Mystery at the Oslo Plaza
In a room at the Oslo Plaza Hotel, a young, elegant woman is found dead, with a gun shot wound to the head. Why did she check in under a false name? Why are the labels removed from her clothes? Why has no one reported her missing? After 22 years, her grave is re-opened.
On 3 June 1995, a young woman is found dead on the bed in Room 2805 of the Oslo Plaza, shot through the forehead with a Browning 9 mm pistol. She checked in as Jennifer Fergate, but the name is false. Who is this stylish woman? Why are the labels removed from her clothes? Why is she carrying 34 rounds of ammunition?
A year later, the unidentified woman is interred in a nameless grave in Oslo. VG’s Lars Christian Wegner wrote about the simple funeral. For 20 years, he has pondered all the unanswered questions. Why has no one reported her missing? Now, in collaboration with the Oslo police, VG makes a final attempt to learn the identity of the Plaza woman. What really happened in Room 2805?
Watch the documentary examining the unsolved riddle by Benjamin Ree and Lars Christian Wegner:
MYSTERY: The day of her death
Why didn't anyone report her missing?
Saturday, 3 June 1995: Just after 7:30 p.m., receptionist Evy Tudem Gjertsen at the Oslo Plaza, Norway’s premier luxury hotel, discovered that something was wrong.
The guests in Room 2805, a Belgian couple, Jennifer and Lois Fergate, had far exceeded their credit limit.
The receptionist sent a message to the room on the 28th floor. The text appeared on the TV screen in the room: PLEASE CONTACT THE CASHIER. Someone immediately acknowledged receipt by pressing OK on the remote control.
It was an expensive room, costing 1,845 kroner per night. In today’s value that would be about 2,900 kroner, or about GBP 269.
Tudem Gjertsen notices that two similar messages have already been sent to the room. The guests have now spent three nights there, and don’t seem to have paid a thing. The woman who signed in, Jennifer Fergate, is listed as 21 years old.
The receptionist calls housekeeping. Nobody has cleaned the room since Thursday. All day Friday and Saturday, a red «Do not disturb» sign has hung on the door.
The receptionist begins to sense trouble. She alerts hotel security.
Espen Næss, 25, has the night shift. He works as a security guard every third weekend, a good side job while studying. He takes the elevator to the 28th floor and reaches room 2805 at 7:50 p.m.
Knocks on the door.
A second later a bang comes from the room. The heavy door and concrete walls dampen the sound, but the sound resonates.
"Gunshot!" he thinks.
Then he remembers that two people are staying in the room.
The young security guard withdraws. He stands behind a small protrusion in the corridor and waits a few minutes. What should he do? If someone’s shot, there must be someone else in the room with a weapon.
He has a two-way radio, but doesn’t want to broadcast to the whole staff.
He makes a quick decision and heads to the elevator, takes it down to the reception, and rushes to the guard station.
There he informs the head of security while dialling the police. Are the guests in 2805 dangerous, he asks? But the police have no record of the names.
The head of security takes the elevator up, approaches the room, knocks once. Waits. Knocks again. Then once more. The time is 8:04 p.m. For 15 minutes the room has been unwatched.
With his key card he carefully unlocks the door. He notices it is double locked, from the inside. That means only security staff can get in, not other employees.
He opens the door a crack and detects an acrid smell. On the bed, a woman, in an unnatural position, arms up, chest not moving. The room is dark. A curtain is fluttering.
He shouts, but gets no answer. He makes a call.
He decides not to enter, closes the door, pulls back. He finds a telephone in the corridor and calls down.
Another half hour passes before the police arrive.
The woman is lying on her back on the bed, staring at the ceiling with a gaping hole in her forehead. She must have died instantly. Significant blood loss. She holds the weapon, a 9 mm Browning pistol, in her right hand, which is resting on her chest.
The TV is still on, the room tidy. Not much luggage. No sign of other people having stayed in the room.
Even before crime scene technicians arrive, a report is sent to the police: ample reason to suspect suicide.
The evidence: Explore the room in 3D
The investigation continues through the night. Both key cards are in the room. The door was double-locked from the inside. The window is ajar, but outside the mirrored glass façade stretches 28 floors to the ground. Everything indicates the woman was alone.
There is little doubt as to what happened:
* "... overwhelmingly likely that the woman has taken her own life," the crime scene report concludes.
* "It is 99.9 per cent certain that she took her own life," says the hotel’s internal report.
* “Suicide,” it says on a lab test order sent to the National Criminal Investigation Service, known as Kripos.
The case seems closed.
There are only two anomalies in the police investigation that evening and night:
* The labels on the dead woman’s clothing have been cut off.
* There are no relatives to notify. Belgian police report that there is no one named Jennifer or Lois Fergate. All information on the woman’s identity is false.
JENNIFER FERGATE: Who is she?
It seemed an obvious suicide. Quickly it became a nightmare for investigators.
Fake name, clothing labels removed, and nothing at all in the room to indicate the young woman’s identity.
No passport. No wallet, no money, no credit card. No handbag, driver's license or keys. Not even toiletries or make-up – just a cologne bottle that was almost empty.
Anything that could have identified the deceased had been systematically removed. Had she done that herself, before taking her life? Had someone else removed all the traces?
Even the false name itself was elusive. The hotel had registered the woman as Jennifer Fairgate, but twice she signed "Fergate".
And where was the man whose name she had put down as Lois Fergate? Had he been there and vanished, or was he also fictitious?
Did someone kill the false Jennifer, and place the weapon in her hand to make it look like suicide?
Nor did the weapon tell detectives much. The serial number of the semi-automatic pistol, a Browning 9 mm, had been professionally removed – not just ground off, but etched away with acid. The technicians at Kripos, the National Criminal Investigation Service, managed to recover some of the number, but not enough to identify the gun. It had been made in Belgium, in 1990 or 1991. They got no further.
Jennifer Fergate fired two shots. The first of them – a «test shot», as police described it – was fired through a pillow and into the mattress. Perhaps the woman used the pillow as a silencer when testing the weapon, the investigators thought.
The second bullet went into her forehead and continued through the brain and out the back of her head. It then passed through the bed linens and mattress and ended up on the concrete floor under the bed.
In the chamber of the pistol, the next bullet automatically moved up and into place, ready for firing, and seven more rounds waited in the clip. In a black attaché case next to the bed were another 25 cartridges. Jennifer had brought 34 live rounds in all. The black briefcase contained absolutely nothing but cartridges.
Not much could be gleaned from the autopsy of the young woman. Though she had claimed to be 21, forensic pathologists believed she was a bit older: 30, plus or minus five years.
Her eyes were blue, and her hair was dark and short; she weighed 67 kilograms and was 159 centimetres tall. Her fingerprints gave no matches in the Interpol data base. She had relatively expensive dental work in gold and porcelain, of a type widely used in the United States but also in some European countries, including the Netherlands, Germany and Switzerland.
The woman’s first call to the Plaza, to book the room, was back on Monday 22 May, but the police documents do not make it clear what dates she requested.
On Wednesday 31 May the woman called the hotel again to change her arrival date. She would be coming that very evening, she said, and specified that there would be two people. She checked in at 10:44 p.m., during the hotel’s most hectic evening period. Somehow she managed to check in without showing proof of identity. On the check-in form, the receptionist ticked the box where the guest was supposed to fill in her passport number. Nothing was ever filled in.
A police review of airline passenger lists from that night turned up nothing.
For the Oslo police, the questions multiplied. Assistant Chief of Police Gunnar Larsen put five experienced murder investigators on the case.
Why had the Plaza woman – as she was now being called – booked a room for two people if she was coming alone? Why was there no trace of her journey? Where did she obtain the illegal gun? Did she bring it with her to Norway, or did she get it here? If so, from whom? Why choose Oslo, if her only goal was to die? And why bring so much ammunition – 34 rounds – if she planned to kill only herself?
The police had a variety of theories:
* Could the Plaza woman be part of a major drug operation where something went wrong, so that she either had to kill herself or be killed by others?
* Did she work for a secret intelligence service? Was that why she had removed all identity clues?
* Was she a professional assassin who had come to Norway to kill someone?
