Saturday, December 05, 2009

Swedish man cleared of murder after evidence points to drunken elk

When Ingemar Westlund’s wife died in a mysterious woodland incident last year, he was arrested as a murder suspect. The Swedish pensioner was shunned by neighbours and treated like an outcast.

Sweden is the land of the cult detective novel, and its police officers have a reputation to live up to. Mr Westlund, it seemed, had the motive — persistent rows with his wife Agneta — and the opportunity. The 69-year-old was the first to find her body on the banks of a lake near Loftahammar, in southern Sweden, and, as far as the police were concerned, all the indications were that he had knocked her to the ground in a fury.

Now, to the embarrassment of the Swedish murder squad, the real culprit has been found: a drunken elk. “What was first characterised as a murder, has now been shown to be a tragic accident,” said Cecilia Brick, a police spokeswoman.

Mr Westlund, who is now seeking compensation, is relieved but also furious: he was jailed for ten days after the incident, and although allowed to return home he remained a murder suspect for six months. When charges against him were dropped — the police neglected to tell him. As a result, he has spent the past 15 months living in his small southern Swedish community carrying the stigma of being a wife-killer, suffering frowns and odd glances in church.

Mrs Westlund, 63, took her dog for a walk in September 2008. It appears the dog disturbed an elk eating fermented apples — elks gobble up the fruit, which turns into alcohol in their stomachs, and makes for erratic behaviour.

Drunken elks attacked an old people’s home four years ago, and had to be driven back by police and hunters. With even a minimal amount of alcohol in their bloodstream, the normally placid creatures — often viewed by children as cuddly and benign — can turn into louts, charging into cars and causing more than 3,500 serious road accidents a year.

Typically weighing up to half a tonne, elk are best avoided when they are tipsy. They have entered department stores, got stuck in lifts, attacked skiers and barged into kitchens. If they see a parked motorist munching a sandwich, they have been known to knock on the window and demand a bite.

In the initial investigation, police did not take into account the possibility of a killer elk, assuming that the animal hairs on Mrs Westlund’s coat were from her dog. All the injuries to her head and body pointed to a human attack, they thought.

Detectives interviewed hundreds of people. One theory was that Mrs Westlund had been murdered elsewhere, and secretly carried to the lakeside.

The National Forensics Laboratory was called in to help. It was only when the police realised that Mr Westlund was probably not strong enough to cause such massive injuries to his wife that the National Criminal Investigation Department, the Swedish equivalent of Scotland Yard, set about profiling the killer.

Then laboratories at Umeå University decided to analyse the hairs on her coat, and the truth dawned. Saliva samples were also found to belong to an elk.

Göran Ericsson, an animal behaviour expert at the university, said that the failure of police to suspect an elk was understandable. They may be prone to drunkenness but they were not, on the whole, natural born killers. “We’re not aware of any similar case in the world,” he said.

“This has been a nightmare,” said Mr Westlund. “When I and my children bade farewell to Agneta at her funeral in front of 300 mourners, I was suspected of murdering her — can you imagine what that means?”

Original report here

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