Certain criminal cases keep hold of their secrets despite the best efforts of the sharpest minds. Bare locations, non-existent witnesses, scuffed paper trails, can obfuscate what investigators yearn to uncover — the truth. Even among a forest of enigmas, the Isdal Woman case stands out.
A Case is Opened
It was 29 November 1970, and a father and his two daughters were hiking in the Isdalen valley, only a short distance from Bergen, Norway’s second biggest city. The area’s desolation matched the local’s nickname for it — Death Valley — stemming from its reputation as a medieval suicide spot (Buckland 2018). The older girl, 12 years old, clambered across grey scree and boulders, until she spotted something. She ran back to her father. Returning to the spot, he confirmed his worst fears — it was a human body.
Police rushed to the scene after being notified. On the scree slope, between several boulders, lay the charred body of a woman, her arms bent in front of her, in the fencer/boxer position. Arrayed around the spot were several items: fragments of clothes, an umbrella, two plastic bottles, a bottle of Kloster Liqueur, a burned plastic cover (possibly of a passport), rubber boots, a watch and jewellery.
Someone had scraped or cut off labels, logos and names of all the paraphernalia at some point. The front of the body was burnt, but the back remained relatively unscathed, although there was no fireplace or fuel canister found (Higraff & McCarthy 2018: Ep. 2). A day after the discovery, the National Criminal Investigation Service (Kripos), sent an investigation team to assist in the case, surprising many members of the local police.
Vital clues would appear three days after the discovery of the body. At the Bergen railway station, two suitcases, previously booked into the luggage office on the 23rd of November, came to investigator’s attention (Hansen et al. 2016). Contained within were a Norwegian road map, a steel spoon, a sewing kit from Geneva, a shoe shop bag from Rome, a variety of wigs, various denominations of money (German, Norwegian, Swiss, British and Belgian), prescription-free glasses, eczema cream and various other items. Items were, once again, labelless. The glasses would be pivotal though, since a fingerprint on one lens matched the body’s, thus linking the two together. They also found a writing pad, with a sequence of letters and numbers scrawled on the first page, although the police could not discern the meaning behind the code.
The Isdal Woman’s Itinerary
A shopping bag found in one suitcase provided the first solid lead. It bore the name of Oscar Rørtvedt’s Footwear Store, in the Norwegian city of Stavanger. Police soon interviewed the shop owner’s son, Rolf Rørtvedt, who remembered selling her the blue rubber boots found at the crime scene. In later years, Rolf would recount the encounter as follows (Hansen et al. 2016):
She was a customer who took up space, asked a lot of questions, and spent a long time making up her mind. Her English was poor, and I remember a certain peculiar scent…
A few years later, when garlic had become common in Norway, I recognized the scent. And it made me think of the Isdal Woman — that’s what she smelled like. In 1970 no one smelled of garlic — now everybody does…
Rørtvedt and his colleagues would describe the woman’s physical characteristics: medium height, curvy, round face with dark brown eyes, framed by dark hair. With this description as a reference, the police travelled to all the hotels in the area, and enquired if anyone with these characteristics was a recent guest. They didn’t have to go far. Close to the shoe shop, they got a hit at the Hotel St. Svithun.
The receptionist at the front desk described the woman — “dark-haired, golden skin, wide hips without being fat, speaks poor English” (Hansen et al. 2016). The woman in question had stated she was Finella Lorck from Belgium. She had a gap in her front teeth, something regularly remarked upon by witnesses, and distinctive gold crest dental work on about ten of her teeth, which was an unusual sight in Norway (Hansen et al. 2016).
One stumbling block appeared — Finella Lorck did not turn up in the hotel registries of Bergen. Kripos handwriting experts analysed the hotel registration documents of all foreign women staying in Norwegian hotels, uncovering that she had used new identities and new passports at different hotels. The identities she used in Norway were: Elisabeth Leenhouwfr, Claudia Nielsen, Genevieve Lancier, Alexia Zarna-Merchez, Claudia Tielt, Vera Jarle, Finella Lorck. The authorities confirmed these identities to be fake, but they never recovered the fake passports.
With so much uncertainty surrounding her identity, eye witnesses who interacted with her became crucial in filling out information about the Isdal Woman’s character. Alvhild Rangnes, who worked in the dining room of the Neptun Hotel in Bergen, remembered encountering the woman (Hansen et al. 2016):
Back then, single women in the dining room were not a common phenomenon. But this woman came in, with a proud posture, found a table, and settled down comfortably. She was obviously a woman used to travelling on her own.
The woman made a lasting impression on Alvhild because she radiated intense self-confidence. After a week of investigations, rumours floated around Norway that she might have been a foreign intelligence agent. In the interim though, the police had cracked the code on the first page of the Isdal Woman’s writing pad. The text was a record of the places she had visited, therefore “O22 O28 P” turned out to be shorthand for “from 22 to 28 October in Paris” (Cheung 2017).
