A burned body. Multiple identities used to check into hotels. Two suitcases full of wigs and clothes without tags.
The mystery of Norway’s “Isdal Woman” is now over 50 years old, but investigators and journalists have made little progress in figuring out who she was and who killed her. DNA testing performed in recent years has yet to yield database matches.
Was she a spy? A member of an international criminal organization? Or did she suffer from a mental illness? Those are among the theories surrounding the case, which was investigated in Norway with the assistance of police agencies in Europe.
The woman’s body was discovered November 29, 1970, by a man and his two young daughters while hiking in Isdalen, a remote wooded valley outside the city of Bergen, in western Norway. Isdalen means “ice valley.”
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The front of her body, including her face and most of her hair, were burned. Next to the body, police found jewelry, bottles with the labels scrapped off a watch and an umbrella. Police also found the remains of nylon stockings and rubber boots.
“The placement and location of the objects surrounding the body was strange,” Tormod Bønes, one of the forensic investigators, told the BBC in 2017. “It looked like there had been some kind of ceremony.”
The woman was described as about 5 foot 4 ½ inches tall, with brown eyes and long dark hair. She appeared to be between 25 and 40 years old. She had distinctive teeth, with 14 fillings and several gold crowns, unusual for her age and atypical for Norway.
An autopsy concluded she died from a combination of sleeping pills and carbon monoxide poisoning, which may have been from a campfire next to her. (There are conflicting reports as to whether there was, in fact, a fire close to her.) Her death was deemed a probable suicide, but many are skeptical due to the odd circumstances surrounding the case.
Police found two suitcases at Bergen railway station’s luggage department that were traced back to the dead woman thanks to a fingerprint. The contents included glasses, clothes with tags that had been cut off, wigs and German and Norwegian money along with Belgian, British and Swiss coins.
There was a notepad with rows of handwritten letters and numbers. Eventually investigators figured out they indicated the dates and places where she had stayed, all written in code.
There was a plastic bag from a footwear store in the city of Stavanger, Norway, about 120 miles south of Bergen. The owner’s son remembered that the woman had purchased rubber boots. She was “well-dressed” and “nice-looking,” he told the BBC.
“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” that might have been garlic, he told NRK Radio in Norway.
The police traced the woman to a local hotel, where she’d registered as “Fenella Lorch.” But that was not her real name—nor were the other aliases she used to stay at several other hotels throughout Norway from March to November 1970: “Genevieve Lancier,” “Claudia Tielt,” “Claudia Nielsen,” “Alexia Zarne-Merchez,” “Vera Jarle” and “Elisabeth Leenhouwfr.”
Presumably, the woman would have had to show fake passports to check into the hotels; however, no passports were ever found, only a nearly destroyed plastic cover, possibly for a passport, near her body.
Hotel staff remembered her as fashionable, quiet and serious. She spoke poor English as well as German and Flemish. One waitress remembered her dining next to two German Navy personnel, including an officer.
Despite what appeared to be a lot of clues, investigators were not able to figure out the woman’s identity. Norwegian authorities ordered the case closed in early 1971, just a few weeks after the discovery of the body. They buried the Isdal Woman in a zinc coffin to preserve her remains in case relatives come forward in the future.
The mystery has received renewed interest in recent years.
A new notice about the Isdal Woman was issued in 2017 by Interpol, the International Criminal Police Organization.
NRK Radio’s Marit Higraff and BBC’s Neil McCarthy reexamined the case with the cooperation of Bergen police and the National Criminal Investigation Service, called Kripos, in Norway.
An analysis of the enamel on the Isdal Woman’s teeth showed she most probably spent her childhood somewhere along the border between France and Germany. Around age 14, she probably lived in the border areas of Germany, France, Luxembourg and Belgium. Her age was deemed closer to 40 than 30.
At the time of her body’s discovery, some among local police were reluctant to let the case go and believed it was closed too soon, their descendants said.
Some speculated the case may have been closed because it had larger implications, if in fact the woman was a spy or somehow connected to intelligence work.
“My father could never put this case away,” Tore Osland, the son of Bergen investigator Harald Osland told the BBC. “He never could accept that they had to close down the case.”
The granddaughter of a Bergen police officer, Cecilie Thorsted Flo, said the case broke her grandfather’s trust in his profession. “My grandfather had this feeling that barriers were being put on their work,” she said.