Transcript: 189. The Isdal Woman | Norway

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It was around 9:30 in the morning, on Sunday November 1970, when investigator, Carl Halvor received a phone call at his home in Bergen, Norway, informing him about a body that was found on a mountain outside Bergen.

 

A man and his two daughters – 10 and 12 years old – were out hiking in the desolate area known as Isdal, when they discovered the charred body of a woman on a hiking trail. Isdal, which translates to Ice Valley, is a vast area and the young family had to walk for miles before they reached Bergen and informed the police. They were so traumatised by the event, that, they haven’t told anyone but the police about what they saw to this day.

 

The investigation into the victim’s identity, and how she ended up dead and charred in Ice Valley became one of Norway’s longest enduring mysteries. 

 

>>Intro Music

Just outside of the picturesque city of Bergen, Norway is Isdalen – which translates to Ice Valley. Bergen is known as the ‘city among seven mountains’ and Isdalen is a popular hiking spot. However, in winter, with only a few daylight hours, heavy rainfall and dense fog, it is a treacherous trail. Many hikers have fallen to their deaths, contributing to Isdalen’s colloquial name. Locals have been referring to it as Death Valley since medieval times, at which time it was a popular suicide spot.

 

A father and his two daughters were out hiking behind Mount Ulriken on the morning of 29 November 1970. This is the highest of Bergen’s mountains and they were experienced hikers. However, nothing could have prepared them for what they discovered that icy cold day.

 

When investigators arrived at the scene, they were immediately confronted with some strange clues. The woman laid on her back and there was a smell of burnt flesh. Her body was cold, but bear in mind that it took police some time to make their way to the exact spot in the snow-covered valley where she was found. Curiously, initial reports mentioned that the were no remnants of a fire anywhere close by – it was only her body that was burnt, and mostly the front. It looked like she had thrown her body back from a fire and died in the position she fell. Her hands were scorched and contorted in a boxer’s pose in front of her face – not uncommon in burn victims, seeing as the skin contracts.

 

Another fact they noticed, was that the woman was not dressed in hiking gear. She had a shawl and some boots, but although the boots were waterproof, they were more of a fashion statement, what they noted to be ‘celebrity boots’. The location where she was found, was a fair distance away from civilisation, which meant she would have spent a considerable time outdoors, navigating rough terrain in extreme conditions in clothing better suited for town. All of her clothes were synthetic, which would have accelerated the fire. 

 

Other items found at the scene included a broken umbrella, a near-empty bottle of locally produced St. Hallvard liqueur and plastic water bottles with their labels removed. A short distance away, on a rock, police found more items: jewellery and a wristwatch, with time set to 10:10 – the time watches are typically set to when on display in shop. Forensic investigator Tormod Bønes found it peculiar that the woman wasn’t wearing the jewellery or watch, instead it was laid beside her. It looked posed, like part of a ceremony. 

 

The body was guarded overnight and the next morning, it was taken to Haukeland Hospital where the post-mortem examination took place. And here, more strange clues emerged. Pathologist Johan Christopher Giertsen discovered that all the labels and distinguishing marks had been removed from the woman’s clothes. Knowing where she had purchased her clothes could have been a starting point in identifying her, but without the labels, this was not possible. It was clear that the clothes were not designed for winter in Norway, hinting at the fact that the woman was a foreigner. 

 

She was 164cm – or 5ft4 inches – tall, with brown eyes and long brown or dark hair that she tied back in a ponytail with a blue and white ribbon. She had petit features and was aged between 25 and 40, most likely 30. 

 

Of her teeth, 14 were filled with gold, a method not commonly used in Norway. This was also unusual for someone in her age range to have had such extensive work done to her teeth. Many years into the investigation, it was thought that the jaw was discarded after the autopsy, because of a foul smell. But years later it was uncovered in storage in Haukeland University’s forensic archives. 

 

A second analysis of her teeth, this time with more advanced methods, estimated her age to have been closer to 40 – making her older than the initial estimation. Dental expert, professor Gisle Bang, was able to narrow down where the woman possibly came from. The type of dental work conducted was typically done in Eastern, Southern, or Central Europe. Definitely not in any of the Scandinavian countries, which confirmed the suspicion that she was a foreigner.

 

During the autopsy, they found between 50 and 70 sleeping pills in her stomach. Smoke particles were present in her lungs, proving that she was set alight while she was still alive. There was also a high concentration of carbon monoxide in her blood. So, she was most likely unconscious because of the heavy dose of pills, but still alive when the fire started. 

