Trekking through the woods outside of Bergen, Norway, a father guides his two daughters to a hill overlooking the Isdalen valley. As the lush forest gives way to a clearing, one of the girls, just 12 years old at the time, notices something laying in the rocky slope nearby. It’s a woman – and she has died in a horrific manner.
The woman’s body has been burned, her arms outstretched in what investigators would later describe as a fencing position. And the family who found her doesn’t have a cell phone, so they can’t call the police right away. Instead, they make their way back through the forest, all the while hoping that the woman’s killer isn’t lurking somewhere around them.
One year later, 18 people gather to lay the woman to rest, although none of them know who she is. Instead, they’re the police officers who have worked tirelessly to identify her, to figure out why she ended up burned in the middle of the forest. They soon shelve their investigation, but the mystery of her death continues to hang over them and the journalists who wrote about her. And all these years later, the unsolved case still grabs attention.
On November 29, 1970, the decades-long mystery surrounding the woman would begin to unfold. On that day, a family hiking trip brought a father and his two daughters up the hills that surround the Isdalen Valley in Norway. According to the Norwegian broadcaster NRK, the area doesn’t see many people who stray from the path.
But the father and his two daughters walked slightly off course, making their way through the forests and into a clearing. Without tree trunks obstructing her vision, the older girl, who was only 12 years old, noticed something. Amid the rocks along a mountainous slope, she saw a dead body.
Of course, being that this discovery occurred in 1970, neither the father nor his daughters had a cell phone. Instead, they left on foot to alert authorities of what they had found in the woods. And as previously mentioned, the walk proved unnerving for the family, as they had no idea if the woman had been murdered or if her killer hid somewhere in the forest, too.
Fortunately, the family made it out of the woods, and police soon arrived on the scene. Bergen police lawyer-on-duty at the time, Carl Halvor Aas, counted as one of the first officials there. He recalled to the NRK, “The first thing we notice is the stench.” Then, he said he pondered just how the woman’s body got there.
“I remember we were walking and sometimes climbing up the scree slope,” Aas described. He continued, “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.” Meanwhile, after the police found the woman in this remote location, they started to theorize how she got there – and how she had died.
Aas told NRK that they wondered “whether someone has set fire to [the woman], or if there are other causes.” The position of her body revealed that she had, indeed, been exposed to flames. Investigators described her form as being in “fencer’s position” with her arms stretched in front of her. Indeed, this is the typical position of those who come in contact with fire before perishing.
Not only that, but Aas told the BBC in 2017 that the woman’s body “was burned all over the front.” This included both “the face and most of her hair,” although her back had no burn marks. That pattern led the police lawyer to conclude, “It looked like she had thrown herself back [from the flames].”
A forensic sweep of the area would uncover more details, so investigators grabbed brushes and tweezers and inspected the scene. And the woman’s possessions had also been burned. Indeed, authorities uncovered singed pieces of an umbrella, clothing and what appeared to be a plastic passport cover, as well as a half-bottle of liquor and a pair of melted plastic bottles.
Investigators also found what appeared to be the woman’s watch, as well as a few pieces of jewelry. Interestingly, she wasn’t wearing her accessories when she died – they all lay beside her. Indeed, forensic investigator Tormond Bønes recalled to the BBC, “The placement and location of the objects surrounding the body was strange – it looked like there had been some kind of ceremony.”
Meanwhile, the investigative team noticed that all of the items, burned or not, had something in common. Someone had taken care to remove all of their identifying labels or markings. As such, authorities had no leads as to who the deceased woman could be. Subsequently, she became known as the “Isdal woman,” a moniker that would stick with her for years to come.
The initial discovery of the Isdal woman made waves in Bergen, where the locals enjoyed a peaceful lifestyle without much fear of crime. The local authorities then enlisted the help of the National Criminal Investigation Service, called Kripos, in Oslo. Their investigator, Rolf Harry Jahrmann and some of his colleagues headed to Bergen, where they and the entire local police department worked the case.
Then three days after discovering the Isdal woman’s body, the police forces made their first big break in the case. Two suitcases had been left at the Bergen railway station prior to the woman’s death. Inside, the team found a pair of sunglasses with a fingerprint on the lens – and its unique pattern matched that of the murdered woman.
Thus, investigators could determine that the contents of the luggage belonged to the Isdal woman. And what she had packed certainly raised eyebrows. Along with multiple wigs, she had spectacles with clear glass lenses, rather than prescriptive ones. As such, authorities deduced that she may have wanted to change or hide her appearance.
But once again, all of the identifying information had been removed from the rest of the Isdal woman’s belongings. Similarly to those found at the scene of the crime, the clothes within the suitcases had no labels. Even the eczema cream stored in the bag had neither the woman’s name nor her prescribing doctor’s information.
But this didn’t deter investigators from digging anyway. And they found currency from Germany, Norway, Belgium, the United Kingdom and Switzerland in the Isdal woman’s bag. So, they reached out to department stores abroad to see if they could recognize any of the items. Indeed, authorities went so far as to trying to match makeup packaging to something on sale at a number of shops abroad.
Investigators didn’t find a single match for the items, but they still had a few more clues to decipher within the suitcase. For one thing, they found a shopping bag from Oscar Rørtvedt’s Footwear Store, which they located in Stavanger, a city about 100 miles away from Bergen. Police then asked the owner’s son, Rolf Rørtvedt, if he remembered a foreign woman coming into the shop.
Fortunately for police, Rørtvedt had no trouble remembering the woman. She had purchased a pair of blue Celebrity model rubber boots, a very popular style in Norway at the time. And with that, investigators got another break. That’s because remnants of the same shoe laid next to the body at the crime scene.
