(NEW YORK) — Three years ago, Kim Wall was reporting from the Marshall Islands for what would become one of her last published stories.
Wall, an award-winning independent journalist, had traveled there on grant money and a tight budget with two friends, who were also graduates of Columbia Journalism School. They spent weeks emerged in Marshallese culture, interviewing residents and exploring the island nation’s contaminated atolls amid the sprawling Pacific Ocean for a report on migration, climate change and the legacy of U.S. nuclear weapons testing.
At one point, Wall even allowed a traditional Marshallese healer perform an exorcism on her by rubbing coconut oil all over her stomach and apparently dispelling some type of spirit, according to Coleen Jose, Wall’s friend who was the lead photographer for the reporting trip.
“She was always open and respectful of the culture,” Jose, 27, said in a telephone interview Friday. “You could see it in her words, too.”
Wall was the lead writer for the stories they produced from their weeks spent on the Marshall Islands, as well as in Arkansas, where some Marshallese seeking a better life have moved. A three-part multimedia project from their reporting trip was published Feb. 25, more than six months after Wall’s death and less than two weeks before the trial for her brutal murder begins.
In mid-August 2017, Wall disappeared after boarding a Danish inventor’s midget submarine while researching for a story. The UC3 Nautilus submarine foundered in the Bay of Koge, southwest of Copenhagen, and its creator, Peter Madsen, was rescued by boat. Danish prosecutors later said that Madsen deliberately sank his submarine.
Wall, 30, was initially declared missing, but her dismembered body was later discovered and Madsen has been charged in her slaying. His trial starts Thursday in Copenhagen, and a verdict is expected on April 25.
Born in Sweden, Wall graduated with a bachelor’s degree in international relations from the London School of Economics and Political Science. She then obtained a dual master’s degree in journalism and international relations from Columbia University in New York City.
She traversed the globe to cover stories about, as she described, “the undercurrents of rebellion.” Before her untimely death, she reported on identity, gender, pop-culture, social justice and foreign policy from China, Sri Lanka, Uganda, Haiti, North Korea, India as well as the United States and the Marshall Islands.
“She was courageous in asking challenging questions to people who held power,” Jose told ABC News.
Wall’s stories included a report on Chinese feminists attending the 2017 Women’s March in Washington, D.C., an article about China’s impact on businesses and culture in Uganda, a story about a subculture passionate about all things furry, and a profile of a plus-sized pole dancing queen.
Jose, now working as a freelance digital and creative strategist in New York City, recalled how Wall kept a collection of knick-knacks from her travels on display in the living room of her Brooklyn apartment.
“I think that’s something that will stick with me,” Jose said. “The ways that she expressed herself outside of her own personality.”
In the wake of her death, Wall’s family and friends established the Kim Wall Memorial Fund and began raising money for what her parents described as an effort to ensure their daughter’s “spirit will live on.” The fund will award a $5,000 inaugural grant to a woman reporter on March 23, Wall’s birthday.
“We want Kim to be remembered and honored as the great journalist she was, not as a victim,” Wall’s parents, Ingrid and Joachim Wall, said in a statement released in January. “We can never get Kim back, but we can see to it that her spirit will live on and inspires other young women journalists to go out in the world and cover deserving stories that rarely make it to the front pages.”
In photos that friends and family have shared on the memorial fund’s webpage, Wall appears wide-eyed and smiling, often giving the peace sign, with some of her auburn hair pulled up into a messy bun atop her head.
“She’d always put up the peace sign whenever she took photos,” Justin Chan laughed during a telephone interview Friday. “That kind of became our thing. I would make fun of her.”
Chan, 28, also knew Wall from Columbia Journalism School. They met at a classmate’s party a few weeks into his first semester in the fall of 2012. Wall saw Chan, a Chinese-American, and struck up a conversation with him about Chinese culture and her time in Beijing. Chan described her as a “soft-spoken person” with “a lot to say” and a deep interest in China.
“Just from that conversation alone, I knew she was someone who was really special and very knowledgeable,” Chan said. “I don’t always come across a lot of non-Chinese folks who are that knowledgeable about my culture.”
