Are you obsessed with unsolved puzzles?
The Isdalen Enigma
November 29, 1970. A twelve year old girl discovers them. A Sunday walk with the father and younger sister takes them high up on a slope above the picturesque and gloomy Isdalen valley, a few kilometers outside the city of Bergen. Up here, a bit away from the path, there are seldom people.
As the girl comes out of the forest into a clearing, her gaze falls on something that no child should ever see.
A woman lies on her back, dead and burned, between large stones and rubble.
The responsible authorities have to be alerted - however, in 1970 they did not have a cell phone at hand. The way back to the city around the lake Svartediket is very long for the father and the two little girls. Is there a murderer lurking between the tall spruce trees that line the narrow, stony path?
Scary crime scene
- The first thing we noticed was the smell, says Carl Halvor Aas.
The lawyer from Hurum was 31 years old and the public prosecutor on duty at the Bergen Police Department when the call came in about the body. Today he is the only surviving witness from the group of those who were first called to the crime scene.
- I remember how we have to go partly up and partly climb the scree slope. In between I wonder where we are actually going, because the terrain is just steep and completely impassable. After all, this is nowhere near a normal walk.
Aas reports that the police officers wondered whether the woman had fallen into the flames, then pulled her body backwards, and therefore remained lying on her back.
- It really isn't a pretty sight. The question is whether someone helped or if she caught fire for other reasons, he explains.
The godforsaken crime scene is soon teeming with investigators. Police officers with dogs and metal detectors, forensic technicians with tweezers and brushes. They comb through the rocky scree slope where the corpse lies in the so-called fencing position: the arms in front of the upper body - as is often the case with bodies that have been burned.
The Isdalen Enigma
Follow the further development on nrk.no
In 1970 a young woman was found dead with severe burns in the Isdalen valley near Bergen.
The police are working hard on the case, but they have never been able to establish their identity.
NRK has discovered new clues that may help solve some of the many puzzles surrounding the dead.
Follow the search for the identity of the Isdals woman step by step in the near future on nrk.no/dokumentar.
This project is a collaboration between nrk.no and the series Brennpunkt.
Do you have any information on the Isdals case? Then please contact us here.
The charred remains of objects that the woman had with her are collected on the scree slope and in the tall grass that is wet in November. Remnants of clothing, an umbrella and some kind of tote bag. Two melted plastic bottles. Half a bottle of "Klosterlikør" from the state-owned alcohol store "Vinmonopol", an almost completely destroyed plastic cover that could have come from a passport and much more.
Who is she?
The investigators are already discovering something very unusual:
The nameplates have been carefully cut out of all parts of their clothing that have not been burned. All the markings on their objects have been scratched off, even the company logo under the two plastic bottles has been scratched off.
The crime scene was cleared of anything that could reveal the identity of the unknown woman. To this day she is only kept under the anonymous file number "134/70" - in the Gades Institute, where she was autopsied. She is popularly known as the "Isdals woman".
Now, however, there is new hope of finally shedding light on the numerous unsolved riddles that the fall has brought with it for over 46 years.
NRK has discovered completely new traces in the Isdals case - traces that have been kept unnoticed since 1970 without ever being examined.
In the near future we will, in cooperation with the Police District of Western Norway and the State Central Office of the Criminal Police, subject these traces to a thorough investigation. You can follow this work step by step at www.nrk.no/dokumentar
Riddle upon riddle
The confusing finds at the crime scene are just the prelude to one of the greatest puzzles in all of Norwegian criminal history. The more the police investigate, the more puzzles arise.
And where there is so much uncertainty, speculation thrives. It is almost intolerable that a beautiful young woman, who absolutely nobody knows, should die under such mysterious circumstances.
- Was she a spy - liquidated by her own people or by unknown enemies?
- Was she part of an international criminal organization?
- Was she in Isdalen to kill herself? And, if so, did she construct all the unsolved puzzles herself?
Help on the way
The day after the body was found, the Bergens police must have realized that this would not be an easy case. So now one would like to take advantage of the support of the Oslo regional headquarters of the criminal police, which they had refused the day before.
The head of the Kripo special commission is the experienced investigator Rolf Harry Jahrmann. He gets on the plane to Bergen, along with several of his closest colleagues.
In the first week after the body is found, the police do a thorough investigation. Everything that has legs in the police headquarters is used to hunt down the identity of the Isdalen dead.
- Tremendous resources have been used. In addition to the Bergens police, the police headquarters in Oslo and police across Europe are also involved. Even so, it remains difficult to determine anything tangible. The Isdals woman managed to disappear without being identified. At least until today, so the retired criminal investigation investigator Sigbjørn Wathne (79).
Wathne is one of the last surviving investigators to attend in 1970. He's been with the police for less than a year when he is sent to Bergen to work on the unusual case.
