A death in the snow perplexes Norwegians


TRONDHEIM, Norway -- The police began to get an eerie feeling about this case not long after they saw the girl's body in the snow.

It wasn't just that she was 5 years old, beaten and partly undressed. It was the bootprints around her they couldn't fathom. They were tiny, nearly as small as the girl's.

By the next afternoon three male suspects were in custody and talking, although it wasn't easy holding their attention. Their ages were 5 and 6.

"As they were telling their stories to us, they were sometimes suddenly singing children's songs or talking about something else," said Harald Moholt, criminal investigations chief for the Trondheim police. "They don't realize what has happened. They don't know anything about death or life."

But by now all of Norway knows about the three boys and what they did Saturday to their neighborhood playmate, Silje Marie Redergaard. Norway and its Scandinavian neighbors have grasped for some way to react, to explain. Violent American television programs took some blame. Shows such as the "Mighty Morphin Power Rangers" were canceled.

Silje Marie died on a splendid day. For a while, she and her friends built snow forts and went sledding, celebrating the season's first big snowfall within a hundred yards of their homes. Then, as the afternoon light dimmed and other friends drifted home, the play turned ugly. The boys began to hit and kick.

Clothes were removed, although it's not yet clear by whom. One of the boys slammed Silje Marie's head with a rock. She lost consciousness.

Then the boys went home.

Perhaps an hour later, other children found her lying beside the fir trees heavy with snow, on the corner of a playing field as pretty as a Christmas card.

The coroner concluded yesterday that Silje Marie had frozen to death, but that was small consolation for a city of 145,000 where there are only one or two murders a year, usually committed by drunken adults. Nor was it solace to a country so proud of its peace-loving reputation that a committee of its citizens picks the winner of the Nobel Peace Prize.

"We have never had a case like this in Norway," Mr. Moholt said. "I have never heard of a case like this anywhere. There was the one in England [where two 10-year-old boys beat to death toddler James Bulger], but even they were twice as old."

It is a gloomy time of year for such news. Although Norwegians greet the first large snowfall with joy, the whitened countryside also signals the annual slide into darkness. Already in Trondheim the sun sets before 5 p.m., and this year the failing light is accompanied by a fear that something must have gone terribly awry for three children to behave like this.

"By the time you're 6 years old, you should have a little bell inside you saying when something is wrong," said Solvi Hessen Schei, a kindergarten teacher whose class includes some of Silje Marie's friends and neighbors. "And if someone is crying and saying with all other signs that what you are doing is horrible, then you stop."

Grasping for answers

A clearer explanation of the details of the case would perhaps ease such feelings, but police haven't provided it. They're bound by law to protect the identities of accused persons younger than 15, and in doing so they've released few details of the boys' lives at home and school, or of what led to the attack.

This hasn't stopped others from coming up with their own theories. From the prime minister on down, Norwegians already have blamed the influence of mass media, particularly violent television programming.

"Maybe we don't know enough about the way children absorb these kinds of things," Ms. Schei said. "Children draw the boundaries for their own behavior from what they see."

Sweden's Channel 3, a regional commercial television station that broadcasts by satellite, responded by dropping its weekday afternoon broadcast of the popular American show "Power Rangers," which features karate-chopping teens who beat and bash their way through their enemies.

Programming director Lasse Hallberg explained that, after the Trondheim killing, station officials felt that far too many children under age 10 were tuning in to the show.

Sweden's TV-2 network suspended broadcast of "The Edge," a 13-part animated program about violence that itself is described as "fast, brutal satire."

Prime Minister Gro Harlem Brundtland said, "Violence on the screen [could] become violence on the retinas of even small children."

She's right to worry, according to a 1993 California State University study, which showed that children of elementary school age who watched an episode of "Power Rangers" responded by hitting and shoving each other.

But Silje Marie's mother, Beathe, said Monday that she doesn't need an explanation.

"We'll perhaps never understand what happened, or why, and I don't think we should speculate too much," she told Norwegian reporters. "For the first 24 hours, we half expected Silje Marie to come running through the front door again, but now we've accepted her death."

On Monday, she and the girl's stepfather visited the home of one of the boys accused in the child's death and spent several hours talking and commiserating with his parents.

"I forgive those who killed my daughter," she said afterward. "I cannot hate or blame small children. They can't understand the consequences of what they have done."

The police inspector, Mr. Moholt, agreed with that judgment. "This is a tragedy for all of us," he said. "We have only victims in this case."

This seems to have evolved as the general thrust of the response, not only for the city but for the nation. It is as if Norwegians can't believe that their countrymen -- especially not ones so young -- would ever do such a thing unless guided by an outside force.

Silje Marie's stepfather joined the effort by going with his older stepdaughter, Line, to her school on Monday, only a hundred yards through the woods from where Silje Marie died.

He told the school's students to never forget Silje Marie, but also to never seek vengeance against the three young boys.

Headmaster Per Erik Eimhjellen found the speech to be just the right response. "We've been talking a lot about how to take care of each other," he said.

'It is beyond our knowledge'

But when he sought an answer to help his students better understand what happened, he came up empty.

"There is no explanation," he said. "It is beyond our knowledge."

As more snow fell, small groups of children gathered yesterday at the site of the killing. Friends and neighbors have built small shrines in the hard-packed snow, which is now more than a foot deep. Clusters of burning candles illuminated roses and handwritten poems, some drawn in crayon, until well after dusk.

Ms. Schei planned to take her kindergarten class by the site this week, after they began asking blunt questions, such as, "Is Silje Marie still lying on the ground?"

At the site, 11-year-old Thomas Langeng stood for a moment with a solemn expression.

"It's terrible," he said. Minutes later, he was laughing with his friends as they slipped and slid down a nearby hill.

There will be no trial in the case.

"We will finish our investigation by the end of next week," Mr. Moholt said. "Then, by Norwegian criminal law, the case has to be decided by child welfare authorities, so we will hand the case over to them."

Mr. Moholt said that he will always remain silent about some details of the case, even though he may well be asked about them for the rest of his life. Even if he could tell all, he added, a furrow in his brow, he's not sure what he'd say. And that's after hearing the full story from all three boys and their parents.

"We can speculate about it, but these boys are only 6 years old," Mr. Moholt said. "What have they watched on television? Not very much.

"As for exactly what happened, we do not know."

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