On top of that, Rørtvedt and the rest of the shoe store’s employees gave police a description of the woman who had bought the boots. She made an impression, Rørtvedt told the NRK, because she “asked a lot of questions and spent a long time making up her mind.” He recalled her being of medium height with a round face, dark hair and eyes and a curvy frame.
On top of that, Rørtvedt recalled her having an “unusual scent” and it took him years to decipher what the smell actually was. He continued to NRK, “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.”
Indeed, Rørtvedt’s memory of the mystery woman would prove extremely useful to police. They visited hotels near the shoe store and repeated his description to employees, hoping one of them would remember her, too. And at the Hotel St. Svithun – which sat very close to the Rørtvedt’s shoe store – they got a hit.
The hotel’s receptionist confirmed that a woman matching the description had stayed there for several days. And she even recalled the guest wearing rubber boots, like the ones on sale at the Rørtvedt’s store. The receptionist then said that the woman had said she was from Belgium, and she’d checked in at the hotel under the name Finella Lorck.
Of course, to investigators, the name lead felt like a huge break in the case, but it wasn’t as clear-cut as it had initially seemed. First, they couldn’t find the name Finella Lorck on any hotel registers in Stavanger or beyond. Then, they realized that the Isdal woman had made up the name altogether.
The authorities knew this because of one final clue they had uncovered in her luggage. This was a writing pad filled with what the NRK described as “elegant handwriting.” Investigators used the sample to compare it to the many foreign registration forms that guests had filled out at Norwegian hotels. The required documentation listed the names, addresses, passport numbers and signatures of visitors from other countries.
The police’s handwriting analysis also revealed another surprise – the Isdal woman hadn’t just visited Stavanger and Bergen. She had skipped from town to town in Norway for several weeks. And, whenever she checked into a new lodging, she presented the hotel receptions with one of a handful of different identities.
Along with her Finella Lorck identity, the Isdal woman also went by Claudia Nielsen, Vera Jarle, Alexia Zarna-Merchez, Genevieve Lancier, Claudia Tielt and Elisabeth Leenhouwfr. And in most cases, she claimed to be a Belgian citizen. But the country’s authorities confirmed that each identity linked to their country was fake.
Although the Isdal woman never revealed her true identity, she still made an impression wherever she went. Alvhild Rangnes worked at the Hotell Neptun, one of her lodgings along the way. She recalled to NVK, “She was obviously a woman used to traveling on her own. I remember I whispered to my colleague that I hoped I could adopt this woman’s style as an adult.”
Meanwhile, soon rumors began to swirl – many people believed that the Isdal woman had come to Norway as a spy. Indeed, not many people made the trek to Bergen as tourists in the 1970s. Plus, the woman had a worldliness about her that people didn’t often see. Crime author Gunnar Staalesen told the BBC, “This was during the Cold War and there were definitely a lot of spies in Norway, including Russian spies.”
Indeed, Norwegian authorities explored this route themselves, but they waited decades to share that with the public. They chased down reports that the Isdal woman may have caught a glimpse of a military test of a new fleet of rockets. However, they couldn’t find any conclusive evidence that she had come to their country as a spy.
The Isdal woman’s autopsy gave authorities some definitive answers, albeit about how the woman died and not regarding her true identity. Forensic investigator Bønes said she had “smoke particles in her lungs… which shows that the woman was alive while she was burning.” Indeed, traces of petrol found near the body proved that the accelerant had been used to set her on fire.
But the Isdal woman also had between 50 and 70 sleeping pills in her stomach at her time of death. Although they hadn’t all absorbed by the time she died, they contributed to her demise. The autopsy stated that she died due to carbon monoxide poisoning, as well as from taking so many pills.
But investigators didn’t believe in her cause of death as listed on her autopsy. Indeed, examiners had determined that she’d probably died by her own hand. But Aas told the BBC that “very few [police officers] thought it was suicide,” because of the body’s remote location, as well as the fact that she had died in a fire.
So with the autopsy completed – and without any further leads into the Isdal woman’s case – police decided to bury her in 1971. Official reports from the day read that the priest delivered a service for “the unknown woman, who was put to the grave in a foreign country without any family present.” Furthermore, only members of the Bergen police force attended.
Still, officials held out hope that one day the Isdal woman would one day be identified, so much so that they buried her in a zinc coffin that wouldn’t decompose. And the mystery surrounding her death has kept interest in the case alive. In fact, investigators and journalists have continued looking into the woman’s background and eventual demise.
Public intrigue has grown in the case of Isdal Woman, too. The BBC covered her story in a podcast called “Death in Ice Valley.” And listeners continue to converse on Facebook, sharing their theories into what really happened to the woman, since many people disagree with the suicide determination on her autopsy.
Indeed, both professional and amateur investigators still have three major questions about the case. Who was the Isdal woman? Why did she travel to Norway? And why did she die? According to the NRK, these mysteries would continue to haunt those who initially worked on the case. Furthermore, many took the inability to solve the crime as a failure.
Meanwhile, modern DNA testing has provided new details about the Isdal woman, although today’s investigators haven’t yet identified her. For their part, the samples they saved show that she was of European descent. Furthermore, police forces hope to use databases to connect her genes with those of her family members or descendents.
Until police make the DNA connection, one hypothesis rings true with many invested in the case – they don’t believe that the Isdal woman died by her own hand. Crime reporter Knut Haavik, for one, told NRK, “I’m totally convinced that this was a murder.” And yet, that’s just another theory in the unsolved mystery of the Isdal woman.