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Chapter 3

The Women in the Bag Shop

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Recap of chapter 2

The national press has snapped up the dramatic news piece: has a newborn baby been left to die in a churchyard? The infant lies in an incubator, his body temperature 29°C, his prognosis still unclear. The doctors at the neonatal intensive care unit work hard to save the little boy’s life and to prevent any further harm from coming to him. “It’s extremely unlikely that the baby would have lasted any longer than he did in the harsh October temperatures. Even though he had no visible injuries, we need to wait a few more days before we make any further statements regarding his prognosis,’ the senior consultant tells the media.

The investigation is simultaneously well underway, both in the churchyard and elsewhere in Oslo. The police have no leads on a mother or father. They fumble blindly in the dark, receiving some leads that take them no further in their investigation. However, the hospital announces that the baby has at least one Asian parent. The police also confirm unofficial reports that it may have been someone other than the mother who left the child in the churchyard. A crime scene investigator is sent from the churchyard to Ullevål Hospital, collecting the plastic bags that the child was found inside. In one of the carrier bags, alongside the placenta, they find a bloody slip of paper. The crime scene investigator carefully rinses the blood away. At first they think that they might have found a message left by the mother or father, but it reveals itself to be a receipt. Could it bring the police any closer to solving the mystery of the abandoned baby?

Go to front page

Rykhus, the crime scene investigator, jumps into his car and drives in the direction of Grønland police station in Oslo, where he joins the tactical assessment team.

“We’ve got something interesting here.”

He’s holding a plastic pouch with a slip of paper inside it.

“We found this cash receipt inside one of the carrier bags that the baby was lying inside.”

The lead investigator, Lennart Kyrdalen, studies the slip of paper.

“It’s from a shop called Steffen,” Rykhus says. Oslo’s biggest selection of bags, suitcases and travel accessories. Located on Akersgata, number 35.”

“The receipt is for a purchase of 900 kroner,” Kyrdalen states, doing his best to make out the words on the receipt.

The investigators deliberate.

“What’s the likelihood that someone in the shop might just happen to remember that particular purchase?” they ask themselves.

The date of the purchase is there on the receipt. Saturday. Five days ago. The amount. That’s all there is.

But it opens a new door, if nothing else. With the help of the receipt, Oslo police are able to make a start on unravelling what has been purchased – and by whom. This is the only lead to which the investigators are pinning any hope. Could the crumpled receipt bring the police a smidgen closer to the mother or father? They are well aware that they have very little to go on.

“The key question is this: who made the purchase? All that we can do is to check out this shop,” the investigators decide.

Bells chime across Oslo, ringing for life and death. On Frydenlundgata, 106 ½-year-old Gunda Langaa passes away. 18 others die in the city that day. Burials and funeral services take place throughout the day.

23 children are born in the city, all in safe, sterile environments. Under the Births section of the newspaper, one entry states: “Home birth in Preståsen; Little Reidar came quicker than a bolt of lightning for new parents Sissi and Toffen!”

These are glimpses at life in Norway on Tuesday 8 October. Some will pass away while others will make it through another day.

The darkness gathers in the light, and the little boy’s first day soon comes to a close as he lies asleep in his hospital incubator.

Up until just a few hours earlier, he had been surrounded by liquid inside the body of another.

9 october

The following morning, the Norwegian press is filled with articles about the baby’s discovery. Dagbladet runs a striking headline on its front page: “HE FOUND A BABY IN THE CHURCHYARD.”

“I heard muffled cries, says Tor Schou-Nilsen (58).”

The newspaper states that “without his visit to the graveyard, the little boy would have perished in the cold, autumn air.”

Faksimile Dagbladet

“Plastic bag only lead”

“Searching for the mother”

Headlines in the newspapers Dagbladet and VG from 9 October 1991, translated from Norwegian.

“A terrible experience,” claims Erland Døviken, the driver of the car. Berit Pihl Johansen states: “It was certainly very stressful to look after the baby. Any mother can understand just how desperate the baby’s mother must have been to do such a thing.”

The media has not been informed about the latest development in the case, the cash receipt discovered inside the plastic bag by the crime scene investigator. The duty officer has only the following to say:

“We are following up on a number of interesting leads.”

In the meantime, the newspapers contact lawyers, who reveal some interesting elements relating to the case:

Any woman who abandons a newborn infant in such a way that it may not survive can escape legal prosecution if, for instance, the act was committed by a postnatal mother who suffered extreme trauma during birth, or severe depression in the aftermath.

