Campsite Killer: The Unsolved Mystery of the Lake Bodom Murders

Brett Taylor/iStock via Getty Images
Brett Taylor/iStock via Getty Images

The worst night of Nils Wilhelm Gustafsson’s life is one he doesn’t even remember. On June 4, 1960, Gustafsson, then 18, headed for a campground in Espoo, Finland, to spend time with his friends. The group included Seppo Antero Boisman; Boisman’s girlfriend, Anja Tuulikki Maki; and Gustafsson’s girlfriend, Maila Irmeli Bjorklund. The teenagers pitched a single tent on the shore of Lake Bodom and commenced a night of socializing and drinking. At some point in the evening, they retired to the tent.

The next morning, two boys hiking through the campgrounds on a bird-watching expedition noticed the tent from a distance. They weren’t close enough to see many details, but it was clear the tent had been torn and slashed. Nearby, a man with blond hair appeared to be walking away from the campsite.

The boys continued on, apparently thinking little of it. Later that morning, a local passed by the tent and was close enough to observe a shocking sight. Outside the tent lay Gustafsson and Bjorklund, bloodied and battered (by some accounts, Bjorklund was partly hidden inside the tent's fabric). Authorities found Boisman and Maki inside, their bodies displaying knife gashes and injuries consistent with being bludgeoned. Bjorklund, Boisman, and Maki were dead. Only Gustafsson had survived whatever assault had taken place. When police asked him what had happened, he could say only that a shadowy figure dressed in black with bright red eyes appeared and viciously attacked the group.

Months and years would pass, with police unable to garner any additional detail from the lone survivor of the horrific event. It was a case so sensational it became common knowledge among residents of Finland. Everyone knew of the Lake Bodom killings and how authorities were unable to locate the perpetrator. Children were cautioned not to be out after dark in case the killer was still lurking.

That all changed in March 2004. After nearly a half-century, DNA evidence prompted prosecuting attorneys to haul in a suspect they claimed had motive to commit the murders. The case had the backing of forensic science unavailable to investigators in 1960.

Their suspect was Nils Gustafsson.

 

Investigators hadn't suspected Gustafsson at the time of the murders. When Finnish police arrived at the crime scene, he was in bad shape, with a broken jaw, bruises, and a concussion. He couldn't remember anything other than his account of a supernatural figure, which seemed borne out of a state of shock.

Police tried to piece together what had transpired based on physical evidence. On June 4, the group had arrived at the campsite near Lake Bodom, a popular spot for camping and fishing located about 14 miles from Helsinki, on motorcycles. The bikes were still there when the authorities arrived, but the keys were missing. Gustafsson’s shoes were also thought to be lost, until investigators turned them up roughly a half-mile from the campsite. No murder weapon was found on the scene.

The most curious observation was how the killer had launched the assault. The teens had seemingly been knifed and clubbed while they were still inside the tent, with the killer slashing through the shelter in order to stab them. Gustafsson had been found on top of the tent. According to some version of events, so had Bjorklund, meaning she either crawled out of the tent or her body must have been moved between the time of the attack and when police arrived.

Finnish investigators examine the Lake Bodom crime scene in Espoo, Finland in June 1960
Finnish investigators examine the Lake Bodom crime scene in Espoo, Finland in June 1960.
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

The scene would have been mystifying under most circumstances. But investigators made their own jobs harder by failing to secure the area completely, and inviting search parties to look for clues. Their assistance meant the crime scene was disturbed, making evaluations for footprints or other evidence difficult.

With a paucity of physical evidence, the likelihood of finding a resolution did not seem promising. No arrests were made, and only a handful of suspects emerged in the years that followed. One person of interest was Karl Valdemar Gyllström, who ran a kiosk business on the campgrounds and was reputed to be an extremely irate man who often took issue with campers, presumably due to noise issues. Gyllström was said to have cut tent stakes out of spite and even threw rocks at visitors if he was in an especially foul mood. In the campfire lore that surrounded the crime, some believed Gyllström had simply snapped and brutally assaulted the Gustafsson party.

The surface of a lake is pictured
mukk/iStock via Getty Images

The theory gained momentum when Gyllström died by suicide in 1969. Supposedly, before dying he drunkenly confessed to the murders. As damning as that seemed, police declared Gyllström could not have committed the crime. According to his wife, he'd been in bed with her on the night of the attack (though some argue that it was a coerced alibi). The confession was purportedly false, though it’s not clear what may have prompted Gyllström to take responsibility for the killings.