 

But how did the fire start? Again, this is curious. The body showed traces of gasoline, but no fuel was present at the site where she was found. The only item said to smell of petroleum was a fur hat, located below the body.

 

One of the first officers on the scene, was police lawyer, Carl Halvor Aas. He recalled that it looked like she “had thrown herself back” from the fire. Forensic experts later concluded that there was an intense, short-lived fire, almost like an explosion, but not quite as severe.  

 

However, there were no cannisters, or containers laced with fuel anywhere near the scene. Which makes it more unlikely that she set the fire herself, and hints more to the possibility that someone took her there, rendered her unconscious, set her on fire and made sure she died. Then removed whatever was used to carry the fuel to the remote location.

 

Still, her death was initially considered a suicide by pathologists. The theory being that she had ingested the sleeping pills and then set herself on fire before losing consciousness. The official cause of death was carbon monoxide poisoning and ingesting a large amount of sleeping pills. 

 

Over time, this has become problematic. Fenemal, the pills present in her stomach, is a barbiturate, yes, but it is not typically used as a sleeping pill or to render someone unconscious. It is more often used as long-term assistance in managing epilepsy, and sometimes anxiety. At the time of her death, the pills had not been absorbed into her bloodstream, so she must have taken it shortly before she died. 

 

Despite the tentative ruling of suicide by the forensic team, police investigators felt strongly that the woman they found in Isdalen, did not end her own life. From the start, the death was considered to be a homicide. With no way of identifying her, the unnamed woman became known as the Isdal Woman, a name now known by millions of people around the world.

 

A police artist created a sketch of what the woman looked like and an article was placed in all Norwegian news publications, appealing to the public for any information that would help in identifying her. Headlines caught the attention, with statements like: “Young girl found dead in Isdal”; “No fire was found…” and “Who is the dead young girl?”

 

A railway employee saw the news report and immediately realised there was something that could be significant to the investigation at Bergen station and contacted police on 2 December. According to the luggage handler, a woman fitting the description of the unidentified victim, stored two suitcases at Bergen railway station’s luggage desk on November 23. At the time, there were no lockers at the station, but there was a storage facility. Travellers could check in their bags and had to collect them within a specified period of time. However, the woman never returned. 


Police found the suitcases, which contained a plethora of clues. The first link to their unidentified victim, was that the clothing in the suitcases had all labels removed. A fingerprint on prescription-free eyeglasses matched the mystery woman’s, indicating that the suitcases belonged to her.

 

Inside, detectives found a teaspoon, made in Vienna, a bag with crystalised brown sugar, a sewing kit from Hotel Regina in Geneva, two postcards: one religious and another with Santa Claus on his sleigh. Nothing was written on the postcards and they were evidently kept for sentimental reasons. Among her belongings was a map, with notes of Bergen’s surrounding mountains, depicting each one’s height.

 

And there was more… Items deepening the mystery of who this woman was and raising questions about what she was doing in Norway. Police found a selection of foreign currency in her suitcases: German, Norwegian, Belgian, British and Swiss… There were also Italian leather shoes, purchased from Nickol (a store in Rome), and Gant Neyret gloves, made in Paris. She clearly had expensive taste and an eye for style. Then there was eczema cream (with the prescription label removed), cosmetics, a comb and hairbrush, as well as several wigs, suggesting she changed her appearance frequently, disguising herself.

 

Her make-up packaging was unfamiliar to Norwegian police, and with the labels removed, the were not sure where it came from. They appealed to other European countries for help, even sending a photo to Galleries Lafayette in Paris, hoping they could identify the cosmetic brand. But they were unable to confirm that it was purchased at their store. 

 

Another strange clue in one of the suitcases, was a second box of matches – the other was found at the scene of death – from which the labels had NOT been removed. The matches were advertising a German sex and erotic underwear shop, Beate Uhse. Was the woman perhaps a high-end sex worker? Nothing else in her suitcases suggested that she worked in the sex industry. The matchbook could have been left in a bar; she didn’t necessarily pick it up in-store. But then again, why did she have two? Also, it could have been a clue as to who her killer was… A German perhaps?

