The Final, Terrible Voyage of the Nautilus
Wired, Feb. 15, 2018
ON MAY 3, 2008, a sunny Saturday in Copenhagen, a crowd gathered along a dock to watch a 58-foot submarine be lowered into the water. Part art project, part engineering feat, the submarine weighed 40 tons and had been built by volunteers at minimal cost from donated iron and other parts. The onlookers cheered as the submarine floated for the first time. Peter Madsen, the designer of the vessel and the organizer of the day’s event, climbed into the hatch, smiling in a white skipper’s hat, before the submarine motored into the water.
Madsen christened the vessel the UC3 Nautilus, after the fictional submarine in Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. Jules Verne’s antihero Captain Nemo was a figure who lived outside social laws, sailing the seven seas in search of total freedom. Unlike Nemo, Madsen had stayed close to home in Denmark, but he had devoted his life to building audacious vehicles of his own design, ones that might venture high above the atmosphere or down into the depths of the ocean.
Shortly after the launch of the Nautilus, Madsen started another venture. He and a former NASA contractor named Kristian von Bengtson cofounded a company called Copenhagen Suborbitals. Their plan was to launch the first manned built-from-scratch rocket. The two set up shop on Refshaleøen, an area of the city that extends into Copenhagen’s harbor and once had been the heart of Denmark’s shipping empire. That industry’s decline had left empty warehouses and factories, which had been reclaimed by artists, engineers, and other creative types. Madsen and von Bengtson were among them, occupying a hangar, and financing Copenhagen Suborbitals with crowdfunded donations. It was, von Bengtson wrote in 2011 on a WIRED blog he started that year about the rocket building, “the ultimate DIY project.”
The projects made Madsen a kind of antiestablishment celebrity in Denmark. “You had a sense that he was doing something different. It was something bigger. It was something worth being part of,” Robert Fox, a filmmaker who made a 2009 documentary about Madsen called My Private Submarine, told me. A biography of Madsen was published a few years later. Madsen parlayed this fame into speaking engagements.
In 2016, another filmmaker released a documentary called Amateurs in Space, about Madsen and von Bengtson and their efforts to build a rocket. To watch the film is to see the men’s relationship fall apart. In June 2014, Madsen opened a new workshop of his own, Rocket Madsen Space Lab, in a hangar across the paved lot from Copenhagen Suborbitals.
In March 2017, a freelance journalist named Kim Wall learned about the rival rocket makers. Wall had been raised in a Swedish town called Trelleborg, just 40 miles from Copenhagen. She had left home for schooling in Malmö, Sweden, then London, Paris, and eventually New York, which she was calling home for a while. She was in Refshaleøen visiting her partner, Ole Stobbe, a Danish designer who had just moved there. The two were walking around one afternoon, past the vestigial buildings of the old shipyards, when they came across the rocket-building workshops.
In the four years Wall had been a reporter, she had traveled to Haiti to write about practitioners of voodoo; to Sri Lanka to document the tourism on former battlefields of the long civil war; to Cuba to follow the underground network of people delivering TV shows and internet culture. Wall was fascinated with what she called “the undercurrents of rebellion.” Here was just such a story only minutes from where she was staying.
Wall reached out to various publications, and had email exchanges with editors at WIRED, working toward getting an assignment to write about the rocket builders. She and Stobbe had also decided to move to Beijing together, and their departure date was approaching. She had interviewed one of the builders at Copenhagen Suborbitals and was hoping to speak with Madsen, but she hadn’t been able to reach him. She had only a few days left in town.
On August 10, a Thursday, Wall and Stobbe were preparing to throw a goodbye party. In the late afternoon, just as they were setting up for a barbecue on the quay along the water in Refshaleøen, Wall got the text she had been waiting for: Madsen was inviting her for tea at his workshop. Madsen’s hangar was not far, so she set off. About half an hour later, she returned to let Stobbe know that Madsen had offered to take her out on his submarine. She decided to forgo her own goodbye party for the interview. She asked Stobbe if he wanted to come. Stobbe was “insanely close to saying yes,” he told me, had it not been for the group he had assembled. Because she was going out to sea, Stobbe gave Wall a bigger kiss than he would have had she gone out for, say, ice or lemons. Wall promised to be back in a few hours.
