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4 Mysterious Cold Cases to Know in 2020: Unsolved Murders, Disappearances
Netflix’s rebooted version of Unsolved Mysteries is already on the path of, ahem, solving one of its more vexing cases. On July 21, the body of Alonzo Brooks—whose murder was highlighted in the fourth episode of the series—was exhumed and his case reopened by the FBI who is now looking at new evidence and considering the homicide a hate crime.
The original Unsolved Mysteries which ran from 1987 to 2002 actually yielded some impressive results. Of the 1300 mysteries that were highlighted on the show, some 260 were eventually resolved after the episodes aired—much of it due to regular people coming forward with new evidence, testimony, or homebrewed detective work.
Outside of infotainment docuseries like Unsolved Mysteries, internet detectives have dedicated many hours, words, and posts to solving cold cases that have been long forgotten. The hivemind, as it turns out, is pretty good at playing gumshoe.
What follows are some of the most vexing cases in history that, despite the best efforts of professionals and amateur internet sleuths, remain completely unsolved.
A forensic drawing of the Isdal Woman was created through eyewitness descriptions.
Who Burned the Isdal Woman to Death?
The charred body of a woman was found in a remote section of Norway in 1970 at the height of the cold war. An autopsy indicated she had ingested sleeping pills before she died, inhaled carbon monoxide, and had been burned alive. Later, a suitcase belonging to the woman was found containing money from multiple countries. Eventually it was discovered she was traveling around Europe with a number of forged passports containing different aliases.
What We Know
The woman’s immolated body was discovered by a family hiking in the Isdal Valley near the city of Bergen in western Norway. She was found in a supine position, badly burned in the front with her hands raised to her chest in an almost defensive posture. Scattered around the corpse were personal effects including a watch, an umbrella, some jewelry, and several empty bottles. According to the BBC, police thought the objects had been arranged around the body in a peculiar way, almost suggesting a ritual.
The Isdal Woman’s possessions.
Bergen State Archives
The clothes she was wearing were made of synthetic fibers and were missing their tags. Initially it was thought she was likely in her 30s. An autopsy revealed she had ingested between 50-70 tablets of phenobarbital and had bruising around her neck. She had also inhaled carbon monoxide and soot from the fire indicating that she was burned alive. With no identifying documents and the presence of a large amount of sleeping pills in her system, Norwegian officials ruled her death a suicide.
A few days later, a pair of suitcases were found at a train station in Bergen with fingerprints that matched the dead woman. Inside there were an assortment of wigs, makeup, clothing, eczema cream, eyeglasses with nonprescription lenses, maps, and small amounts of money from Norway, the UK, Switzerland, and Belgium. Inside the lining of the case were 100 Deutsche Marks–the equivalent of about $1000 USD today.
After careful examination of the suitcases contents it was found that any identifying information had been detached, cut out, or rubbed off. Even the eczema cream, which would normally have the name of the prescribing doctor, was missing its label.
The Isdal’s woman’s intricate dental work was uncommon for people in Norway at the time. Stable isotope analysis of her teeth suggests she was born in Nuremberg and grew up on the border between Germany and France.
Bergen State Archives
Detectives did, however, find a shopping bag inside the suitcase and used it to trace the woman’s whereabouts prior to her death. She had visited Norway several times during the year, staying at different hotels under fake names using forged passports. A 2017 BBC investigation found at one hotel she claimed to be Claudia Tielt, from Brussels. At another she was Elisabeth Leenhouwfr, from Ostend. Ultimately, people who interacted with her were located and interviewed. They all described a striking, stylish woman with dark hair and brown eyes who was elegant, charming, and always paid in cash. She also spoke multiple languages including French, Flemish, and English, wore wigs, and often seemed to be on edge.
Years later, the Norwegian National Defense released records that indicated the woman may have been traversing the country, observing the testing of the then top-secret anti-ship Penguin missile. A fisherman may have also spotted the woman watching Norwegian army troop movements.