* Was she a high-end prostitute who operated in fine hotels?
* Was she just a depressed woman who came to Oslo to kill herself?
* The Plaza woman was even checked out in connection with a specific mafia case in Italy. But the reply from the Italian police was negative; she was not mafia boss Leoluca Bagarella’s missing wife.
In fact there was no evidence for any of the hypotheses.
Extras: See all the evidence
Hotel employees who were interviewed said the Plaza woman spoke English and German. There were few observations of her. Printouts from the hotel’s digital locking system showed little entering or leaving of the room. It was looking more and more like a planned suicide. The investigators found that she had mostly stayed alone in the room, and interpreted that to mean she was preparing for the end.
A year later, the police gave up. None of the clues investigators had followed brought them closer to the truth. The Plaza woman remained as big a mystery as the day she was found.
On Wednesday 26 June 1996, almost 13 months after her death, the Plaza woman was placed in an anonymous grave at Oslo’s Vestre Gravlund cemetery, and with that, my role in this story begins.
My name is Lars Christian Wegner. I wrote a two-page story in the Oslo newspaper VG about the unknown woman the police had spent a year trying to identify.
Her burial was a funeral affair. No minister, no hymn, no friends, no family. I had worked on the case for some time and wanted to be present, but couldn’t make it. Only a single investigator and VG’s photographer followed Jennifer Fergate to her grave, apart from the pallbearers and cemetery workers.
In the more than 20 years since, I have kept the story of the Plaza woman in a desk drawer. Occasionally I would take it out, wondering if anything more could be done.
Somewhere out there is a family that does not know what happened to a sister, daughter, girlfriend. There is a young woman who deserves to have her name on a headstone.
Three times over the years I have requested access to the police documents and gone through all the details of the case.
During the winter of 2015, I suggested to Assistant Chief of Police Grete Lien Metlid that we make one last attempt to find out who Jennifer Fergate was.
She agreed immediately.
The first thing we did was have new artist sketches done of the Plaza Woman. Back in 1996 I asked VG illustrator Harald Nygård, who had spent decades as a police sketch artist, to draw the woman on the basis of autopsy photographs. Nygård himself was never satisfied with the result. Based on new photos of the scene in the hotel room, Nygård made two new sketches of Jennifer Fergate. This time, the artist was more satisfied.
THE BAGGAGE: Why were the brand labels removed?
All but one of the tags and brand labels had been removed from the Plaza woman’s clothes. Some snipped off stitch by stitch. Others cut or sliced away.
The only clothing label left was on a grey woman’s blazer hanging in the closet of room 2805. The jacket was from German fashion house René Lezard, and it would appear, from the police pictures, that the label was impossible to remove without destroying the lining.
The jacket had been sold in Germany, but that is all the police learned.
A turquoise travel bag was from the German manufacturer Travelite. The Travelite logo too remained in place, irremovable without cutting the bag.
Removing tags or labels is not uncommon. Most of us have cut off a tag that irritated our neck. But this was a systematic removal of identifying information.
Where was her passport? Wallet? Credit cards and money?
Back in 1995, all European countries still had their own currencies, but there was not a single coin or bank note to suggest the woman’s movements. A Norwegian 50-kroner note that she gave as a tip the night before she died was the only cash tied to her.
She had no handbag. No glasses, house keys, car keys, sunglasses. Nothing to read, and no handkerchief or lipstick.
The pictures of the deceased show a pretty, elegant young woman, carefully made up. She was clearly someone concerned with her looks, clothes and style.
Why no toiletries bag? No makeup? The autopsy pictures show clean, attractive teeth, but there was no toothbrush in the room.
The only personal effect found in the hotel room was a cologne bottle on the small table by the window. But it contains a men’s scent, Ungaro Pour L’Homme 1, described as "powerful and masculine", which all the same does not preclude a woman’s using it.
On the baggage shelf is a cotton sweater and a long, elegant black leather jacket. In the closet hangs a sleeveless blouse, the grey blazer and a slightly longer trench coat.
The cloth turquoise-green cloth travel bag, resting on an armchair, contains black pantyhose, a black silk top, and three blonde-coloured bras.
Otherwise the only clothes present were those she was wearing: shoes, stockings, bra, longish silk undershorts, sometimes called «pyjama shorts» and a thigh-length cotton jacket. All in black.
It occurs to me that to view all this in context we could use a woman’s eye, so I conduct an experiment. I show a series of pictures of the Plaza woman’s belongings to six female colleagues, one colleague at a time. I make no leading statements, but the reaction is unanimous.
"Where are the panties?" they all ask.
"There is nothing other than what the pictures show," I answer.
"But she must have had underwear with her?!"
The second observation they all make is that the Plaza woman has no trousers, no skirt or other attire for her lower limbs, except the «pyjama shorts».
Most also say it would be natural to have another pair of shoes.
Of course, anyone can forget something when packing for a trip, but this is really striking.
Jennifer has four jackets, one blouse, one sweater and four bras, but only one pair of silky shorts and no trousers and or skirt?
And could all this fit into the little turquoise travel bag?
No, something is missing: not only clothing items but something to carry them in.
The problem is that so few witnesses actually saw Jennifer Fergate.
Did she dispose of clothing and suitcases before committing suicide? Or could someone else have taken her things?
Did the police search the hotel for clothing or tags that had been thrown away? Were rubbish bins and containers inspected? Were any lost bags or suitcases found at the Plaza? The police documents don’t say.
The last observation of Jennifer Fergate was on Friday evening, 24 hours before she died. Kristin Andersen was in charge of room service when the Plaza woman called to order food at 8:06 p.m.
The main thing she remembered was getting a 50-kroner tip, a lavish amount at that time.
The room-service witness also told investigators that she assumed the Plaza woman was a flight attendant.
"That’s right," Andersen says when we meet her in the spring of 2017.
"Many airline crews stayed at the Plaza. It was easy to spot them, based on clothes and luggage. The ladies wore dark suits and their hair was put up. They had very little luggage and didn’t spread it around the room like holidaymakers often do," explains Andersen.
"I automatically thought of a flight attendant from British Airways when I went in to her, because of her suit and wheeled suitcase."
"Yes, I think it was a smaller rolling-type of suitcase. They were not very common at the time. It was typically airline crews that had them. That’s probably why I thought she was a flight attendant."
An important detail in Andersen’s witness statement describes the Plaza woman as «wearing a suit or the like, with skirt down to her knees in dark blue or black». A garment not present at her death.
Also in her police interview, the room service shift supervisor described the room as looking "completely untouched". That thought lingers with her today.
"I had the impression that she had just checked in," Andersen says. "The room seemed almost sterile."
Why didn’t you say anything about the suitcase in your witness statement at the time?
"I remember I was not very happy with my statement afterwards," says Andersen. "I got a lot of very specific questions. I felt bombarded. If they didn’t ask about a suitcase, then I didn’t say anything about it."
A month later, we receive a new and interesting piece of information.
Vigdis Valø, 52, of Rørvik, Norway, was a room steward at the Plaza, responsible for cleaning on the 28th floor. On Thursday 1 June, the day after the Plaza woman’s check-in, Valø cleaned room 2805 with a young co-worker in training. The room was empty as the two cleaned.
"The girl I had with me did the bath while I took the room," explains Valø. "I was done a little before her, and while I waited I noticed a pair of shoes under the baggage shelf."
That is of interest because when the Plaza woman was found dead in the same room two days later, she was wearing a pair of black Italian shoes, and no other shoes were in the room.
If Jennifer was out of the room as it was being cleaned on Thursday, she must either have left the room barefoot or had an extra pair of shoes at that time. So one pair of shoes, it seems, was missing when she died.
Why did you notice those shoes in particular?
"Because I thought they were nice. I wanted shoes like that myself. I looked inside them and checked the name, so I could remember it. But today of course I’m not able to recall the name."
We show Valø a photo of the black shoes the Plaza woman was found wearing.
Are these the ones?
"No, no. Those shoes I wouldn’t have given a second glance. No, these were finer, more colourful shoes."
If Valø’s observation is correct it means the Plaza woman must have had another pair of shoes – another indication that things were removed from her room
THE TECHNICAL EVIDENCE
A retired policeman flicks away some withered autumn leaves from an unmarked grave at Vestre Gravlund cemetery in Oslo.
