It was a brutal murder, summed up by one Boston Globe headline writer as “half a body in a dumpster."
Twenty-three years after the remains of a young woman were found near Fenway Park, the case remains unsolved. It is one in a long line of cases in Boston that have gone cold, spanning decades — there are nearly 1,000 unsolved homicides in the city.
But Suffolk County District Attorney Rachel Rollins, who was elected in November, is hoping to change that statistic. She has rededicated resources and staff to solving murders punctuated by multiple question marks. In doing so, Rollins said she is intent on allowing victims — whose names are often forgotten, while their murders are remembered — to reclaim their identities.
Karina Holmer, the woman killed on June 23, 1996, is one of the victims whose case Rollins has put back on her docket. Area workers and residents often remember the gruesome details of her death, but not her name.
“The only recollection I have is that it happened and that it was a Swedish au pair. I don't remember her name,” said Rob Weiner, who has worked in the area for decades. “You’re saying her name. It didn't ring a bell. It could have been any name you threw at me.”
“I was told her name, but it didn't ring a bell,” said Scott Fayner, a writer based in Waltham. At the time, Fayner worked as a bar assistant at Zanzibar, a club frequented by then 20-year-old Holmer and other European au-pairs. Holmer had gone to the club on the night of her murder, and at 2 a.m. she was still there, Fayner recalled.
"There was a woman passed out at a tall table with her head in her hands, and one of the bartenders asked me to walk her to a cab," he said. "I said, ‘Yes, I'll be back in one second.’ And I went to the back maybe half a minute [later], and she was gone.”
Holmer’s remains were found in the trash off Boylston Street, when a homeless man rummaging through a dumpster found the upper part of her body.
“'The Swedish nanny,' that became her name," said Fayner. "It's not very respectful, but that's how we remember things, I guess. Now it would've been nice if she got more respect, and, you know, people wanted to know who she was, as a person.”
Who Was Karina Holmer?
Holmer had been working for four months as an au pair for Frank Rapp and Susan Nichter, a Dover couple with two children. She was as comfortable in flannel shirts and jeans as weekend party outfits.
Former Boston TV reporter Ted Wayman followed the story in 1996, and even went to Sweden to learn more about Holmer from her family.
“I don't know if it was cathartic for them, but they wanted the real story about their daughter to be told," he said. "By all reports, she was just a great kid. I remember looking in her dad's eyes and realizing how broken he was because of the death of his daughter.”
Wayman learned from Holmer's father and sister that she had been a good student. At age 8 she joined a scouting organization, she was intrigued by animals, and she wanted to travel. A $1,500 payoff that she won in a lottery gave her the opportunity to come to the U.S. — she contacted an au pair agency that specialized in U.S. placements.
Once in Dover, she cleaned and cared for the Rapp children during the week. On weekends she was given keys to an apartment the Rapps owned in South Boston, which doubled as Frank's photography studio.
When Holmer went out that evening in June, she was celebrating the Summer Solstice, the biggest holiday in Sweden, and the longest day of the year. But it would become the darkest day of her young life.
Where does the case stand now? Exactly where it was 23 years ago.
“We’ve got nothing. Nothing we can hang our hat on," said William Doogan, the head of the Boston Police Cold Case Squad. "Every so often we'll get a little bit of information we'll check it out. But none of it has panned out.”
Doogan said it is not for a lack of trying.
“I've got four archive boxes full of her stuff that's been looked at so many times. And the original guys that had that back then were all sharp guys. They come by periodically and go through it again to see if they think they missed it. … If you could solve Karina Holmer, you'd be a superstar.”
Leads in the case have taken police to Florida, where a similar killing took place, and to apartments and lofts throughout the Boston area. At the time, there was also a cloud of suspicion surrounding Frank Rapp, which has mystified the family — that weekend in 1996, the couple said, Rapp’s mother and father were visiting from New York, and they had spent almost every hour with them.
Rapp and Nichter told WGBH News they have been frustrated by the attention over the years. They lamented that typing “Frank Rapp” into Google yields "suspected murderer," instead of "accomplished photographer."
Rollins pointed out that a lot has changed in Boston since 1996 — in the age of #MeToo, there is greater of awareness of violence against women, exemplified by nightclub abductions. More attention is being paid to the victims as people and not just sensationalist headlines. Holmer’s case has special resonance these days, Rollins added, following the kidnapping of two women leaving nightclubs in downtown Boston in the last year and the murder of one of them, Jassy Correia.
And, Rollins said, her office will be using these lessons when re-examining Holmer's case.
“Words matter," she said. "We will, of course, be using her name, and not referring to her just as a description of how her body was found. It's dehumanizing, and she has people that love her. She is obviously much more than just that.”