The murder of 20-year-old Swedish au pair, Karina Holmer, is one of Boston’s most gruesome unsolved crimes.
Karina had lived in Skillingaryd, Sweden, before winning around $1,500 in the local lottery. Karina had always had itchy feet and with this money, Karina decided she would embark on a new journey. In March of 1996, she caught a flight to Boston in the United States where she took on a new career as an au pair in the upscale suburb of Dover.
On the 20th of June, 1996, Karina and several of her friends went for drinks at the Zanzibar nightclub in downtown Boston. Karina had a fake ID and passed very easily for a 21-year-old. However that night, Karina never returned home…
The following morning, a grisly scene was uncovered by a man searching a dumpster in the Fenway Park area for recyclable containers. Stuffed inside a plastic bag was the dismembered top half of Karina’s body. There was a ligature mark on her neck and the medical examiner determined that she had been strangled to death. The bottom half of her body was never found so it could not be determined if she had been sexually assaulted or not.
Investigators quickly got to retracing Karina’s last known movements. It was known that she had gone out with friends the night before and left at some point around 3AM. However, it wasn’t known whether she left the nightclub on her own or whether she left with somebody else. Meanwhile, the U.S. State Department had to inform Karina’s father, Ola, back in Sweden. Speaking to the Herald, Ola said: “She was a wonderful girl, a beautiful girl and a very nice girl.”1
A number of witnesses who had seen Karina the night before came forward. One witness said that they saw Karina leave the nightclub with “an older man” while another said they saw her “bouncing around” an alleyway near the nightclub. They said that Karina appeared intoxicated and was complaining that her friends had abandoned her. According to one of her friends, Karina had told her that she and the older man were going to an after-hours party.2
The man who had taken Karina to the nightclub on the night of her murder informed investigators that he was threatened by two men outside the nightclub as he tried to take Karina home. He said that Karina was sitting inside a car with two men in the early morning hours. He leaned into the car and said: “Let’s go, you came with us,” referring to himself and the other group of friends. He told investigators that one of the men replied with: “Get away from the car you little bitch or I’ll crush your fucking head.”3
With so many conflicting stories regarding Karina’s departure of the nightclub, investigators seized the videotapes from the nightclub’s CCTV. The footage potentially showed Karina’s departure. There was a grainy image of somebody who looked like Karina speaking to a man estimated to be in his 40s who had a dog with him. The footage suggested that the man may have offered Karina a ride home. The man would be identified as Herbert Witten and he denied any involvement in Karina’s murder. Herbert was well-known in the area – he often dressed himself and his dog up in a superman costume and speak to patrons outside bars.
It was uncovered early on in the investigation that Karina had been planning on coming back home to Sweden in August, cutting her trip short. In a letter to her friend, she said that “something terrible” had happened but said she would explain it all when she came back home.4 Karina’s sister, Johanna, said that is Karina was unhappy about anything, she hadn’t confided in her. According to the family who Karina was working for, she seemed to be happy enough with her job and had made no complaints to them.
The investigation began with very scant evidence and would sadly go cold within the first few weeks. The only piece of evidence in the case was a partial fingerprint that was discovered on the plastic bag Karina’s upper-body was discovered. When it was run through the national database, there was no match. Swabs of her mouth and fingernails revealed nothing and it wasn’t even known where the crime had occurred. One investigator said: “It’s not like we have a boyfriend to look at. There is no one boyfriend, so no one’s a suspect, and everyone’s a suspect…”5
In December, it was revealed that Gregory Hummell was arrested after attacking a woman he picked up at the same nightclub where Karina had been. He took the woman back to his apartment where he punched her in the face and sexually assaulted her. She managed to lock herself in his bathroom with his mobile phone to call police. “We’re certainly not identifying him as a suspect, but he’s someone that we’re interested in talking to,” said Police Lt. Detective Paul Farrahar.
An investigation uncovered that the attack on this unidentified woman wasn’t the only time he had done something similar. He frequently picked women up outside nightclubs and attacked them.6 While it appeared as though this could have been the much-needed lead in the case, he would quickly be ruled out as suspect.
In January, Herbert Witten ended his own life. According to his lawyer, while he was never publicly identified as a suspect, he fell into a deep depression following his tangential involvement. His lawyer said: “He was a decent guy who had some problems…”7 Following his death, there was a flurry of interest in the case when bones were discovered buried in his yard. However, it would be determined that the bons belonged to an animal. While Herbert felt as though he was a suspect, the lead homicide detective on the case, Thomas O’Leary, said: “He didn’t do it.”8
Eventually, the months turned to years and the leads dwindled to nothing. Despite an exhaustive investigation, the brutal murder of Karina Holmer still remains unsolved. Her father, Ola, said that over the years, the grief has gradually subsided and they like to focus on Karina as the daughter that he lost as opposed to the grim circumstances surrounding her death.
- UPI, 25 June, 1996 – “Swedish Nanny Slain in Boston”
- South Bend Tribune, 26 June, 1996 – “Swede’s Dream to See World Ends in Slaying”
- Long Beach Press-Telegram, 28 June, 1996 – “Witness Tells of 2 Men”
- The Commercial Appeal, 28 June, 1996 – “Dead Woman’s Letters Had Ominous Nature”
- Boston Herald, 14 July, 1996 – “Police Can’t Get Break in Nanny Case”
- Boston Herald, 11 December, 1996 – “Nanny Probe Turns to Attack Suspect”
- Boston Herald, 11 January, 1997 – “Man Questioned in Nanny Murder Kills Self”
- Boston Herald, 23 June, 1998 – “After Two Years, Police Are Still Seeking Break in Case”