Teenager’s murder shocks small town

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UPDATED: The coastal community of Varhaug on the windswept shores of Jæren south of Stavanger was reeling this week after a 13-year-old girl was found murdered and then a 17-year-old boy was charged with the crime. The same boy was also reportedly involved in setting fire to the local junior high school less than a month ago, and is tied to a break-in at a local day care center on Sunday evening, when Sunniva Ødegård never made it home after visiting a friend.

One of Norway’s major scenic routes rolls right through Varhaug in the Jæren region, which is spotted with small settlements along the coast south of Stavanger. Now one of them has been shaken by the murder of a young local girl. PHOTO: Nasjonalturistveger/Hege Lysholm

The 17-year-old defendant faced a custody hearing Tuesday afternoon but reporters weren’t allowed to cover it, mostly because he’s under the legal age for criminal responsibility in Norway. Prosecutors were nonetheless asking the court to keep him confined for at least the next two weeks, with authorities having full control over any  visitors and communication, while police continued their investigation. The court later agreed, ordering him held in remand custody until August 14.

Police arrested the 17-year-old Monday evening, after the body of Sunniva Ødegård was found on a walkway not far from her home. She’d been visiting a friend and was walking home around 10:30pm, talking on her mobile phone to her 14-year-old boyfriend who lives father south in Egersund. His mother told newspaper Stavanger Aftenblad that Sunniva Ødegård had just told her son “now I’m home” when she then suddenly exclaimed “shit!” and the call was cut off. He tried calling her back but got no response. Her body was found nearly five hours later, shortly after 3am, by a friend of the family who had joined a search for her. Cause of death is pending an autopsy.

Court hearing behind closed doors
Police won’t say why they charged the 17-year-old later that same day. Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) reported that the 17-year-old, who is not being publicly identified in accordance with press practice in Norway, arrived at court on Tuesday with his defense attorney Tor Inge Borgersen. His mother was also present in court as was an attorney representing the family of the young murder victim.  The teenage murder defendant, wearing a grey T-shirt, sweatpants and blue shoes, stared straight ahead as he sat silently in the courtroom with three police officers standing nearby.

“I haven’t thought to say anything,” Borgersen told reporters on his way into court. He had no comment after the court’s custody either. Judge Espen Skjerven had earlier ruled that an open hearing could damage the ongoing police investigation, while the defendant’s young age also was a major factor. Reporters were then told to leave the courtroom before the hearing could proceed.

The attorney representing the victim’s family, Harald Øglænd, told NRK that the Ødegård family was relieved that police had a suspect but now want answers regarding what actually happened and why. “They won’t get them since the defendant hasn’t admitted guilt,” Øglænd said.

Many questions unanswered
Questions thus continue to fly, not least over why police charged the 17-year-old. Police have acknowledged that they were “acquainted” with him from before his arrest on murder charges, which is the way police in Norway confirm whether someone has a record of earlier offenses. Police refused to elaborate, however: “When it comes to the circumstances under which police knew the defendant from earlier, we don’t want to comment, other than that violence was not involved,” Linda Merethe Lie of the Sør-Vest Police District told NRK.

The fire at the Varhaug junior high school burned for around an hour earlier this month but did not cause extensive damage. Police have determined that arson was behind the fire, which is also still under investigation.

The 17-year-old has also been tied to a break-in Sunday evening at the Trekløveren barnehage (day care center), not far from where Ødegård’s body was found. Police responded to an alarm from the day care center and were at the scene, where a window had been broken, when they encountered people out looking for the 13-year-old girl, including her father. Her body was found shortly thereafter.

Defendant at the scene
The 17-year-old was arrested Monday evening after he had gone to the police station to make a statement. He was charged with Ødegård’s murder, according to prosecutor Herdis Traa, while being questioned by police. “He denies the charges against him, but he was at the scene of the crime,” Traa told reporters.

She also confirmed he had been involved in the break-in, “but we can’t go into further detail,” adding simply that “he is charged on the basis of extensive investigation so far and on statements made by witnesses.”

NRK spoke with the manager of a local construction company where the 17-year-old had worked for the past six months. He quit in July, saying he intended to return to school. His former employer had no complaints about him, according to NRK.

Police cordoned off the home where the defendant lived and were planning to search it extensively, “but we don’t know when,” Lie said.

The local church in Varhaug quickly became a gathering point for stunned residents. PHOTO: The Norwegian Church

More than 100 people turned out at the local Varhaug Church Monday evening for a memorial ceremony for Ødegård, and just to be together. One local resident, Therese Lauritsen, told newspaper VG that she knows the family and was “shocked” by the murder. “This is just terrible, she was so young,” Lauritsen told VG.

Pastor Gaute Rasmussen at Varhaug Church said it will be important, especially in such a small town, to get out information to the public, to hinder speculation. “We otherwise don’t have many words today,” Rasmussen told NRK. “We are all full of sorrow.” He said he had met with the young murder victim’s parents and they wanted to thank everyone who was out looking for their daughter during the night, also the police for “kind and professional work,” and the county’s crisis team that was helping them deal with their loss.

newsinenglish.no/Nina Berglund