Just before boarding the submarine around 7 pm, Wall texted Stobbe a photo of the Nautilus. A little later, she sent a photo of windmills in the water, and then another of herself at the steering wheel. A while later, Stobbe was tending to a quayside fire when a friend told him to look up. He saw the setting sun and Wall aboard the submarine in the distance, waving toward him.
By most public accounts, Madsen was a charismatic rebel. He had a weathered face with the prominent features of a toy troll. His habitual uniform was coveralls and hiking boots. Fox, the filmmaker, calls him a “modern-day Clumsy Hans,” for the seemingly dimwitted suitor in the Hans Christian Andersen fairy-tale who wins the princess’s favor over his more intelligent brothers. Wall was in the early stages of her reporting, and she would not have known much more about Madsen than what had already been published. It was only later, after everything that happened, that the details of his private life would become important.
MADSEN WAS BORN in 1971 and grew up in a small town south of Copenhagen. His mother, Annie, was more than three decades younger than Madsen’s father, Carl—a pub owner. She had three boys from two previous marriages, and the union with Carl did not last long. Madsen was six when his parents split up. Annie moved out with her other sons while Madsen stayed with his aging father.
According to Madsen’s biography, written by Thomas Djursing, Carl was a brutal man who beat his stepsons, though not Madsen. It was Carl who stoked his son’s fascination with rockets, telling him, among other things, about a man who would become a hero to Madsen: Wernher von Braun, the Nazi aerospace engineer who later came to the US and helped develop the Apollo missions. Carl died when Madsen was 18, and for the next few years, Madsen ricocheted around, starting several degrees and apprenticeships—in welding, refrigeration, and engineering—before dropping out of each.
As a teenager, Madsen discovered the Danish Amateur Rocket Club but was eventually kicked out because he wanted to use fuels that others in the group felt weren’t safe. He spent his twenties and thirties organizing his life around the building of submarines and rockets. He often slept at the workshop where he built things.
Madsen’s obsession with submarines and rockets was all-consuming, but not to the exclusion of sex. I got in touch with Camilla Ledegaard Svendsen, an old friend of his, through Facebook. She told me that Madsen became a regular at sexual fetish parties. These were a place of community, she said, “where everyone was relaxed about everything, including their bodies,” and where women felt safe. He also availed himself of Travelgirls.com, a website that advertises meeting “thousands of adventurous girls who want to travel.” Deirdre King, who was Madsen’s close friend for more than a decade, told me he could be doting. “I broke both of my hands once, and Peter came by every day for two months and brushed my hair,” she told me. “He is a man who loves women.”
Fox, who spent 100 days with Madsen and his crew while making My Private Submarine, said that “women found him fascinating” and that the Nautilus sometimes played a role in his seduction strategies. “‘This is my submarine. You want to see my submarine?’ He kind of used to pull that off a lot,” Fox recalled.
THE GOODBYE PARTY continued into the night that Thursday in August and finally moved to a nearby bar. When Wall still had not returned, Stobbe began to worry. The couple was supposed to leave for a wedding early in the morning, and it was unlike Wall to not stay in touch. Stobbe waited for his partner by the pier. Then he went back to his room, tried to sleep, got up, grabbed his bike, and rode around the island in search of her. Around 1:45 am he called the police; a half hour later he called the navy. Wall was missing.
Just before 4 am, the police were notified of a possible accident by the local maritime rescue center. Soon after, helicopters and ships began searching the waters around Copenhagen. At 10:30 am, the Nautilus was spotted near a lighthouse in Køge Bay, near a desolate stretch of coastline southwest of Refshaleøen. According to a local news report, at 11 am a man out on his boat helping with the search saw Madsen in the submarine tower. He saw Madsen go down the hatch, then reemerge as the sub began to sink.
Madsen then began swimming toward a nearby motor boat, where he was pulled out and turned back to land. By now, newsrooms had learned about the search for a missing submarine. Upon Madsen’s rescue, reporters headed to the dock. When he stepped ashore, a reporter called out to Madsen, asking if everything was OK. Madsen turned around and gave the reporter a thumbs-up. He said he was fine but sad because his Nautilus had sunk. There had been a defect on the ballast tank, he said.