Only a slight indentation in the ground indicates that someone is buried there.
"I’ve been here many times. I think of her often," says Tom Storm Olsen, 63.
He is just about the only person who knows where to find the grave of the Plaza woman. As a policeman he spent a whole year trying to solve the riddle of Jennifer Fergate.
"It’s sad, ending your life that way, with no family around. She is completely forgotten," he says.
But not by Storm Olsen. He has not been able to forget.
"She was an elegant lady. Why did she come to Oslo and check into the Plaza? Was there something else she had in mind doing? We looked into many groups and social backgrounds but found nothing. We thought maybe it was a drug case, or that she was supposed to carry out a mission for someone. Lots of police units were involved. If she was sent to kill someone, who was it? We searched but never found any answers."
What is the strangest thing about it?
"That she went to such lengths to not be identified. That is very unusual. She must have been in a desperate situation, but it’s hard to say why, because we don’t know who she was. There may well have been something criminal about it," he says.
The retired investigator sees no explanation but suicide.
"No. We investigated a lot – windows, doors, door locks," Storm Olsen says.
Could someone else have removed evidence from the scene?
"That’s not possible, based on the information we had," he says.
Storm Olsen has relatives buried in the same cemetery.
"So I often stop by her grave. I hope the case can be resolved somehow," he says.
None of the clues the police investigated led to new information about where Jennifer Fergate came from.
On her left arm, the Plaza woman wore a bulky Citizen Aqualand diving watch.
Diving watches were popular fashion items in the 1980s and 1990s for both men and women.
Interpol in Tokyo checked with the Japanese watchmaker and reported back that that particular watch was about three years old at the time, having been produced in January 1992. The manufacturer could not say where the watch had been sold.
The batteries provided a glimmer of hope. The watch contained three 370-type batteries, manufactured by the Swiss battery factory Renata. An imprint showed they all were manufactured in December 1994. According to the factory the batteries were delivered to wholesalers and retailers in December 1994 and January 1995. But the factory made a million batteries a month, and could provide no further details.
Another mark on the batteries might prove useful, though. Each battery bore the inscription ‘W395’, done by hand. The investigators learned that many watchmakers date battery changes in that way.
The W395 inscription probably meant that a watchmaker with the initial ‘W’ in his own name or that of his business replaced the battery in March 1995.
With the internet still in its infancy, however, the police in 1995 never managed to track down the watchmaker.
The black attaché case containing the cartridges, and where the pistol might also have been carried, lacked markings to indicate its place of manufacture.
Its only special feature was a tiny elephant of shiny metal.
Can it help us now?
All we have is a slightly blurred photo of the briefcase. We isolate the emblem against a black background and try to make it a little sharper in Photoshop. Then we do a reverse image search online.
What do we find? Well, the metal symbol is not an elephant at all, but a buffalo. It is the logo of Braun Büffel, a German luxury leather goods maker with roots dating back to 1869.
Now we’ve identified the manufacturer. At the time of writing, we are awaiting answers as to where this briefcase was offered for sale in the years up to 1995.
The weapon, a Browning 9 mm pistol, was no help to the police either.
Its serial number had been etched away with acid.
The Browning is a powerful, semi-automatic weapon. When a shot is fired, the next round is automatically pushed into the firing chamber. The magazine holds nine cartridges. The pistol is manufactured in large numbers. It is reliable, often used by the police and the military, and is popular with criminals.
Experts at the laboratory of Kripos, Norway’s National Criminal Investigation Service, managed to recover parts of the serial number. "The removal was done very professionally," the report says.
The Kripos technicians found two rows of numbers and letter combinations, imprinted over each other. On each row, they managed to recover six digits or letters but remained still three characters short of a complete serial number.
The weapon was produced at the Browning factory in Herstal, Belgium, but all the Belgian police could do to assist their Norwegian counterparts was determine that it had been manufactured in 1990 or 1991.
A total of 6,000 serial numbers were stored in three difference weapons archives: the factory’s own registry, the central weapons registry, and the registry of stolen weapons. Since the records were not digitized, it was an impossible task for the police to manually search the countless possible combinations.
Today, with current technology, is it possible to search for the weapon? Disappointment ensues.
Case documents say the pistol was sent away for destruction.
And not just the weapon, we quickly discover.
In fact, all the materials collected in the case have been discarded. All the Plaza woman’s clothes, the leather jacket, the shoes, bag, briefcase, everything is gone. Two months after the burial, in 1996, an assistant chief of police decided that everything should be thrown away.
Her few valuables, the diving watch, a gold ring from her right middle finger and a gold ring from her left ear were sold at police auction.
Grete Lien Metlid, a current assistant chief of police, has appointed a highly experienced officer to serve as VG’s contact with the police. Lennart Kyrdalen has served as an officer for nearly 40 years, many of them as a homicide investigator and watch commander in addition to holding leadership roles.
Kyrdalen goes to work on the case with great zeal. After a short while, he has good news:
"I’ve found the gun!"
Although it had been ordered destroyed, it remained intact in a glass case at Kripos. The agency needed an example of a gun whose serial numbers had been removed. Lucky for us!
Senior engineer Bjørn Tommy Nyborg is assigned to the job of trying to recover more of the serial number on the gun. He tries methods not available in 1995.
With electrochemical etching he tries to resolve the missing digits. He carefully puts some etching fluid on the metal. Waits. Tries again. He twists and turns the pistol in the light, and studies it under a stereomicroscope. Lets it sit overnight. No, it’s impossible. We are no closer to finding out who owned the weapon.
How about fingerprints?
The forensics technicians secured a number of fingerprints in room 2805 in the hours after Jennifer Fergate’s death.
Prints were found on three empty soft-drink bottles from the minibar. Fingerprints were also found on a glass, a potato chip bag, and a cologne bottle. All the prints belonged to the Plaza woman.
But what about from the weapon? Both the gun and the magazine were checked for fingerprints.
"No prints secured," says the report.
Could that be correct?
We double check with the Oslo police and Kripos, which analysed the findings.
Yes, unfortunately, it is correct. No prints were found on the gun or its magazine.
But the Plaza woman – assuming she did the shooting – obviously fired two shots?
First a shot fired into the mattress, with the pillow as a silencer. Before that, she, or someone, must have loaded the clip and inserted it into the pistol’s grip. After the "test shot" she must have turned the gun around, changed her grip, and fired the fatal shot, because she was found with her thumb on the trigger and her fingers around the back of the grip. All this without leaving fingerprints?
It appears so. According to the police, about the only cases solved by finding a culprit’s fingerprints on a weapon are in films.
"Unfortunately, it is very hard to get prints off a firearm. The surfaces and the grip make it very difficult," says Kyrdalen.
In other words, none of the technical evidence helps us.
THE TRAIL TO BELGIUM: Where did she come from?
How did Jennifer Fergate manage to hide her identity so well?
Was it luck or skill? Did someone else erase all trace of her?
And not least, why has no one come looking for her in 22 years?
Jennifer’s autopsy put her age at about 30. Today, she would be somewhere between 45 and 55. It is very likely that people who knew her – parents, siblings, ex-boyfriends, colleagues, schoolmates – are still alive.
But none ever reported her missing? No one wondered what became of her?
The registration form she filled out at the hotel is the most tangible information we have about her. Everything she wrote was false, including her name and that of her mysterious travelling companion. Can we decipher anything at all from this information?
The city she listed, Verlaine, Belgium, exists, but the postal code she provided is wrong.
Verlaine is in the eastern part of Wallonia region, about 20 kilometres from the city of Liège.
The phone number she provided is also fake. The area code is wrong for Verlaine, but is used for another area. The six-digit local number itself also exists, in two places actually, but not with the area code listed. In 1996, I recruited a Belgian journalist to help me call both numbers. Neither of the phone subscribers knew anything about the false Jennifer.
The street address? Also apparently made up.
The company she claimed to work for, Cerbis, was non-existent, but there is a big Belgian company with a similar name, Cerberus.
