The Mystery at Death Valley
"I'm sure she knew they were going after her."
When Norwegian police arrived at the Isdalen foothills in November 1970, they found the charred remains of a woman, so severely burnt that she was unrecognisable. Upon examining the site, they found various items including traces of burned paper, whilst all identifying marks had been remove from her clothing and there was little evidence to help determine the woman’s identity. Several days later, two suitcases that belonged to woman were located, and found to contain various amounts of foreign currency, as well as a notepad with cryptic writing. By decoding this investigators were able to discover she had travelled across Europe with at least eight fake passports and aliases. Witnesses who claimed to have met the woman came forward to provide police with information, but all attempts to determine her identity have failed. Despite the unusual circumstances surrounding her death, it was believed she had committed suicide. But many unexplained questions point to murder, and the case of the Isdal Woman would be one of the most perplexing Cold War mysteries and unsolved murders in Norwegian history.
Ulriken is the highest of the Seven Mountains that surround the city of Bergen in Norway. Isdalen or “Ice Valley”, is an area with tall pine trees and large icicles hanging from branches, and is a popular hiking trail where people traverse the foothills of the north face of Ulriken. Isdal is also nicknamed “Death Valley”, due to recent hiking accidents, but also because of a history of suicides during the Middle Ages. It was in this area that a man and his two young daughters were hiking during the morning of Sunday, November 29, 1970, when they noticed an odd burning smell. When they searched the immediate area, one of the daughters came across the charred body of a woman, located amongst some scree, or broken rock fragments. Shocked by their discovery, the three returned to town and notified police.
Bergen police arrived at the scene quickly, and soon a full-scale investigation was launched. Police lawyer Carl Halvor Aas was one of the first officers called to the area, “It was out of the way – it was an unusual place to walk,” he remembers. Upon examining the site, they found the woman lying in a supine position, with her hands clenched and held up to her torso. Halvor Aas remembered “a strong smell of burnt flesh,” and saw that the front of the body had been severely burned and the remains were unrecognisable. “The body was burnt all over the front,” including “the face and most of her hair,” he said, but strangely it was not burnt on the back. “It looked as though she had thrown herself back,” from a fire, he believed, adding that she was so badly burnt they could not imagine what she originally looked like. By the time police arrived the scene was cold, so it was impossible to determine how long the body had been there for, or how the woman had ended up on fire.
There was an absence of any nearby campfires, and it was believed the body was burnt where it had lain. Several traces of burned paper were scattered around the body, along with 12 tablets that appeared to be sleeping pills, whilst underneath the body was a fur hat, that was later found to have traces of petrol. Several items were located or placed near the body, and had been affected by the fire. These included clothing such as a woollen jumper, rubber boots, a scarf as well as nylon stockings, along with an umbrella, purse, two plastic passport containers, a matchbox, two earrings, a watch and a ring. Tormod Bønes, one of the forensic investigators on the case said “She had been wearing a lot of clothes, or synthetic materials, and all the clothes had been heavily burned.” He also noticed something significant about the positioning of these items. Tormod Bønes said the woman was not wearing the watch or her jewellery, which had been placed beside her body. “The placement and location of the objects surrounding the body was strange, it looked like there had been some kind of ceremony,” he said. Also there was an empty bottle of St. Hallvard Likor, a low-cost liqueur was also found alongside two plastic water bottles.
Any and all identifying marks and labels had been removed from the clothing, and rubbed off the bottles at the scene, making identification impossible for investigators. Three days later, police found two suitcases at the Bergen railway station in the left luggage department that had belonged to the victim. They found 100 Deutsche Mark notes hidden in the lining of one, along with clothing, shoes, wigs, cosmetics, make-up and eczema cream. Further currency was also found, in the form of 135 Norwegian kroner, as well as British, Belgian and Swiss coins. A pair of glasses with non-prescription lenses, maps, timetables and notepad were found, as well as a partial fingerprint was recovered from a pair of sunglasses, that was later matched to the woman, however as with the body, any identifying information had been removed. Police also found a mysterious coded note in the case, which contained a series of numbers written in blue pen.
Police were initially very optimistic because they believed the suitcases would help identify the victim. But they soon realised that any and all identifying labels that could have identified the woman had been removed. Even the prescription sticker on the eczema cream, which would have shown the name of the doctor and patient, had been scraped off. In an effort to trace the woman, police contacted several major department stores abroad, including Galeries Lefayette in Paris, to see if the company could help identify any of the packaging on the woman’s make-up. None of these department stores could find a match. One lead did provide a result, in the form of a plastic bag from Oscar Rortvedt’s Footwear Store, a shoe shop in Stavanger. The owner’s son, Rolf Rortvedt recalled selling a pair of rubber boots to “a very well dressed, nice-looking woman with dark hair.” The boots he sold appeared to match the boots found near the body in the Isdalen Valley.
