Rock formations at Illugastaðir farm in Iceland.
Rock formations at Illugastaðir farm in Iceland.
Jennifer Boyer, Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0

The Mysterious Murder Case That's Captivated Iceland for Nearly 200 Years

Rock formations at Illugastaðir farm in Iceland.
Rock formations at Illugastaðir farm in Iceland.
Jennifer Boyer, Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0

For centuries, a cluster of small farms near the water on Iceland's Vatnsnes peninsula have eked out an existence among the grassy fields and rocky hills, more or less content to be surviving at the edge of the world. The peninsula is known for a black basalt rock formation that's said to be a petrified troll, and for the colonies of seals that come to sun themselves on the beach.

It's still almost as peaceful—and lonely—as it was the night in March 1828 when Agnes Magnúsdóttir ran from Illugastaðir, the farm where she worked, to the house at Stapakot farm to report a fire. The situation, she said, was dire: Two people were trapped inside the rapidly burning building.

When the rescuers arrived and extinguished the blaze, the scene was even worse than they expected. Inside, they discovered the bodies of Natan Ketilsson, the farm’s owner, and his guest, Pétur Jónsson. Though the two were badly burned, the rescuers could see it wasn't the fire that had caused their deaths: They'd been murdered. The men had been stabbed 12 times and bludgeoned with a hammer before the fire had been set with shark oil.

The authorities quickly arrested both Agnes and Illugastaðir’s other maid, Sigríður Guðmundsdóttir, as well as a young man named Friðrik Sigurdsson. Although the trio's motives were murky, local gossips suspected the crime had something to do with their romantic entanglements.


Agnes was born in northern Iceland on October 27, 1795. Her parents, Ingveldur Rafnsdóttir and Magnús Magnússon, were unmarried farmers; her father quickly left the picture, and at age 6 Agnes was fostered out to a pair of tenant farmers elsewhere in northern Iceland. Little about her early life is known, save that it was steeped in toil and poverty. But everything changed when she met Natan Ketilsson.

Agnes fell head over heels for Natan, a self-taught doctor and herbalist. Though she was his maid, he encouraged her intellect and gave her a glimpse of life beyond poverty and drudgery. The two seem to have had a brief affair, but Natan was in love with Skáld-Rósa, a well-known local poet. Though Rósa was married, her long-standing relationship with Natan was known in the area; the two even had children together. To make matters more complicated, Natan had also recently been intimate with 16-year-old Sigríður.

No one has ever been able to figure out how, exactly, these intertwined passions may have led to murder. Had Agnes grown jealous of Natan's recent attentions to Sigríður? Or had Friðrik? The trial documents focused more on the idea that the group was conspiring to steal from a wealthy landowner, saying that Friðrik "came to commit this evil through hatred of Natan, and a desire to steal." The women named Friðrik as the mastermind of the crime, although they were short on details about why he was to blame.

The few available facts, together with a fear of rebellious servants, encouraged the idea of Agnes as a sort of villainess, and it was enough to condemn her. Author Hannah Kent, who in 2013 wrote a "speculative biography" about Agnes called Burial Rites—soon to be made into a movie starring Jennifer Lawrence—said in an interview that while translating local documents she found that “words such as 'devil,' 'witch' and 'spider' were frequently used to describe [Agnes]. Where I looked to find something of her life story, or acknowledgement of social or cultural factors that may have contributed to her crime, I found only the belief that she was unequivocally evil—a monster.”


The church in Tjörn, Iceland, where Agnes Magnusdottír is buried
The church in Tjörn, Iceland where Agnes Magnusdottír is buried.

After a long trial that went all the way to the Supreme Court in Copenhagen—Iceland was then still under Danish rule—Agnes, 33, and Friðrik, 19, were sentenced to be executed. Sigríður was also sentenced to death, but her punishment was eventually commuted to life in prison, which she would serve in Denmark. The reasons for the commutation aren’t entirely clear, except that by then the public had seized on Agnes as the real evil-doer. Since jail space wasn’t available in rural Iceland, the convicted were sent to local farms to await their fate; Agnes was held at Kornsá, the very same farm where she had lived with a foster family, although by then the house had different inhabitants.