 

The most important find in the suitcases, was a shopping bag from Oscar Rørtvedt’s Footwear Store – a family-owned shoe store in Stavanger, in the south of Norway. The owner’s son, Rolf Rørtvedt (who was 20 at the time), remembered selling a pair of boots similar to the ones found with the body to a nice looking, well-dressed foreign woman with dark hair. He remembered her, because she took a long time to choose her boots, much longer than the average customer. She came back the next day to purchase her size 38, black and white boots.

 

Rolf recalled that she had a strange odour, which he later identified as garlic. Cooking with garlic was not common in Norway in the 1970’s, which is why he couldn’t place the smell back then. He told police that she spoke in English with a European accent, but he couldn’t quite place it. 

 

Using the description provided, police tracked down the woman’s name from nearby hotel, St Svithun, where a woman by the name of Fenella Lorch had checked in. She stayed for nine days and she registered her nationality as Belgian. The woman was striking in her appearance, and most of the hotel’s staff noticed her. She wore a fur hat, which was unusual in Norway, and looked more like it could be Russian. Also unusual for Scandinavia, was her gold-filled teeth, as was custom in Soviet states or Eastern Europe. Frank Ove Sivertsen, a former bellboy who worked at St Svithun hotel at the time recalled:

 

"She was the kind of woman we hardly ever saw other than in magazines and movies."

The hotel staff also said that she spoke English, and it was obvious from her accent that she wasn’t a native speaker. She also spoke fluent French and German and lisped when she spoke and had a gap between her front teeth.

 

Her behaviour during her stay was peculiar: she requested to change rooms, more than once. She also moved furniture around, like shifting a table into a wardrobe to clear space. A cleaner also mentioned that she seemed scared and was hesitant to open the door. At one point she places a lounge chair outside her room, in front of the door. Was she trying to prevent someone from coming in?

 

Police checked all hotels in Bergen and surrounds and could not find any registration forms in the name of Fenella Lorch. However, her recognisable handwriting was discovered, at a check-in register at Hotel Rosenkrantz, Bergen where a ‘Ms Leenhouwer’ stayed from 18-19November. The same handwriting, this time signed in as ‘Elisabeth Leenhouwer’, from Ostend, Belgium was found in the register of Hotel Hordaheimen, Bergen from November 19 to 2was when she left her suitcases at Bergen train station – the last time she was seen alive. 

 

It is significant to note that, although women occasionally travelled alone in those days, it wasn’t very common, unless they had specific business to attend to. And to stay in various places for longer than a week at a time, without a companion made police wonder what she was up to. Back then, Norway was a rather homogenous society, with immigration from non-Scandinavian countries only becoming prevalent in the 1960s. Also, back then, Bergen was not the tourist attraction it is today, especially not in November with temperatures averaging at 5 degrees Celsius, and limited daylight hours. So, it would have been easy to spot a foreigner in crowd. 

 

As it turned out ‘Fenella Lorch’ was a fake name. The woman using this alias checked into several hotels in Norway, using eight different names. International guests would have been required proof of identity to check into any hotel in Norway, so the implication is that she had eight different passports. Police followed her trail throughout Norway, and found she spent most of her time in Bergen.

 

On March 20, she travelled from Geneva to Oslo where she stayed in the Viking Hotel till March, posing as Genevieve Lancier, from Louvain. After she checked out, she flew to Stavanger from where she took a boat to Bergen, checking in to Hotel Bristol for one night as Claudia Tielt, from Brussels. The next day, using the same name, Claudia Tielt moved to Hotel Skandia, also in Bergen where she stayed from 25 March to 1 April. 

 

Then she left Bergen for Stavanger, from where she travelled to Germany, going as far south as Basel, on the Swiss/German/French border. There is not a lot of information about her movements between April and October, and she resurfaces in Stockholm, Sweden on October 1, travelling to Oppdal, a popular ski-resort in Norway. 

 

Towards the end of October, she stayed in Paris: at hotel Altona for one night, and then at Hotel de Calais for about a week before she travelled back to Bergen, via Stavanger. Claudia Nielsen, from Ghent, stayed in KNA-Hotellet, Stavanger from 29 to 30 October. 

 

Alexia Zarne-Merchz from Slovenia checked into the Neptun Hotell, Bergen from October 30to November. A waitress remembered the woman as being self-assured and fashionable, and that she had an air about her. She frequently changed rooms, as many as three times during one stay. It was also at Neptun Hotell that she was seen meeting with an unknown man, dining with him in the hotel’s restaurant. Witnesses recalled the man reading a newspaper and the woman sitting quietly opposite him, and they spoke German to each other. They were not overly friendly to each other and staff assumed the man was a business acquaintance. 

