The Wetsuitman – Without a Trace

Two bodies were found in Norway and the Netherlands. They were wearing identical wetsuits. The police in three countries were involved in the case, but never managed to identify them. This is the story of who they were. Part I.

This story was published in cooperation with European Press Prize.

By Anders Fjellberg  
Photo’s: Tomm W. Christiansen & Hampus Lundgren

Agale was blowing from the south-west as the elderly architect put on his jacket and rubber boots and went to face the elements. Down in the bay, four metre high waves crashed against the cliffs and sent sea spray hundreds of metres across the grazing land at Norway’s southernmost tip.

The first thing the architect noticed when he approached the sea was a wetsuit. It lay stretched out on the small patch of grass between the cliffs, right outside the reach of the waves. “That might be useful,” the architect thought. It was rare for him or anyone else in the village to take a walk down there. The wetsuit could have been here for a long time.

He could smell seaweed and the sea and a faint, sickly scent of something else.

The wetsuit was the Triboard brand. The architect thought that it looked cheap. It was partially inside out. Stuck inside the legs of the suit, was a pair of blue flippers. Two white bones were sticking out of each one.

Uidentifisert våtdrakt
Unidentified: January 2., on the exposed coast at Lista in the south of Norway, an old man found a wetsuit with human remains.

Sherriff Kåre Unnhammer from Farsund police station is an authoritative figure with large serious eyes, a big moustache and gold teeth that gleam when he speaks. It is a plesant day of April this year. In the waiting room, there is a warning against boat thieves and a poster stating that the legal size for cod caught south of 60 degrees latitude is 40 cm. In the middle ages, they burnt witches right outside this spot, but things are more relaxed now.

“This is a peaceful place,” says Unnhammer.

He turns to his computer and reads from the log. “At 3:02 pm, January 2, 2015, a diving suit with human remains was found at Lista.”

Forensic experts from Kristiansand went to take pictures and examine the body, but it had been in the sea for so long that there was not a lot left to examine. There was no sign of damage from propellers, stabbing or gunshot wounds. Unnhammer reckoned it was somebody who had gone missing in the North Sea and that the person would be identified quickly.

When we have so little to go on, we have to turn to DNA profiling to find the answer

They checked the body against a missing report from the Stavanger area, where a man in a wetsuit had gone missing a couple of years ago. Neither that body nor anybody else who had been reported missing matched the body found at Lista. Some bones found in the same area were sent for analysis, but proved to be from an animal skeleton.

“From time to time, we get bodies floating in here, but we haven’t had one that we haven’t managed to identify before,” says Unnhammer.

There is a sea chart of the Lista area on the office wall. The currents in the sea are very unpredictable and ever changing. Not even professional fishermen can tell how the ocean will behave the next day. It is impossible to say where a corpse that floats ashore here has come from.

In this case, there was not a lot Unnhammer could do.

“When we have so little to go on, we have to turn to DNA profiling to find the answer. And we can’t get that kind of thing done here,” he says.

Funnsted på Lista
The site: The wetsuit with human remains was found here, among the rocks near by the sea at Lista, south of Norway.
Drevet med strømmen
Unpredictable currents: Not even professional fishermen are able to predict the current conditions outside Lista. It is impossible to know where everything that floats ashore comes from.

Police Superintendent Per Angel has been identifying dead bodies since the end of the 80s. He is head of the Kripos national ID group. They are called in cases of simultaneous multiple deaths or when an unidentified body is found. Angel talks about Norway being a country made for accidents. We have a lot of storms, rugged landscape, and thousands of workplaces offshore and in the Polar region. We have had train accidents, plane crashes, shipwrecks and terrorism.

“We have become skilled in ID work,” says Angel.

The list of missing people in Norway since 1947 amounts to 1,443 people at the time of writing. The list of dead people found in the same time period, but who the police have not managed to identify, is considerably shorter. Just 16 bodies, including several findings of bones which most likely originate in pre-modern times.

“The man in the wetsuit could be number 17. This is a special case,” says Angel.

When Kripos receives an unidentified body, forensic experts, pathologists, dentists and forensic geneticists collect so called post-mortem information. They create a DNA profile, take fingerprints and register information about teeth, any jewellery, previous bone fractures, tattoos and any other characteristics that may help in the identification of a body. They also try to establish the cause of death.

Post-mortem information is compared with information from missing reports, where family or friends have provided details about people they are looking for. The main requirements for identification are information on teeth, fingerprints and DNA. One requirement is not enough to establish identity and has to be supported by one or several additional required pieces of information. There may be findings on the body, medical information or tactical information connecting the body to a missing person.

No missing reports in Norway match the body found at Lista. In the wetsuit case, only DNA has been found. If Kripos is to be able to identify the body, he must for some reason have a registered DNA profile somewhere in the world or a family member must have reported him missing and provided a DNA test.

On February 5, Kripos sent out a so called “Black Notice” through Interpol. It contains a DNA profile and a detailed description of the finding of the body on Lista. They received an answer the next day.

The Lista body is not the only one that drifted ashore in a grey and black Triboard wetsuit.

