Åstedet i Isdalen der en kvinne ble funnet død i 1970
Foto: Paul S. Amundsen / NRK

The Isdalen mystery

A woman lies dead and severely burned in a scree slope outside the centre of Bergen. All clues to who she might be, have been removed. No one has made any progress in this case – until now.

November 29, 1970. A 12 year old girl spots her. The Sunday hike with her father and kid sister have brought them far up into the hillside above the beautiful and gloomy Isdalen valley, a few kilometres outside the centre of Bergen. Up here, at a little distance from the path, very few people ever come.

As the girl enters a clearing in the forest, she spots something that no child should ever see.

On a scree slope, among big rocks, a woman lies on her back, dead and burned.

They need to report what they have found – but in 1970, there is no such thing as a mobile phone. The walk around the lake Svartediket and back to town turns out to be a long one for the father and the two little girls. Is there a killer hiding among the tall spruce trees lining the narrow dirt road?

Sinister scene

Tidligere politijurist Carl Halvor Aas var først på åstedet der Isdalskvinnen ble funnet drept

ON-SITE: Former police lawyer Carl Halvor Aas was one of the first to reach the site where the Isdal woman was found dead.

Foto: Kjetil Solhøi / NRK

– The first thing we notice is the stench, says Carl Halvor Aas.

The lawyer from the Hurum district is 31 years old and lawyer on duty at the Bergen police headquarters when the phone call about the finding of a corpse comes in. At present, he is the only survivor among those who first arrive at the scene.

– I remember we were walking, and sometimes climbing, up the scree slope. As we hurry along, I'm wondering where we are heading for, because it all seems so steep and impassable. This is no hiking trail, that's for sure.

Aas relates that the police officers are wondering if the woman might have fallen into the flames and then had thrown herself back, ending up lying on her back.

– It is not a pretty sight. The question is whether someone has set fire to her, or if there are other causes, Aas says.

  • NRK investigates the Isdalen case again, in cooperation with the National Criminal Investigation Service (Kripos) and Police District West. All the results from this investigation will be published consecutively on this site - as soon as they come in.

Soon the desolate site is teeming with investigators. Police officers with dogs and metal detectors, forensic technicians with tweezers and brushes. They trawl through the rough scree slope where the corpse lies in a so-called «fencer's position»", arms outstretched in front of the upper body – the way bodies are often positioned when having been exposed to fire.

On the scree slope and in the wet, tall November grass surrounding it, they pick up the charred remains of objects the woman has brought with her. Fragments of clothes, an umbrella, and carrying equipment. Two melted plastic bottles. A half bottle of the State Liquor Store's self-produced «Kloster Liqueur», a nearly totally destroyed plastic cover, possibly for a passport, and much more.

Isdalskvinnen fotografert på åstedet kort etter at hun ble funnet

RIDDLE: The police are met by this sight as they arrive on the scene on November 29, 1970. The Isdal woman is lying on her back between big rocks in the steep, wooded terrain.

Foto: Politiet / Statsarkivet i Bergen

Who is she?

Already at this point, the investigators notice something very peculiar:

Manufacturing labels have been meticulously cut off from the parts of the garments which have not been destroyed by the flames. On her possessions, all distinctive marks have been removed. Even the labels on the bottom of the plastic bottles have been scraped off.

The site has been cleansed of everything which may reveal the identity of the unknown woman. Even today, she is only known by the anonymous case number «134/70» at the Gades Institute, where she is autopsied. She is colloquially known as the "Isdal woman."

However, now there is hope that we may finally find some answers to the many riddles the case has left us with through 46 years.

NRK has found new clues in the Isdalen case – clues which have been stored since 1970 without being examined.

In cooperation with West Police District and the National Criminal Investigation Service (Kripos), we will study these clues closely. You may observe this work step by step on the www.nrk.no/dokumentar page.