So I am left with the strong impression that the Plaza woman had a working knowledge of Belgium. Not that she was necessarily Belgian, but she did know the postal code structure and the telephone numbering system. She knew the city of Verlaine, which in the 1990s had barely 3,000 inhabitants. She provided a real area code. She apparently knew there was a Belgian company almost named Cerbis.
A document that Kripos, Norway’s National Criminal Investigation Service, sent with a request for assistance to Interpol in Brussels is dated 4 June, the day after the shooting. From her hotel room the Plaza woman had dialled two phone numbers in Belgium, which were identical except for one digit.
Why did she call two such similar numbers? Had she memorized a number but was unsure of one digit? Did she have a handwritten note that was hard to read?
In any case, no conversation occurred. Interpol in Belgium quickly determined that neither number existed.
I can’t find those two calls on the unpaid bill from Room 2805. But since the numbers were non-existent and the calls did not go through, perhaps they were not registered?
I have a lot of questions I would like to ask of people who held key positions at Oslo Plaza in 1995, but the current management ¬– of what is now called the Radisson Blu Plaza Hotel Oslo – won’t help. The management does not want us talking to current or former employees who might have relevant information.
So we follow the trail to Belgium.
In the summer of 1995, Kripos asked for help with the phone numbers.
Belgian telecommunications company Belgacom put together a list of the seven working numbers closest to the ones the Plaza woman had tried to call.
With the Kripos list and the Plaza woman’s false identity details as our guide, we drive on rainy roads through the area west of Liège. The first thing that strikes us is how short the distances are between all of our reference points.
Our hunt begins in Verlaine.
We already know that Rue de la Stehde 148 does not exist, but is that exactly what the Plaza woman wrote down?
On the night she died, Norwegian police informed Belgian colleagues that the woman’s address was on Rue de Stehde. But the more I study the scrawled form, the more I get the feeling that "Stehde" is not what she wrote.
Not that it’s crucially significant, since the information was false anyway, but knowing what she actually tried to put down might be helpful.
In Verlaine, no streets begin with "Ste" and only two with "Sta": Rue de la Station and Rue des Stanges. At the intersection of those two streets is the town pharmacy, a natural place to ask.
"No, that doesn’t work,"» say Emanuelle Voss and Beatrice Destexhe, from behind the counter.
All the pharmacy employees are curious.
They say the name seems to be a compound. «Rue de la» is French but "Stehde", if that’s what the Plaza woman wrote, sounds Flemish, even though it isn’t a real word.
Yet French and Flemish are never mixed in a name.
Either the Plaza woman was not familiar with the differences between the two languages, or she wrote something else.
The villages of the flat Belgian landscape pass by unremarkably. We try watchmaker Christophe Pé in the neighbouring town.
He doesn’t know any watchmakers with "W" in their name, and he himself has never marked batteries in the way the batteries in the Plaza woman’s watch were inscribed.
"Most likely, only an older watchmaker of the old school would sign a change of battery like that," he says.
We get to work on Kripos’s old telephone list, since no Norwegian police officer had tried to call those numbers.
Darkness has fallen before we knock on the door of the first person. He’s home. Yes, he and his wife lived here before 1995. We show him photos and sketches of the Plaza woman. No, the image rings no bells.
We try the next phone subscriber on the list, with the same result.
We continue over the next few days. All the subscribers suggested to Kripos live in the vicinity of Grâce-Hollogne and Seraing. All within a 10-12 minute drive from Verlaine.
Is this a coincidence, or did the Plaza woman have some knowledge of the area?
We try the library in Seraing. Could there be any addresses there that resemble the one the Plaza woman made up?
No, the local librarians see no discernable pattern or meaning.
We do, however, get an important bit of information from one of the local police stations.
Since interviews with foreign news media have to be cleared at a higher level, which can take a long time, all we are offered is a background interview, on condition we don’t use the name of the inspector we meet.
He has a possible explanation of why the Plaza woman was never officially sought as a missing person. It was something we never considered.
"Until the mid-’90s we had two different police authorities in Belgium: the police and the gendarmerie. When someone reported a missing person, they were almost always told to wait 24 hours, because many people turned up within the first full day. Communication between the two services was not perfect. The Dutroux case changed everything. You remember Dutroux?" asks the police inspector.
Yes, we do. It was one of Europe’s worst-ever sexual abuse cases. Belgian Marc Dutroux was sentenced to life in prison after kidnapping, torturing and sexually abusing six young girls in the mid-1990s. Four of the girls were killed. It was a national scandal.
"The Dutroux case led to missing persons cases being handled differently, not just in Belgium but in a number of European countries. The case was a watershed," explains the policeman.
"Does that mean missing persons reports filed before the Dutroux case might have been put aside or not taken seriously in Belgium and other countries?"
"That could have happened. Everything was different before Dutroux," he says.
The policeman asks if we knew that the first two victims in the Dutroux case were from here?
"Yes, the little girls Julie and Melissa were kidnapped just a few kilometres from here, in Grâce-Hollogne. I thought that was why you came?" says the inspector.
It turns out that the Dutroux case started right here. The memorial to the two murdered eight-year-olds is just a few hundred metres from our hotel.
The girls were kidnapped on 24 June 1995, three weeks after the Plaza woman died, but the sexual predator Dutroux wasn’t caught until the following year.
So if someone reported the Plaza woman missing in 1995, it was under the old rules, those in place before the Dutroux scandal shook Europe.
In theory it could be that a missing persons report was stuffed into a drawer in a local police office somewhere in Europe without ever making it into the centralized registries.
THE LUXURY HOTEL: Why did she stay in Oslo?
Oslo Plaza was the closest you could get to hotel heaven in the Nordic countries. In more ways than one.
The five-star hotel’s 37 stories rose 117 metres into the sky. Norway’s King Olav V performed the official opening in 1990.
International stars, top performers, heads of state all stayed at the Plaza.
It is where Jennifer Fergate booked a business-class room at 1,845 kroner a night (almost 2,900 kroner or GBP 269 in today’s currency). Was she planning to die there, or did she have something else in mind?
In late May and early June of 1995 Norway was in the grip of two major events: major flooding across the country’s east, and a nationwide strike in both public and private sectors.
When Jennifer Fergate checked into the Oslo Plaza at 10:40 p.m. on Wednesday 31 May, the reception area was full of newly arrived guests.
"It was often busy at that time because the last flights of the day for SAS, KLM and British Airways landed almost simultaneously at Fornebu. If passengers took taxis into town, we’d see them soon after," says Evy Tudem Gjertsen, who was the front desk supervisor at the time.
That Wednesday night was even more hectic than usual.
We check old newspaper archives and find out why: the strike.
Many police officers were on strike, including some in the passport control at Fornebu, Norway’s main international airport. Just one passport officer was on duty that Wednesday night.
"I remember there was a long queue of guests," recalls Sascha René Anonsen, an Oslo Plaza receptionist that evening. "It was all about assigning rooms as quickly as possible. We mustn’t keep the guests waiting."
Jennifer’s room had been pre-booked by phone. The hotel’s booking department registered her last name as «Fairgate», though she signed twice as Fergate.
Anonsen has a vague memory of her standing in front of the reception desk alone, checking in and receiving her room key card. He can’t say for certain.
Evy Tudem Gjertsen has a different memory, one she has stuck to for 22 years.
In her witness statement a few days after the death, she said she thought she saw the Plaza woman together with a man.
"And I still stand by that," she says today. “I’m sure she was with a man. I was at my regular station at reception, and on the other side stood that woman. Next to her was a dark-haired man."
In her statement to the police she described the man as a bit taller than the woman, maybe 185 cm, and somewhat older, possibly 35 to 40.
But was it during check-in that she saw the man, or later?
In her police statement, Tudem Gjertsen said it might have been in connection with exchanging currency that she saw the couple, and that it might have been later in the evening. In 1995, it was common for hotel guests to obtain local currency at the front desk.
"I have a feeling that the man handed money over the counter and that it may have been dollars, but I’m not sure," Tudem Gjertsen says today. "Nor can I say if the man was with her when she came. But I stand by seeing her in front of the counter with a man."
Printouts from the hotel’s key card system show that the door to Room 2805 was opened twice that night, first at 10:44 p.m., just after check-in, and then at 12:21 a.m.