Investigators would learn that the Isdal Woman had stayed in several Paris hotels, under the alias of Vera Schlosseneck, immediately prior to her final trip to Norway. Through analysing this log, her last journey became clear to investigators: from Paris to Stavanger, on to Bergen, to Trondheim, back to Stavanger, and then finally to Bergen, where she was last seen entering a taxi on the 23rd November 1970. Despite these developments, the coded entry for the 23rd November — “ML23NMM” — did not reveal its secrets.
New Case Developments
The autopsy found there to be at least 50 sleeping pills in her stomach (Liptak 2018). All of the pills were not fully released into her bloodstream, which meant it wasn’t the cause of death, although it would have been enough to make her drowsy (Higraff & McCarthy 2018: Ep. 4). Soot particles in her airways pointed to her being alive at the time of the burning (Buckland 2018). The cause of death was ultimately ruled to be carbon monoxide poisoning. Moreover, there was also an unexplained bruise on the side of her neck, which could have been as a result of a fall or blow (Cheung 2017).
As police questioned witnesses across various locations, it became apparent that the Isdal Woman’s behaviour was unusual. At the Neptun Hotel (30 October to 5 November), a maid entered her room, only to find an upturned table blocking the hallway on the other side of the door (Higraff & McCarthy 2018: Ep. 7). On one occasion, she was seen meeting with a grey-haired man in the dining room of the Neptun Hotel, but they merely sat across from each other, unsmiling, never having a conversation, and only talking to the staff in German. She would eventually slip a paper to the grey-haired man, watching him read it with apparent sad eyes (Higraff & McCarthy 2018: Ep. 7).
During the Isdal Woman’s stay at the Hotel Rosenkrantz in Bergen (18–19 November), a maid rushed into her room, intent on making the bed, when she noticed two people seated across from each other — the Isdal Woman, dressed in a black dress, on the bed; and a well-built, blonde-haired man on the couch (Higraff & McCarthy 2018: Ep. 7). The maid apologized profusely and asked if she could make the bed. Without saying a word, the Isdal Woman stood up, allowing her to go about her task. Both the Isdal Woman and her visitor remained mute while the maid worked. To the maid, it looked like the dark-haired woman was grieving.
After sleeping only one night at the Rosenkrantz, the Isdal Woman would switch to the Hotel Hordaheimen. On her last registration form, at the Hotel Hordaheimen (19–23 November), she purposefully changed her usual handwriting into a clunky scrawl, suggesting a feeling of being pursued or a dramatic change (Higraff & McCarthy 2018: Ep. 4). Hotel staff would often notice how she moved an armchair into the hallway when she occupied her room in the Hotel Hordaheimen, then moving it back inside when she was out.
A worker at a home furnishing shop in Bergen also remembered an encounter with the Isdal Woman (Higraff & McCarthy 2018: Ep. 7). She entered the shop, accompanied by a young dark-haired man, with whom she was engaged in an argument. Eventually they bought a wall mirror before leaving.
Although witnesses reported these mysterious men in testimonies, police left out vital elements of the Hotel Neptun dining room and Bergen furniture shop incidents in their reports (Higraff & McCarthy 2018: Ep. 7). None of the men mentioned in the encounters came forward with more information, despite entreaties imploring everyone to do so.
Days before Christmas, only 3 weeks after authorities found the body, the Criminal Commissioner, Oskar Hordnes, held a press conference, refuting that it was a murder or related to anything nefarious (Hansen et al. 2016). On the 5th of February 1971, the authorities shelved the case. One rainy February morning, 18 members of the Bergen police attended a funeral for the Isdal Woman. They buried her body in a white zinc coffin, which would not disintegrate, allowing the future transport of her body to another country if any relatives came forward. None did.
A Case Reopened
In 2017, a BBC article about the Isdal mystery sparked global interest, leading to the BBC and NRK to join forces and launch a new investigation, utilising modern science (Liptak 2018). Marit Higraff and Neil McCarthy would relay progress through a podcast, titled Death in Ice Valley, starting on the 16th of April 2018. The investigation tracked down teeth and tissue samples of the Isdal Woman held in storage, and sent it to experts for DNA, isotope analyses and Carbon 14 dating (Skille et al. 2017).
In contrast with the info in her hotel registration cards, in which she gave her age as 25–30, results indicated the Isdal Woman was likely around 45 years old (Higraff & McCarthy 2018: Ep. 8). Data also showed she might have spent her early childhood in the Nuremberg area, but moved further west, to the France/Germany border region, during the 1930s, when the Nazi party rose to power in Germany (Higraff & McCarthy 2018: Ep. 8).