(The story continues below the photo)

aastedsgruppe

SINISTER SCENE: Forensic technicians search the site in Isdalen outside the centre of Bergen, on the day after the woman was found. PHOTO: THE POLICE/BERGEN STATE ARCHIVES

Foto: Politiet / Statsarkivet i Bergen

Riddle upon riddle

The confusing finds at the site are only the first act in what is to become one of the biggest crime mysteries in Norwegian history. The more the police investigate, the more riddles surface.

And where no answers can be found, speculations are born. The fact that a young, beautiful woman, whom no one knows the identity of, dies under such mysterious circumstances, is almost unbearable.

  • Was she a spy - liquidated by her own ones, or by an unknown enemy?
  • Was she a member of an international criminal organization?
  • Did she go to the Isdalen valley in order to take her own life?
  • And in that case, did she make up all the riddles herself?

Help arrives

Already on the day after the corpse is found, it must have become obvious to the Bergen police that this will not be a simple case. Now they want assistance from the National Criminal Investigation Service (Kripos) in Oslo anyway, an offer they turned down the day before.

The head of the Kripos investigation team is the experienced investigator Rolf Harry Jahrmann. He boards the plane for Bergen, together with several of his closest colleagues.

The first week after the finding of the corpse, the police initiate a thorough investigation. All personnel at the police headquarters are involved in the hunt for answers to the question of who the dead woman in Isdalen is.

– A great many resources are mobilized. In addition to the Bergen police, Kripos and police forces all over Europe get involved. But tangible evidence proves difficult to come by. The Isdal woman has managed to disappear without being identified. At least until now, according to retired Kripos investigator Sigbjørn Wathne (79).

Wathne is one of the last investigators from 1970 still around. He has been employed by Kripos for less than a year when he is sent to Bergen to contribute in this unusual case.

– To me and several other investigators, it seems like she has fled from something, and consequently wanted to hide her identity. The case is a big mystery, he says.

(The story continues below the photo)

Tidligere Kripos-etterforsker Sigbjørn Wathne

OLD DOCUMENTS: Former Kripos investigator Sigbjørn Wathne studies the 46 year old investigation documents from the Isdalen case. Several of them are written by him.

Foto: Kjetil Solhøi / NRK

The breakthrough

The first breakthrough in the case comes three days after the body was found. The police find two large suitcases at the left luggage office at Bergen railway station. There are strong indications they belong to the Isdal woman.

Right beneath the lid of one of the suitcases, a pair of sunglasses is found. A fingerprint has been left on the lens of the sunglasses, which the police soon find out corresponds to the body's fingerprints.

This makes it crystal clear they have found the Isdal woman's luggage.

One of the Kripos employees taking part in the investigation, Tormod Bønes, still recalls the joy at the police headquarters when the message ticks in that they have found the suitcases:

Koffertene i Isdalssaken

BREAKTHROUGH: Only three days after the body of the Isdal woman was found, her luggage surfaces at the railway station. Expectations are high, but this time as well it turns out that all clues have been removed.

Foto: Politiet / Statsarkivet i Bergen

– People raise their arms in joy, and there is this feeling of victory. Many of them probably believe the solution is just around the corner, he tells us.

Bønes relates that he, as a young forensic technician, is slightly surprised by the way the suitcases are treated by the investigators in the case.

– They remove the lid cover and eagerly examine the contents. Everyone wants to be the first to discover the decisive piece of evidence which can identify her, he smiles.

But the jubilation soon dies down. Someone has been at least equally meticulous in the removal of clues and cutting off of factory labels from what the mysterious woman has packed in her suitcases.

– Everything has been removed. Even on the comb and the hairbrush, someone has rubbed away the production labels, Bønes says.

Instead of providing answers, the discovery of the suitcases merely raises more questions. Because among the clothes, the investigators find several wigs, and spectacles with just regular glass - no corrective lenses. In addition to hiding her identity by all possible means, the Isdal woman has also been in possession of equipment intended to change her appearance.

