water near to where the sequence was filmed.
In August 2017 I travelled to Copenhagen to investigate Kim’s murder. But before we return to the crime itself, it may be instructive to compare her fate with that of her killer.
Madsen, now 49 and three years into a full-life sentence, remains an object of prurient fascination and is still idolised by some followers.
Not long after he was first imprisoned, it emerged that he was enjoying sexual liaisons – in the privacy of his comfortable single-occupancy cell – with a procession of female admirers, including a gullible teenager.
In liberal Denmark, sex between prisoners and visitors is permitted. But when the extent of Madsen’s ‘avid’ cavorting became public, it caused a political outcry – not least because one of his harem turned out to be a 40-year-old female prison warder.
Madsen made headlines again this year, when he confirmed on Facebook that he had married dissident Russian artist Jenny Curpen, 39, who fell for him while studying him for a piece of artwork.
Again the news was greeted with outrage but Ms Curpen, who lives in self-imposed exile in Finland with the father of her two young children, responded with a defiant statement on social media.
‘My husband committed a terrible crime and he is punished for that,’ she wrote.
‘However, knowing him for real gives me the exclusive right to say that I am lucky to be with the most beautiful, smart, talented, devoted and empathetic person and man ever.’ She added provocatively that Madsen was also ‘a victim’.
Two new books present a very different picture of the oddball inventor, however.
The first, by two Danish writers, reveals how Madsen – who had travelled widely and has long been suspected of murdering other young women, perhaps even in Britain – was investigated over another notorious unsolved Scandinavian murder.
Emilie Meng, 17, vanished from the Danish port of Korsør after a night out with friends in July 2016. She was last seen waiting to catch a train home at 4.45am and her body was found in a lake six months later.
According to the authors, Danish police are struck by similarities between her death and that of Kim. Emilie lived with her parents in a small coastal town close to where Madsen grew up.
Furthermore, he is said to have driven a white car similar to one seen parked at Korsør station that night.
But it is the second book, to be published in Britain next week, that has attracted the most poignant reviews. Written by Kim’s mother Ingrid, it is described as ‘a moving memoir of an inexplicable crime’.
According to the publisher, Kim Wall did what any intrepid journalist would do: she followed a potentially fascinating story. But instead of writing it, she tragically became it.
Peter Madsen and Kim Wall had one characteristic in common: they were both were driven to succeed.
Kim enjoyed an idyllic childhood in the Swedish resort of Trelleborg with her parents, Jocke, a respected photo-journalist, and Ingrid, a council communications officer.
A brilliant scholar, she studied at the Sorbonne in Paris and the LSE before gaining masters degrees in journalism and international relations at New York’s Columbia University.
In her first four years as a reporter she had travelled to Haiti to explore the cult of voodoo and the Marshall Islands to expose the effects of U.S. nuclear missile testing. She had even been to North Korea.
That August, she and her boyfriend Ole Stobbe were preparing to move from Copenhagen to Beijing, where Kim was planning to write about neo-Maoism.
A close friend who studied journalism with her wrote that she was ‘never afraid but always aware of her surroundings and never reckless’.
Inventor Peter Madsen (above) was charged with the murder of Kim Wall, whose dismembered body parts were found at sea after she interviewed Madsen on his homemade submarine
For Kim, the prospect of interviewing Denmark’s best-loved inventor – a man who appeared regularly on TV and was affectionately dubbed ‘Rocket Madsen’ after embarking on his romantic space project – must have seemed an unthreatening assignment – unless, of course, she was aware of a disturbing biography of Madsen or had perused his alarmingly candid blogs, in which he had admitted to a penchant for weird sexual exploits (one encounter had involved submerging a Swedish stripper in a water tank).
As his biographer, Thomas Djursing, told me, Madsen’s formative years were dysfunctional in the extreme.
At 24, his feckless mother was trying to raise three young children alone. She was taken in by Carl Madsen, a hard-drinking, brawling and philandering publican almost 40 years her senior, and they had a fourth child: Peter.
But his misogynist father, who was fascinated by the Nazis, routinely beat Peter’s mother and her sons, so she fled to their village home, 60 miles from Copenhagen.
Peter Madsen, though, returned to live with the old man, who built him a workshop so he could pursue his hobby of building model rockets.
A nerdish, lonely boy, he had no interest in formal education and never gained any engineering or scientific qualifications.
But he had a peculiar inventive brilliance and, by his 30s, was gaining a cult following among Copenhagen’s bohemian creative community after launching several submarines he had built using scrap iron.
His profile rose when he began working on a manned rocket in collaboration with a former Nasa designer. Then, when two rival Danish teams had the same idea, starting a Scandinavian space race, he achieved still greater renown.
Although Madsen was small, unprepossessing and did not have his first sexual experience until he was 20, fame brought attractive young women to his makeshift workshop on a disused Copenhagen dock colonised by oddballs and hippies.