The BBC/NRK would gain vital access to the previously unreleased Kripos file on the Isdal Woman (Higraff & McCarthy 2018: Ep. 5). A file dated to the 22nd December 1970, with the classification of Secret, details how a fisherman in Tananger — Berthon Rott — reported seeing a woman matching the description of the Isdal Woman. Tellingly, a transcript of the interview with the fisherman was not in the file. The classified document does detail how military and intelligence officials held a meeting where they discussed an unusual fact — the Isdal Woman’s travel itinerary lined up perfectly with the exercises of the 25th missile boat squadron at Tananger (in Bergen 24 March; in Stavanger around 29 October and 09 November), during which they tested the capabilities of the experimental Penguin missile, which was the first NATO anti-ship missile with an IR seeker (Higraff & McCarthy 2018: Ep. 5).
According to Berthon Rott’s son, his father was on the quay, working on his nets, when a well-dressed woman with Slavic features walked along the pier, looking around (Higraff & McCarthy 2018: Ep. 5). After her reconnaissance, she had a lengthy conversation with an officer from one of the torpedo boats. Weeks after this encounter, Berthon Rott would see a police sketch of the Isdal Woman, leaving him in no doubt that they were the same person, and he contacted the police, which would lead to the secret interview.
There are many competing theories regarding the Isdal Woman’s life, motives and manner of death. One theory is that the Isdal Woman took her own life (Buckland 2018). Neither a fuel canister nor a fireplace was present at the crime scene though, and the remote location raises several questions (Dimuro 2018). Behind closed doors, the Bergen police also made similar conclusions, as Carl Halvor Aas, one of the first officers called to the scene, recounted (Cheung 2017):
We talked about it in the police, but as far as I remember very few thought it was suicide.
Certain pieces of evidence points to a connection to intelligence services: the variety of wigs, fake identities, at least eight fake passports, an appearance at military exercises etc. Norway was right on the doorstep of the Soviet Union, and the state would want to learn about new NATO weapon systems.
Alexander Vassiliev, a historian and former KGB officer, doesn’t believe the Isdal Woman was a Soviet spy though; according to him, if she had been a Soviet agent then she would only have one to two carefully crafted identities, would fully immerse herself in her fake nationality, and wouldn’t wear the memorable perfume of oriental spices reported by witnesses (Higraff & McCarthy 2018: Ep. 7). Because of her extensive travel schedule, Alexander Vassiliev drew the following conclusion (Higraff & McCarthy 2018: Ep. 7):
She could be a courier, I mean a messenger, because she travelled so much…a courier for someone else. Because, let’s say you have a spy interested in the testing field for the Penguin missile: the spy would be living in that area, staying in that area, trying to gather as much as information as possible, establishing contacts with local people, with farmers or fishermen…now if she was somehow involved in espionage activities, she looks like she was a courier, passing information, let’s say, from a person who lived in that area, to the headquarters of that espionage organization — to the handler.
Vassiliev also theorised she could have been part of an espionage ring involving high-ranking Norwegian officials, hence the efforts to cover it up (Higraff & McCarthy 2018: Ep. 7).
After considering the evidence, an incomplete outline of her life emerges: her family likely fled further west in the 1930s, she might have grown up in France, and she appeared in Norway with eight identities, just as an important NATO weapon was being tested. From witness accounts, it becomes clear she was a well-travelled individual, proficient in at least four to five languages (French, German, English, Flemish and perhaps another undetermined language), yet no solid leads surfaced. She must have had family, friends, acquaintances, but none came forward to reveal her identity. Despite her distinctive appearance, her ability to sever ties ensured that she remained a mystery for five decades.
Buckland, D. 2018. “50-year mystery of burnt in the Ice Valley” on The Daily Express.
Cheung, H. 2017. “Isdal Woman: The mystery death haunting Norway for 46 years” on BBC.com.
Dimuro, G. 2018. “Spy, Murder Victim, Or Something Else? The Mystery Of The Isdal Woman” on All That’s Interesting.
Hansen, S. & Higraff, M. & Skille, O.B. & Aardal, A. & Kristoffersen, E.B. 2016. “The Isdalen mystery” on NRK.
Higraff, M. & McCarthy, N. 2018. “Death in Ice Valley” on BBC.com.
Higraff, M. & McCarthy, N. 2019. “Death in Ice Valley: New clues in Isdal Woman mystery” on BBC.com.
Liptak, A. 2018. “A cold case is reopened in the BBC and NRK’s podcast Death in Ice Valley” on The Verge.
Skille, O.B. & Higraff, M. & Hansen, S. & Aardal, E. 2017. “Chemical analyses of the Isdal woman point to Germany and France” on NRK.