If there is one thing Tudem Gjertsen cannot understand it’s how the mysterious woman could spend almost four days at Norway’s premier luxury hotel without prepaying or providing any payment guarantee, such as a credit card, and without showing any ID.
"It’s incomprehensible to me. We had strict routines at the hotel. It just shouldn’t be possible," says Tudem Gjertsen, who currently lives and works in Greece.
The luxury hotel in Oslo used key cards in 1995. When Jennifer Fergate was found dead, the door was double-locked from the inside. With the Plaza’s locking system, guests could turn the inside door handle up and down to make sure the door was locked at night. The same technique would work from outside if you inserted the key card before lifting the door handle, but not everyone knew that.
"I remember that case very well. It was a mystery from the start," says former forensic technician Bjørn Davan.
It was he who was called in that early June evening 22 years ago to investigate the room with the dead woman.
"We looked into whether someone could walk out and lock the door from the outside, but both key cards were inside the room and the door was double-locked. We couldn’t see how it was physically possible for someone to leave the room and then shut the door like that," said the veteran crime scene technician, who currently works as an insurance investigator.
Among the theories the police considered were whether Jennifer Fergate might have been an intelligence agent or if she might have been assigned to liquidate someone.
Security guards and agents were not unusual guests at Oslo Plaza, which often hosted government leaders.
During the peace process between Israel and PLO in 1992 and 1993, which led the Oslo Agreement, many secret meetings took place at the Oslo Plaza under tight security from both sides.
Might something have taken place at the luxury hotel in 1995 that could have resulted in a weapon being used?
"We had follow-up meetings after the Oslo Agreement both in 1994 and 1995, but not at the end of May/early June. Nor were there other peace talks or processes in that period where tensions were so high that an attack would have been a concern," says Jan Egeland, who was then a state secretary in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and a central figure in the Oslo peace process.
Ola Kaldager was head of the top-secret Norwegian intelligence group E14 for a decade around the turn of the millennium.
"Norway, Sweden and Austria were typical ‘safe havens’ where intelligence services could hold meetings and work in peace," Kaldager says. "They were open, benign and naive countries, easy to travel to, with good infrastructure and little police control. A lot probably happened that the public never heard about."
He was the head of 140 top-secret Norwegian agents who clandestinely gathered information in countries where Norwegian soldiers might be deployed. The “Section for Special Gathering” was the shadowy name of the intelligence unit that closed in 2006.
What happens if an intelligence agent dies in a foreign country?
Well-known agencies like MI6 or the CIA would probably ask to have the agent returned, but for some services it would be typical for a dead person not to be reported missing. The agency might notify the family of what happened and pay them a nice compensation, while the family would have to promise to never talk about what happened.»
Is it possible for trained people to get past a locked hotel door?
"All such systems have a power circuit, and that can be manipulated," he says.
Removing identifying labels in clothing – is that something you recognize from your world?
"Yes, but an intelligence agent would probably have cut out the logos with a razor blade, so no one could see that anything was removed. But whether she did it or someone else did, someone was very good at removing evidence, since this woman has remained unidentified for 22 years," says Kaldager, pointing out that organized Eastern European criminals can be just as professional as intelligence services.
THE NEIGBOURS: What did dey hear?
The view from the 28th floor of the Oslo Plaza is fantastic. Jennifer Fergate was given Room 2805, on the side on the hotel facing the city.
In the 1990s the top six floors were called "The Tower". The best rooms in the house were there.
3 June 1995: At the end of the corridor on Jennifer’s floor, just a few metres from the exterior panorama elevator that whisked visitors straight to the Sky Bar, on the 34th floor, was a room occupied by Tore Øyvind Nilsborg of Åros, near Oslo, and his bride. The night at the Plaza, with champagne in the room and dinner in town, was a wedding gift to the newlyweds.
"We checked in at the around 5 p.m.," recalls Nilsborg. "We didn’t notice anything when we went out to eat, but when we came back there were lots of people in the hallway, and police tape and barriers. It was only later we heard that a woman was dead."
An empty room, 2803, stood between Nilsborg’s room and that of Jennifer Fergate.
On the other side of Jennifer’s room, in Room 2807, was a Swiss couple – the only guests with a room adjacent to the dead woman’s.
Some 22 years later, we trace Ruth and Werner Zobrist to a small town outside Basel, Switzerland.
They remember their 1995 visit to Oslo very well.
"Ein Krimi!" the husband bursts out.
You were closest. Did you see your neighbour? Did you hear anything from the room?
With their daughter Christine, 46, translating, the couple tells us by phone that they were on holiday in Norway and spent two nights at the hotel. They don’t remember seeing the woman from the room next door.
They spent Saturday evening at Blom, a legendary artists’ restaurant, on Oslo’s main street, Karl Johans gate.
"We didn’t notice anything unusual when we returned, but the next morning there was police tape across the door," recalls Ruth Zobrist, now 78.
They had no idea what had happened until a few days later, when they were in Bergen, on Norway’s west coast, and saw that Norwegian newspapers were writing about a mysterious death at the Plaza.
You stayed next door to the dead woman. Did the police ever contact you?
The couple says no one ever contacted them or asked about that night, until now.
A room across the corridor was occupied by more newlyweds. They were the only neighbours contacted by the police.
"The police knocked on the door and asked if we saw or heard anything, but we hadn’t. We realized that the room was diagonally across the hall," recalls Laila Einrem Jespersen.
"We could see it was something serious," says Reidar Hogstad, of Ålgård, Einrem Jespersen’s husband at that time.
Police photos of the interior of Room 2805 provide a glimpse of a clear plastic bag on the desk. The bag contains the newspaper USA Today. In the Tower, guests received a free newspaper at their door every morning.
However, there is a different room number written on the bag: 2816.
Had the newspaper been delivered to the wrong room? Did Jennifer Fergate take it from another door? Did she have a visitor from another room?
Room 2816 was at the other end of the corridor, opposite the elevators.
According to police reports from 1995, an unidentified fingerprint was found on the newspaper bag. This year, 2017, the Oslo police submitted a fingerprint inquiry to Interpol.
Back in 1995 foreign guests at Norwegian hotels were registered with the police alien affairs unit, and the hotel cards were archived. However, old cards were discarded during an office move in 2010.
Nor does the hotel itself still have its guest lists from 1995, according to new inquiries by the police in the wake of VG’s re-examination of the case. So no one knows who was staying in Room 2816.
We can, however, discover who was staying a door away, in Room 2818.
We find the information in a stack of tips the police received in the days after the death. On Friday, 9 June, six days after Jennifer’s death, Borghild Strandenes of Bergen calls the police station in Oslo.
She works in a travel agency, and has many years of experience in the hotel industry. She was staying in Room 2818 that fateful weekend, on the same floor as the woman who died, and wanted to tell the police how surprised she had been by the Plaza staff’s inattentiveness. She wasn’t even asked to fill out a registration card when she checked in.
She told the police about a foreign couple she had seen at the hotel, and who had caught her attention.
"I thought I would be called back, but never heard anything more. I have never forgotten the case, though," says Strandenes, who now lives with her husband on an old French vineyard in Cognac.
On that night, there was a Belgian staying on the same floor as the Plaza woman, who herself was of course using a fake Belgian identity. According to police documents the man was in Oslo for work, and stayed at the Plaza during the final night of Jennifer Fergate’s life, from Friday to Saturday.
We try to contact him, but he has left the job he held in 1995 and his old email address is no longer active. Neither address nor telephone number are listed.
At last we find an email address and establish contact. As soon as we say we would like to talk to him about something that happened in Oslo in 1995, he stops replying.
We try to obtain more detailed contact information. Since the man is from the French-speaking part of Belgium, we call him "Mr F".
Finally, we manage to locate him in Belgium. Since Mr F’s room faced the Plaza woman’s door on the last day of her life, it is vital to find out whether he saw anything, heard anything or met anyone. Police never questioned Mr F. It is possible he doesn’t even know a young woman died just across the corridor, half a day after he checked out.
We go to his home address. This time we’re in luck. Mr F is home and answers through a closed door. We explain who we are. The man answers briskly: "I am not available. Thanks."
