WHEN a woman’s badly burnt body was found in the woods alongside a suitcase full of secret codes, wigs and eight fake passports, police were dumbfounded.
Who was she and why had she been killed?
On a freezing Sunday morning in winter, a father and his two daughters stumbled across the freshly-burnt remains of a woman while hiking in the woods behind Mount Ulriken.
The body was wedged between two rocks in an area known as ‘death valley’, due its popularity as a suicide spot in the Middle Ages.
In the vicinity police found a charred umbrella, two water bottles and a near-empty bottle of locally-produced liqueur, as well as a shawl, a pair of boots and woollen jumper.
A post-mortem revealed she died of a pill overdose, with 50 sleeping pills discovered in her stomach.
However, evidence of smoke inhalation suggested she had still been alive when she started to burn, and it is thought carbon monoxide poisoning from the fire contributed to her death.
Analysis of her teeth put her age at just 30 years old and the police’s first thought was that she’d killed herself.
But other clues pointed to something much more sinister.
While her clothes – not designed for the icy conditions – were largely destroyed, investigators saw that any logos and labels had been cut out, perhaps to conceal their origin.
Jewellery and a watch had also been removed and placed around her body like, according an official, “some kind of ceremony”.
Then, a witness came forward to say he’s seen her being followed through the wilderness by a group of men.
Following the success of podcast Death In Ice Valley which covers the case, DNA tests have
provided new evidence which revealed that she was in her late 30s and had links to Nuremberg, Germany.
A massive 20,000 crime-busting vigilantes have since come up with their own theories about what happened to her – the most popular one being that she was a foreign spy.
Suitcases abandoned at a train station
Despite her burns, police had been able to take finger prints and these matched prints found on two leather suitcases abandoned at a local train station.
Inside, police found clothing, prescription lotion, a diary, and a postcard – but anything that could have identified the woman had been deliberately cut out or scraped off.
The postcard was traced back to an Italian photographer who, when interviewed, said he remembered giving it to a mystery woman at a dinner but said he didn’t know anything about her.
Police also found wigs, non-prescription spectacles and money in various currencies, giving rise to the theory she was a spy.
After an appeal, witnesses also came forward to claim they had seen her take notes during a military test of rockets in western Norway.
Could she have been planted by a foreign power – like Israel’s intelligence agency Mossad – to monitor secret trials of the new Penguin missile to be potentially used against the Soviet Union?
This idea was given further weight by the discovery of a notepad with handwritten number sequences, which were eventually cracked to reveal an extensive travel itinerary beginning in March 1970.
Investigators discovered the woman had travelled between Stavanger, Bergen, Trondheim and Oslo in Norway.
She had also visited Paris, Hamburg and Basel.
Whichever hotel she checked into, she used one of eight fake passports all bearing different names.
Investigators discovered the names she used – among them Vera Schlossneck, Alexia Zarna-Herchel and Elizabeth Leenhouwer – simply don’t exist.
The source of the luggage was eventually located to a shop in Bergen. The owners described her as an elegant and well-dressed woman who spoke English well, but with an accent.
Lillian Menes Kohne, a waitress at the Hotel Neptun in Bergen where she stayed, recalled: “She mostly wore a white blouse and black trousers.
“Dark, mid-length hair, a pretty lady.”
She continued: “She seemed very serious, sombre and mysterious.”
A former bellboy also at the hotel, Frank Ove Sivertsen, added: “She was the kind of woman we hardly ever saw other than in magazines and movies.”
Staff said she was fluent in French and German.
Strangely, she also requested to swap hotel rooms multiple times.
Other witnesses mentioned that she had a gap between her front teeth, ate porridge for breakfast, smelled strongly of garlic and wore a fur hat.
Information about her appearance was used to create forensic drawings of what she may have looked like which were then distributed to the public.
German who fled in World War II?
With no further leads, the woman’s death was ruled a suicide and she was buried in 1971 in a Catholic funeral with police in attendance.
But investigators knew there remained many question marks over her story.
Thanks to improvements in forensic science, more light has since been shed.
DNA testing and isotope analysis of her jaw – which wasn’t buried with her – revealed she had moved from Eastern or Central Europe, possibly France or Germany, right before or during World War II.
Further research has suggested she is from Nuremberg in Germany.
While her age was originally thought to be around 30 at her time of death, it is now believed to be closer to 40.
The removal of tags on her belongings and the coded notes led to speculation that she was a spy.
Norway was a hotbed of espionage activity during the Cold War, from 1947 to 1991, thanks to its proximity to Russia.
If true, it’s still unclear which foreign power she may have been working for.
But the local Bergen Police found that when they began investigating links to foreign intelligence and Israel they were “shut down” by higher powers.
Some believe she could have been monitoring trials of the new Norwegian Penguin missiles, which took place from the late 1960s.
Researchers are still investigating if this could be a lead.
Chased by men through the woods
Another witness added weight to the idea that she had been murdered, perhaps due to her dangerous line of work.
Local sea captain Ketil Kversoy believes he walked by the woman on a Sunday afternoon while hiking back down to Bergen.
Walking 20 metres behind her were two men, and all three stood out because they were wearing clothes more suitable to a town.
“I was surprised. Some people were coming up the mountain. That wasn’t normal. I’d seen nobody else and I had been walking for a couple of hours,” he told the BBC.
“I remember her hair, dark hair, not too long. And also the men coming behind had dark hair. They didn’t look Norwegian, I was thinking southern Europe.”
Kversoy added: “She was looking at me and her face, to me it looked like she was scared and she was giving up.
“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.”
Eventually, Kversoy went to Bergen Police, but he was told the death had now become an international case.
Some conspiracy theorists believe the Norwegian secret service know why she was there and what happened to her but are keeping quiet.
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Researchers still hope to find out who the mystery woman really was so that her relatives can be contacted and she can be laid to rest in her home country – and advances in technology could soon make this possible.
It is believed researchers will next try to cross-reference her DNA profile with the big global commercial databases that are often used to reignite cold cases as well as helping people trace ancestors.
Only time will tell if the Isdal Woman’s true identity will be revealed.