- Like some other investigators, I got the impression that she must have been on the run from something and therefore did not want to reveal her true identity. The case is a real mystery, he explains.
The first real breakthrough in the case occurs three days after the body was found. The police found two large suitcases in the luggage storage at Bergen Central Station. There is much evidence to suggest that they belong to the Isdals woman.
Directly on top of one of the two suitcases are sunglasses. A fingerprint is found on the glass, and the police can determine its correspondence with that of the corpse shortly afterwards.
Clear evidence that the Isdals woman's luggage was found.
Tormod Bønes, one of the investigating Kripo officers, still remembers the joyful enthusiasm that broke out at the police headquarters when the suitcase was reported:
- There is a mood of jubilation and you feel a little sure of victory. Many seem to believe that the case is about to be resolved, he says.
Bønes explains that as a young forensic technician, he is a little surprised at how the suitcases are handled by the investigators on the case.
- They open the suitcases and search their contents with great enthusiasm. Everyone wants to be the first to find the crucial piece of evidence that will lead to their identification, he smiles as he remembers it.
But the joy subsides quickly, because here too someone has removed traces at least as carefully and cut out product labels from the things that the mysterious woman packed in her suitcase.
- Everything was removed. Someone even filed out the brand names for combs and brushes, says Bønes.
Instead of providing answers, the suitcase discovery only raises more questions, because the investigators find several wigs and glasses with window glass between the clothes - without polish. The Isdals woman not only hides her identity by all means, but is even equipped with objects to change her appearance.
Discovery in the shoe store
Despite all the disappointment, the suitcases contain two important traces that advance the case: a writing pad and a carrying pouch.
NRK finds the writing pad in the underground storage rooms of the State Archives in Bergen, between the investigation files of the police. Only the first sheet has been written on. The Isdals woman filled line by line with letters and numbers with delicate blue writing. For the police investigators, this indicates the use of a code.
You will finally crack it - but only after several days.
However, it is completely different with the carrier bag - the police can record an immediate success. The bag bears the signature of the shoe shop “Oscar Rørtvedts Skotøiforretning” in Stavanger. The police are quickly on the spot in the tiny shop on Nygaten Street in the burgeoning petroleum metropolis, where they speak to Rolf Rørtvedt, the 22-year-old son of the owner.
Rørtvedt remembers the foreign woman well who had been in the shop three weeks earlier to buy rubber boots. After careful consideration, she bought a pair of blue "Kjendis" (celebrity) boots from the Askim city rubber goods factory - a model worn by half of Norway's female population in 1970.
But for the police it is crucial that the remains of exactly such a pair of boots were found on the body at the crime scene in Isdalen. This is the first real breakthrough in what is now a rather frustrating investigation.
The bag and the boot find show that the woman who served Mr Rørtvedt junior in the shoe shop in Stavanger is identical to the body of Isdalen.
Rørtvedt and his colleagues can provide a detailed description of the woman's appearance: medium-sized, long, dark hair, dark brown eyes, a round face, and "somewhat plump, almost rounded shapes and pretty legs".
Rolf Rørtvedt still remembers this unusual woman well today.
- She was a somewhat demanding customer, asked a lot of questions and took a long time to make up her mind. She didn't speak English well, and I remember smelling a little strange, he says.
Many of the witnesses whom the police are gradually tracking down mention the strange smell.
Rørtvedt now thinks he knows what it was all about.
- Several years later - when garlic found its way into this country - I noticed the same smell. And then I couldn't help thinking of the Isdals woman - that was what she had smelled of. But in 1970 nobody else smelled of garlic - today everyone else, he laughs.
Now the police are moving fast. With the personal description of Rørtvedt and the other employees in the shoe shop, the police in Stavanger now go from hotel to hotel and ask the employees whether a woman of similar appearance has stayed there.
Just a stone's throw from the shoe shop, at the Hotel St. Svithun, the police hit the bull's eye.
The reception staff reported about a woman who looked exactly like this - "dark and with a golden complexion, noticeably broad hips without being fat, speaks bad English" - and who stayed in this hotel for several days, under the name Finella Lorck and supposedly from Belgium.
When someone from the cleaning staff at St. Svithun claimed to have seen the woman from Belgium with a pair of rubber boots of the same type that the woman had bought in the shoe store a few days earlier, the case was resolved.
The Isdals woman must be Finella Lorck from Belgium.
Lorck must have traveled from Stavanger to Bergen and stayed in a hotel there before her life in Isdalen came to an end.
There are reports in the newspapers that the police are confident that they will solve the case in the shortest possible time. "Sensational clarification already today?" headlines the daily newspaper VG in huge letters on page 1.