Execution day arrived on January 12, 1830. The beheading was a spectacle: 150 male representatives from all of the district's farms attended, and a special ax was imported from Denmark. Guðmundur Ketilsson, Natan’s brother, carried out the deed in the middle of three hillocks in Húnavatnssýsla; Friðrik went first, then Agnes. It was the last time anyone was executed in Iceland. (You can still see the ax head, and chopping block, at Iceland's National Museum.)

They were forbidden Christian burial rites, and their heads were impaled onto sticks and displayed publicly, facing the road. But the heads wouldn't be there for long: They were stolen within 24 hours of going on display—and would stay missing for close to 100 years.

Sometime around 1930, a local woman who claimed to have been visited by Agnes’s spirit came forward with their location. The identity of the thieves remains a mystery, although legend has it that a kind-hearted housewife felt moved to bury them herself. Bizarrely, the heads were found just where the informant said they would be, “‘in the direction of the setting sun at high summer’ and not far from the execution mound,” according to crime writer Quentin Bates.

The bodies of Agnes and Friðrik, which had been buried near the site of their execution, were reburied with their heads in a churchyard in Tjörn, not far from where Illugastaðir farm once stood.


On September 9, 2017, Agnes got a second day in court. A mock trial arranged by the Icelandic Legal Society retried the case under modern rules, with the result that Agnes was sentenced to 14 years in prison instead of death.

According to David Þór, one of the mock court’s three judges and a real former judge at the European Court of Human Rights, the original trial didn’t attempt to answer why the murders occurred. "No one cared about the motivation behind the murders—that wouldn't happen in a modern court," he told the Associated Press. "Today we would try to understand the motivation behind the murders and particularly how the two women, who had no other place to live, were treated by their master."

Agnes’s story has captivated Iceland for the last 200 years. Was she a woman whose hard-won happiness was being threatened, and she was out for revenge? Or was there something even darker at work? Though the 1828 trial records are preserved in Iceland’s National Library, little evidence remains of Agnes’s life.

“There isn’t a lot to go on,” Bates writes. “But it can be imagined how the relationships between these people had developed and the pressure increased over the course of the dark winter in a farmhouse the size of a small apartment today, and with a healthy walk to reach the nearest neighbors. It’s the stuff of a psychological thriller.”

And indeed, nine books have been written on the subject in Iceland, with a 10th on the way; the murderess is even the subject of an Icelandic pop song. With the renewed interest, the events at Illugastaðir will likely captivate us for years to come—even if we may never know exactly what happened that March evening.

Rock formations at Illugastaðir farm in Iceland.
Photo Illustration by Lucy Quintanilla, Mental Floss. All images, iStock
The Pom-Pom Hit: When Texas Was Struck By a Cheerleader Mom's Murder Plot
Photo Illustration by Lucy Quintanilla, Mental Floss. All images, iStock
Photo Illustration by Lucy Quintanilla, Mental Floss. All images, iStock

On a January morning in 1991, Wanda Holloway was faced with a decision: Realizing that she couldn't afford two murders, the 36-year-old married mother of two had to decide whether to order the killing of her rival, Verna Heath, or Verna’s 13-year-old daughter, Amber.

It was a toss-up as to who presented the bigger problem to Holloway. Amber was an eighth-grader who had the talent and poise to consistently knock out Holloway’s daughter, Shanna, from a spot on their school’s cheerleading squad in Channelview, Texas; yet Verna was the one who pushed Amber, getting her into gymnastics and even being so bold as to let Amber try out for the junior high cheerleading squad before she had even formally enrolled in school.

Killing Amber would guarantee Shanna a berth to cheerleading stardom. But there was a problem: Holloway's ex-brother-in-law, Terry Harper—whom she enlisted to help her carry out her plan—said the man he knew who would accept the assignment wanted $5000 to kill a minor. Bumping off Verna would be a comparatively reasonable $2500.

In a perfect world, $7500 would get rid of them both, but Holloway simply didn’t have the money. So she decided it would be Verna. In addition to being cheaper, she figured Amber would be so devastated by her mother’s death that she couldn’t possibly get through cheerleader tryouts that March.

