I've spent half a century (yikes) writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.
The Isdalen Valley is near the port city of Bergen, in southwestern Norway. A father and his two daughters were hiking in the valley in November 1970 when they came upon a grisly sight: a human body was lying between two boulders. The three quickly retreated and notified police. This was the start of a puzzling, unsolved mystery.
The Crime Scene
Locals sometimes call the area where the body was found Death Valley. That's because it was a place where suicides occurred in medieval times, and it was where some hikers were killed in a fall in the 1960s. Now, it had a mysterious death to add to its reputation.
The first police officer to approach the scene noted a strong odour of burning meat. At the site, the source of the smell was obvious. A female body was lying on its back and was so badly charred as to be unrecognizable. There were no identifying documents and labels had been carefully removed from her clothes.
The back of the body was found to be untouched by flames. The body was in a crevice among several boulders.
Jewelry and a watch were placed around the body in what appeared to be some sort of ritual. Other items found at the scene were an umbrella, an empty liquor bottle, nylon stockings, blue rubber boots, remnants of a passport container, a purse, and a few other bits and pieces. There were traces of gasoline around the site.
The autopsy revealed the corpse to be that of a Caucasian woman in her thirties, and that she had more than 50 sleeping pills in her stomach.
Deliberate Concealment of Identity
Three days after the gruesome discovery, police found some left luggage in the Bergen Railway Station that was traced to the woman by fingerprints. But, the contents only muddied the picture more.
She had gone to great efforts to disguise her identity. There were eight fake passports, all labels and brand names had been removed from the clothing, and even her comb and hairbrush had been scrubbed clear of any identification marks. There were several wigs and non-prescription-lens glasses, that led investigators to believe she was in the habit of changing her appearance.
But, she slipped up once by leaving a shoe store bag in her luggage. The shop was in Stavanger, Norway and a clerk there remembered selling a woman a pair of blue rubber boots, of the same brand that were found near the body.
The salesperson was also able to give a fairly detailed description of the woman; she was elegant, attractive, between 30 and 40, with dark brown eyes and long, dark hair. The clerk said she spoke broken English with an accent; later, it was determined she also spoke German and Flemish. With this information police were able to determine she had stayed at a hotel near where she had bought the boots.
Tracing the Movements of the Isdal Woman
With the Alien Registration Form that all hotel guests were required to fill out, police now had a sample of her handwriting. All Norwegian hotels were asked to send in their Alien Registration Forms and investigators were able to find handwriting matches that showed she had stayed in hotels in Oslo, and Trondheim, as well as Bergen and Stavanger. She seems to have travelled in other parts of Europe, turning up in several hotels in Paris.
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Also, she had used numerous aliases such as Claudia Tielt, Elisabeth Leenhouwfr, and Finella Lorck, while saying she was from Belgium. But, none of the names or passports turned out to belong to real people, and that's where the investigation stalled.
Based on the sleeping pills, police concluded the woman had committed suicide, but allowed that the case cannot be said to be solved until the body is identified. They buried her in a zinc-lined coffin so as to prevent any decomposition.
Modern Science Adds New Information
Forensic science has made huge strides since 1970 and Norway's police, anticipating advances in detection techniques, had kept the woman's lower jaw, which contained some unique dentition, including several gold crowns.
In 2017, sophisticated analysis of the jaw uncovered chemical traces that suggest the woman grew up somewhere along the border between France and Germany. Further, the results indicate that in childhood the Isdal woman moved west from Eastern or Central Europe, and that this relocation took place before or during the Second World War.
This new information leads investigators to hope they will eventually identify the woman, but that still leaves open the question of why she died on an isolated mountain scree in Norway.
The most popular theory is that she was connected to espionage. It was the height of the Cold War and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization was testing a new weapon, called the Penguin missile, in Norway at the time.
The country was likely knee deep in Soviet spies and the mystery woman may have been a courier among them. Perhaps, her handlers felt she was compromised and bumped her off, or maybe the job was done by Western intelligence agents.
Another theory is that was connected to an international criminal organization and the outcome was similar to the Soviet spy theory.
Or, was she suffering from a mental illness that caused her to believe she was being pursued by an imagined threat and she took her own life to end the torment?
Tantalizingly, we will probably never know the full story.
- In 2019, a man came forward with an intriguing story of an encounter in the Isdal Valley a few days before the mystery woman's body was found. Ketil Kversoy had been hiking in the area when he saw a woman coming towards him with two men behind her. He said they were not dressed for hiking in outdoors in November. He is quoted by the BBC as saying the woman looked scared “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. I'm sure she knew they were going after her.” There are some timing inconsistencies in Kversoy's story but it still seems plausible.
- Genetic genealogy is being used more and more to identify people. By cross-checking a vast database of DNA samples investigators have been able to track down some criminals involved in cold cases. One such was that of James Joseph DeAngelo who murdered 13 people and raped at least 50 others between1974 and 1986 in California. Known as the Golden State Killer he was charged in April 2018 through DNA evidence. In a guilty plea to avoid execution, he received a life sentence with no hope of parole.
- “Isdal Woman: The Mystery Death Haunting Norway for 46 Years.” Helier Cheung, BBC News, May 13, 2017.
- “The Isdal Women: Norway's Famous Mystery Death still Haunts the World.” Neil En, mysteriesunresolved.com, July 10, 2021.
- “The Isdalen Mystery.” Ståle Hansen, Norsk rikskringkasting TV, November 29, 2016.
- “ 'Major Breakthrough' in Norway's 46-Year-Old Isdal Woman Mystery.” BBC News, May 19, 2017.
- “Death in Ice Valley: New Clues in Isdal Woman Mystery.” Marit Higraff and Neil McCarthy, BBC World Service, June 25, 2019.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2021 Rupert Taylor