Does the spy narrative make sense? Norway in the early 1970s was a flashpoint during the Cold War. Not only did it share a border with the Soviet Union, but it also played a substantial role in helping the United States and Britain monitor Russian nuclear testing and submarine warfare. It was known that Russian intelligence assets were active in the country as were elements from the CIA, MI6, and Mossad. In 1973 Mossad agents assassinated a Moroccan waiter in Lillehammer who they mistakenly thought to be one of the masterminds of the Munich Olympics massacre.
The Isdal Woman’s fingerprints.
Bergen State Archives
Where the Case is Today
In 2005 a man from Bergen came forward after seeing a sketch of the Isdal woman. Five days before the woman’s body was found in 1970, he reported seeing a person matching her description hiking on a hillside about an hour away from Isdal. She was underdressed for the weather and was being followed by two men who he said, “looked southern.” He reported what he saw to the police who dismissed his statement.
Before the Isdal woman was buried, a portion of her lower jaw was removed and saved; her teeth showed signs of intricate dental work which was unusual for Norway at the time. In 2017 a stable isotope analysis performed on her teeth suggested she was born in Nuremburg around 1930 but grew up near the border between France and Germany. The investigation of her dental work showed that it had been performed in either Central Asia, East Asia, Southern Europe, or somewhere in South America.
The case still sparks great interest. In 2018 a podcast called Death in Ice Valley from BBC World Services and Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation was launched that explored the Isdal woman’s death in minute detail. While the stable isotope analysis did answer some questions — the woman’s age and country she was born in — many more still persist. Was she a spy? If so, who killed her and why? Who was she working for? And perhaps most importantly, why haven’t any of her friends, family members, or loved ones ever come forward?
A photo of Igor Daytlov before his death.
The Dyatlov Pass Incident
Between February 1 and February 2, 1959, nine Russian hikers died in a remote section of the Ural Mountains under extremely mysterious conditions. Despite repeated attempts at explanations over the years, questions about what actually happen still endure.
What We Know
The hikers were all experienced in the outdoors, in their 20s and 30s, and friends from the nearby Ural Polytechnical Institute. Lead by Igor Alekseyevich Dyatlov—for whom the area is now named—they journeyed into a remote section of the Urals and set up camp at the foot of a mountain the indigenous Mansi people called Kholat Syakhl.
Sometime in the middle of the night something occurred that made the group rip open their tent from within and flee into a blinding snowstorm with extremely low temperatures between -13 to -22 °F. They were all underdressed, some only in long underwear and many were not wearing shoes. They made their way to a nearby tree line where they attempted to climb a tree and build a fire.
Soviet Investigators examine the hiker’s tent which had been ripped open from within.
Six members of the team died from hypothermia while the three others died from extreme physical trauma. Of the hikers that died of trauma, one had a fractured skull, another had chest fractures consistent with a violent car crash, while a third died from internal bleeding brought on by chest trauma. There were no puncture wounds on any of the victims nor was there any damage to the soft tissue. Tracks in the snow and the lack of physical wounds on the bodies indicated that the deaths were not due to an attack by the Mansi.
Two victims were missing their eyes while another was missing their tongue. The clothing found on two victims was extremely radioactive. Several of the victims were found wrapped in clothing that belonged to other hikers. At the memorial service, friends and family reported that the bodies had white hair and orange colored skin. Several years later, another group of hikers who were some 30 miles south from Dyatlov’s group reported seeing glowing orange orbs in the north sky the evening of February 1, according to Lev Ivanov, the lead investigator of the incident in 1959.
Russian prosecutors give press a conference on reopening 1959 Dyatlov Pass Incident case.
The initial Soviet investigation did not help dispel wild conjecture into the case. Unable to come up with any kind of satisfactory conclusion, officials stated that the group had died due to a “compelling natural force.”
Some of the macabre aspects of the case can be explained rationally. The victims who were missing their eyes and tongue? Most likely due to scavenging by wild animals. The orange colored skin and white hair? Probably caused by exposure to the elements. Hikers wearing each other’s clothing? If some members of the group succumbed to hypothermia first, others would have possibly stripped the bodies for extra warmth.