Police also suspected that the umbrella found near at the scene was also bought from the same store. Rolf said the woman had made an impression on him because she “took a long time” choosing her footwear, much longer than the average customer. He also remembers that she spoke English, with an accent and had “a calm and quiet expression.” He also remembered a strong odour emanating from the woman, which, later, he thinks may have been garlic. Using this description, police were able to trace the woman to the nearby St. Svithun hotel, where she had checked in under the name Fenella Lorch. The name was obviously a fake, and it emerged the woman had stayed in several different hotel throughout Norway, and using a variety of different aliases. Because most hotels require guests to show a passport to fill in a check-in-form, it would mean she would have been in possession of several fake passports.
Police launched an appeal requesting information from the public, which featured heavily in the Norwegian media. The victim had last been seen on November 23, when she checked out of room 207 at the Hotel Hordaheimen. Staff at the hotel recalled that she stayed mostly in her room and seemed to be cautious and on guard. She often wore a fur hat, ate porridge for breakfast and smelled quite strongly of garlic. She was described her as good-looking, roughly 5ft 4in tall, with “long brownish-black hair”, small round face, brown eyes and small ears, with a gap in her front teeth. She appeared to be aged between 25 and 40-years-old, and wore he hair “in a ponytail tied with a blue and white print ribbon” at the time of her death. With no identification, she became known as Isdal Woman.
Investigators managed to trace the woman’s movements, and were able to determine a timeline of the hotels at which she stayed and the aliases she used to check-in. From March 21-24, 1970, she stayed at the Viking Hotel, Oslo, under the name Genevieve Lancier from Louvain, and from March 24-25, she used the name Claudia Tielt from Brussels when staying at the Hotel Bristol in Bergen. She used the same alias at the Hotel Skandia in Bergen from March 25 to April 1, which was the last time she would use hotel accomodation for several months. She returned Stavanger, where she stayed at the KNA-Hotellet from October 29-30 under the name Claudia Nielsen from Ghent, and from October 30-November 5, she resided at the Neptun Hotel in Bergen as Alexia Zrne-Merchez from Ljubljana. The next day she checked-in at the Hotel Bristol in Trondheim where she stayed as Vera Jarle from Antwerp until November 8. It was from November 9-18 when she stayed at the St. Svithun Hotel in Stavenger as Fenella Lorch, and then for a night at the Hotel Rosenkrantz in Bergen as Ms Leenhouwfr. Her final stay was at the Hotel Hodaheimen, Bergen from November 19-23, as Elisabeth Leenhouwfr from Ostend. These movement were confirmed through examining the handwriting used by each guest, which was matched as belonging to the same person.
Police questioned several hotel staff who had met and interacted with Isdal Woman, including Alvhild Rangnes, who was a 21-year-old waitress at the Hotel Neptun at the time. She said, “My first impression of her was once of elegance and self-assuredness. She looked so fashionable, I wished to be able to mimic her style. In fact, I remember her winking at me… from my perspective if felt as though she thought I had been staring a bit too much at her.” She also remembers, “On one occasion while I was serving her, she was in the dining hall, sitting right next to – but not interacting with – two German navy personnel, one of which was an officer.” Investigators learned that in addition to speaking English, the woman also used some German phrases. They also discovered that during her time at hotels, she often requested a change of room, and on one occasion, she asked to change rooms three times.
With the coded notes, along with the various disguises, meant there were now strong rumours and indications that the woman had been a spy. During that time there were not any foreign tourists in Bergen, and the fact that the woman appeared wealthy, and well-travelled only added to the speculation. The crime occurred during the cold war, and there were many spies in Norway, particularly Soviet spies. There were also Israeli agents operating in Norway, the evidence of which would come three years later, when agents of Mossad killed a man in Lillehammer who was mistaken for a terrorist. Norwegian intelligence service would decades later admit that they had been investigating the woman, and had been interested in reports that the woman had been seen observing the military test new rockets in western Norway. But there were never any clear conclusions from their investigation reports.
The mysterious note found in the dead woman’s suitcase then became the focus of the investigation. Police eventually cracked some of the coded note, but it failed to provide any evidence to indicate she was a spy. Instead, it appeared to be a record of the places she had visited. For example, the text and numbers O22 O28 P are the dates of October 22-28, and the P stands for Paris. O29PS refers to the day she travelled from Paris to Stavanger, and O29S matches the date on which she arrived in Stavanger, October 29. O30BN5 matches her stay in Bergen, and the numbers denote the time she spent there, from October 30 to November 5. The note seemed yet another dead end. A description of the woman, and sketches of what she may have looked like were sent to several international police forces, but none were successful in positively identifying who she might be.
The autopsy of the woman’s body was conducted at the Gades Institutt, and the coroner came to the conclusion that she died from a combination of incapacitation by phenobarbital and poisoning by carbon monoxide. Soot found in her lungs indicated she was alive when burned, and unexplained bruising to her neck was consistent with either a fall or a blow. Traces of petrol found at the scene below the woman’s body meant that petrol had been used to set her alight. Blood tests showed she had consumed between 50 to 70 Fenemal brand sleeping pills, the same as those found next to her body. But these had no been fully absorbed into her bloodstream before she died. There were no signs she had been ill, nor were there and indications she had ever been pregnant or had a child. The cause of death was attributed to possible suicide, a view that was supported by Bergen’s chief of police.