 

One staff member recalled that the Isdal Woman once sat beside two West German Federal Naval Officers. Although they did not interact, their proximity to each other is what made the situation memorable.

 

From Bergen, the woman travelled more than 600km north to Trondheim, where she checked in to Hotel Bristol as Vera Jarle from Antwerp from November 6 to 9. Then she went south again, this time staying at St Svithun, Stavanger as Fenella Lorch from November 9 to 18. She then took the boat Vingtor to Bergen where she stayed in Hotel Rosenkrantz as Ms Leenhouwer for one night. 

 

Here, a hotel maid entered her room for the turn-down service, and only once she was inside the room did she notice the woman and a man. The woman sat at the edge of the bed, and the man on a sofa. They did not speak or even look at each other. Both were dressed in black and there was a heavy, sombre atmosphere in the room.

 

The next day Elisabeth Leenhouwer checked in to Hotel Hordaheimen until the 23rd of November. Staff at this hotel recalled her being anxious and keeping a watchful eye out. It did not seem as if she was on vacation, but rather that she was hiding, or expecting something bad to happen. She checked out on the Monday morning, paid in cash and took a taxi to Bergen railway station where she left her two suitcases. Six days later, she was found dead. 

 

In following up with the different embassies, investigators found that all eight identities were fake. At the scene where the mystery woman’s body was found, there were burnt remnants of a document that could have been a passport, but police could not say for certain. Other than that, they were never able to recover any of the supposed passports. Perhaps she used her charm, or experience as a con-artist to side-step the requirement to show a passport when checking in, but because no copies were made, or no numbers were taken down, it was hard to know if she did. Also, not complying with check-in protocol could maybe work once or twice, but eight times? It seems unlikely.

 

Handwriting analysis confirmed that all check-in forms were completed by the same woman. In-depth analysis confirmed that the writer was educated in a French or Belgian school, suggesting that this is where the Isdal Woman went to school.

 

She noted various professions on her hotel registration forms, like an antiques dealer, or on another occasion an interior decorator, an ornamentor another time. However, if this was true, none of her clients or contacts ever came forward to report her missing, or to express concern about her. It was the biggest news story in Norway at the time, and had she been sourcing antiques, or homewares, she would have met with people in the industry. Also, none of the items found in her suitcases indicated that she was on a business trip: there were no business cards, no brochures or catalogues, nothing.

 

With no further leads, Norwegian police sent their unidentified burn victim’s fingerprints and information about their investigation to Interpol, hoping to find new leads, but there was nothing.

 

Her strange behaviour and variety of aliases gave rise to the theory that she could have been a spy. That would explain why she had multiple passports, means to travel extensively, and met with individuals who were equally mysterious. Were the men she was seen with her handlers?

 

1970 was the height of the Cold War and Bergen would have been a good spot to meet in secret, especially in November when there weren’t many people out and about. Also, at the time, Norway was a hotbed for espionage. Politically, Norway was one of the 12 founding member-countries of NATO, siding with the allied powers of the US and the UK. Geographically, it was a barrier between the Soviet Union and the West. 

 

At the time, Norway was also at the forefront of technology when it came to weapons manufacturing. The Penguin Missile, still in use today, was perhaps ahead of its time in 1970. It was the first anti-ship missile with infrared homing ability, undoubtedly making it of high interest to the USSR. Additional funding for development of the Penguin came from the US and West Germany, and the testing site was at Tananger, Norway – not far from Stavanger. 

 

The Soviet Union would have been very interested in this development, as this would be one of the best weapons the West could use against them. During the Cold War, espionage and counterespionage was the name of the game, and it was common knowledge that Soviet submarines were patrolling the Norwegian fjords. 

 

According to Norwegian radio and television public broadcasting company NRK, security services were interested in reports that the Isdal Woman had been seen observing the military testing out new rockets in western Norway – but there weren't any clear conclusions from their investigation reports, other than the fact that she happened to be at testing location, specifically on testing dates. 

 

Consider the following: On the 24 March, the Isdal Woman was in Bergen. On the same day, missile boats were in Bergen too. In April, missile testing commenced in Stavanger, and again, the Isdal Woman happened to be there. Six months later, a new round of testing took place, right around the time she returned to Stavanger. And again on the 9 November, the very day she checked into St Svithun Hotel in the same city.