As graduation approached, both Wall and Chan applied to a reporting internship at the South China Morning Post in Hong Kong. Chan didn’t get it; Wall did.
“When I heard that she got it, I was very happy for her. Honestly, it couldn’t have happened to a better person,” said Chan, now an assistant web editor at Architectural Record in New York City. “She wanted to explore the unknown, especially in China. And I’m forever thankful to her for that.”
Wall was based between Beijing and New York City, but friends said she was always on-the-go, hunting down her next story. She had planned to move full-time to China’s capital with her boyfriend the month she was allegedly killed.
Wall often did extensive research and pre-reporting for a story, including traveling, before pitching it to a media outlet or applying for a reporting grant. So it wasn’t unusual that she agreed to meet a potential interview subject aboard his homemade submarine, her friends said. Many journalists would have done the same.
“It wasn’t beyond anything out of the ordinary that she would pursue,” Jose told ABC News.
Wall could not have known that she herself would ultimately become the story. Her death has refocused attention on the dangers facing women journalists, particularly freelancers, even when they are reporting in a nation that ranks among the world’s safest. The submarine ride was off the coast of Denmark’s capital, where crime rates are remarkably low, and it was some 30 miles from Wall’s hometown in Sweden.
Wall’s friends said they hope her death and the memorial fund will move the conversation forward in creating safer environments for women journalists and providing more support to freelancers in the field.
“I’m hoping that with this fund young female journalists will feel empowered to do the things that Kim did, to explore the unknown, to be ambitious in their reporting, just as she was, and to challenge the status quo. Because that’s what Kim did,” Chan told ABC News. “We need more voices like hers.”
In January, a Danish prosecutor formally filed charges against Madsen that include murder and indecent handling of a corpse. The prosecutor is seeking a life imprisonment sentence for Madsen.
“This is a very unusual and extremely brutal case which has had tragic consequences for Kim Wall and her relatives,” Copenhagen Police’s special prosecutor Jakob Buch-Jepsen said in a statement.
Danish prosecutors have accused Madsen of planning the alleged murder, according to the indictment, which was obtained by ABC News through the Danish equivalent of a U.S. Freedom of Information Act request.
The cause of death is unknown, but the prosecutors believe Madsen either strangled Wall or slit her throat after binding and abusing her, according to the indictment. Madsen “brought a saw, knife, sharpened screw drivers, straps, strips and pipes” as part of a plan to kill Wall aboard the submarine, the prosecutors said in the indictment. He abused her by “hitting her, stabbing and cutting her” before killing her and mutilating the body, the indictment said.
Madsen has changed several times his version of what happened on board the UC3 Nautilus that night in August. Initially, he denied both killing Wall and dismembering her corpse. He later admitted to the latter but still denied killing her, saying she died in an accident aboard his submarine.
The grisly details of the case were extremely difficult for Wall’s friends and loved ones to hear.
“It’s just shocking to me,” Chan told ABC News. “It’s still very hard to process.”
Still, Jose said she plans on following Madsen’s trial, in hopes of reaching a sense of closure.
“I would love to see some type of justice and ways we can create closure from what’s happened,” Jose told ABC News.
While they still struggle to make sense of the tragedy, friends said they cope by remembering the laughs and adventures they shared with Wall.
For Chan, it’s Wall’s “quirkiness” and the way she would “casually try” to greet him in Chinese.
“She would try to impress me by speaking Mandarin,” laughed Chan, whose family speaks Cantonese.
For Jose, it’s the weeks they spent together with their mutual friend, video journalist Jan Hendrik Hinzel, on the Marshall Islands, where their accommodations were fleeting and often grungy.
At night, they crawled into their sleeping bags on the floor of whichever place the reporting trio was able to stay that evening and surrounded themselves with mosquito netting. Sometimes there was a bed which they would take turns sleeping in.
One night when they were asleep, Wall suddenly jumped up out of her sleeping bag. Two cockroaches, the size of “pigeons,” were in it, Jose said.
“It was just one of those ‘oh my god’ moments, but also ‘what the f’ are we doing with our lives,” she laughed. “It was definitely an adventure.”
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