The suicide theory was not believed by everyone. Carl Halvor Aas said, “We talked about it in the police, but as far as I remember very few thought it was suicide.” The remote spot where her body was found, and the method by which she died, by fire, struck some investigators as strange. With no further leads, the case was closed and the Isdal Woman buried in February 1971. Police believed she may have been catholic, and so a Catholic funeral was arranged for her. A police report on the funeral mentions the coffin was decorated with lilacs and tulips, and the priest conducted a simple ceremony for “the unknown woman, who was put to the grave in a foreign country without any family present.” Only police officers attended the funeral. Because investigators were confident that someday they would find the woman’s family, she was buried in a zinc coffin that will never decompose, and an album is kept with photographs of the funeral for her relatives.
The case would gain new attention in 2016. During the autopsy the Isdal Woman’s teeth and jawbone were removed because of the unique dental work and gold-fillings. These were kept by Gisle Bang, a professor of dentistry, in the hope that other experts would one day recognise the work. She had what was described as distinctive teeth, 14 of which were filled, and she had several gold crowns. This was considered especially unusual for someone of her age range, and was not the type of dental work seen in Norway. After his death, it was assumed the jaw had been destroyed. Forensic doctor Inge Morlid, who inherited the files on the Isdal Woman case, said he was told that he jaw had been “thrown away because it was smelling.” Inquiries were made by journalists at NRK, and Professor Morild was able to locate the jaw, deep in a cellar at Haukeland University Hospital’s forensic archives.
This new find gave Norwegian police the opportunity to re-open the case, and the use of the latest forensic techniques could be used to try and identify the woman. Tests were carried out by the Norwegian Criminal Investigation Service (Kripos) along with the University of Bergen, who conducted isotope analysis on her teeth, in an effort to check the chemical signature left by the elements that made up her teeth as they were being formed. These types of tests were able to ascertain the type of water the woman drank growing up, as well as which areas the water came from, along with the types of food the woman ate, and the type of soil in the area. This was the first time the Norwegian police had conducted isotope analysis on teeth, but they hoped it would help pinpoint the region where the woman had lived.
It was discovered that tissue samples were also taken of the organs, and could be used as a tool in the forensic analysis and identification process, something that wasn’t available back in 1970. These organ samples, which included tissue from the woman’s lungs, hearts, adrenal gland and ovaries, had been stored at the Haukeland University Hospital. Professor Morild explained that it “has been a custom in most of Norway” to keep tissue samples from post mortem examinations. These samples would provide a useful resource for repeat examinations and also as a means of DNA testing. NRK and local police agreed to send off samples for DNA analysis, and as they waited for the results, the NRK published a documentary into the investigation and received more than 150 tips from people interested in the case.
After months of work, scientists now have an extended DNA profile of the woman, and the latests results reveal the woman was of European descent, making the theory that she was an agent from Israel much less likely. With this new information, Norwegian police are set to issue an Interpol black notice, which seeks information on unidentified bodies. In particular, European police forces will be asked to check their DNA databases to see if a match can be made. It is possible that if someone in her close family is in a DNA registry somewhere, then a connection can be linked. Other theories about Isdal Woman centre on her working for some foreign intelligence service. It is possible she was monitoring the Norwegian Penguin missile, which took place from the late 1960’s, and classified documents indicate that Norwegian intelligence had already investigated this possibility. Other theories point towards her being a spy for a possible non-government group, such as one of the radical left-wing organizations that became notorious during the 1970’s, such as the Baader-Meinhof gang.
In June 2019, Ketil Kversoy, a sea captain who used to live in the area, came forward with a story that might shed light on the Isdal Woman’s death. Some 48 years previously, Kversoy believes he had a possible encounter with the Isdal Woman, during a late afternoon on his was back to Bergen. “I was surprised. Some people were coming up the mountain. That wasn’t normal. I’d seen nobody else and I had been walking for a couple of hours,” he said. He saw a woman walking towards him, trailed by two men. All of them, he said, were wearing clothes more suited to a visit to town, rather than the outdoors. As their paths drew closer together, “She was looking at me and her face, to me it looked like she was scared and she was giving up,” Kversoy believes. The men were about 20m behind her, “When she looked at me, I felt that she started to say something but she didn’t and then she looked behind her and saw these men.”
He added, “I’m sure she knew they were going after her.” Her recalled her appearance, similar to that described by witnesses who saw the Isdal Woman, “I remember her hair, dark hair, not too long. And also the men coming behind had dark hair. They didn’t look Norwegian, I was thinking southern Europe.” He says the chance encounter happened on a Sunday, late afternoon, however the Isdal Woman was found on a Sunday morning, with the last sighting of her was on the Monday, almost a week before she was found. It is possible it was another day he saw the woman, and with so much time having passed Kversoy had become confused about the timeline. Although he would eventually report this incident to police, Kversoy regrets not doing so sooner. “I waited too long. I didn’t go to the police station because I felt like a crazy man coming and telling a crazy story.” At the time, a friend of his who worked as a police officer, told him that the case was beyond the Bergen force. It was an international case, he said, and it would never be solved.