We try to talk with him through the closed door, but Mr F does not answer.
For two days we try to establish contact, leaving messages, business cards and letters.
On the afternoon of day two, Mr F calls my mobile phone while we are standing outside his house.
"This is Mr F. What is this about?"
I explain that it concerns something that happened in Oslo in early June 1995. Mr F confirms that he was in Oslo at that time for work and stayed at the hotel.
"There was a woman who died, wasn’t there? A suicide?" asks Mr F with no prompting.
It was an answer I was not expecting.
"I remember it well because they asked me about it at the front desk when I checked out," Mr F says. "Someone asked if I had heard or seen anything, since it was in the same corridor. But I slept well that night and knew nothing about it."
I have his check-out form from the hotel, but to be on the safe side, I ask Mr F whether he is absolutely sure of the day, and he confirms the details.
"I stayed there from Friday to Saturday. When I checked out, they told me about the lady who died. I’ve stayed at thousands of hotels, so for me this was no big thing," he says.
Mr F doesn’t want us to come in to show him photos and drawings of the Plaza woman.
Were you ever contacted by the police?
"No, I’ve never talked to anyone," he says.
But, Mr F, this is very strange. You checked out of the hotel on Saturday morning, but the young woman didn’t die until Saturday night, almost 12 hours later. I don’t see how they could ask you about the death on Saturday morning, when the woman wasn’t dead yet?
Mr F is quick to respond:
"I don’t know anything about that. I just remember they asked me. That’s all I know."
The conversation is over.
Later, we try several times to contact Mr F again. That he checked out of the hotel almost 12 hours before the Plaza woman was found dead is indisputable. We would like to ask him more questions, but have not succeeded in getting in touch with him.
THE DAY THAT DISAPPEARED
Jennifer Fergate was like a shadow wandering the halls of the skyscraper hotel. Few saw her. Almost no one can describe her.
Was it because she blended so well into the background that no one noticed her? Was she trained to not draw attention? Or was it simply because she kept to herself in the room?
Police investigators favoured the alone-in-her-room theory. Perhaps she was just a despondent woman who came to Oslo to die.
The all but invisible Lois Fergate is an even more of a riddle. Only two details point to his existence:
First, Jennifer Fergate (if it was her) called the hotel on Wednesday afternoon and changed her arrival date to the same day, specifying that there would be two guests, and providing his name.
Second, supervisor Evy Tudem Gjertsen saw a man with Jennifer, either during check-in or while exchanging currency later in the evening.
We haven’t been able to talk to the hotel booking staff member who talked to Jennifer Fergate twice on the phone, because the current hotel management does want us to.
That staff member told the police the Plaza woman spoke English the first time she called, on Monday 22 May. She didn’t seem to care about the price of the room. The booking assistant told the police she formed «a bad impression of her». Nine days later, the woman called again, this time speaking German, seemingly with no accent. She did not seem to be calling from a phone booth, as no noise or other voices could be heard in the background. This time the woman emphasized that two guests would be arriving.
To try to understand the Plaza woman’s movements, I create a timeline.
When the Plaza woman checked in on Wednesday night, she was handed two key cards. The guests would be staying until Friday. On Friday morning, the woman appeared again at the reception desk and extended the stay until Sunday. She was given two new key cards.
Printouts from the hotel’s locking system show that Jennifer Fergate’s key card was used only five times during the three days. The system only registers the use of a card to enter a room, not the door being opened from the inside when someone leaves.
When the security guard entered Room 2805 on Saturday night, the door had been double-locked from the inside. The police regarded the locking system information as credible, and it became a main argument for the suicide theory. The fact that she barely left her room reinforced the notion of Jennifer Fergate as despondent.
To try to understand the Plaza woman’s movements, I create a timeline.
On one side of the timeline I note each time the door was opened with a key card, according to the locking system printouts.
At 10:44 p.m., Jennifer Fergate opens the door to Room 2805 for the first time. A little later she (or someone else) must have left, because at 12:21 a.m. the card is again used.
The next morning, Thursday, the card is used at 8:34 a.m. Perhaps the Plaza woman had gone downstairs to eat breakfast?
After that, no use of the key card is registered until Friday at 8:50 a.m. This time one of the new cards is used, so she must have gone to reception and extended her visit before that point. A hotel employee sees her enter the room and hang out the "Do not disturb" sign shortly afterwards.
The key card is used one final time, at 11:03 the same morning. After that, no one uses a card to open the door from outside until the head of security enters and finds Jennifer Fergate dead on Saturday at 8:04 p.m.
On the other side of the timeline, I now enter witness observations.
And with that, I notice something strange.
On Thursday, a little before 1:00 p.m., Room 2805 is cleaned. Room steward Vigdis Valø is in charge of the 28th floor. On this day she has a 19-year-old helper with her, for training. Three times between 12:44 and 12:50 p.m. the two co-workers open the door, probably to get things from the cleaning cart in the hallway.
When interviewed the following week, both women tell police that there was no one else in the room at the time.
The door to Room 2805 is not opened again, whether by employees or guests, until 8:50 a.m. the next day.
The previous time the door had been opened with the Plaza woman’s card was at 8:34 a.m. on Thursday. That means Jennifer Fergate left the room at some point between 8:34 a.m. and 12:44 p.m. and did not return until the next day, at 8:50 a.m.
That means the room was empty for a minimum of 20 hours, and for a maximum of 24.
Jennifer Fergate was not sitting in her room preparing to die. She was away for almost an entire 24-hour period.
I check and double check, but reach the same conclusion. Almost a whole day is missing.
Where was she?
Elsewhere in the hotel? If so she must have known someone after all.
Was she wandering the streets of Oslo for a whole day and night?
Could she have been with someone at another place in Oslo, or in another city? That would mean she knew someone in Norway, or had reason to meet someone.
On Friday at 8:06 p.m., Jennifer Fergate orders food from the hotel’s room service. At 8:23 p.m. the food is delivered. Kristin Andersen, who brings the food, notices how tidy the room is. It looks untouched, as does the bed.
The bed had been made by Valø on Thursday, a little before 1 p.m., and it is now Friday night. Is it possible the bed had been slept in, and that the Plaza woman replaced the duvet and bedspread so perfectly that Andersen, from room service, thought it hadn’t been used?
I check with other staff.
It turns out that Oslo Plaza, at that time, used bedspreads on all the beds. Big, quilted bedspreads.
"They were big and heavy and a bit awkward. They were form-fitted, with rounded corners, and covered the whole bed down to the floor. It was quite a nuisance," says former room steward Karin Løvbrøtte.
"They were supposed to be folded around and under the pillows," recalls Valø.
The guests often left the bedspreads on the floor or in a chair after taking them off. None of the room stewards can remember guests putting them back on, simply because it was so much work.
"The bed was all made up, i.e. it did not look as if anyone had used it," it says in Andersen’s witness statement. In other words, the Plaza woman could not have been in the room between Thursday and Friday.
"That is new information for the police, but it would seem you’re right," Lennart Kyrdalen, the Oslo police consultant, tells VG. "By all indications the Plaza woman was away for a whole day."
THE SHOTS: Why was there no blood on her hands?
Two shots were fired in room 2805.
The police investigation concluded that the first bullet went through the pillow, the mattress and the bed frame before stopping against the concrete floor.
That might have been a test shot. Maybe the Plaza woman was unfamiliar with the weapon, or wanted to know how powerful the recoil would be. Maybe there was some other reason.
It was the second shot that ended the young woman’s life.
The bullet entered the forehead and passed out the back of the head. Death was instantaneous.
The Plaza woman was found dead with the weapon in her right hand, resting on her chest. The bullet’s path indicates that the shot was fired as the woman lay on her back in bed.
The crime scene report describes her grip on the gun as follows:
"The right thumb of the corpse lay against the trigger, which was thus held in the posterior/fired position. When the weapon was released from the corpse’s hand, a ‘click’ could be heard as the trigger moved towards the forward position."
Both bullet holes in the mattress were located under the head of the deceased, with about 7.5 cm between them.
Blood loss was considerable. The bed linen and mattress were soaked. Spatter material was found on the pillow, the telephone, the bedside table and all the way up the wall. There were even some drops on the ceiling.