Police had other leads, too. There was Pauli Luoma, who was said to be in the vicinity of the campsite, but his alibi for that night—being in another town—was confirmed. Pentti Soinenen was a crook who confessed to the murders while being held in jail on other charges. Little else linked him to the crime, however, and police considered it nothing more than jailhouse bragging.

Another suspect, the unfortunately named Hans Assmann, had more of a reason to seem suspicious. A physician named Jorma Palo insisted that at some point after the murders, Assmann had come into Helsinki Surgical Hospital with dirt under his fingernails and blood on his clothes. English-language accounts of the crime don’t specify why he was seeking treatment. But when police looked into it, they found Assmann had a credible alibi.

No one, it seemed, could be placed at the scene. No one other than the man who had managed to come out alive.

 

For decades, the Lake Bodom mystery sat unsolved. Meanwhile, DNA testing was growing into a viable way to re-examine both current and cold cases, first being used in the 1980s. But Finland, with just a single forensics lab serving the entire country, had little bandwidth to turn its attention to old investigations. The Lake Bodom murders weren't revisited until 2004, when a fresh look at Gustafsson's shoes became the focal point of a new round of accusations.

Themis, goddess of justice, against a background of red law books
djedzura/iStock via Getty Images

Forensic scientists at the country's National Bureau of Investigation crime lab tested the shoes and found blood from the victims. Remarkably, the shoes were missing any blood from Gustafsson himself. How he could have been attacked along with the others, yet only have their DNA on his shoes, was puzzling. The explanation, authorities believed, was that he had committed the attacks himself, then discarded his shoes before somehow assaulting himself to make it look like he had been maimed by a third party.

Investigators theorized that Gustafsson could have been compelled to murder the three because of some jealousy. Indeed, someone who was staying at a nearby campsite the evening of the murders testified in court that she saw Gustafsson and Boisman in a heated argument, with Gustafsson appearing to be heavily inebriated. Perhaps, investigators thought, Bjorklund had rejected his advances. Or maybe Gustafsson believed Boisman was making a pass at her. That would explain why Bjorklund had seemingly been stabbed and hit with more frequency than the others. The police hypothesized Gustafsson had been exiled from the tent, possibly after a fistfight with Boisman left him with a fractured jaw. He then returned in a rage, the theory went, swinging a knife through the tent until his friends were dead.

The district prosecutor in Espoo had enough faith in the story to bring charges against Gustafsson, with the potential for life in prison if he was convicted. In protesting his innocence, his lawyer, Riitta Leppiniemi, argued that Gustafsson’s blood had been inside the tent and that being pummeled at the hands of Boisman to the point of a broken jaw would have left him in no condition to violently murder three people. Leppiniemi also criticized the eyewitness testimony of the camper, who had stayed silent about the fight she had purportedly witnessed for 45 years for no discernible reason, and couldn’t remember certain key details.

During the 2005 trial, a police officer named Markku Tuominen claimed Gustafsson was candid after his arrest, and said, “What’s done is done,” predicting he’d get 15 years for the crime. But Gustafsson rejected that and stuck largely to the same story he’d been telling for decades. He couldn’t remember anything other than going fishing with Boisman and that there was no argument.

Lake Bodom in the winter is pictured
Felipe Tofani, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

The court ultimately found that there was insufficient evidence to convict Gustafsson, citing that too much time had passed to compile an accurate picture of the event. Gustafsson was freed.

With nearly 60 years having passed since the events of June 1960, no answers appear to be forthcoming. The crime is still part of Finnish folklore. It inspired one heavy metal band to dub themselves Children of Bodom; the band even released a beer made of water from the lake. Some in Finland have tried to turn Gustafsson’s claim that he didn’t remember anything into an inadvertent confession. If he couldn’t remember what happened, how did he know he didn’t do it? But such logic is not for the purview of courtrooms.

Another question is why Gustafsson's shoes were left so far from the campsite. If he took them off to sleep, why not place them near the tent? And who was the blond man the boys saw walking away from what they later learned was the scene of the crime? (Assmann was blond; it's not entirely clear what hair color Gustafsson had at the time of the attacks.) And if Gustafsson had somehow worked up the nerve to stab himself in a staged attack, why wasn’t there a blood trail leading to wherever the knife was deposited or hidden?

The only clarity around the murders is that someone was successful in killing three people at the shore of Lake Bodom. Whether it was a man, woman, group, or something with glowing red eyes, they appear to have gotten away with it.