They elaborate further: “Any attempts to take the life of a child incur Criminal Code paragraph 234, provided that the crime is committed by the mother in the 24 hours immediately following the child’s birth.”

The woman’s freedom is dependent on the fact that the child has no bodily injuries and has sustained no harm to its health. Where this is not the case, the mother or individual who abandoned the child risks several years’ imprisonment.

On Wednesday morning, Kyrdalen, the investigator on the case, makes his way to Steffen, the bag and travel accessories shop located at Akersgata 35, just a few metres up from Oslo’s main street, Karl Johans gate. He has a copy of the receipt with him. He places it down before the shop owner.

Veskebutikken Steffen

The shop owner, Karl Erik Steffen (63), had been briefly questioned the previous evening. As anticipated, it was difficult for him to recall anything, winding back through vague memories of hundreds of customers and purchases over the course of the previous week. However, after a good night’s sleep, his memory had improved.

“Saturday, it says here on the receipt. There were two Asian-looking women in here then. From somewhere in the East. Fairly short. I’m sure of it. They must have been here somewhere between 12:00 and 14:00. And…”

“What exactly do you remember?” Kyrdalen asks.

“They each bought a leather bag. Both the same type. 900 kroner each. Yes, it must have been them! The price matches the amount on the receipt. I think I gave them some kind of discount, too, since they bought two relatively expensive bags. One of them bought a purse too, just afterwards,” he says.

“One woman paid cash, and the other…”

“What about the other one?” Kyrdalen presses him.

“If I remember correctly, she paid by cheque,” the sales assistant confirms.

“If I’m right about that, then we’d have sent the cheque to the bank already.”

“And what frame of mind were they in? Can you tell us anything about that?” Kyrdalen asks.

“They were both acting normally. There was little to suggest that one of them was facing an imminent crisis,” he replies.

“But as for one of them being pregant? I’m afraid I can’t say,” the key witness states.

“And now I’m not even so sure if one of them really did pay by cheque, either… but it’s possible.”

There is only one way to find out. Kyrdalen walks the short distance to Fokus Bank, located on Egertorget. He states his business. The staff are helpful.

And there it is! The bank staff find the cheque after combing through their files. Kyrdalen examines it. He notes down the name of the woman who has written the cheque, an Asian-sounding name. And just there on the next line: her address! Ullevaalsalléen 5.

That’s just by the churchyard, too, Kyrdalen thinks to himself.

A striking coincidence.

Is such luck really possible? Could a bank cheque buried within an archive be the key to solving the mystery of this case for the police – and for the baby? Could this lead to a possible arrest? It’s impossible to know if the police are on the trail of the real mother, or even if she is living at the address written on the cheque.

On this day, the little boy is appointed a guardian.

He doesn’t yet have a name, but the nurses in the hospital’s intensive care unit continue to weigh up suitable options.

VG writes that “…the ‘churchyard baby’ is on a ward with other newborns, where the staff give him all of the love and affection he needs, as far as is possible without the mother’s presence…”

The article goes on: “The child is of Asian origin, and was born only a few hours before he was senselessly left to fend for himself. Thanks to his instincts for self-preservation, the boy was saved before he froze to death on the grass.”

This was, after all, a story of survival, and, most of all, of the survival instinct. The most powerful instinct of them all, as one person described it. It is at its most intense at the point of birth, when the baby is focused on its own survival. The instinct to preserve life, the fundamental tendency people and animals have to fight for this, even in the face of the most difficult external circumstances; in a biological and medical context, it is characterised as a powerful urge to survive even in the face of the most unbearable afflictions.

Langslet, the senior consultant, examines the baby’s arms and shoulders, then his tiny hands. He checks the right foot, then the left; everything looking good, the doctor says, before checking the infant’s hips and femoral pulse, both equally promising. The kidneys and the liver and the spleen, then the little boy’s heart. Langslet uses his stethoscope to listen to the baby, who sucks on his fingers; he hears no murmurs, but instead only a regular rhythm, even though the heart, he says, must make some necessary adjustments during the first few days of life. The burden on the child’s organs has been minimal in the womb, but at birth, in the abrupt transition to the outside world, everything changes very rapidly for the baby. The most extreme changes are evident in the lungs, which had not previously had any contact with the air.

