Jacques Morrell – The Case of the Isdalen Woman

Here is my review of a 50 year old case in Norway.

The Isdalen Woman was found dead at a remote location outside the town of Bergen in 1970. Her body remains unidentified and as a consequence the case still attracts a lot of attention. Add to that some rumours about Cold-War espionage and Nazi-Hunters, then you have a story.

One of the artist impressions of the Isdal Woman

In 2018, BBC World Service created a fascinating podcast titled Death in Ice Valley. Produced in conjunction with NRK in Norway, the podcast consists of ten episodes (of about 30 minutes) that looks into the case and revisits some of the original witnesses. The purpose of Death in Ice Valley was to re-examine the case in the hope that the woman can now be identified, her family traced, and the mystery of her death solved.  

I suggest you listen to the podcast in its entirety. After one episode you will be desperate to hear more. It is very atmospheric and in journalistic tradition, it adds to the conspiracy theories.

Having read the public response to Death in Ice Valley, I can conclude that we (as humans) have certain traits: We like to think there is something sinister in unexplained or unusual deaths. We don’t like to think that people can die alone without someone being concerned about their disappearance.

My thirty-year police career was pretty extensive. A couple of years in uniform, then a major-crime detective, interspersed with a few years in intelligence and immigration related matters. Thirty years of responding to and dealing with people on the street and in their homes. As a detective, the incidents and crimes are looked into in detail, in order to make sense of the sequence of events. These incidents generally involve people under stress and human behaviour displayed ranges from irrational to the down-right bizarre.

These experiences qualify me to review the information made available in Death in Ice Valley.

See what you think. I have summarised the ten episodes and then given my interpretation of the case.

On 29 November 1970, in the remote Isdalen Valley near the Norwegian port of Bergen, a badly burnt woman’s body was found in strange circumstances. The police investigation lasted about three weeks and suicide was considered the most likely reason for her death. The woman had spent several days in Norway. She had stayed at a number of hotels and used a variety of false names. She claimed to be a Belgian national but was found to have links to Germany and France.

Here is my review of the information from listening to the podcast and some research in the Facebook Group. I have not seen all material available, but feel that the conspiracy theories are getting in the way of basic investigative work. Had this death occurred today, I have no doubt that the Isdalen Woman (IW) would have been identified, even using basic investigative methods.

I have typed in bold where I feel further enquiry or confirmation is required.

Episode 1

This episode sets the scene and describes how the IW was found. It mentions the scene of her death and what was recovered from it. A couple of things stood out:

All of her clothing (and other clothing belonging to her) had the labels removed. What enquiries were made to identify the manufacturer and retailers?

A metal photo ring (or rivet) was found, suggesting that it came from a passport that was destroyed in the fire. Which nations used these? How many types or manufacturers were there?

A pair of rubber ‘Seiler’ boots were found next to the body. These were traced to a recent purchase by the woman a couple of weeks earlier. Had she worn them only once (on the day of her walk to her death)?

An image of the type of Seiler Boot
Taken from BBC World Service

Episode 2

This episode details the recovery of two suitcases belonging to IW. These had been deposited at Bergen railway station’s left-luggage facility on 23rd November.

The suitcases contained more clothing (with labels removed) and items (wig and clear glass spectacles) suggesting that she changed her appearance.

There was also a note-book that contained a handwritten series of numbers and letters. These were interpreted as some kind of code (or shorthand) and were subsequently interpreted as a summary of her dates and visits to various cities in Europe.  

There was money (including Deutschmarks). There were some Norwegian coins were found in a purse marked ASKjobmandsbanken.

Have the manufacturer and/or retailers of this note-book been identified?

What else was recorded in the note-book?

Has it been assessed whether the code/shorthand was written in one go?

It also confirms that the police issued a media appeal the day after her body was discovered (29th Nov). What information (if any) came in as a result of this?

What media releases were made at the time?

The episode also explains that the IW stayed at a hotel in Stavanger for nine nights.

What enquiries were made at this hotel? What do they reveal about her lifestyle?

The code/shorthand in the notebook with possible interpretation

Episode 3

This episode explains that the IW left Stavanger on 18th Nov, taking a taxi from the hotel to a hydrofoil boat, and then to Bergen. The taxi driver recalled she spoke in English but not well. He recalls that she had a gap in her front teeth.

The episode then explains how the police made enquiries at hotels to compare registration cards with the handwriting from the IW’s stay in Bergen. They identify seven other hotel registration cards in the same handwriting. All were in different names and had passport numbers and addresses that did not exist. In all of them, the person claimed to be a Belgian National.

Did anyone at these hotels state they saw the passport?

What enquiries were made with the Belgian authorities?  