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The 20 Best Docuseries You Can Stream Right Now

Chef David Chang stars in Netflix's Ugly Delicious.
Chef David Chang stars in Netflix's Ugly Delicious.
Gabriele Stabile/Netflix

If your main interests are true crime and cooking, you’re in the middle of a Renaissance Age. The Michelangelos of nonfiction are consistently bringing stellar storytelling to twisty tales of murder and mayhem as well as luxurious shots of food prepared by the most creative culinary minds.

But these aren’t the only genres that documentary series are tackling. There’s a host of history, arts, travel, and more at your streaming fingertips. When you want to take a break from puzzling out who’s been wrongfully imprisoned, that is.

Here are the 20 best docuseries to watch right now, so start streaming.

1. Tiger King (2020)

The seedy underbelly of the exotic animal trade is juxtaposed against some of the most outrageous non-fictional characters you're ever likely to encounter in this series that just keeps escalating. Follow Joe Exotic as he juggles polyamory, tigers, and a bitter feud with animal activist Carole Baskin.

Where to watch it: Netflix

2. The Confession Tapes (2019)

A spare room. One or two detectives. A weary suspect. That's the set-up for this series that lets archival footage of police interrogations tell its own arresting stories.

Where to watch it: Netflix

3. Our Planet (2019)

Be amazed at the sensational vistas and eclectic wildlife with this beautifully-photographed trek through some of nature's most astounding sights—and the environmental perils that affect them. David Attenborough narrates.

Where to watch it: Netflix

4. The Devil Next Door (2019)

In 1980s Cleveland, John Demjanjuk was living a quiet life as a grandfather and auto worker. Suddenly, he was being extradited to Israel over accusations he was once notorious Nazi concentration camp monster Ivan the Terrible. As Demjanjuk mounts a defense, the trial captivates a country—but was he really the monster? This riveting series will have you guessing until the very end.

Where to watch it: Netflix

5. Ugly Delicious (2018-)

David Chang, the host of the first season of The Mind of a Chef, has returned with a cultural mash-up disguised as a foodie show. What does it mean for pizza to be “authentic”? What do Korea and the American South have in common? With his casual charm in tow, Chang and a variety of special guests explore people the food we love to eat as an artifact that brings us all together.

Where to watch it: Netflix

6. Bobby Kennedy for President (2018)

This four-part series utilizes a wealth of footage, including unseen personal videos, to share the tragic story of Robert F. Kennedy’s run for president in the context of an era riven by racial strife. Watching this socio-political memorial told by many who were there (including Marian Wright and Congressman John Lewis), it will be impossible not to draw connections to the current day and wonder: What if?

Where to watch it: Netflix

7. Evil Genius (2018)

At approximately 2:20 p.m. on August 28, 2003, Brian Wells—a pizza deliveryman—walked into a PNC Bank in Erie, Pennsylvania, and handed a note to a teller demanding $250,000 in cash. Wells had a bomb, which was strapped to his body via a metal neck collar, and a loaded shotgun that was fashioned to look like a walking cane. Approximately 12 minutes later, Wells strolled out of the bank with $8702 in cash, then made his way to the McDonald’s next door, where he retrieved a detailed note that told him where to go and what to do next. Within 15 minutes, Wells would be arrested. At 3:18 p.m.—less than an hour after he first entered the bank—the bomb locked around Wells’s neck detonated as police watched (and waited for the bomb squad), killing the 46-year-old in broad daylight. The bizarre incident was just the beginning of Evil Genius, which documents the peculiar case that would eventually entangle a range of unusual suspects, including Marjorie Diehl-Armstrong, and has had armchair detectives—and the FBI—questioning whether Wells was in on the bank robbery, or a genuine victim, for more than a decade.

Where to watch it: Netflix

8. Wild Wild Country (2018)

What happens when an Indian guru with thousands of American followers sets up shop near a small town in Oregon with the intent to create a commune? Incredibly sourced, this documentary touches on every major civic issue—from religious liberty to voting rights. When you choose a side, be prepared to switch. Multiple times.

Where to watch it: Netflix

9. Flint Town (2018)

If your heart is broken by what’s going on in Flint, Michigan, be prepared to have that pain magnified and complicated. The filmmakers behind this provocative series were embedded with police in Flint to offer us a glimpse at the area’s local struggles and national attention from November 2015 through early 2017.

Where to watch it: Netflix

10. The Innocent Man (2018)

After two brutal murders in 1980s Oklahoma, four men are convicted of the crimes. All of them maintain their innocence, causing observers to question whether they were guilty or themselves victims of police coercion. This drama is based on John Grisham's 2006 book of the same name; Grisham executive produces.