 

A fisherman repairing his trawler told police that he had noticed a woman resembling the Isdal Woman observing the missile testing and taking notes. He also saw her in conversation with a naval officer, whom he presumed was Norwegian, but could very well have been an officer for any of the allies. He recalled it clearly because it was unusual to see a woman near the military units. The conversation seemed serious and went on for a while. It was clear that they were discussing a pressing issue, it wasn’t a case of someone asking for directions, let’s say. The official report only stated that the fisherman saw her observing the missile testing and did not mention the naval officer.

 

But if she was indeed a spy, who did she work for? She spoke German, was spotted in the vicinity of two German officers at Neptun Hotell – was she working for Stasi, East German Secret Police? If this was the case, no one would ever be able to prove it, seeing as the Stasi destroyed all their documents when East Germany collapsed in 1989. Perhaps she could have worked for West German Intelligence, but why the secrecy if she was moving around in an allied country?

 

A former Russian Intelligence agent has looked at the case and claimed that if she was working for GRU, she would not have used multiple identities. Typically, a GRU agent would have one identity, with a watertight back-story. Agents were also trained to blend in and avoided drawing attention to themselves. The Isdal woman stood out like a sore thumb, suggesting she may have been a con-woman, rather than a world-class spy.

 

Also – it has been said, that if she if she were a spy who was killed by fellow-agents, they would not have left her body out in the open. She had no obvious family members or connections who would have missed her, and they would have been more efficient in disposing of her body. 

 

Among the belongings in her suitcase was a coded note, written in blue ink, which took police quite a while to crack. Eventually they were able to determine that it wasn’t anything sinister, but rather a shorthand record of the places she had visited, an itinerary of sorts. For instance: ‘O-29-PS’ records a trip she took on October 29 from Paris to Stavanger. Using this information and spending many hours hitting the pavements of different cities, investigators were able to track her movements over the preceding months. She travelled in Norway and throughout Europe, using multiple names.

 

Knowing that she had purchased shoes from a store called Nickol in Rome, they concluded that the recurring use of the letter ‘R’ referred to Rome and that she spent a lot of time there – perhaps using it as a base for whatever her undisclosed mission was.

 

The note containing the codes is neatly presented in three separate columns, with a last line of code at the bottom, standing alone like a footnote. The first line notes 10M, and right below it ML23N MM. Following the code or shorthand’s pattern, one can deduce that 10M stands for 10 March, the first day on the list, her first trip to Norway noted on this piece of paper. 

 

The footnote is perhaps the most puzzling part of it. Sandwiched in-between the letters ML and MM, 23N denotes 23 November, the last day she was known to be alive. Could the rest of the code reveal where she was headed and whom she was intending to meet? It is also significant that this was the last entry – did she know she would not leave Bergen alive again? The letters ML and MM have confused investigators, code breakers and armchair sleuths over the years, because is not in keeping with the rest of the code. 

 

Speculation is, that perhaps she used Latin abbreviations, which would revive the suicide theory. Was this date noted separately, at the bottom, knowing that this would be her last day? Could MM stand for “Momento Mori,” which means “remember that you will die.” Although this phrase might seem strange, it is often noted in Classic Christian art, as a reminder of one’s mortality. The type of art similar to the religious artefacts the Isdal Woman had in her suitcases, like the picture of the Madonna. As for ‘ML’… Was that perhaps a clue as to the person she planned to meet? ML could well be the Latin abbreviation for ‘Miles Legionis’, which is a high-ranking military officer. Then the code would state:

 

High Ranking Military Officer, November 23, Remember You Will Die

 

Could she have met up with the naval officer she was seen talking to in Tananger during the missile testing operation?

 

Either way, despite investigators quietly believing that the Isdal Woman had met with foul play, police held a press conference at Bergen Police Station, declaring that suicide was the most probable cause of death. Theories that the Isdal Woman had been a foreign spy was dismissed and the case was closed.

 

She was buried on the 5 of February 1971 in a Catholic ceremony, attended by 18 Bergen police officers. Her coffin was decorated with tulips and lilacs and she was laid to rest in an unmarked grave in Møllendal graveyard in Bergen. The inside of the coffin was lined with zinc to preserve the remains in case she had to be exhumated and repatriated at a later stage.

 

The case became one of the biggest unsolved mysteries in Norway, and locals never forgot the story of the Isdal Woman. 