Over the years there have been numerous attempts to explain the fate of Dyatlov’s group. Conjecture has ranged from natural phenomenon (avalanches and katabatic winds) to military involvement (parachute mines and infrasound weapons) to the absurd (UFOs, cryptid attack). Then there are accounts from people who were closely tied to the case that has fueled speculation in supernatural causes and conspiracy theories. In 1990 the former head of the communist party of the town near the Dyatlov Pass wrote that there had been supposed UFO sightings in the area during the time of the deaths. Recently, when interviewed for an article for the Atlantic, Yuri Kuntsevich, who as a boy attended the funeral for the hikers, stated that the group had been coerced by a western intelligence agent to take photographs of a nearby soviet missile test and then murdered.
Updates and More Questions
In 2019 Russian investigators reopened the case and came to the conclusion that the hikers were caught in an avalanche, tore open their tent to escape, and made their way to the nearby tree line. Finding themselves inadequately dressed in a freezing snowstorm, they attempted to make a fire and climb a tree to spot their campsite. Several of the party died of hypothermia while the others attempted to construct a crude, makeshift shelter from tree branches, snow, and rock. The shelters collapsed in the violent weather leading to the catastrophic injuries suffered by the other three hikers.
Of course, that still doesn’t explain some of the more sensational evidence in the case. Why was some of victim’s clothing radioactive? And what were the strange orange lights in the night sky that were seen by the other group of hikers?
The meaning of McCormick’s notes has baffled both professional and amateur cryptanalysis to this day.
The Last and Only Cipher of Ricky McCormick
On June 30, 1999, the body of 41-year-old Ricky McCormick was found in a cornfield in West Alton Missouri. In McCormick’s front pocket were two pages of hand printed notes containing a complex cypher that the FBI, the American Cryptogram Association, and countless amateur codebreakers have—to this day—failed to crack. McCormick was a high school dropout who, according to a family member, “Didn’t write in code. He couldn’t spell anything, just scribble.”
What We Know
McCormick’s body had been decomposing in the field for several days prior to its discovery —authorities had to use fingerprints to make a positive ID. The rate of decomposition made it difficult for medical examiners to determine a cause of death—even after an autopsy and a toxicology report. But after considering the suspicious nature of where his body had been found (the area had been used to dump murder victims before) investigators classified the death a homicide.
The two notes police found inside of McCormick’s pocket consisted of 30 lines of seemingly random letters and numbers. Some of the code contains parenthesis, other parts of it is circled.
St. Louis PD
McCormick was an ex-con who was semi-employed at a gas station and alternated between staying with family and living on the streets. He also suffered from heart and lung ailments and had been collecting disability at the time of his death. His criminal record consisted of a handful misdemeanors plus a stint in prison for statutory rape. McCormick’s body was found some 15 miles from his residence even though he did not own a car and public transportation did not service the area where he was found. McCormick also sporadically traveled by bus to Florida where a former girlfriend says he acted as courier for drug runners, shuttling marijuana back to Missouri.
There are conflicting reports about McCormick’s mental condition. According to a Riverfront Times article, while awaiting trial for statutory rape, his public defender believed McCormick might be “suffering from some mental disease or defect.” She had him tested by a local psychologist who found McCormick mentally competent to stand trial. Though he was never diagnosed with any mental disorders, McCormick was considered to be street smart with an active imagination yet also possessed a naïve, childlike attitude towards the world, according to the Riverfront Times.
A few days before his death, McCormick’s girlfriend stated that after he returned from a drug smuggling job in Florida shaken and anxious. He went to several hospitals for treatment of chest pains and asthma in the days before his death. Some investigators believe he wasn’t actually looking for medical attention but believed his life was in jeopardy and was seeking a safe place to stay.
Parenthetical and circles on the notes suggest it could have been a to-do list.
Where the Case is Today
By 2011 the FBI’s Cryptanalysis and Racketeering Records Unit had exhausted its resources trying to crack the cipher. “Breaking the code could reveal the victim’s whereabouts before his death and could lead to the solution of a homicide,” the FBI said in a 2011 statement.