Where to watch it: Netflix

11. The Staircase (2004-2018)

In 2001, author Michael Peterson reported to police that his wife, Kathleen, had died after falling down a set of stairs, but police didn’t buy the story and charged him with her murder. Before the current true crime boom, before Serial and all the rest, there was The StaircaseJean-Xavier de Lestrade’s Peabody Award-winning docuseries following Peterson’s winding court case. The mystery at the heart of the trial and the unparalleled access Lestrade had to Peterson’s defense make this a must-see. And Netflix's addition of new episodes in 2018 led to a resurgence in interest in this mind-boggling case (with armchair detectives even positing that an owl was the real killer).

Where to watch it: Netflix

12. The Toys That Made Us (2017-)

Who knew the origin of classic toy lines could be so dramatic? This series puts the spotlight on the creative friction that led to some of the most iconic playthings of the 20th century, from Transformers to the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.

Where to watch it: Netflix

13. Wormwood (2017)

Documentary titan Errol Morris turns his keen eye to a CIA project that’s as famous as it is unknown—MKUltra. A Cold War-era mind control experiment. LSD and hypnosis. The mysterious death of a scientist. His son’s 60-year search for answers. Morris brings his incisive eye to the hunt.

Where to watch it: Netflix

14. Five Came Back (2017)

Based on Mark Harris’s superlative book, this historical doc features filmmakers like Steven Spielberg and Guillermo del Toro discussing the WWII-era work of predecessors John Ford, William Wyler, John Huston, Frank Capra, and George Stevens. Also narrated by Meryl Streep, it looks at how the war shaped the directors and how they shaped the war. As a bonus, Netflix has the war-time documentaries featured in the film available to stream.

Where to watch it: Netflix

15. Last Chance U (2016-)

Far more than a sports documentary, the story of the players at East Mississippi Community College will have you rooting for personal victories as much as the points on the scoreboard. Many of the outstanding players on the squad lost spots at Division I schools because of disciplinary infractions or failing academics, so they’re seeking redemption in a program that wants them to return to the big-name schools. Later seasons switch focus to a team out of Independence Community College in Independence, Kansas.

Where to watch it: Netflix

16. Making a Murderer (2015-)

One of the major true crime phenomenons of 2015 was 10 years in the making. Laura Ricciardi and Moira Demos uncovered the unthinkable story of Steven Avery, a man wrongfully convicted of sexual assault who was later convicted of murdering a different woman, Teresa Halbach. Not just a magnifying glass on the justice system and a potential small town conspiracy, it’s also a display of how stories can successfully get our blood boiling. Three years after the docuseries became a surprise hit for Netflix, it returned for a second season in 2018.

Where to watch it: Netflix

17. Chef's Table (2015-)

From David Gelb, the documentarian behind Jiro Dreams of Sushi, this doc series is a backstage pass to the kitchens of the world’s most elite chefs. The teams at Osteria Francescana, Blue Hill, Alinea, Pujol, and more open their doors to share their process, culinary creativity, and, of course, dozens of delicious courses. There's no shame in licking your screen.

Where to watch it: Netflix

18. The Jinx (2015)

After the massive success of Serial in 2014, a one-two punch of true crime docuseries landed the following year. The first was the immensely captivating study of power, The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst, which chronicled the bizarre, tangled web of the real estate mogul who was suspected of several murders. The show, which could be measured in jaw-drops per hour, both registered real life and uniquely affected it.

Where to watch it: HBO Now

19. Vice (2013-)

The series is known for asking tough questions that need immediate answers and giving viewers a street-level view of everything from killing cancer to juvenile justice reform. Its confrontational style of gonzo provocation won’t be everyone’s cup of spiked tea, but it’s filling an important gap that used to be filled by major network investigative journalists. When they let their subjects—from child soldiers suffering PTSD after fighting for ISIS to coal miners in Appalachia—tell their stories, nonfiction magic happens. The first six seasons are available on HBO, with a seventh airing on Showtime in 2020.

Where to watch it: HBO Go

20. The National Parks: America's Best Idea (2009)

The cheapest way to visit Yosemite, Yellowstone, Muir Woods, and more. This Emmy-winning, six-part series is both a travelogue and a history lesson in conservation that takes up the argument of why these beautiful places should be preserved: to quote President Theodore Roosevelt, “for the benefit and enjoyment of the people.”

Where to watch it: Amazon Prime