By day, they tried to push the boundaries of science and art. By night, they donned fancy dress or fetish costumes and attended anything-goes parties staged by a libertine collective called the Kinky Salon.
By this time Madsen had married one of his young followers (who fled to Mexico after his arrest and has since divorced him). But his promiscuity continued apace and grew more dangerous.
One long-time mistress whom I tracked down, Deirdre King, told me he became ‘obsessed’ with having sex in his submarine. She admitted she was one of a string of lovers with whom he indulged this fantasy.
Miss King, who gave evidence at his trial, said she had been due to meet Madsen the day after Kim died – and showed me a flurry of texts that might point to his perverted state of mind.
They included pictures of naked women in high heels (another of his fetishes) and the couple exchanged messages about buying a new pair for Deirdre, to be worn for their next underwater encounter.
She also told me how Madsen would act out the roles of various characters when his moods swung. If he felt dominant, he would don a naval officer’s cap and strut around speaking with a Russian accent and calling himself ‘Captain Vladimir’.
When he felt angry, he would play a Danish cartoon character renowned for his temperamental outbursts.
Deirdre maintains, though, that despite these eccentricities, Madsen was a gentle lover who would ‘never so much as pull my ponytail’. She even described him as ‘one of the sweetest people I’ve ever met’.
Had Miss King seen the blood-curdling videos police later found on the hard drive of Madsen’s computer, she would surely have viewed him differently.
Deemed too graphic to be screened in open court but shown to jurors behind a partition, they included several ‘snuff movies’ – the real-life torture and beheading of young women, filmed for the sickening gratification of voyeurs.
The videos will surely haunt those who attended the hearing for the rest of their days.
Madsen claimed nonchalantly that he had uploaded the films out of mere curiosity – it didn’t mean he would actually do such things.
But, as the prosecution proved beyond all doubt, in fact it meant exactly that.
On August 10, 2017, when Madsen texted Kim, inviting her to meet him, she had been trying to interview him for five months.
Peter Madsen had constructed a 60ft submarine (above) himself and also planned to launch the world’s first privately built manned space rocket
That night, she and her boyfriend were hosting a farewell barbecue for friends before starting their new life in China. But she was so excited finally to receive Madsen’s reply, she dashed away from the party to see him.
Half an hour later she was back – but only to say her farewells. ‘Rocket Madsen’ had not only agreed to a talk to her, she said excitedly; he had suggested she should be the first reporter to travel in his self-made sub.
The last picture of Kim, taken from the dockside as the green hulk glides into open water, captures her sense of anticipation.
Standing on the conning tower wearing a bright orange jumper, with her auburn hair tied in a topknot, she smiles serenely as she gazes out to sea.
Beside her, striking an imperious pose in his green military-style uniform, is the man who would soon become her nemesis.
Unless Madsen one day confesses, we will never know exactly what happened after the hatch slammed shut and the submarine dived. But the story that unfolded in court was beyond horrific.
In an attack that had clearly been planned with precision, the prosecution said, Madsen strapped Kim’s arms to an overhead pipe and tied her feet to the deck so she was stretched out before him, unable to move.
He then stripped her, cut off locks of her hair in a seemingly ritualised manner, then subjected her to an ordeal that was cruel beyond belief.
Experts deduced that she would have been alive when many of the wounds were inflicted. They also estimated the onslaught would have lasted more than an hour.
It is not clear how Kim died but the cause may have been strangulation, it is thought. Madsen then dismembered her using a saw he must have brought aboard specially for the purpose.
Since a video camera was found on the submarine, the possibility remains that Madsen created his own snuff movie that night.
Although Ingrid Wall’s forthcoming book is intended to represent a celebration of her daughter’s life rather than a reprisal of events surrounding the murder, she may recount how she and her husband received a panicked phone call from Kim’s boyfriend in the middle of the night, saying she hadn’t returned from the voyage.
Ingrid and her husband reached Copenhagen in time to see a chipper-looking Madsen being driven off to the police station, where he embarked on an ever-changing story.
He claimed first that he had dropped Kim off on the quayside before returning to sea, whereupon the sub malfunctioned and sank – but not before he had managed to scramble out and be rescued by a passing boat.
Then he said she was killed when the heavy hatch struck her head, and that he had obligingly ‘buried her at sea’.
Finally, when Kim’s body parts were found, he said she had been poisoned by a carbon monoxide leak: a story he has stuck to.
During the trial, he was asked why – if this were true – he had mutilated her body.
‘What do you do when you have a big problem? You cut it down into smaller pieces,’ was the gist of his sinisterly matter-of-fact reply.
Today, the submarine no longer lies rusting in Copenhagen docks. The local police wanted to display it in their ‘black museum’ of murder-related objects but the trial judge, mindful of how precious it had been to Madsen, ordered its destruction.
Staring through those portholes three years ago, I tried to comprehend what drove Peter Madsen to commit an act of such depravity.
I suspect no one will ever know the answer. The submarine’s grisly secrets will be forever locked away in an unfathomable corner of its creator’s mind.