The forensic pathologist at the crime scene that Saturday evening also performed the autopsy three days later.
In the autopsy report he writes, «There are no signs of back spatter or singeing on the hands.»
Analysis by the Norwegian Institute of Forensic Toxicology showed the deceased had not been under the influence of alcohol. However, no tests were done for narcotics, antidepressants or other drugs. Nor were samples taken from the public region or under her fingernails.
When a weapon is fired, gunpowder residue and primer particles are ejected from the weapon – particles that stick to the skin, may be microscopic and are easily contaminated.
Forensic technicians took samples from the skin of the Plaza woman’s hands with carbon tape, but testing showed no indication of gunshot residue. The samples were later sent for destruction.
"We are not sure if the woman took her own life or if she was eliminated by persons unknown," Assistant Chief of Police Gunnar Larsen told Dagbladet three weeks later. "All we’re sure of is that we have a lot of questions, which the investigation has not yet answered."
For the police, it was the totality of the evidence that led them to conclude suicide: the double-locked door with both key cards inside the room, the silence noticed by the security guard right after the shot, the lack of any sign of struggle in the room and the lack of other injury to the victim.
"There was nothing to suggest a struggle in the room," says former forensic technician Bjørn Davan, who investigated the scene. The furniture was in place, the bottles and glasses were upright, nothing was broken and the body was clothed in a natural way."
He added: "We considered whether someone else could have done it. There are cases where the person shot has had the weapon placed into their own hand. We took samples from the skin near the weapon to look for gunshot residue, but it’s not a given that you find it. With the way the victim held the weapon in this case, most of the residue would have been on the other side, where the hand would be with a normal grip."
“Sometimes we find residue, sometimes we don’t,” he says. “You can’t see the particles with the naked eye. The test kit we used is a tiny vial with adhesive at the end, which you push down on the victim’s hand. Maybe we picked the wrong spot, but nothing was found in the electron microscope examination.”
“There’s nothing to suggest this was anything but a suicide, “ says Lennart Kyrdalen, a long-time criminal watch commander for the Oslo police. “But it is very rare to find a woman who has shot herself. I have never seen it, before or since.”
International research shows that firearm use is very unusual in suicides committed by women. According to Statistics Norway, of the 1,478 suicides by women in Norway from 2000 to 2009, only 23, or 1.56 per cent, were carried out using a firearm.
Torleiv Ole Rognum, a professor of forensic medicine, finds some of the details in the 1995 Plaza Hotel case quite peculiar.
“I think it’s very odd that there was no back spatter or singeing on her hands. That is really unusual.”
Rognum is Norway’s most senior forensic medical expert.
“We know there was a powerful back spatter, with blood way up on the ceiling,” he says. “The victim still had her thumb on the trigger, and her fingers around the grip. So it’s strange there is no blood trace on her hands. As a forensics expert I find that striking. I would have expected to find it.”
He adds: “Some suicide victims also get scrapes or marks on their fingers from the recoil. In this case, there are no marks on the finger or the trigger. A 9 mm pistol gives a powerful recoil.”
The lack of gunshot residue on either hand also seems strange to Professor Rognum.
“Occasionally, those who commit suicide will steady the aim with their other hand, and then you get a characteristic deposit of blood and gunshot residue along the thumb and forefinger. You don’t see that here.”
How would do you summarize these absences?
“There should be serious consideration of whether someone else might have assisted in this event,” says Professor Rognum.
At the Institute of Legal Medicine at the University of Münster, in Germany, we meet senior physician and lecturer Bernd Karger. For years he has researched blood and gunshot residue from murder and suicide cases. Of the many scientific articles that bear Dr Karger’s name, several concern how to distinguish between suicide and murder.
Dr Karger, too, is surprised by the autopsy report from the Plaza case.
“The lack of back spatter and the lack of powder residue in this case, both on the weapon and on the hands, is surprising,” says Dr Karger.
“Theoretically, you would find both blood and gunshot residue, but in practice you don’t always. For me, the two negative findings are an indication that she did not shoot herself, but not proof.
“We’ve seen cases where there should be gunshot residue but it’s impossible to find. Lack of gunshot residue is therefore not, by itself, proof a suicide did not occur, but it is something that should be treated as a problem in the investigation.”
In 1995, he conducted back spatter research in collaboration with the Danish Armed Forces. Calves that were going to be slaughtered anyway were shot in the temple by a veterinarian with a 9 mm pistol, so the researchers could study the blood spatter patterns.
“We saw that two metres is indicative of the maximum distance for back spatter,” Dr Karger recalls.
If this had been an investigation where you had been asked to consult, what would your recommendation have been?
“If everything else at the scene indicated suicide, and afterwards I saw this, I would say it made me uncomfortable. I would not have declared it not a suicide, but I would have considered it a problem. I would have advised the police to investigate further.”
Friday 2 June: the day before Jennifer Fergate’s death.
Here’s what we have learned about her final 36 hours on earth:
Usually, room steward Karin Løvbrøtte takes the 27th floor, but today she is also responsible for the 28th.
Løvbrøtte is busy cleaning a nearby room when she sees the Plaza woman in the corridor.
“I offered a short greeting, ‘Good morning’ or something like that. She smiled and returned the greeting. Whether she was coming from the elevator or another room, I don’t know. I don’t remember if I heard a ‘ding’ from the elevator,” says Løvbrøtte.
Shortly afterwards, she sees the guest in 2805 hang the red “Do not disturb” sign on her door.
At some point, the Plaza woman must have left her room, because at 11:03 a.m. she (or someone else) enters using the key card. From that point on she could not have left the room and returned without inserting her key card, unless someone inside let her in.
At 8:06 p.m., Jennifer Fergate orders food from hotel room service, a “Hotbite” of bratwurst and potato salad.
Room service shift supervisor leader Kristin Andersen brings the food up. She has been given the wrong room number and knocks in vain at the door of 2804 – the room of Mr F. The misunderstanding is cleared up; she then knocks on the door across the corridor, and the Plaza woman opens. The time is 8:23 p.m.
“What I remember most is that I got such a big tip. She had a 50-kroner note ready. It was very unusual for us to get so much of a tip. If we got 10 kroner, we thought it was a lot,” recalls Andersen.
Andersen says she couldn’t have been in the room more than a minute.
“She was not interested in small talk. I remember it was easy to put the food on the table because there was nothing on it. The room seemed almost sterile.”
The Plaza woman put the meal on her room tab, though the hotel had no credit card guarantee for her ever-rising bill.
A day later, when the forensics team documented the scene, half the food remained uneaten on her plate.
The autopsy revealed 50 millilitres of nearly undigested food in her stomach, including sausage bits. In retrospect this seems strange – human digestion works faster than that.
“That was odd. The sausage pieces should have been digested after a few hours and moved on in her system,” says Torleiv Ole Rognum, a professor at the University of Oslo’s Department of Forensic Medicine.
So what happened with the food?
If she ate it when served, she must have died much earlier than the when the shot was heard, but that is inconsistent with the forensic pathologist’s findings.
If she died, as assumed, at 7:50 p.m. on Saturday, she must have eaten the food the same day, or nearly 24 hours after it was served.
Once on Friday and once on Saturday, the Plaza woman watches the hotel’s pay-TV. There is no information in the documents indicating which channel or language she picked.
Then there is another confusing element: the bed linens.
When Jennifer Fergate calls the hotel on Wednesday afternoon to say she will arrive with a man that evening, room steward Vigdis Valø is told to put out an extra duvet, soap and towel, since the room had only been made up for one guest.
When the room is being cleaned the next day, Valø notices that only one pillow and one duvet have been used. The extra duvet has been folded and put aside.
Valø places the unused duvet in the closet and makes the bed for one person.
We now know that the Plaza woman was away for up to 24 hours, including Thursday night and the early hours of Friday. With the “Do not disturb” sign hanging on the door for two days, the room is not cleaned on Friday or on Saturday.
So when the Plaza woman gets ready for bed on Friday evening, it is already made up for one person. Nonetheless, when the police photograph the dead woman on the bed on Saturday, both duvets are in place again.