The next day, a Saturday, Madsen appeared in court at a closed-door session. He hadn’t dropped Wall off on the island; she died in an accident onboard the submarine, he said. His story was changing. A hatch had fallen on her head, and he panicked, he would claim. He said he dragged her body out of the submarine by a rope and “buried her at sea.”
On August 21, a cyclist riding along on Amager Island, not far from where the submarine sank, came across a torso that had washed ashore. The next day, DNA analysis confirmed that the torso belonged to Wall. On September 5, a court approved the prosecutor’s request to change the charge against Madsen to manslaughter. An autopsy later revealed that she had been stabbed 15 times in and around her vagina. Then, one month later, divers found her head, clothing, and a knife in plastic bags, in the waters not far from where her torso was found. They also found both her legs, tied to pieces of metal. Despite these discoveries, Madsen stuck to his story: Wall had hit her head and died, and he disposed of her body, but he denied killing her or dismembering her. Even after divers found a saw that might have been used to dismember Wall’s body, even after the police searched Madsen’s computer and discovered videos that appeared to show women being strangled, decapitated, and tortured—he stuck to his story.
When I learned that Kim had disappeared, my instinct was to find out everything I could about what happened to her. I could say that I was trying to control grief by examining the source of that pain, but that would be reasoning in hindsight. All I knew was that it was painful to think about Kim, and it pained me just a little less to try to report about Madsen.
In the weeks and then months following Kim’s death, I read local news stories, watched the documentaries about Madsen, and scrolled the posts on the blog he kept on an engineering website. I went on Madsen’s Facebook page and sent friend requests to every one of his contacts there. I spoke to dozens of people connected to Madsen—family members, lovers, collaborators, fans, and childhood friends, many of whom would not allow their names to be used for this story. I spoke with lawyers, a forensic pathologist, and an oceanographer. In late September I flew to Copenhagen. I met with members of the police unit leading the investigation, but they did not reveal much and did not want to speak on the record. I ended up giving them a statement. They asked about my friendship with Kim, and I told them what kind of person she was and why it wasn’t surprising that, as a journalist, she would have chosen to go with Madsen on the submarine.
On my first afternoon in Copenhagen, I met with Jens Falkenberg at a restaurant on Dag Hammarskjölds Allé, in an affluent part of town. Falkenberg is a 58-year-old roof salesman. He first heard about Madsen years ago, when he saw a segment about him on television and, by coincidence, met him the next day at a diving shop. He started volunteering at his workshop and helped build the Nautilus. He told me that the police had been calling, asking about a saw that was missing from Madsen’s rocket workshop.
Falkenberg was like many of the others who volunteered with Madsen, who called himself “a maker of extreme machines.” They spent their weekdays in regular jobs but were weekend builders. They wanted the feeling of community the workshop gave them. At the center of their alternate universe where men built submarines and rockets was Madsen himself.
Some volunteers talked about Madsen as a generous spirit, the kind of guy who would invite a friend who was feeling down “to take part in his little adventures as a means of cheering him up,” as a friend named Lars put it.
Others reexamined old incidents and behaviors. Madsen could swing between rage and euphoria. One volunteer at Copenhagen Suborbitals told me that if something did not please Madsen, “he would behave like a child who just lost his toy or dropped his ice cream or something.” When his mood turned, “most people would know what was going to happen, so they would stay away from him before stuff started flying.” Volunteers said Madsen threw hammers, screwdrivers, and other tools. One volunteer, who asked to be identified by his initials, S. W., helped build the Nautilus. He recalled how Madsen would go from being supportive to “pensive, jubilant, exasperating, and sarcastic.”
“It’s hard for us to understand what drives a madman, because we are not mad,” Falkenberg told me. He then described a recurring joke: Madsen would pretend to be a violent Nazi and would mime hitting Falkenberg, saying “Should I punch you in the kidneys?” or Madsen might joke: “What if I inject battery acid into your veins?”
There was also a lot of joking around about Nazis in the workshop. Crewmembers called each other by Nazi-inspired nicknames. Madsen was called Kaleun, for Kapitänleutnant, a nod to the 1981 film Das Boot, about a fictional German U-boat unit during World War II, Falkenberg said. When they went out in the sub, the crew spoke German, reciting lines from the film.