Once again, however, it turns out that the mysterious woman has covered her tracks a little too well for that. Because when the police in Bergen checked the city's hotel registers, there was no Finella Lorck. Somewhere on the way from Stavanger to Bergen, that name literally fell by the wayside.
The daily VG has put the shrewd crime reporter Knut Haavik, later a prominent editor of the magazine «Se og Hør», on the case. He has unusually good contacts with the police and can even obtain the investigation files into the case. But at the beginning of the investigation, he is not making any headway either.
- Normally in such a case one would ask for the help of the population. But there is complete silence. The case has been kept under lock and key from day one, he reports.
Several days should pass before the reason for this becomes clear to him.
A surprising find
One of the most important sources for the police are now the so-called "alien control forms".
- At that time every foreigner has to fill out such a form at the reception of every Norwegian hotel - with name, address, passport number and signature. And of course that gives us something to work with, says Sigbjørn Wathne.
Both the writing pad with the codes and the receipts from the hotel in Stavanger provide the police with samples of the woman's handwriting, which can be used as a basis for comparison.
In the days that followed, results from the nationwide inquiries to the hotels arrived in abundance. Kripo script experts analyze the manuscripts of foreign women who have stayed in Norwegian hotels in the past year - and come across a number of unexpected results.
It turns out that the woman found dead in Isdalen has been traveling from town to town in Norway for weeks. Most of the time she changed her identity every time she changed hotel. At this point, the police reveal that they must have used at least seven different passports.
In addition to the alleged Finella Lorck, the following false identities are also discovered:
- Claudia Tielt
- Vera Jarle
- Alexia Zarna-Merchez
- Claudia Nielsen
- Genevieve Lancier
- Elisabeth Leenhouwfr
Further research reveals that she has also stayed in several Parisian hotels, there under the name Vera Schlosseneck.
In Oslo as well as in Bergen, in Stavanger and in Trondheim, the police discovered traces that point to the Isdals woman. She has given Belgian citizenship in connection with almost all of her identities.
After checking all the information, however, the Belgian police report that all of the identities given are forged.
- Confident and aloof
Some of the best witnesses for the police are employees in the hotels where the Isdals woman stayed - because they have known to have met her personally. Alvhild Rangnes, 21, works in the dining room of the Hotel Neptun. The young woman was really impressed by the apparently urbane, foreign lady.
At that time it was not very common to find women traveling alone in the dining room. But this one walked upright aisle in, looked for a table and was overall very confident in appearance. This woman was evidently used to traveling alone. I remember whispering to a colleague that I wish I had as much style as this lady here when I grow up, she says.
For Alvhild Rangnes, the Isdals woman has remained unforgettable to this day.
- Well, she made a strong impression on me. She looked confident and aloof. But to me, she didn't look like the guy who jumps into sweatpants and takes a tour of Isdalen, she explains.
The spy hunt begins
The police are dealing with the as yet unidentifiable corpse of a person who died under extremely mysterious circumstances. She is known to have used a long line of false identities, as well as uncut glasses and wigs, all while covering their tracks with professional methods.
A good week after the body was found, the Bergens police are forced to take a measure that will be denied decades later - the counter-espionage of the Norwegian secret service is put on the case. For several days now, speculation in the press has been mounting that the Isdals woman is a foreign agent.
- This also explains why the police only approached the public so late, according to Knut Haavik
To this day he is convinced that the Isdals woman is some kind of foreign agent.
- She used eight different names on her travels across Norway. As a result, she must have had eight different passports. In addition, there was her extensive travel activities, which extended to all of Europe. Something like that costs money. Where was she supposed to have got the money from if not someone behind it? That is the question he raises in this context.
The police crack the code
At about the same time as the spy alarm in Oslo, the police can finally decipher the code on the writing pad that was found in the Isdals woman's suitcase. The content of the encoded notations becomes fully accessible as soon as one realizes that the numbers and letters represent an overview of the woman's extensive travels across Europe.
- It turns out that it is an overview of their movement profiles, including their travel routes in the spring and autumn of 1970 in Norway, which actually takes us a little further, says Sigbjørn Wathne.
Since the hotel register forms provided the police with information about their respective stays in Oslo, Bergen, Stavanger and Trondheim, the pattern is now easy to recognize Stayed in Stavanger on November 18.
Thus the police establish that their very last trip took them from Paris to Stavanger, from there to Bergen, then to Trondheim, back to Stavanger and finally again to Bergen.
The journey ends there on an inhospitable scree slope in Isdalen.
Hope through gold crowns
Deciphering the code is an important breakthrough - but it should be the last. Because all inquiries from the Norwegian police to Interpol, to colleagues throughout Europe, in North Africa and in the Middle East lead to one and the same result:
The names and passport numbers are unknown, and no one who fits the description is reported missing anywhere in the room.
