2016 sketch by forensic artist Stephen Missal from morgue photographs
|Status||Unidentified for 49 years, 8 months and 12 days|
|Cause of death||Combination of carbon monoxide poisoning and barbiturate overdose|
|Body discovered||29 November 1970|
Isdalen, Bergen, Norway
|Resting place||Møllendal cemetery, Bergen|
|Known for||Mysterious death|
|Height||164 cm (5 ft 5 in)|
The Isdal Woman (Norwegian: Isdalskvinnen) is a placeholder name given to an unidentified woman who was found dead at Isdalen ("Ice Valley") in Bergen, Norway, on 29 November 1970. Although police at the time ruled a verdict of likely suicide, the nature of the case encouraged speculation and ongoing investigation over the years. Nearly half a century later, it remains one of the most profound Cold War mysteries in Norwegian history.
On the afternoon of 29 November 1970, a man and his two young daughters were hiking in the foothills of the north face of Ulriken, in an area known as Isdalen ("Ice Valley"); it was also nicknamed "Death Valley", due to the area's history of suicides in the Middle Ages, and more recent hiking accidents. Noting an unusual burning smell, one of the daughters then located the charred body of a woman, located among some scree. Surprised and fearful, the group returned to town to notify the police.
Bergen Police responded quickly and launched a full-scale investigation (filed as case name "134/70"). Examining the site, police noted the woman's supine position, her clenched hands up by her torso, and the absence of a nearby campfire. The front of her body and her clothes had been severely burned and she was unrecognisable. Also located or placed near the body, and affected by the fire, were: an empty bottle of St. Hallvard likør (a low-cost liqueur); two plastic water bottles; a plastic passport container; rubber boots; a woolen jumper; a scarf; nylon stockings; an umbrella; a purse; a matchbox; a watch; two earrings; and a ring. Around the body were traces of burned paper, and beneath it was a fur hat which was later found to have traces of petrol. All identifying marks and labels on these items had been removed or rubbed off.
Three days later, investigators found two suitcases belonging to the woman at Bergen railway station. In the lining of one, police discovered five 100 Deutsche Mark notes (c. US$137 in 1970). Among other things, they found clothing, shoes, wigs, makeup, eczema cream, 135 Norwegian kroner, Belgian, British and Swiss coins, maps, timetables, a pair of glasses (with non-prescription lenses); sunglasses (with partial fingerprints that matched the body), cosmetics, and a notepad. As with the body, any possible identifying information had been removed.
An autopsy at the Gades Institutt concluded the woman had died from a combination of incapacitation by phenobarbital and poisoning by carbon monoxide. Soot was found in her lungs, indicating she was alive as she burned, and her neck was bruised, possibly from a fall or by a blow. Analysis of her blood and stomach showed that she had consumed between 50 and 70 Fenemal brand sleeping pills, and found next to her body were a further 12 sleeping pills. At autopsy, her teeth and jaw were removed due to her unique gold-filling dental work and tissue samples of her organs were taken.
Police then launched an appeal for information in the Norwegian media regarding the case. The last time she was seen alive was on 23 November when she checked out of room 407 of the Hotel Hordaheimen. Hotel staff told police that she was good-looking and roughly 1.63 m (5 ft 4 in) tall, with dark brown hair and small brown eyes. Staff noted that the woman kept mainly to her room and seemed to be on guard. When she checked out, she paid her bill in cash and requested a taxi. Her movements between then and the discovery of her body remain unknown.
Police were able to decode the notepad entries, and determined that they indicated dates and places the woman had visited. As a result, based on handwritten check-in forms, police determined that the Isdal Woman had travelled around Norway (i.e. Oslo, Trondheim, Stavanger) and Europe (Paris) with at least eight fake passports and aliases. While details such as birthdays and occupations changed from one form to another, she consistently gave her nationality as Belgian; the forms were filled out in either German or French. It was also learnt that she had previously stayed at several hotels in Bergen, and was known to change rooms after checking in. She often told hotel staff that she was a travelling saleswoman and antiquities dealer. One witness said that she overheard the woman talking to a man in German in a Bergen hotel. Others who met her mentioned she also spoke Flemish and broken English and smelt of garlic. People who saw or met her also commented that she wore wigs.