Episode 4

This episode continues to explain the use of seven other names by the person believed to be IW. These hotel visits also featured in the code/shorthand from the notebook found in the suitcase. IW had also visited Norway (including Bergen) earlier that year (Mar-April). A hotel in Paris was also identified. On each occasion, IW claimed to have been born in the 1940s (1942-1945). The handwriting is the same but the spelling changes between German and French. It also contains spelling errors. Interestingly the handwriting from the final registration card (19th to 23rd Nov) appears to be written more hurriedly. The handwriting is later interpreted as in the French taught style.

This episode then explains that the IW’s jaw was preserved and had a number of gold teeth. This was expensive dental work and was not considered Scandinavian, more likely German. The teeth suggested that the IW was over 25 years old, probably in her 30s.

The accounts from staff at the IW’s last hotel in Bergen were explained. She had breakfast in the hotel, she smoked cigarettes and smelled of strong perfume. She was described as strange. The housekeeper only serviced the room occasionally and recalled that a chair from the room was often placed outside the room. IW ordered a taxi when she checked out of the hotel on 23rd November.

How was the Paris hotel identified?

Episode 5

This episode introduces a previously unseen ‘intelligence file’ about the IW case. This was not an extensive document and there was nothing particularly new or, of great significance. There was however a reference to an interview with a trawler fisherman named Berthon ROTT on 22nd December 1970. 

ROTT claimed that he recognised the IW from the publicity and the artist’s impression of her. He claimed that he saw her on one occasion (presumably Nov 1970) speaking to a Norwegian Naval Officer. This had been at a location near Stavanger during some military testing of The Penguin anti-ship missile system. The intelligence file only referred to ROTT’s account rather than the actual statement (which is not available in the investigation file either). ROTT has since died, but the Podcast team traced his son. His son was aware of his father’s claims and understood that he saw the IW woman walk passed him while he repaired his trawler net. ROTT’s son stated that they visited London that Christmas (as a family) and his father was taken to one side and spoken to by officials at the port. His father claimed that they had issued him with a gun for his own protection.

Without seeing all the documentation relating to ROTT’s interview, his account should be treated with extreme care. As a witness, he does not appear to have had anything more than a brief glimpse of the woman. This was also at least a month prior to him reporting the matter. Identification cannot be reliable. In addition to this, the claim about being provided a gun is fanciful in the extreme.

What enquiries were made with the Naval staff?  

Did ROTT speak to the media and risk undermining the investigation? Was he warned about this by investigators?

This episode then introduces that a DNA profile of IW has been obtained from the teeth. So far the profile has only been submitted via Interpol to the crime scene and wanted suspect databases.

Episode 6

This episode contains an interview with an elderly Norwegian Intelligence Officer asking him about the theory of IW being a spy. His views revealed nothing remarkable and in some areas he lacked knowledge. He did however, rightly state that using eight false names suggested the person was not a spy, even more so that none of the purported identities would withstand any scrutiny.

The episode then continued with scientific work using the DNA and IW’s teeth. Mitochondrial DNA H24 revealed that IW was of European descent (maternally). Isotopes from the teeth showed that as a child IW originated from southern Germany but as a teenager was living in the French/German border areas that includes Belgium.

Episode 7

This episode details the three occasions when witnesses describe IW being in the company of another person. All these were men and occurred during her final five day stay in Bergen. 

No 1. A grey haired man was sat with IW for dinner at the hotel. IW looked serious and sad. They had little conversation. They spoke in German and the man spent was reading something.

No 2. A woman believed to be IW (but wearing a curly wig) was with a man (with dark complexion) in a home furnishing shop looking at a wall mirror. They spoke in an unrecognised language.

No 3. A man (blond hair 25-30 yrs) was with IW in her room at the first hotel in Bergen (18th Nov). They remained silent when the cleaner was in the room.

The episode also details that a table in her room was moved and placed it upside down behind the door.

Episode 8

This episode deals with the carbon dating of IW’s teeth, using the Carbon 14 method and amino acid testing. IW is assessed as possibly up to 45 years old.

The original police investigation was closed after three weeks (Christmas 1970) and the press conference concluded that she had taken her own life. Despite the speculation that she may have been a spy, there was no evidence or this.

A handwriting expert explained that IW’s handwriting indicated a French style of teaching.

Episode 9

This episode focussed on the indication that IW’s early childhood was in the Nuremburg area of SE Germany. The presenter travelled to the area and explained that this would have been during the rise to power of Hitler and Nazism.  It speculated that she could be Jewish and one of those that fled Nuremburg on the Kinder Transport. It also described how some local children were also fostered in a large facility in SW Germany.

The episode also described a spoon that was recovered from IW’s suitcase. The spoon had an engraving on the rear, and was possibly a cherished item. This needed more investigation. In Episode 10 this investigation revealed that the spoon was in fact a mass produced item, manufactured by a company in Vienna, Austria.

Episode 10

In this episode, the son of the original Senior Investigating Officer (now deceased) was interviewed. He revealed that his father was not happy that the case was closed so early.