On January 28th, after dropping Shanna off at church, Wanda met with Harper to give him her diamond earrings as a down payment. Within a matter of days, she would make national headlines as the mother who would do anything for her daughter. Even if it meant life in prison.


A suburb of Houston, Holloway's hometown of Channelview, Texas sits in a state where football fields are considered holy ground and small town players are revered for their athletic prowess. Boys were expected to suit up if they wanted social status; girls could obtain a measure of popularity along the sidelines as cheerleaders. In both cases, the fitness and discipline required could help provide a foundation for a transition out of adolescence.

As a young woman, Wanda Holloway wanted to join that clique. Her father, a conservative Baptist, vetoed the idea. The costumes were too revealing, he said, too sexualized. Reporters would later seize on this detail and use it to craft a kind of super-villain origin story for Holloway—a woman who was determined to see her own daughter succeed where she hadn’t.

Holloway remained in Channelview and, in 1972, married railroad warehouse employee Tony Harper. They had two children: Shane in 1973 and Shanna in 1977. She divorced Harper in 1980, remarrying twice and retaining custody of the kids.

As Shanna grew older and grade school activities increased, Holloway was determined that her daughter would enjoy some of the opportunities her own father had denied her. She urged Shanna to try out for the seventh-grade cheerleading squad; though Shanna didn’t feel as passionately about the team as her mother did, she tried her best but didn’t make the cut as three girls were vying for two open slots. It was apparently vexing to Holloway that one of the girls who made the team didn’t even attend Alice Johnson Junior High during tryouts: She was still transitioning from a private school. That student was Amber Heath.

Amber and Shanna had purportedly been friends, even having sleepovers at each other’s homes. But Holloway perceived both Amber and her ambitious mother, Verna, as obstacles to Shanna’s progress in cheerleading. Verna had printed flyers and handed out candy during that seventh-grade coup. The next year, Holloway decided to make an offensive move and passed out rulers and pencils that urged Shanna’s classmates to vote her into the squad: “Vote for Shanna Harper for Cheerleader.”

The vice principal intervened, saying such campaigning was against school rules. (Verna's flyers had somehow skirted any penalty.) When Holloway ignored him, parents of other cheerleader candidates—Verna included—held a meeting and voted to disqualify Shanna from being in the running. Shanna was now 0-2, and Verna had made it personal.

As tryouts loomed for ninth grade in 1991, Holloway decided she couldn’t take any more chances with the Heaths. She approached Terry Harper, her first husband’s brother, the one man she knew with some slightly delinquent criminal tendencies. Harper had been arrested a few times on misdemeanor charges. To the best of anyone’s knowledge, he didn’t travel in the kinds of circles where he might know any hitmen. But Holloway seemed convinced that Harper had the connections to make Verna and Amber go away.

Harper would later tell police that he brushed off Holloway’s solicitations but she was persistent. Realizing she was serious, he went to the sheriff’s department, where officers expressed the same initial skepticism. Murder-for-hires didn’t happen in Channelview. When Harper insisted, they wired him with a microphone so he could continue his dialogue with Holloway.

In six separate recorded conversations, Harper found Holloway hard to pin down when it came to an explicit admission of her desire to have Verna murdered.

“You want her dead?” Harper asked.

“I don’t care what you do with her,” Holloway replied. “You can keep her in Cuba for 15 years. I want her gone.”

Semantics aside, Holloway’s intent was clear. Days after she handed over her down payment to Harper for the (fictional) assassin, police arrested Holloway for solicitation of capital murder. Investigators would later remark that Holloway seemed unfazed by the charge.

Out on bail, she told Shanna what she was facing: a potential verdict of life in prison. Although Shanna knew her mother wanted desperately to see her on the team—much more than Shanna herself cared to—she had no idea the rivalry with Verna had escalated to potential homicide. And despite the wishes of her biological father, Shanna remained at Alice Johnson High, avoiding eye contact with Amber Heath practically every day.


Holloway was arraigned in February 1991, and pled not guilty. Her defense was that the plot had been cooked up by her ex-husband, Tony Harper, and his brother in order for Tony to secure custody of their kids. Her desire to see Verna “gone,” she argued, was simply a joke.