Composite sketches, based on witness descriptions and analysis of her body, were then circulated in many countries via Interpol. Despite the significant police resources deployed, the unknown woman was never identified and the case was quickly closed. While authorities concluded that she had committed suicide by ingestion of sleeping pills, others believe that there is evidence that she was murdered.
On 5 February 1971, the Isdal Woman was given a Catholic burial (based on her use of saint's names on check-in forms) in an unmarked grave within the Møllendal graveyard located in Bergen. Attended by 16 members of the Bergen police force, she was buried in a zinc coffin to both preserve her remains and for ease of disinterment. Her ceremony was also photographed in case relatives came forward at a later date.
Many questions remain unanswered about the case, especially the reasons for the woman's many identities and unexplained travel plans. The conclusion of the local police remains that of suicide. Given the doubts raised by this finding, the police, Kripos, and Norwegian intelligence were also suspected of being pressured to shutdown and cover-up the case.
Multiple investigations point to the possibility that she was a spy given the Cold War context of the time. Norway has also experienced other strange disappearances in the 1960s, close to military installations, which also trace back to international espionage. The declassified records of the Norwegian National Defense also reveal that many of the woman's movements seem to correspond to top secret trials of the Penguin missile. A fisherman is also reported to have recognised the unknown woman while observing military movements in Stavanger. The possession of nine fake passports also imply the involvement of a very professional organization. Similarly, counter-intelligence activities by Mossad in Europe at the time may also be linked.
The taxi driver who took her from the hotel to the station was never found. In 1991, however, a taxi driver wishing to remain anonymous said that after picking up the unknown woman at the hotel, they were joined by another man before the station.
In 2005, a Bergen resident, who was 26 in 1970, told a local newspaper that after seeing the sketch circulated, he had suspected that the dead woman was the woman he had seen five days before the body was found, when he was hiking on the hillside at Fløyen. Surprisingly, she was dressed lightly for the city rather than a hike, and was walking ahead of two men wearing coats who looked "southern". She appeared resigned and seemed about to say something to him but didn't. He went to someone he knew at the police to report this, but was told to forget about it. Therefore, neither his name nor his alleged sighting was recorded at that time.
In 2017, stable isotope analysis of her teeth (taken from her unburied jawbone) indicated that the woman had been born in about 1930 in or near Nuremberg, Germany, but had moved to France or the France–Germany border as a child. This reinforced earlier analysis of her handwriting, which suggested that she had been educated in France or a neighbouring country. Analysis also indicated she had been to a dentist in either East Asia, Central Europe, Southern Europe or South America.
In 2018, NRK and the BBC published a podcast series titled Death in Ice Valley, which included interviews with eyewitnesses and forensic scientists, also suggesting that the Isdal Woman's birthplace may have been Southern Germany or the French-German border region, and that she was likely born c. 1930 (±4 years). She was also likely raised in French-speaking Belgium.
In June 2019, the BBC revealed that listeners of the podcast had given some more clues. Further, Coleen Fitzpatrick, a geneticist with the DNA Doe Project, contacted the Death in Ice Valley team to offer her help in identifying the woman through genetic genealogical isotope testing of autopsied tissues.
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Glem henne, hun ble ekspedert. Saken blir aldri oppklart [Forget her, she's been seen to. The case won't ever be solved].
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This is the description the Norwegian police sent to Interpol and police forces throughout Europe, North Africa and the Middle East: 'Approximately 25-30 years of age. Height 164 cm, slim with broad hips. Long brownish-black hair, small round face, brown eyes, small ears. The teeth showed many repairs, several of the molars had gold caps, and the dental work is of a kind practised in the Far East, Central or Southern Europe, and South America. Fourteen of the teeth are partly or completely root-filled. There is a marked partition between the two upper front teeth'
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