There was also an interview with a Professor Dorrell, and lecturer in surveillance methods. He dismissed the likelihood of IW being a Mossad Israeli agent as pure speculation. He did however state that Intelligence Agents can be prone to depression due to their role and lifestyle.

The episode revealed that IW was not pregnant at the time of her death, nor had she previously given birth to a child.

It revealed that checks had been made with Belgian authorities and all missing persons at the time were discounted.

Summary

What do we know now about the IW?

She was born around 1930.

Early childhood in Nuremburg area of southern Germany.

Later childhood in the area of the French – German border (includes Belgium).

She wrote in a French style suggesting that she went to a French speaking school.

Nothing is known about her adulthood, other than she had never given birth to a child.

She had a gap between her top teeth and spoke with a lisp.

In 1970 (at the age of around 40), she travelled around Europe using a random series of false names, birth-dates, addresses and occupations. She purported to be 10-15 years younger than she actually was.

She visits Norway and Bergen twice, apparently travelling alone.

She consistently claimed to be a Belgian national.

She spoke English with a foreign accent.

She appeared serious and sad. She revealed nothing about herself in conversation.

She removes labels from her clothing.

She recorded her travel and unexplained events in a notepad using some kind of code or shorthand.

She checked out of her hotel (23rd Nov) and her luggage was stored at Bergen railway station.

Her badly burnt body was found on 29th Nov. Evidence of accelerant and overdose of barbiturates.

The case was investigated thoroughly for 3 weeks then closed with a conclusion of suicide.

Factors for Consideration.

IW almost certainly grew up during the rise of Nazi Germany and the war in Europe. Her childhood may well have been disrupted as a result. She may have even been raised by an adoptive family. She may have had an early personality disorder. She may have suffered abuse during her childhood.

Whilst her adulthood is unknown, she was physically in good health. She was described as having broad hips and strong legs. This has prompted speculation she could have been an athlete such as a skier.

There is no evidence that she held more than one passport, although she did provide false details at hotels. The original inquiry does not appear to have thoroughly investigated any immigration records, nor her likely Belgian nationality.

Whilst we do not know her lifestyle prior to 1970 (or the periods between her travel in 1970), she had the means and character to visit different countries. She did not appear to draw attention to herself. Had she not died in these circumstances, her travel would have been unremarkable and unnoticed.

The incident described by the fisherman (ROTT) cannot be relied upon.

The espionage theory is discredited.

We do not know why she chose to visit Norway (Stavanger and Bergen).  It is possible that Norway was a good place to remain anonymous and to avoid scrutiny. It has its own unique language and therefore she could use other languages to get by. It is possible that she may have been revisiting the area (although she did not reveal this to anyone) for nostalgic reasons. For instance, if the ‘skier’ speculation is correct, she may have visited Norway in 1952 for the Winter Olympics, when she would have been in her early 20s. She was in possession of tourist maps showing locations where the height above sea level had been added to mountain railway stations.

The Isdalen Valley had a reputation locally for suicides. It is a 1 hour walk from Bergen.

My Personal Theory.

Likely that she was suffering from a psycho-affective disorder that included paranoia and delusions.

Likely that she would have been treated for this condition at some point in her life.

Probable that she was estranged from what family she had.

Probable that she was self supported and maybe living off an inheritance.

Probable that she was someone who does not form close relationships.

Probable that people (neighbours) regarded her as an eccentric and a loner.

Probable that the trips she made in 1970 were a consequence of her psychiatric illness.

Highly likely that IW deliberately took her own life whilst the balance of mind was disturbed.

Likely her suicide was planned and had been for some time. The remote location for the suicide and the destruction of anything to identify her was calculated and deliberate.

Possible that she considered other locations at higher altitude.

Likely that the use of false names were a consequence of her deluded belief that she was under surveillance or being followed.

Possible that using dates of birth that suggested she was 10-15 years younger may have been a consequence of her not recognising her abusive childhood.  

Possible that the men that she was in the company of (in Bergen) were casual encounters. A woman travelling alone and with an outward appearance of confidence, she would have attracted attention from local men. These men may soon have realised that she was mentally unwell. Their personal circumstances meant they would not come forward after news of her death.

Possible that the purchase of the rubber boots was part of her planned suicide. That she used them to store/hide the documents that she planned to destroy, as she made her way to the secluded location. 

Thanks for taking the time to read my initial interpretation of this case.

My next priority is to understand the Belgian nationality issue in some detail.

Exactly what enquiries were made about this in 1970?

What was the process and type/s of Belgian passport issued prior to November 1970?

Did they use a metal rivet to secure the photograph?

What data is still available for Belgian passports issued prior to November 1970?

Any help with this would be appreciated.

Let’s hope that the mystery of the Isdalen Woman will be solved.

Best wishes, Jacques

The anonymous grave of the Isdalen Woman

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