The doctor listens to the infant’s chest and registers some lingering breathing difficulties, but his condition has improved. He examines the little boy’s chest and moves up to his head, then checks the baby’s mouth and eyes with the help of a special torch. Everything appears to be in perfect working order. His eyes are brown and open wide, and his hair, a whole mane of it, is as black as coal. And, as is the case with most babies, his skin is flushed and ever so slightly blemished, not blue with the cold as it had been the previous day. He measures 50 centimetres in length and weighs 3250 grams. The blood tests they take soon after, intended to reveal any particular illnesses, show that everything is as it ought to be.

Finally, the doctor checks the baby’s instinctive reflexes, taking and letting go of his hands; the baby reacts well, throwing out both arms as if attempting to cling to something. They test his grasp reflex, gently pressing their fingertips against the palm of his hand, his small fingers gripping the doctor’s finger tightly. His sucking and rooting reflex is good – the baby turns his head and opens his mouth in the direction of the doctor’s finger when this strokes his cheek. A breast-feeding mother would typically have tested this charming, primitive reflex herself.

bilde av babyen på sykhuset bilde av babyen på sykhuset

He is sufficiently healthy to be fed orally now, through a feeding tube that administers drops of milk every three hours, day and night. He’ll be bottle-fed before long. He sleeps for most of the day and night, but wakes when he grows hungry. His gaze moves quickly all around him, occasionally fixing on something or other in the room.

Nurse Hilde Follestad (25) holds the baby close every time that she picks him up, convinced that she needs to give the baby an extra dose of love, just to be there for him, to compensate for everything that he’s lost.

One thought is clear in her mind: “My mandate is to care for this baby, to make sure he experiences nothing but kindness.”

The Child Protection Unit of Ullevål Social Welfare Office play their part, working to secure the baby a suitable place to stay when he is released from the hospital’s care in the next week or two, all being well.

They assess foster homes and neonatal centres as the police continue to search for the baby’s mother. Another possibility is that the baby might be placed in an emergency shelter, where he could remain until it is decided where he might live on a permanent basis.

At the same time, down in the city streets of Oslo, police investigator Kyrdalen realises that he has no desire to turn up at the address on Ullevaalsalléen all alone. He stops by the police station in Grønland to summon reinforcements. Shortly afterwards, his colleague Laila Back and crime scene investigator Rykhus join him, the three of them driving in the direction of the residence in which the woman whose name they have lives. They had found her details in the National Population Register. A Filipino citizen living in Oslo.

She is, at the very least, the woman who wrote the cheque, and who most probably lives at the address they have on record. She is also highly likely to be the same person who purchased a bag, having this passed to her in a white carrier bag from the sales assistant, the receipt tucked safely inside it. The same carrier bag that was found four days later in the churchyard, though this time with a newborn baby inside it.

But they could have been anyone’s plastic carrier bags, couldn’t they? Whoever had left the baby behind might simply have found or acquired them somehow – including a carrier bag that just so happened to have a receipt inside it – before placing the baby inside. The police are forced to acknowledge the fact that the receipt could be worthless in the search for either of the baby’s parents.

They drive down from the top of Sognsveien, indicating onto Ullevaalsalléen and turning into a residential area surrounded by gardens, large outdoor areas and lawns, a secluded and peaceful space in the middle of the city. There they find a row of apartment blocks that Ullevål Hospital provide for nurses and other employees.

Only now do they see just how close the apartments really are to the churchyard where the baby was first discovered, which is located just up ahead.

They pull in, park up and walk across the grass, over the leaves and towards the cluster of apartment blocks in the direction of Ullevaalsalléen 5. Three blocks of four storeys each, divided into 68 apartments.

Utenfor Ullevaalsalléen

They are in civilian dress, eager to cause the least possible commotion in the neighbourhood.

They feel tense. Rykhus has accompanied them in case it’s necessary to undertake any investigations inside the apartment.

It is a strange feeling for Laila Back, knowing that she may soon confront someone responsible for abandoning a newborn baby in a churchyard.

“This is so bizarre,” she thinks to herself.

They stop in front of Ullevaalsalléen 5B. They enter the stairwell and make their way up the stairs before knocking at the front door.

Oppgangen i Ullevaalsalléen 5b
Entrance: Ullevaalsalléen 5b

As they stand there, waiting, Rykhus is aware of his pulse racing. They never know what might be waiting for them on the other side. There could be anything behind the door, as they know all too well from experience. There could be several people inside the apartment, or none at all.

The police inspector knocks at the door once more. It opens shortly afterwards. A woman of Asian appearance stands in the doorway, staring back at them.

She appears to be fit and healthy. After a few moments, she confirms that she had indeed signed the cheque used to pay for the bag. But she knows nothing about any baby, she insists.