The jury wasn’t laughing. In September 1991, it took them just two and a half hours to find Holloway guilty and sentence her to 15 years in prison—“poetic justice,” as one juror later put it, for wishing Verna would be exiled to Cuba for the same length of time.

Poetic or not, Holloway didn’t do 15 years—or even 15 months. She was granted a new trial in November of that year and the verdict was overturned on appeal in 1996 after it was discovered one of the jurors had been on probation for a drug possession charge and shouldn’t have been serving. Rather than fund another trial, Harris County prosecutors allowed Holloway a plea bargain where she received 10 years but ultimately served only six months in a work camp pulling weeds before being released on probation.

The last time a journalist caught up with Shanna was in 2012, when the then-34-year-old teacher discussed raising her own two children and having an infamous mother with a reporter from People. Living in Humble, Texas, she said she still saw Wanda on a regular basis, although the two rarely discussed the murder plot. Shanna asked about it back in 2010. Holloway called the entire incident a “mistake” and said that she was “sorry.”

When Wanda's future as a free woman was still up in the air, Alice Johnson High went ahead with cheerleader tryouts on March 22, 1991. Amber appeared and made the cut. Shanna did not. She was too distraught to show up.

Rock formations at Illugastaðir farm in Iceland.
20 Surprising Facts About America’s Most Wanted

In 1988, one year before Cops began asking the bad boys of America “What'cha gonna do when they come for you?,” noted victims’ advocate John Walsh was turning every American with access to Fox into a potential crime-solver on America’s Most Wanted.

The series, which highlighted real-life cases of fugitives and suspected criminals who had managed to evade capture (or recapture), became the first hit show for the then-fledgling Fox network and turned into a cultural phenomenon. To celebrate its 30th anniversary, here are 20 things you might not have known about America’s Most Wanted.


America’s Most Wanted partly owes its existence to an assistant to Fox owner Rupert Murdoch, who suggested the idea of a true crime series along the lines of BBC’s Crimewatch, which featured reenactments of brutal crimes and hosts who implored the public to assist them with catching the criminals. The show began airing once a month on BBC One in 1984, and was cancelled in 2017.


John Walsh attends a Paley Center event for 'America's Most Wanted'
Neilson Barnard, Getty Images

Though it’s hard to imagine America’s Most Wanted without its longtime host John Walsh—a hotel executive who became a noted victims' advocate following the abduction and murder of his young son, Adam, in 1981—the show’s producers considered a lot of other names before landing on Walsh.

“Stephen Chao—Fox’s vice president of program development—and an L.A. producer named Michael Linder sat down with [Fox’s vice president of corporate and legal affairs] Tom Herwitz to discuss the possibilities,” Walsh wrote in his autobiography, Tears of Rage, about the network’s search for a host. “They considered the author Joseph Wambaugh, and a whole raft of actors—Treat Williams, Ed Marinaro, Brian Dennehy, Brian Keith, and Theresa Saldana, who had played herself in a TV movie about how she was nearly stabbed to death by some psychotic attacker. Then, during one of their marathon conference calls, Herwitz suggested me.”

It took a while for them to track Walsh down—“I was all over the place in those days, traveling something like half a million air miles a year,” he wrote—but after a handful of conversations, he agreed to shoot the pilot.


Fox was still a new network—less than two years old—when America’s Most Wanted debuted, and it quickly became the network’s first big hit. Though it originally only aired in a handful of markets, by April the network was broadcasting America’s Most Wanted nationwide. In 1989, it became the first Fox series to be the most-watched program in its time slot. By 2010, each episode was being watched by about 5 million households.


From 1996 until his death in 2008, legendary voice actor Don LaFontaine served as the show’s narrator. You probably know LaFontaine as the voice behind more than 5000 movie trailers, and the person most often associated with the “In a world…” trope. He was often referred to as “Thunder Throat” and “The Voice of God.” Wes Johnson took over the role following LaFontaine’s passing.


In a 1988 interview with The New York Times, executive producer Michael Linder admitted that law enforcement professionals were initially skeptical of the show, though it didn’t take them long to embrace its purpose—and possibilities. “Now, they bombard us with tips and requests for help,” Linder said.