Disclosure in the shoe store

But in spite of the disappointment: The suitcase contains two important clues, which will propel the case forward. A writing pad and a shopping bag.

Kodeblokk i Isdalssaken

CODE: This is the original writing pad the police find in the Isdal woman's suitcase. It takes them several days to crack the code.

Foto: Øyvind Bye Skille / NRK

NRK find the writing pad in The Regional State Archives in Bergen's underground storage room, tucked in between the police's investigation documents. The first page is the only one filled in. In elegant blue handwriting, the Isdal woman has written line after line of letters and figures. To the police investigators, this looks like a code.

They will crack the code – but it will take them several days.

The shopping bag is a different case altogether - this is an instant success for the police. The bag is labeled «Oscar Rørtvedt's Footwear Store» in Stavanger. The police quickly turn out to the tiny store in the Nygaten Street of this emerging oil city. Here they talk to the owner's 22 year old son, Rolf Rørtvedt.

Rørtvedt remembers the foreign woman well. She had come to the store three weeks earlier in order to buy rubber boots. After careful consideration, she bought a pair of blue boots of the «Celebrity» model from Askim Gummivarefabrik – a model worn by half of Norway's female population in 1970.

But what matters most to the police is that remains of a pair of boots like these were found beside the body at the Isdalen site. This is the first real breakthrough in the increasingly frustrating investigation.

The finding of the bag and the boots confirms that the woman Rørtvedt served in Stavanger is identical with the dead woman in Isdalen.

Rolf Rørtvedt ekspederte Isdalskvinnen i 1970

MET THE ISDAL WOMAN: Rolf Rørtvedt served the Isdal woman in the shoe store where he still works. He provided the police with the first detailed description of her appearance.

Foto: Kjetil Solhøi / NRK

Rørtvedt and his colleagues are able to give a detailed description of what the woman looked like. Medium height, with long, dark hair, dark brown eyes in a round face, and «slightly plump, almost chubby curves, with pretty legs».

Today, Rolf Rørtvedt still recalls this special woman.

– 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, he tells us.

Many of the witnesses the police find, mention this unusual scent.

Rørtvedt thinks he knows the reason.

– 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, he says with a laugh.

(The story continues below the photo)

Illustrasjon av Isdalskvinnen idet hun kjøper gummistøvler i Stavanger

BREAKTHROUGH: Rolf Rørtvedt sold the Isdal woman a pair of rubber boots. When the police contacted him, he was able to give them a good description of the woman. This was the start of the first disclosure of the woman's activities.

Foto: Gro Stefferud (illustrasjon)

«Sensational solution»

And now the police make headway fast. With the description from Rørtvedt and the others in the shoe store, police officers go from hotel to hotel, asking the employees if anyone resembling the woman has stayed with them.

And only a stone's throw away from the shoe store, at the Hotel St. Svithun, they hit jackpot.

The receptionist tells them that a lady fitting the description - "dark-haired, golden skin, wide hips without being fat, speaks poor English" - had stayed at the hotel for several days. She checked in under the name of Finella Lorck, and stated that she came from Belgium.

And when one of the cleaning personnel at the St. Svithun tells them she has seen the Belgian woman with a pair of rubber boots of the same kind the woman had bought in the shoe store a few days earlier, the case is clear:

The Isdal woman must be Finella Lorck from Belgium.

Lorck must have travelled from Stavanger to Bergen, and checked in at a hotel there before her life ended, up in Isdalen.

The newspapers now print stories which indicate that the police reckon the case will soon be solved. The daily paper VG's front page headline reads «Sensational solution today?» in big letters.

VG 3. desember 1970 - Isdalssaken

BOLD-FACED TYPE: Five days after the corpse was found, there is great optimism in the police force. Leaks to VG and other newspapers indicate expectations that the case will soon be solved.