Madsen’s fascination with space and rockets and technology could hoodwink you into thinking he was a man of the future; you could miss the fact that his obsession was rooted in nostalgia. He was enamored with the early Apollo missions in American space exploration. The reverence he held for the Third Reich was hard to detect as it was framed as irreverence, but it was there. “Some of the way the Nazi regime worked, they did horrible things and they should be executed and everything. But some of the things they did, it worked,” the former workshop volunteer told me. “They built the biggest military machine in just four years. They built it almost out of nothing.”
Building something out of nothing was central to Madsen’s philosophy, as was his belief that he should be able to play by his own rules and control his own destiny. He looked down on people for being cautious. He talked about wanting “to be free from authorities” in making his submarines. After he left Copenhagen Suborbitals, he kept a blog about the progress at Rocket Madsen Space Lab. In one entry from 2015 he described his team as people who “all know that they are taking part in a Peter Madsen project, just like they would do if it was a von Trier movie … the unqualified belief that Madsens crasy [sic] dreams tend to become reality … makes these people invest time and money.”
I HAD BEEN in Copenhagen a week when I went looking for a woman I knew did not want to talk to me. She was a friend and recent sexual partner of Madsen’s. She lived in a converted building in Refshaleøen. One afternoon I walked through its vast hallways until I managed to find her room. I knocked on her door, and she let me in. I had twisted my ankle on the way over and was limping. She let me sit on her carpet and keep my injured foot raised while she ate toast. Her eyes seemed heavy with sleep.
We ended up spending the rest of the day together. She missed a concert; I skipped an appointment. We smoked Bahman cigarettes, an Iranian brand I had brought from Afghanistan. We drank home-brewed kombucha. Music filtered in from another studio down the hall, filling the occasional silence between us.
Like others I spoke with, she said she was enormously angry at Madsen and felt guilty for what she believed he had done. Her pain about Kim’s death seemed deep and genuine. And like others, she was reaching back into her memory of every exchange she had with him in search of clues that might explain this tragedy. She told me that she had either seen or talked to Madsen nearly every day in the weeks leading up to Kim’s death. Then she told me about a particular exchange that was still bothering her.
“He says he has a murder plan ready in the submarine, and I tell him I am not afraid, you have to be more threatening. He talks about the tools he wants to use, and I say, ‘Oh it’s not threatening.’ ” The scenario darkened to inviting a friend to the submarine, where they would suddenly change the mood and begin cutting her up. At the time, the woman didn’t give the exchange much thought; it was not something she took seriously. After a lull in the back and forth, she responded by sending him a video of horses. The moment passed. The police now have the texts.
Lately I have been thinking about a question Kim posed in a series of texts last spring:
3/14/17, 7:43 am: Kim Wall: i only have questions
3/14/17, 7:43 am: Kim Wall: about agency as a woman
3/14/17, 7:43 am: Kim Wall: and if we will ever be free, no matter what we do
3/14/17, 7:43 am: Kim Wall: (leaning towards no 😔 )
In the days after she disappeared, I heard people ask questions that betrayed a misunderstanding about reporting—couldn’t she have done the interview over the phone?—and casual sexism—why was she there alone so late? On nights when I couldn’t sleep, I would end up on internet chat rooms where the comments sections filled me with rage: “She is a woman—how could she go alone with a man she does not know?” And: “She had skirt and pantyhose—how could she egg on a poor uncle in that way.”
In Afghanistan, where I worked mostly with men, I never wanted to show any sign of weakness or fear. In reporting this story, my editor made me promise that I wouldn’t put myself in harm’s way. But much of reporting is just that—routinely putting yourself in uncomfortable positions. In the four months I spent on this story, I did things that in other circumstances might have seemed foolish. I went on long drives at night with sources. I met strangers on their doorsteps and entered their homes. In stepping onto that submarine, Kim was doing what any reporter onto a good story would have done.
My love for Kim has turned into devotion for her parents and for Ole. I’ve spent time with them in Copenhagen, Trelleborg, and New York when they came for a memorial for Kim; it was held at Columbia University, where she had received her master’s degrees in journalism and international affairs. We talk online and discuss the fund we are setting up in her name. I want to alleviate their suffering, but I also know that the only thing they really want is Kim. (They did not wish to be interviewed for this article, and I understood.)
Ole and I speak on the phone, to talk about grief, and what is to be done about it. He is still moving to China. Movement is good, he says.