Kåre Unnhammer
Without a trace: - Drowned people floats ashore from time to time. But those we have found earlier, we’ve been able to identify, says Kåre Unnhammer, sheriff in Farsund.
The Wetsuitman
The Wetsuitman: The body that was found on the island of Texel in the Netherlands on October 27 last year, has been an enigma for investigators.

“We call him the wetsuitman,” says John Welzenbagh, investigator at the Netherlands special police unit for persons missing in the North Sea.

Welzenbagh is a 52 years old former navy diver, he is fit and wears a dark windbreaker jacket and sports sunglasses. He is the kind of investigator who lies awake at night, pondering unsolved cases.

On the ferry across from Den Helder to the island of Texel a couple of hours north of Amsterdam, Welzenbagh points to a sand bank and explains that he is still looking into the identity of a man who was found on a sailboat there in 1995.

Just a few weeks ago, he had a breakthrough in another case and is close to identifying an older, probably French, woman who floated ashore here 15 years ago.

The wetsuitman was found on Texel early in the morning on October 27 last year. He was wearing a black and grey wetsuit, identical to the wetsuit found with human remains inside at Lista 67 days later. The body was found along the water’s edge on the broad beach below the dunes and cafes in the small village of De Koog. It is a beach that is popular among windsurfers and tourists from all over the Netherlands come here in the summer.

Every year Welzenbagh and the Dutch North Sea group get in between 20 and 30 bodies or remains for identification. Most turn out to have gone missing from the local area. Most of the cases are solved quickly.

“This case is different,” says Welzenbagh.

How long had the wetsuitman been lying in the water? Three days? Three weeks? The rate of decay is difficult to assess when a person is in a wetsuit in cold water. Where did he come from? It was also impossible to say. Welzenbagh has found dead people from the entire North Sea and the Channel area: England, Scotland, France, Germany, Belgium and of course the Netherlands.

There were not many physical characteristics to go on. The only thing Welzenbagh noticed was that the body had very dark hair.

“I thought he might be from Spain. There are not many other places in Europe where you see that hair colour, in any case, not amongst ethnic Europeans,” he says.

When the wetsuitman was found, four windsurfers were reported missing in England. The main theory in the first days was that one of them had floated ashore. The windsurfers had however already been found. The same went for a French diver who went missing outside Normandy. Still, Dutch media reported that the body found on Texel was a diver from France.

“This was of course wrong, but even at our meetings he was known as the diver. I didn’t like that,” says Welzenbagh.

“We had no way of knowing what kind of water sports he had been doing. If we called him the diver, I was afraid we would overlook clues that could help us. I said 'from now on, we will call him the wetsuitman'.”

The police were back at square one. Fingerprints were impossible to reproduce. There were no papers or other characteristics and the DNA profile and missing report they sent out through Interpol met with no response.

The wetsuit was the only strong clue Welzenbagh had to work with. A 5 millimetre thick neoprene wetsuit with a hood, made for diving and snorkelling in temperatures between 16 and 24 degrees. In the North Sea and The English Channel, water temperatures rarely rise above 15. At the end of October when the body was found, the normal temperature is an icy 10 degrees.

“Something that wasn’t quite right,” says Welzenbagh.

RFID stands for “Radio-Frequency Identification” and are tiny data chips that are used for everything from registering passengers in toll stations to identifying pets. They are also used in all sorts of goods, as a modern barcode system that stores information about where goods are moving from the time they are produced until they are scanned at a cash register and disappear into a shopping bag.

John Welzenbagh knew this. When he discovered the little RFID-symbol on the tightly sewn tag with the wetsuit’s serial number and goods declaration, he knew he could find out where and when the suit was sold. And – if there was a credit card number on the receipt – who bought it. Here’s what he found out:

At 20.03 pm, Tuesday, October 7, 2014, a customer stood in front of the cash register of the Decathlon sports shop in the French port city of Calais by The English Channel. The customer bought a Triboard Subsea 5mm wetsuit, medium size, for 79 Euros. The customer also bought hand paddles – plates swimmers use on their hands to provide more resistance when they train, a snorkel and a diving mask, flippers, water socks – usually used for gymnastics in water and a waterproof A4 plastic folder.

But there was more: There was two of everything on the receipt. Welzenbagh knew full well where one of the wetsuits was – in the evidence store in the Netherlands.

When the serial number on the wetsuit was sent to Norway, it became clear where the other one had ended up. It was found by an architect during a winter storm in Lista, 850 kilometres from Calais, 87 days after it was purchased.

The total for the goods was 256 euros. The customer paid cash. There is no surveillance footage from the shop.

Neither the DNA profile from the body in the Netherlands or Norway produced any hits internationally through Interpol. All leads in the case trail off in front of the cash register in Decathlon in Calais, barely an hour after sunset on October 7 last year.

The Jungle

Dagbladet is one of Norway's largest newspapers and has 1,400,000 daily readers on mobile, web and paper.

Later today: Part II – The Jungle

Support the exchange of international journalism with a donation of any size

Your support helps protect the storybank, an independent platform which encourages and facilitates the exchange of journalistic publications worldwide. It means a great deal to us if we can, with your help, deliver a fully operating and innovative tool to provide quality journalism for everyone, wherever you are and from wherever the stories come. Support us based on what you feel this article is worth to you.

Related posts