Foto: Faksimile

But once again it turns out the woman has hidden her tracks a bit too well. When the Bergen police look through the hotel registers in town, they do not find anyone called Finella Lorck. Somewhere between Stavanger and Bergen, the name has gotten lost.

VG's highly competent crime reporter on the case is Knut Haavik, who later became the profiled editor of the celebrity magazine Se og hør. He has extraordinarily good police contacts, and eventually manages to get hold of the investigation documents in the case. But in the first phase of the investigation, he is also struggling.

Knut Haavik var krimreporter i VG i 1970.

SKEPTICAL: Knut Haavik was a crime reporter in VG in 1970, and gathered exceptionally good insight into the case. He remains skeptical of the theory that the Isdal woman took her own life.

Foto: Kjetil Solhøi / NRK

– Normally in a case like this, the police would appeal to the public for help and assistance. But now they remain silent. They keep a lid on the case from day one, he says.

A few more days will pass before he understands why.

An astonishing discovery

Some of the most important police sources are now the so-called «alien registration forms».

– In those days, all foreigners have to fill in this form when they check in at a hotel in Norway - with name, address, passport number, and signature. And this gives us something to work with, Sigbjørn Wathne says.

Because both from the writing pad with the codes and from the receipts at the hotel in Stavanger, the police have obtained samples of the woman's handwriting. These samples may be used as a basis for comparison.

The next few days, responses to hotel inquiries keep pouring in from all over the country. Kripos handwriting experts analyze the handwriting of foreign women who have stayed in Norwegian hotels the past year – and they make a number of unexpected discoveries.

The woman who was found dead in Isdalen turns out to have been travelling from town to town in Norway for weeks. When checking in at a new hotel, she has frequently used a new identity as well. At this point, the police discover that she must have operated with at least seven different passports.

In addition to Finella Lorck, the following false identities surface:

  • Claudia Tielt
  • Vera Jarle
  • Alexia Zarna-Merchez
  • Claudia Nielsen
  • Genevieve Lancier
  • Elisabeth Leenhouwfr

Later in the investigation they find out she has also stayed at several hotels in Paris under the name of Vera Schlosseneck.

Both in Oslo, Bergen, Stavanger and Trondheim, the police find traces of the Isdal woman. With nearly all the identities she has used, she claims to be a Belgian citizen.

But the Belgian police, who check all the information she has given, report that all the identities are false.

– Self-assured and reserved

Alfhild Ragnes traff Isdalskvinnen i 1970

MET THE ISDAL WOMAN: Alvhild Rangnes served the Isdal woman in the dining room at the Hotell Neptun in Bergen in 1970. – I was impressed by her style, she says.

Foto: Arne Stubhaug / NRK

Employees at the hotels where the Isdal woman has stayed, are some of the police's key witnesses - because they have actually met her. Alvhild Rangnes, 21 years old at the time, works in the dining room of the Hotell Neptun. The young girl is impressed with the seemingly sophisticated foreign woman.

– 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. I remember I whispered to my colleague that I hoped I could adopt this woman's style as an adult, she relates.

Alvhild could never forget the Isdal woman.

– No, she made a lasting impression on me. She seemed so self-confident and aloof. But she was not really the type to don jogging pants and go hiking up in the Isdalen valley, she states.

The spy hunt begins

The police now have a corpse they are unable to identify, dead under very mysterious circumstances. They know she has operated with a number of false identities, spectacles without corrective lenses, and wigs, and that she has hidden her tracks in a professional way.

Well over a week after the corpse was found, the Bergen police do something they will deny for decades - they engage the spy hunters of the secret services.

Already for several days, the press has been full of speculations that the Isdal woman might be a foreign agent.

– This explains why the police waited so long before informing the public, Knut Haavik says.

Even today, he is convinced that the Isdal woman was some sort of foreign agent.

– She used eight different names on her travels around Norway. Consequently she must have had eight different passports. In addition, she was involved in extensive travel activities all over Europe. These cost money. Where did she get the money from if there was no one backing her, he asks.