The duvets are next to each other, and the bed looks dishevelled.
Did Jennifer Fergate put back the duvet she had previously removed because she wanted two? Did someone spend the night in bed with her?
Nothing in the police documents indicates that the room’s bedding was examined for hair or other biological evidence.
A few hours after Jennifer Fergate’s death, the bed and bedclothes were thrown away, precluding any subsequent examination for biological traces.
In the course of Friday and Saturday, three soft drink bottles from the minibar are emptied: a Coca-Cola, a Coca-Cola Light and an Asina orange drink. A bag of potato crisps is also opened. The beer in the minibar is untouched.
Now the clock is ticking relentlessly towards the Plaza woman’s death. What else does Jennifer Fergate do in her final 24 hours?
At some point, she apparently spends time ironing clothes.
Police photos clearly show an ironing board leaning against the wall between the desk and wardrobe. On the baggage shelf, beside Jennifer’s elegant leather jacket, an iron is visible. However, neither an iron nor ironing board were standard equipment at the Oslo Plaza in the 1990s.
“We had some rooms called ‘ladies’ rooms’ equipped with an iron and ironing board, but most other rooms only had a trouser press,” says room steward Løvbrøtte.
“If anyone wanted an iron, they had to call the front desk and ask for one. Then someone from housekeeping would deliver it to the room,” adds Valø.
The photographs taken by the police clearly show a trouser press mounted on the room’s door, meaning that 2805 was not a “ladies’ room” and that the Plaza woman must have ordered ironing equipment from the front desk.
Andersen, who described the room as “totally untouched”, never mentions an ironing board.
There is much to suggest that the Plaza woman called down for the iron and ironing board sometime late Friday night or on Saturday.
Does she do anything else? Yes. She showers or has a bath.
This elegant woman without makeup, hairbrush, toothbrush or toilet bag has been in the bathroom. The hotel’s white bathrobe lies as if tossed onto one of the duvets. Pictures of the bathroom show that someone has used a towel and dropped it onto the floor matt. A bar of soap is on the sink, and one of the small bottles – possibly the shampoo – is open.
In photos from the scene, Jennifer Fergate is nicely dressed – all in black – and is on her back on the bed. She’s wearing eye make-up, but it’s hard to determine how old it is.
For three days, the Plaza woman managed to stay for free at the luxury hotel, without settling her bill.
At 2:19 p.m. on Thursday, the reception sends a message to the room’s TV screen, asking her to contact the front desk.
However, the message was not acknowledged from the room until the next day, 19 hours later. Why the delay?
Well, now we know the Plaza woman was not in the room between Thursday morning and Friday morning.
On Friday she returns to the room at 8:50 a.m., and five minutes later acknowledges the front desk’s message by pressing “OK” on the TV remote control.
A second message arrives Friday evening, 8:57 p.m. Eight minutes later, that message is acknowledged.
Now, Saturday evening, Evy Tudem Gjertsen, at reception, realizes something is very wrong. The guest in 2805 has not appeared at the front desk despite acknowledging two messages. At 7:36 p.m., the receptionist sends a third and final message, which, like the two others, is acknowledged by a touch of the “OK” button.
When she learns the “Do not disturb” sign has been hanging on the door for two days straight, she sends up the security guard.
At about 7:50 p.m., a shot rings out.
The room is left unattended for 15 minutes.
The first police unit arrives about an hour later and establishes that there is a dead woman, shot, on the bed.
At 2:40 a.m., a hearse collects the body.
At 4:10 a.m., the mattress and bed are removed from the room.
At 5:00 a.m., police finish working and release the room to the hotel. According to the report by the hotel’s head of security, the police were “99.9 per cent certain” the death was a suicide.
We are standing quietly beside the same cherry tree where Jennifer Fergate was buried more than 20 years ago.
There is nothing suggesting that under the fallen leaves in the damp ground there is a grave.
We wait until the hymn that’s being sung a few graves away comes to an end. The minister shakes hands, the family and friends hug, the mourners go to their cars.
It is time. The cemetery worker with the small excavator starts the motor. We all straighten up.
Jennifer Fergate is to be exhumed.
As the rain teems down, a dark November day in 2016, the Plaza woman is returning. Her death occurred only two decades ago, but DNA technology back then was still new. No DNA material from Jennifer Fergate was secured. A blood sample had in fact been stored, in hopes that DNA could eventually be obtained from it, but it turns out that that too has been discarded.
Before asking the Oslo Police District if an exhumation were possible, I was unsure how the commanders would react, but they were already thinking the same thing: if we were ever to learn the identity of the Plaza woman, we needed DNA material.
In 1996 the investigators had the foresight to equip the grave with a little wooden box atop the coffin, to relieve some of the pressure on it. No one could rule out that the day would come for the coffin to be raised, and for the woman to receive a new burial.
And so we were there. Not for the purpose of re-interment, but to try to find out who she was.
But after 20 years in the ground, would there be enough material remaining to sample the Plaza woman’s DNA?
Yes. In the November rain at Vestre Gravlund cemetery, the workers find exactly what we are looking for: bones and teeth.
A week later, in the forensics lab of the Norwegian Institute of Public Health, forensic pathologist Per Hoff-Olsen has already pre-processed the material from the grave.
Biologist Erik Bergseth now crushes the bone pieces, which have been cleaned in a chlorine solution.
Another week later, department head Marguerethe Stenersen has good news:
“We have a nice profile!”
The work has produced results.
“This is an almost complete DNA profile,” she says. “For where we are now in the process, we couldn’t have hoped for more success.”
Nevertheless, much remains. The DNA profile cannot really help us until we have a reference. We need a relative of the Plaza woman to compare DNA with, and our problem of course is that no one has reported her missing.
There are other clues we must pursue. The data we have at present indicates little about the woman’s ethnicity. More analysis is required.
Kripos, the National Criminal Investigation Service, takes the challenge. It specialises in identity cases.
The DNA material is sent to the Institute for Legal Medicine at Innsbruck Medical University, in Austria. By analysing mitochondrial DNA, scientists can learn where a person’s ancestors originate. According to Professor Walther Parson, the Plaza woman’s mitochondrial DNA in combination with her core DNA tell us she was most likely European.
That is something, but there is still a lot to do.
Is it possible to layer the analyses on top of one another? Can the woman’s area of origin be narrowed down?
Knut-Endre Sjåstad, a chemist at Kripos, has a plan. He wants to test some new technology that might pinpoint more closely where Jennifer Fergate was from.
In early May 2017, Sjåstad takes the Plaza woman’s teeth to the Department of Earth Science at the University of Bergen. Two tests will be conducted on the same teeth.
While seeking to identify the Plaza woman, the ID group at Kripos is also trying to find out where the mysterious Isdal woman came from, a story NRK is working on. The Isdal woman was found dead in Bergen’s Isdalen Valley in 1970.
By analysing isotopes of the element strontium in the Plaza woman’s dental enamel, scientists may find out more about her geographic origin. It is also hoped that oxygen isotopes from the enamel will tell us something about the drinking water Jennifer Fergate consumed over the years, and thus, perhaps, where she lived.
HOW WE WORKED:
VG’s re-examination of the case of the Plaza woman has occurred with assistance from the Oslo Police District. The purpose has been to try to find new information to shed light on the identity of the Plaza woman.
The Oslo Police District has given VG access to all relevant documents connected to the earlier investigation. All journalistic considerations were up to VG. The Oslo police, for their part, have investigated additional aspects of the case subsequent to VG’s decision to take it up.
“We want to find the identity of everyone who dies, so that relatives can be notified and we can better understand what happened,” says Assistant Chief of Police Grete Lien Metlid of the Oslo police.
“The original investigation in the case, which concluded that the woman most likely took her own life, remains valid, but we must be open to possibility of new information arising. If we can learn who she is, it could help resolve what happened. Since we had no DNA from the woman, the Oslo Police District took the step of exhuming her grave,” Metlid says.
Along the way VG has consulted case documents and photographs kept by the Oslo police as well as information available in Norwegian registries, international scientific journals, Norwegian and international media archives, public telephone registries and a large number of interviews, both on and off the record.
Translated from Norwegian by Walter Gibbs and Doug Mellgren
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