Now the hope of the police is on the teeth of the Isdals woman. A total of ten of their teeth are crowned with gold, for the most part with so-called preformed gold crowns, i.e. with a type of prefabricated standard crown.
Dentist Professor Gisle Bang, who examines the teeth, notes that such crowns are not used in Scandinavia. "The crowns have their very own characteristics and design, which are more typical in the Orient and in certain parts of southern and central Europe," as he writes in his report.
The teeth are unfortunately of no use for any more precise determination of origin - so this trace does not help you very much.
Professor Gisle Bang has been studying this trace for years, having the teeth examined by dental experts all over the world and describing the case in dental journals in many countries. But until his death in 2011, he was not one step closer to a more concrete result.
The cause of death clarified
The Christmas season is approaching and the police investigations are slowing down.
The autopsy reveals that the Isdals woman took large amounts of the sedative Fenemal several times in the hours before her death. Many of these tablets had not yet broken down and absorbed into the blood at the time of death, which means that the tablets are not the sole cause of death. However, they suggest a possible suicide.
Otherwise, it would be particularly difficult to explain how they could have been forced to take such large amounts of the sedative against their will.
The coroners come to a conclusion in their own way: «The cause of death is assumed to be a combination of poisoning with fenemal and carbon monoxide. The actual burn injuries may have been a contributing cause. "
The Kripo chemist Tormod Bønes is present at the autopsy and is writing a report on the findings at the crime scene. He's also the one who managed to isolate a tiny amount of gasoline from the earth beneath the Isdals woman so that the cause of the fire could be determined.
- Then as now, it is not entirely clear to me what actually happened at this crime scene and how the course of the fire really developed. You can hardly be 100 percent sure of this. All in all, I endorse the 1970 report, although there is a considerable element of uncertainty. Therefore, accident or murder can by no means be ruled out, as he emphasizes here.
- Set yourself on fire
Shortly before Christmas, Kripo chief Oskar Hordnes reported on the status of the investigation at a final press conference in a smoky office in the Bergen Police Department.
He points out that the case will not be resolved until the woman is identified.
A few days later, Bergen's Police Director Asbjørn Bryhn issued his unequivocal conclusion:
Bryhn says the Isdals woman suffered from some form of delusion - possibly paranoid.
And when the Christmas season is over, there are hardly any investigators left to work on the case.
This leaves all the basic questions unanswered. And so it has remained to this day - 46 years later.
- Who was the mysterious woman?
- What was your job in Norway?
- Why did she die in this remote, impassable part of Isdalen?
For several police officers, working on this case is said to have turned into a kind of trauma. They experience the failed attempts to identify the Isdals woman as a professional defeat, and some of them can never come to terms with the alleged suicide.
Knut Haavik was never a supporter of the suicide theory either.
- Personally, I am absolutely convinced that this is a murder case. She used different identities, she worked with codes, she owned wigs, she traveled from town to town and changed hotels every few days. The police themselves call something like this a “conspiratorial behavior pattern,” he explains.
On February 5, 1971, the case was practically abandoned. It is time to bury the Isdals woman.
The beautiful psalm “Take me home”, accompanied by organ and violin sounds, will be heard in the chapel of the Møllendal cemetery in Bergen.
Sixteen men and two women have taken their places on the pews, all of whom work in the Bergen Police Headquarters, and none of them knows who the woman in the magnificent white coffin really is.
The coffin, decorated with flower arrangements made of tulips and carnations, will soon be lowered into the ground outside the chapel. No tombstone is set. Nobody knows which inscription it should have had.
Six of those present rise, grab the coffin and carry it out into the freezing rain that morning in February 1971. The Catholic parish priest Franz Josef Fischedick conducts the burial at the grave.
In his address he refers to the strange woman from David's psalm in the Bible. He explains that the woman to be buried is also a stranger here, which is why there are no relatives among those present in the chapel.
- Presumably she will now even be buried in a country that is foreign to her, the parish priest dares to remark.
The police have taken all precautions in the event that relatives should appear again at some point. The Isdals woman is buried in a decomposition-resistant zinc coffin, so that if her origin is clarified, she can be transferred to her home country.
The police photographer takes pictures of the memorial service and the funeral, while a police officer has the task of preparing a written report of the funeral. Photos and text are collected in a folder and kept in the police headquarters, with some of these documents now being made available to the public for the first time.
46 years have now passed, but no relatives have ever contacted me. The case is as much a mystery today as it was in 1970.
- NRK has discovered new clues that bring hope that the mystery of the Isdals woman can finally be solved. We now have a complete DNA profile of the dead and we are doing further research. In the near future you will find out the results at nrk.no/dokumentar
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