 

As recent as 2005, a witness came forward to say he saw a woman resembling the Isdal Woman being followed through the wooded hills outside Bergen by two men. Local sea captain Ketil Kversoy recalled it was a Sunday in November 1970 but could not remember the date.

 

The witness recalled that she looked scared as she led the way, and there was not much conversation between her and her two male companions. She was walking up ahead, it was like they were following her at a distance, but she knew they were there. The situation seemed uncomfortable, and the witness felt that all was not okay. He described the men of darker complexion, Mediterranean perhaps, but he couldn’t say for sure. They were also not dressed for a hike in the snowy surrounds, but rather dressed for town.

 

Ketril said he waited so long to come forward, because he didn’t think it was significant information. However, over the years, the image of the strange encounter stayed with him, haunting him. He realised he HAD to tell authorities, even if it wouldn’t be useful to them. When he informed police, however, he was told that the case was bigger than local police, and that it would never be solved. 

 

Conspiracy theorists believe the Norwegian Secret Service know exactly who the Isdal Woman was, what she was doing in Norway at the time, and how she died, but they do not want the general public to know. They have managed to keep a lid on the truth for 50 years, which is probably why the case will never be solved.

 

There was renewed interest in the case in 2016, when Norwegian Police Security Service declassified the Isdal Woman’s casefile. This was interesting, because for the first time, there was an admission that Norwegian intelligence investigated the case from the start. There has been speculation that the newly released file had been heavily redacted, and that vital information remained a secret. Still, an interesting fact was revealed: the file confirms that the Isdal Woman was in Trondheim at the exact same time as two GRU agents. The implication was that they met and exchanged information.  

 

In 2018, the NRK and BBC World Service joined forces and created a podcast, Death in Ice Valley, documenting an investigation into the case. Seasoned investigative journalists, Margit Higraff and Neil McCarthy left no stone unturned in their 12-episode investigation, and together with the members of their Facebook Group unearthed a lot of never-heard-before information.

 

One theory that kept popping up during their investigation, by talking to former investigators, or their family members if they were no longer alive, was that the Isdal Woman could perhaps have been an agent or courier for Israeli Intelligence Agency, Mossad. 

 

If you recall Evidence Locker episode 149 titled ‘Munich’, we looked at the 1972 Munich Olympics Massacre. Mossad agents followed one of three main suspects, Ali Hassan Salameh to Scandinavia, where they believed he was plotting an attack on the Israeli Consulate in Stockholm. However, Salameh had made his way to Lillehammer, Norway. In a botched surveillance operation, they shot and killed an olive-skinned man, mistaking him for Salameh. The victim was 30-year-old Moroccan-born waiter, Achmed Bouchiki. 

 

Norwegian authorities were furious and refused to cover up the blunder. They publicly pointed the finger at the State of Israel and all Israeli covert operations in the area had to be pulled. Mossad had no more support from Norway and all logistical assistance and safehouses were closed to them.

 

Up to that point – which means at the time of the Isdal woman’s death in 1970 – the relationship between Norwegian Intelligence and Mossad was one of mutual respect and support. To detectives investigating the Isdal affair, it certainly felt like there was a lot of secrecy surrounding the case. This was especially tangible when they started looking into the Mossad theory; it was like people in power closed doors when the investigation came close to uncovering something, eventually shutting it all down.

 

It is significant to note, that it was also around this time that the Mossad sent agents out to gather information and identify former Nazi members who had played a role in the Holocaust, fled abroad after the war and had assumed new identities. You may have seen the TV docuseries ‘Nazi Hunters’, which tells the story of how agents go about finding these individuals, and how they deal with them. Was the Isdal Woman perhaps a scout, looking for self-exiled Nazi’s hiding out in Norway?

 

The Death in Ice Valley Facebook Group is very active in exchanging theories and unearthing new information. Listeners of the podcast uncovered two stories, so similar to the Isdal woman’s background, that Margit Higraff and Neil McCarthy dedicated a whole episode to their stories.

 

The first woman was involved in an elaborate travellers’ cheque fraud scheme. She was based in Rome and lived a life of luxury. With Sophia Loren looks and a sportscar to suit, she was not afraid to draw attention to herself. She travelled a lot and ran a lucrative scheme, but police eventually caught up with her. However, her daughter was able to confirm that her Czech-born mother passed away in 1996, so she was not the Isdal Woman.

 

However, the idea that she was involved in an organised crime ring does carry some weight. A network of con-artists also operated throughout Scandinavia, paying money into bank accounts in Sweden, obtaining cheques which they copied and cashed in Norway and The Netherlands, using fake passports. 