ON OCTOBER 30, the Copenhagen police reported that Madsen had changed his account of that night in August yet again; he said Kim might have died from carbon monoxide poisoning. He also admitted to dismembering her body. Three weeks later, the police found an arm in Køge Bay, weighed down with pipes. Eight days after that, they found another arm. Madsen’s lawyer, Betina Hald Engmark, declined to comment for this story.
I wrote Madsen two letters at Vestre Prison in Copenhagen, where he was being held before trial. I FedExed the first and dropped off the second in a mailbox near the jail. I told him who I was, who Kim had been, my sadness over losing her, and my wish that he would tell me what happened. One afternoon in January, months after I’d returned to New York, I went to pick up my mail and found an envelope with no return address. It was postmarked from Denmark on December 6, 2017, but that didn’t register until after I’d opened it and started scanning the neat, hand-written pages. It was only when I got to the word “submarine” that I realized Madsen had written to me from his detention cell. I remember telling myself to keep breathing as I tried to fold the pages back into the envelope. I did not succeed. The envelope was small and thin and ripped in my hands.
When I finally forced myself to look at the letters—there were three, dated in September and November—I was struck by their terrifying banality. He spoke plainly about the boredom of prison—he had few visitors and few pastimes besides writing. He described seeing Terminator 2 in prison and identifying with the character played by Linda Hamilton. He explained what he had access to (paper and pencil) and what he didn’t have access to (nearly everything else). He also wrote about Kim. He wrote that he thought about Kim every day and that he could “feel her spirit somehow.” There was a disturbing intimacy to his words, as if he were writing to an old friend. He flattered my writing style and invited me to visit. He asked me, “What are you? An explainer trying to understand? A terminator sent to terminate me? … Without exception—whatever you are—you are welcome, I am all yours.” He ended one of the letters by saying “I will try to get this letter out to you as soon as possible, and hope that you will stay in touch as things gets easyer [sic].”
On January 16, the police released a statement announcing that Madsen was being indicted for homicide that “took place with prior planning and preparation,” and also charged him with “sexual relations other than intercourse of a particularly dangerous nature, as well as for dismemberment.” A week later, the full indictment provided more excruciating details: Madsen had brought onboard “a saw, knife, sharpened screwdrivers, straps, zip ties, and pipes.” Madsen had bound, beaten, and stabbed Kim before killing her, possibly by choking or cutting her throat, the indictment said. Madsen’s lawyer told The New York Times that she was “puzzled” by the indictment. The case is scheduled to go to trial on March 8, with a verdict expected in April. In between is March 23, which would have been Kim’s 31st birthday.
The case has been deeply unsettling to people in Denmark, a country of 5.7 million people where there were only 54 reported homicides last year. It is hard for Danes to fathom the grisly discoveries and to imagine that someone as well-known as Madsen could be responsible for them. In December, the Danish publisher Saxo withdrew the first book in a true-crime series about the case, written by Djursing, after it came under criticism.
Before my trip to Denmark, I talked on the phone with a man who had worked with Madsen off and on for nine years. He was in shock. But he also allowed for the possibility of unseen depravity. “Some are walking around with a fantasy like this for maybe 10 years,” he said, “and one day they will do this thing.” Madsen had spent his adulthood pushing against the bounds of society, of reason, of the present, of gravity. Did he think he could get away with committing the ultimate act of cruelty? The trial may provide some answers.
On one of my last days in Copenhagen, I returned to Refshaleøen. I stopped by a restaurant to ask directions to the building where Kim and Ole had lived. The line cook didn’t know the building, so I asked if he knew where the reporter who had died had lived. He cut me off midsentence as I was explaining how I knew Kim and asked, “Why are you doing this?”
I didn’t have a ready answer. I said something about how I wanted to know what had happened. But saying this out loud, to this stranger, I knew I could never really know, could never measure the precise weight of her suffering. Trying to find out what happened to Kim, in hopes of finding meaning in the senselessness of her death, is a selfish act, designed to serve the living. It feels like an act of betrayal.
I still don’t yet know where reporting ends and living begins. All I know is that it hasn’t sunk in yet that she is dead. I’m still wishing for a lesser tragedy: that she was kidnapped but will soon be rescued, or injured but healing somewhere, or lost but will be found. I wish for life. I wish for a different story.
Read at WIRED.