The three police officers ask specific questions. They emphasise the serious nature of the case.

“Is there anyone else in the apartment?” they ask, persisting in their search.

The woman hesitates for a moment. The three officers step inside the apartment with her. It is a kind of studio apartment; a small, simple space.

They immediately catch sight of a sofa bed on the left-hand side at the end of the room. Police inspector Back notices the way the duvet is bundled up against the backrest of the sofa bed.

As if someone is curled up beneath it.

They step forward, lift the duvet and find a woman lying there.

The woman looks drained, Rykhus thinks. Frightened. A small, delicate-looking female of Asian origin. Clearly out of sorts.

Kyrdalen tries to speak to her. He switches to English.

“A newborn baby has been discovered in the churchyard just up the road. We suspect that the baby may be yours.”

The woman breaks down in tears.

“It was dead! It wasn’t breathing! Please, you have to believe me. The baby was stillborn!”.

Kyrdalen leans down, clutching the woman’s shoulders.

“Your baby is alive. Yes, you heard me correctly. The boy is alive. He’s being cared for at the hospital as we speak,” he tells her.

The baby’s mother howls.

Her cries are hollow,


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Text, idea and research: Bernt Jakob Oksnes
Translated from Norwegian: Rosie Hedger
Design and development: Anders Sandøy Wiik and Guro Lindahl Flåten
Photography and video interviews: Lars Myren Holand
Assisting video: Lars Eivind Bones
Archive photography from 1991: Lars Eivind Bones, Hans Arne Vedlog and Arne V. Hoem
Photography and video for chapter-covers: Jørn H. Moen, Lars Myren Holand and Julo Cope.
Video editing: Anders Stai Fougner, Ingrid Cogorno and Anna Ingeborg Näumann
Assisting video editing: Øystein Norum Monsen
Sound: Anders Stai Fougner and Jørn H Moen
Archive video: NRK
Creative consultant: Sigmund Nordal

Supported by the Dagbladets Foundation, 2014/2015.

The scene at police headquarters before the call-out to the apartment is based on the following research:
Interviews with Lennart Kyrdalen, Laila Back and Knut Rykhus, former or present investigators and crime scene investigators in Oslo Police District.

The scenes depicting news and cultural events in Oslo on 8 and 9 October 1991 are taken from:
Dagbladet, VG and Aftenposten.

The review of the initial legal evaluations is based on:
Articles from VG, Dagbladet and Aftenposten and interviews with Lennart Kyrdalen.

The scene from the bag shop Steffen and from Fokus Bank:
Interviews with Lennart Kyrdalen of Oslo Police District. Police interviews with the owner of the bag shop, Karl Erik Steffen, conducted on 9 October 1991, and reports from the police enquiries with employees of the bag shop.

The scene based at Ullevål Hospital depicting the medical examination of the infant is based on:
Interviews with professor Drude Merete Fugelseth, Ingrid Helen Ravn, Tove Eikrem and Hilde Follestad, all current or previous employees of the neonatal intensive care unit of Ullevål Hospital.
News articles in Dagbladet and VG. Further background: Neonatal Medicine Treatment Book, point 20.3, Examination of newborn infants on the 2nd or 3rd day (Dahl, A. Huurnink, C. Klingenberg, Universitetssykehuset Nord-Norge/helsebiblioteket.no) and libero.no. Information about self-preservation available from Store norske leksikon (snl.no). The sentences, “Up until just a few hours earlier, he had been surrounded by liquid inside the body of another…” and “Her cries are hollow, piercing”, are inspired by Nakker [Necks] by Karl Ove Knausgård and Thomas Wågstrøm (Pelikanen, 2014).

The scene depicting the call-out to Ullevålsalléen and the exchange in the mother’s apartment is based on:
Interviews with Lennart Kyrdalen, Laila Back and Knut Rykhus – the three police officers and crime scene investigators present in the apartment. Police reports and police documents, from October 1991. Articles from Dagbladet, VG, Aftenposten and NTB, and reports on NRK Dagsnytt radio news. Background on Ullevålsalléen 5B available from Wikipedia and Oslo municipality.

N.B! Dagbladet acknowledges the fact that specific aspects of this case can be difficult for those involved to recall in precise detail after 25 years. As such, we have made every effort to speak with as many individuals as possible and to gather information from official sources (police interviews, medical journals, etc) and newspaper articles, in order that the various chains of events depicted are as authentic and accurate as possible.