 

Two years after the Isdal Woman died, four people were arrested in Norway, regarding this scheme. Two of the perpetrators were in Bergen, and the other two in Oslo. The gang, mainly made up of people with Hispanic backgrounds, came onto Norwegian police’s radar six months after they found the Isdal Woman’s body. The operation’s base was tracked to Rome, a city that was considered the Isdal Woman’s home-base, as per her cryptic notes. Was she perhaps a part of the group, and one of the reasons their operation came undone?

 

If the Isdal Woman actually worked for this organisation – perhaps as a courier – it would explain why she travelled a lot, and also how she could afford to do so. However, although her life had many parallels to the operation, nothing links her to the group definitively.

 

Another listener found a chilling story of a Ukrainian woman called Angelina. Along with many other Ukrainians, she was transported to Germany to work in a labour camp during World War II. When the war was over, she escaped. Authorities in Belgium caught up with her, and she pleaded with them to allow her to remain in the West. Angelina was allowed to stay, but while working at the Canadian Consulate, she was caught going through top secret documents, and let go. 

 

The same Angelina worked in Rome for a while, living around the corner from Nickol, the shoe store from where the Isdal Woman had purchased a pair of boots. She applied for a role at the CIA, but when they discovered she was a member of the Communist Party, her application was denied. Despite all of these unbelievable parallels to the Isdal Woman, Angelina was also not her, as they were able to ascertain that she had died in Germany, where, ironically, she was buried in an unmarked grave.

 

In the end, it is the in-depth journalistic investigation, dutifully driven by and reported on by Margit Higraff, that brings us closer to solving this mystery. Using science, authorities did not only manage to obtain a DNA profile of the Isdal Woman, but also an Isotype analysis conducted on her teeth.

 

This was the first time that isotype analysis was conducted in Norway. These tests could reveal the type of water the woman drank as her teeth were developing, that is, when she was a child. This way, we are able to determine the water source of the area where she lived, as well as what food she ate and what type of soil the food came from. It presents a number of possible countries where she lived during her first years, as well as her teenage years.

 

In the case of the Isdal Woman, the best estimate is that she was from Nuremberg originally and most likely moved to a region north in France as a child. Other areas were suggested, like Wales and Spain, but due to other information in the case, like the fact that her English was not very good and that French and German seemed to be her stronger languages, helped in narrowing down the location.

 

Still, this is only a theory – inspired by scientific proof, but still speculation. If we can determine where she is from, perhaps we would be able to know where she went, and who she became. 

 

There is a theory, only explaining how she died, not why she was in Norway or what she was doing there. In this theory, the Isdal Woman suffered from epilepsy, and took Fenemal to manage it. When staying in hotels, she cleared floor space in her rooms, in case she would have a seizure. According to this theory, she went for a hike in the mountains and felt a seizure coming on. Knowing how dangerous it could be, she sat down, had as many pills as she could stomach and then wrapped up warmly, lighting a cigarette. Remember, she had eczema cream in her suitcase, a paraffin-based ointment. Her fur hat smelled like ‘petroleum or something similar’ – is it possible that, in lighting her cigarette, she caught on fire, and it rapidly spread thanks to her synthetic clothing? The fur hat was found beneath her body, if it caught alight, did she sit on it to try and smother the flames. Unlikely, because only the front of her body was burned.

 

This theory is perhaps not completely impossible, but it poses some problems: like, if she was taking medication for epilepsy, she would know better than to ingest between 50 – 70 pills. That is an excessive amount, even for someone panicking. 

 

Fenemal was also used for anxiety, and eczema is a common side-effect of anxiety too. Her behaviour in the time leading up to her death certainly suggested a degree of stress and anxiety, which is probably why she had these medications in her possession. But again, 50 – 70 pills are a lot to swallow, unless she was forced to do so, or decided to take it to end her life.

 

Many people have tried to solve the case over the years, but nobody could get a definitive answer. The renewed interest in the case, thanks to Death in Ice Valley, makes this mystery feel solvable. As fans of the podcast, we would like to wish Margit and Neil well on the rest of their investigation, and we will be sure to keep you, our listeners posted, should there be any new developments in the case. And hopefully, the woman in the unmarked grave in Bergen will finally be named, and her remains returned home – wherever that may be…

 

If you'd like to read more about this case, have a look at the resources used for this episode in the show notes. 

 

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