The FBI also played a big part in the series; the agency assigned a handful of agents to act as liaisons between William S. Sessions, the bureau’s then-director, and the show’s producers. On May 29, 1998, Sessions even appeared on an episode of the show to give a rundown of the latest additions to the FBI’s 10 Most Wanted list (one of whom was captured shortly thereafter, thanks to a viewer tip).

Manhattan District Attorney Robert M. Morgenthau told The New York Times that he, too, was a fan of the series, saying that, “If the media, through publicity, can contribute to the apprehension of dangerous criminals, I'm all for it. Besides, it’s very expensive to track down criminals. A couple of detectives or FBI agents can spend months or years searching for someone. It seems to me that this is a wonderful way to save the taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars.”


Though many of the individuals featured on the show were fugitives, the American Civil Liberties Union had concerns that a suspect who appeared on the show would not be able to get a fair trial. “I suppose it’s like an electronic wanted poster,” Colleen O'Connor, the ACLU’s director of public education, told The New York Times in 1988. “The poster on the wall in the post office makes it seem like the fugitive is guilty, too … Can someone get a fair trial after he's been portrayed as a killer on television?”

But Linder contested this point, telling the Times that civil liberties were always at the forefront of the producers’ mind. “If one killer was set free because of pretrial publicity from us, the show would be a failure,” he said. The show also made a very clear point of using language like “alleged” and “reportedly” when discussing suspects who had not been convicted—and Walsh ended each episode with a reminder that the suspects featured in the show were innocent until proven guilty.


On February 7, 1988, America’s Most Wanted debuted on just a handful of Fox stations across the country. On February 11, four days later, a viewer tip led to the arrest of David James Roberts, a convicted murderer and rapist who had made a brazen escape from prison in 1986 while being transported to a hospital.

After the episode aired, the show’s tip line received dozens of calls from people who knew Roberts as Bob Lord, an employee at a homeless shelter in Staten Island. Roberts, who was on the FBI’s 10 Most Wanted list, was the first fugitive profiled on the show, and the first person caught as a result of viewer tips.


America’s Most Wanted proved to be a huge help to the FBI during the quarter-century it was on the air. According to the FBI’s website, 17 “‘Ten Most Wanted Fugitives’ have been located as a direct result of tips provided by viewers of this program” (beginning with Roberts in that very first episode).


Like the FBI, Walsh maintained his own “most wanted” list, which was known as the America’s Most Wanted “Dirty Dozen.” It changed regularly, but included fugitives who had been featured on the show and had yet to be captured.


Zaid Hamid, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

In order to expedite the crime-solving process, the last two digits of the show’s hotline changed each year for the first few years in order to match the year the episode aired (1-800-CRIME-88, 1-800-CRIME-89, etc.). On average, the show received approximately 3000 to 5000 calls per week. In 1994, the number changed one last time—to 1-800-CRIME-TV. The number was shut down in June 2014. (As for the operators you saw during each episode: most of them were actors.)

Amazingly, crank calls weren’t a big problem for the show, according to Linder, though they did receive a lot of hang-up calls. (He suspected people just wanted to try dialing the number to see if someone would answer.)


So that any promising tips could be quickly vetted and followed up on once an episode aired, The New York Times reported that, “In the television studio, there are some 30 telephone operators to take the calls. Also on hand are police officers or federal agents directly involved in cases being aired that night. When one of the operators gets a good lead, an officer picks up the phone and asks the caller further questions.”


On May 15, 1988, Mark Goodman was in the final stretch of a brief prison stint following a burglary conviction in Palm Beach County, Florida, but was wanted elsewhere in the country for escaping federal custody following an armed robbery conviction. He was watching the show with a group of his fellow inmates when his face flashed across the screen. Though The New York Times reported that he tried to change the channel, it was too late: Goodman's fellow inmates informed the prison guards that there was an America’s Most Wanted fugitive in their midst. While being transferred to a more secure facility, Goodman managed to escape custody again. Fortunately, he was apprehended the next day.


In 1996, the powers-that-be at Fox—which now had a handful of hit series, including The Simpsons—decided to cancel America’s Most Wanted and push Married… With Children (which was in its final season) into the first half of its 9 p.m. time slot. The public let their outrage be known.