Some people, including some members of Ricky’s family, believe the notes to be the nonsensical script of a mentally disabled person. Other family members claim that Ricky had been writing in code since he was a boy. Experts, including the FBI agent in charge of the case, assert the notes are authentic. Small details in the handwriting—like circles around portions of the code—indicate that it was personal in nature, possibly a to-do list. According the FBI, the greatest challenge in this case is that McCormick likely intended the notes only to be read by himself. Other famous cyphers—like the Zodiac Killer—wanted their codes to be eventually cracked.
There is, of course, is the possibility that McCormick did not write the code — experts have not been able to conclusively prove that the notes are in his handwriting. It’s also feasible the code was written for him by the drug dealers he was working for or that he was just transporting the cipher from one place to another and was unaware of its meaning.
The FBI has an entire website dedicated to the case and invites amateur codebreakers to try and solve it. Ultimately it is believed the code contains information that will help catch McCormick’s murderers.
The Theft of the Boeing 727-223 from Angola
Two men—an American pilot and a mechanic from the Republic of the Congo—boarded a 727-223 jet that was parked at the Quatro de Fevereiro Airport, Luanda, Angola on May 25, 2003. Without permission from air traffic control, they taxied the aircraft to the runway, took off, and flew south over the Atlantic Ocean. No trace of the men or the aircraft have ever been found. Their motive for the theft remains unknown.
FBI bulletin for Padilla
What We Know
The 727-223 had been illegally parked at Quatro de Fevereiro Airport for over a year and had accrued $4 million in fines. Once a passenger jet for American Airlines, it had been sold to a Miami based aircraft agency and converted to transport diesel fuel to diamond mines—most of the aircraft’s seats had been removed to accommodate ten 500-gallon fuel tanks. It was in the process of being converted for use by a Nigerian carrier when it was stolen. The 727 was silver and had no identifying markings aside from a blue, red, and white stripe and a serial number of N844AA. Despite sitting on the at the airport for so long the plane was thought to be in fairly good mechanical shape.
Even though the 727 was structurally sound, it still needed some basic maintenance to make it safe to fly. That’s where American pilot and flight engineer Ben C. Padilla and Republic of the Congo mechanic John M. Mutantu come in. The two men were hired to help an Angolan maintenance team get the 727-flight ready. They had been working on the aircraft for a few weeks when around 5 p.m. on May 25, 2003, they boarded the plane, revved the engines, and took off with over 9000 pounds of fuel which would have given the plane a range of 1300 nautical miles. According to the FBI, Padilla, who was a licensed pilot, but not trained to fly a 727, was believed to be at the controls. Also, further complicated things: normally a 727-223 requires three crew members to operate it. The 727’s last known heading was in a southwestern direction towards the Seychelle islands, according to the Charley Project a nonprofit group dedicated to cold cases.
Not much is known about Mutantu but there is a large number of interviews and testimony about Padilla. Family members describe him as being interested in mechanics and aeronautics at an early age. According to Air and Space Magazine, Padilla’s coworkers stated that he was well versed in aviation and really “knew his way around a plane.” He enjoyed working in far flung locals from South East Asia to South America to Africa. One former employer, however, described him as only interested in “chasing local women” and reported that he had skipped out on a $10,000 bill from a hotel in Indonesia.
The theft occurred less than two years after 9/11, spurring law enforcement and intelligence agencies to frantically search the world for the plane. The prevailing notion was that an aircraft outfitted to carry thousands of pounds of extra fuel would make an especially potent suicide weapon. Intensive hunts were initially performed by the CIA and FBI in places like Sri Lanka and Nigeria until suddenly in 2005 they stopped without explanation. Despite numerous requests over the years from journalists and amateur investigators, both government agencies have largely declined to comment about the case
Where the Case is Today
The reasons for the aircraft’s theft remain murky. In an interview with Air and Space Magazine, Padilla’s family believes he was either scammed or forced against his will to steal the plane. In 2009 a scorched, gutted 727 was found in Mali. It had been loaded with cocaine, flown across the Atlantic Ocean from South America, deliberately ditched in a remote part of the desert, and set ablaze. Although it was not the same plane stolen from Angola, some believe the stolen 727 could have suffered a similar fate. As for Padilla and Mutantu, no evidence of either man’s whereabouts has ever been found.
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