David Meier hasn’t prosecuted a murder in more than eight years. His days in the trenches as a Suffolk County homicide prosecutor have given way to an office with sweeping views of Boston Harbor, reflecting his current status as one of the city’s eminent defense lawyers.
But the Karina Holmer case isn’t merely one that got away. It is the case that won’t let him go and probably never will.
Holmer was a 20-year-old au pair from Sweden who disappeared without a trace — save for her upper half, recovered in a Fenway dumpster — 20 years ago this summer.
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“It’s as haunting today as it was 20 years ago — if not more so,” said Meier, now a partner at Todd and Weld. He ticked off the reasons why. “Because no one has come forward. Because whoever is responsible for this — whether it’s one person or more than one person — has apparently not slipped up and said anything to anyone who would have an interest in saying anything.
“And there’s no crime scene. There’s no ability to determine with any definite basis how she was killed, why she was killed, where she was killed. Never mind who killed her.”
Holmer was murdered in June 1996. She and a group of friends had been partying at Zanzibar, a popular nightspot near Boston Common that shared an alley with several other clubs. She hung out with a group of other young nannies, who would walk to downtown clubs from the South Boston loft she used on weekends — it was owned by the family she worked for in Dover.
They met at the loft on Friday night and headed out. Holmer was last seen near the corner of Boylston and Tremont, shortly after closing time. Most of her friends apparently left before she did.
Her body was discovered Sunday morning near Fenway Park by a guy looking for bottles and cans. He touched a trash bag, grabbed the bag, realized there was a person inside of it.
Or rather half of a person: The lower half of her body has never been recovered. The family that employed her called police when they saw the news reports that a beautiful unidentified young woman had been discovered. Holmer was strangled to death before she was dismembered.
Hundreds of tips poured in. A stellar team of Boston police investigators, led by Detective Tommy O’Leary, ran down every one of them. They searched countless apartments in the Fenway. They checked bodies of water where the rest of her body may have been dumped. They spent two days conferring with experts from the FBI Behavioral Sciences Team, compiling a profile of the kind of person who would commit such a heinous crime. All to no avail.
The lack of a crime scene proved crucial. Normally, that’s where the evidence is. Investigators without a scene are just people with theories.
Holmer was an unlikely homicide victim. She was almost a tourist, really — an innocent woman from the tiny village of Alaryd. The seeming randomness of the case is part of what drives Meier crazy.
“There probably could be no more innocent a victim or random a victim than Karina Holmer,” Meier said. “By all accounts, it seemed like there wasn’t a person in the world who wanted to harm her.”
He notes that if a woman disappeared today in the heart of the city, evidence would be voluminous — text messages and surveillance video, maybe selfies with friends. With luck, investigators could reconstruct much of her evening. Two decades ago, there was none of that.
“It’s extraordinary how she just vanished,” he says.
Naturally, theories abound. Various suspects were considered, then cleared for various reasons. One had the perfect alibi: He was stopped by police, and his car was searched, right around the time Holmer disappeared.
Meier has had his own thoughts over the years. On a nearly daily basis, really. Sometimes, he thinks there must have been more than one assailant. Then he thinks there could be only one, because multiple people could never keep such an explosive secret for so long.
“Every time I have a hunch or rationalize what might have happened with a reasonable mind, I conclude that that’s crazy and I go down some other path and then I conclude that’s crazy,” he said. “I think I learned long ago that no murder makes sense, particularly something like this. How can you make any sense out of this?”
O’Leary, the lead investigator, is now a commander in District B-2 in Roxbury. Just a few weeks ago, after a television report on the 20th anniversary of the case, a tip came in to check out an apartment in the Fenway. O’Leary raced right over, even though there was nothing there. Holmer is still his case.
“I can’t drive through the Fenway section of Boston without thinking about her,” O’Leary said. “And that’s pretty much every day of my life. I’ve spent a lot of time at the dumpster site and at the Catholic church on the corner. I don’t think about it every day any more, but I think about her almost every day.”
Could this case ever be solved?
“For the family of Karina Holmer, nothing would be more satisfying than bringing them some sense of justice, some resolution,” Meier said. “I don’t want to say it would take a miracle, but it would take an extraordinary piece of evidence to charge someone, let alone prove it beyond a reasonable doubt.”
It’s unusual for cases, even unsolved murders, to linger in the minds of law enforcement officials the way this one has. But the combination of an unlikely victim, a near-total lack of evidence, and a killer who is quite possibly still on the loose makes it the case that won’t let go.
Just ask Meier. “There’s nothing about this case that’s ordinary, and there’s everything about this case that extraordinary.”
Produced by Elaina Natario, Laura Colarusso, Heather Hopp-Bruce, Alex Kingsbury, Jeremy D. Goodwin, and Mary Creane
Lead image by Associated Press