Et av fremmedkortene som ble fylt ut av Isdalskvinnen

FALSE INFORMATION: This is one of the alien registration forms the Isdal woman filled in. Both the name, address, and passport number turned out to be false.

Foto: Politiet

The police crack the code

About the same time as the espionage alarm goes off in Oslo, the police finally manage to crack the code on the writing pad they found in the Isdal woman's suitcase. The contents of the code fall into place when they realize the figures and letters constitute an overview of the journeys the woman has carried out all over Europe.

– It turns out to be an account of her movements, including her travels when she spent time in Norway in the spring and autumn of 1970. And this brings us a bit further, Sigbjørn Wathne says.

Since the hotel forms have shown the police on which dates she was in Oslo, Bergen, Stavanger, and Trondheim, the pattern is plain to see: «N 9 N 18 S» means she has been in Stavanger from the 9th until the 18th of November.

This way, the police find out that her very last journey took her from Paris to Stavanger, on to Bergen, then to Trondheim, back to Stavanger, and finally to Bergen.

And here her journey ends, on a desolate scree slope in the Isdalen valley.

Hope in the gold crests

The cracking of the code is an important breakthrough, but it proves to be the last one. All the enquiries the police send to Interpol, and to colleagues all over Europe, North Africa and the Middle East, are met with the same response:

The names and the passport numbers are unknown, and no one matching the description has been reported missing anywhere.

Røntgen-bilder i Isdalssaken

IMPORTANT CLUE: Due to the extensive use of gold teeth, the Isdal woman's teeth became one of the most important clues in the police's attempts to identify her.

Foto: Politiet

The police's hopes now lie in the Isdal woman's teeth. As many as ten of her teeth have gold crests, and most of them are so-called preformed gold crests, a kind of premade crests.

The dentist who examines the crests, Professor Gisle Bang, states that this kind of crest is not in use in Scandinavia. «They are of a very distinct character and design, which is in use in for instance the Orient, and in some parts of southern and central Europe», he writes in a report.

But the teeth cannot yield a more specific localization - and so this clue is also not very useful.

Professor Gisle Bang works with this clue for many years. He has dental experts all over the world check the teeth, and gets the case mentioned in dental journals in many countries. But he never gets closer to a definite answer, and he passes away in 2011.

The cause of death is determined

Christmas is approaching, and the police investigation slows down.

The autopsy shows that the Isdal woman has ingested a large amount of the sedative drug Fenemal in several doses in the hours preceding her death. Many of the pills were still not dissolved in her blood before she died, so the pills cannot have been the sole cause of death. But they indicate that she may have committed suicide.

It is particularly difficult to explain how anyone would have been able to force her to swallow such a great amount of sleeping pills against her will.

The medical experts come to a sort of conclusion: «The cause of death is assumed to be a combination of poisoning from the sedative-hypnotic drug Fenemal and carbon monoxide. The injuries inflicted by fire may have been a contributing cause.»

Kripos chemist Tormod Bønes is present during the autopsy, and writes a report on the findings on the site. He also manages to isolate a tiny amount of petrol from the soil beneath the Isdal woman, thereby answering the question of what triggered the fire.

– Now as then I'm in doubt when it comes to what really happened on the site, and how the fire developed. It is difficult to be a hundred per cent sure. All in all, I support the 1970 report. But there is considerable uncertainty, and it is impossible to rule out that this was either a homicide or an accident, he says.

Tidligere Kripos-kjemiker Tormod Bønes studerer saken om Isdalskvinnen

PARTICIPATED IN THE AUTOPSY: Tormod Bønes was part of the the Kripos team which participated in the investigation of the Isdalen case, and he participated in the autopsy. He still considers the case a mystery.

Foto: Karl Lilliendahl / NRK

Set fire to herself

Just before Christmas, Criminal Commissioner Oskar Hordnes gives a briefing on the investigation status at a final press conference in a smoke-filled office at the police headquarters in Bergen.