“We went off for four weeks,” Walsh told Larry King in 2003. “Everybody in law enforcement contacted Fox. Fifty-five members of Congress contacted Fox. Thirty-seven governors. I don't think 37 governors could agree on how many stars and stripes are on the flag, but they all went after [the network]—and they said it [was] a business decision. But … 200,000 good American citizens wrote Fox and said, ‘This is wrong.’ We were the shortest canceled show in the history of television.”


This picture taken from the FBI web site on the Internet 16 July shows Andrew Phillip Cunanan, the sole suspect in the murder of Italian fashion designer Gianni Versace. Versace was gunned down in front of his Miami home
H/O, AFP, Getty Images

Fans of FX’s The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story probably noticed a recent shout-out to America’s Most Wanted. In the episode, an employee at a sandwich shop in Miami recognizes Andrew Cunanan when he comes in to buy a sub and calls the police to report it. But Cunanan managed to make his way out of the eatery just before the police arrived. While the episode left no doubt that it was indeed Cunanan (as portrayed by Darren Criss) who was ordering a tuna fish sandwich, the reality of what happened is not as clear-cut.

After Cunanan made his way onto the FBI’s Most Wanted Fugitives list on June 12, 1997, the bureau asked the show for help. They ran a segment on the alleged serial killer, and Miami police did respond to a call from Kenny Benjamin, an employee of Miami Subs, who swore that Cunanan was in the shop. Police arrived almost immediately, but the man in question had already left. And Benjamin had ended up blocking the security camera’s view of the suspect while making the call, so whether or not it was indeed Cunanan was never confirmed. But we do know that the call was made four days before Versace’s murder.


In October 2001, in the wake of 9/11, America’s Most Wanted aired a one-hour special that profiled the FBI’s 22 most wanted terrorists. The New York Post reported that the episode was put together in just 72 hours at the request of White House aide Scott Sforza.

“These are low-life coward terrorists that we’re going to profile and hopefully we can get some of these s–bags off the streets before they hurt anymore Americans,” Walsh said, adding that: “I’m going to send a big message to Bin Laden: You’re just a coward. Americans know it and we’re gonna hunt you down like the dog you are.”


Not every suspect featured on America’s Most Wanted ended up being captured—or found guilty of their alleged crimes. One example: Suspected murderer Richard Emile Newman. Acting on tips that he was living in an apartment in Brooklyn following an episode of America’s Most Wanted that profiled his case, Newman was arrested in New York in 2004. He was extradited back to Canada in 2006 for trial, but in 2010 he was acquitted of those charges.


On May 8, 1988, America’s Most Wanted featured the case of Stephen Randall Dye, who was wanted in connection with the shooting of a man in New Jersey in 1986 as well as the murder of a motorcyclist in Ohio in 1981. Nervous that he would be found out, Dye—who was living in California at the time—flagged down a police car in San Diego and gave himself up.


In 2010, to celebrate the show’s 1000th episode, Walsh was granted what he assumed would be a quick meet-and-greet with President Barack Obama to film a segment acknowledging the milestone. But when he arrived at the White House, he was taken to the Blue Room for an actual sit-down with the POTUS where they discussed Obama’s various anti-crime initiatives and the show’s impact. “It wasn’t a grip-and-grin or a photo op,” Walsh told the New York Post.


In June 2011, Fox television cancelled America’s Most Wanted for a second (and final) time. When the show went off the air, it had run for 25 seasons, making it the network’s then-longest running series. (The Simpsons has since surpassed it.) 

But that was not the end of America’s Most Wanted. As Walsh told the San Diego Tribune in the wake of the series’s cancellation, "I'm fighting hard to keep this franchise going. It's a television show that gets ratings and saves lives, and we'll find somewhere to keep going. We're not done.”

Walsh was right: The series got picked up by Lifetime, though its run on the network was fairly short-lived; on March 28, 2013, it was cancelled for good.


In May 2008, America’s Most Wanted was celebrating the show’s 1000th capture. To celebrate, the network got some of the Fox family to tape celebratory messages (including some awkward congrats from American Idol judges Simon Cowell, Randy Jackson, and Paula Abdul). As of March 30, 2013, the total number of captured persons had risen to 1202.