He emphasizes that the case has not been solved as long as the woman has not been identified.

A few days later, the Bergen Chief of Police, Asbjørn Bryhn, offers his clear conclusion:

– Suicide.

In Bryhn's opinion, the Isdal woman was obsessed by some kind of mania - maybe paranoia.

And when Christmas is over, there is hardly an investigator still working on the case.

Isdalskvinnen - tomt åsted med gjenstander

THE SITE: A rare colour photo from the site after the Isdal woman has been taken away for autopsy. The blue and green chequered shawl she wore, the melted plastic bottles, and the bottle with the state liquor store's Kloster Liqueur are clearly visible.

Foto: Politiet

Consequently, all the basic questions remain unanswered. And they still are - 46 years later.

  • Who was the mysterious woman?
  • What was she doing in Norway?
  • Why did she die deep inside the rugged Isdalen valley?

To several of the police officers who worked on the case, it would become almost a trauma. The fact that they never managed to identify the Isdal woman, feels like a professional failure. Some of them never come to terms with the theory that she took her own life.

Among those who has never accepted the suicide explanation is Knut Haavik.

– Personally I'm totally convinced that this was a murder. She had various identities, she operated with codes, she wore wigs, she travelled from town to town, and switched hotels after a few days. This is what the police call «conspiratory behaviour», Haavik says.

Catholic funeral

On the 5th of February, the case is just about shelved. The time has come to bury the Isdal woman.

Isdalskvinnen begraves i Bergen 5. februar 1971.

ANONYMOUSLY BURIED: The police decide to give the Isdal woman a Catholic funeral – probably an indication of where they think she is from. The Catholic parish priest Franz Josef Fischedick conducts the ceremony.

Foto: Politiet / Statsarkivet i Bergen

The beautiful hymn "Lead, Kindly Light," accompanied by organ and violin, fills the chapel at the Møllendal graveyard in Bergen. Sixteen men and two women are seated on the benches. They are all employees of the Bergen police force. None of them has any idea who the woman in the beautiful white coffin might be.

The coffin is decorated with tulips and carnations, and will soon be lowered into the ground outside the chapel. There will be no tombstone. No one knows what the inscription would read.

Six of the funeral guests get up, lift the coffin, and carry it outside into the freezing rain, on this February morning in 1971. By the graveside, the Catholic parish priest Franz Josef Fischedick conducts the funeral ceremony.

In his speech, he refers to the unknown woman in the Psalms of the Bible. He says that the woman now being buried is also unknown. Therefore, there are no relatives present in the chapel.

– In all probability, she is also buried in a land unknown to her, the parish priest ventures to state.

The police have made thorough preparations in case relatives would turn up at some time in the future. The Isdal woman is buried in a zinc coffin, which will not disintegrate. This way, she may be transferred to whatever country she originally came from, at some time in the future.

The police photographer takes pictures of the ceremony and the burial. A policeman is given the assignment to describe the ceremony in writing. The photographs and the text are collected in a file at the police headquarters, and several of them are published for the first time today.

Begravelsen av Isdalskvinnen i februar 1971.

ZINC COFFIN: The Isdal woman is buried in a zinc coffin which will not disintegrate – in case relatives will come forward.

Foto: Politiet / Statsarkivet i Bergen

46 years have passed, but no next of kin has come forward. The case is still as much of a mystery as it was back in 1970.

  • The new clues found by NRK raise hopes that we may find the solution to the Isdal woman mystery. We now have a complete DNA profile of the woman, and we are carrying out further investigations. In the days to come, you will find the results here, at nrk.no/dokumentar.
Isdal Woman – the story

VIDEO: Most Bergen inhabitants are familiar with the Isdal woman mystery, and there are many theories about why she died in Norway. NRK has studied the case once more - here is more information on the mysterious case, and on the police investigation.

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