Victor Olav sits beside us in a café in Manila. He looks at us with apprehensive curiosity:
“What do you mean… the whole story?” he repeats
“Have I missed something? Is there more to know about what happened in Oslo?”
Our photographer looks at me. ‘What do we do now?’ his gaze seemed to ask. How much did the now 23-year-old young man actually know about his early life?
14 days earlier
After a search through the police ranks to discover who had held ultimate responsibility for the case at the time, we track down Magnus Larsen, the detective chief inspector for the Homicide and Serious Crime unit. Retired, it states, but we find an address at Ulsrudkollen in Oslo.
A woman picks up the telephone.
“Yes, I remember the case well.”
She is surprisingly well-informed about events.
“But let me fetch Magnus, he’s the man you want to talk to, after all.”
“1991, you say? I remember the case, of course, but the person you really ought to talk to is Laila Back, the lady who answered the telephone. She’s my wife. She was part of the team who investigated the case and was one of the officers who first arrested the mother.”
Back takes the telephone once again.
“When you hear that a newborn baby has been found in a plastic carrier bag in a churchyard, at first you feel shocked and wonder what in the world could have happened. Then it transpires that the child is alive, and the news shocks you all the more. ‘Can it be possible?’ we wondered to ourselves. We had no leads. It was sheer luck that we made it any further with our investigations.”
Sheer luck. Rykhus, the crime scene investigator, had found a small receipt from a bag and accessories shop.
An online search for Knut Rykhus provides a number of hits, one of which stands out to us: a television appearance 21 years after the event, during which he makes a statement regarding the 2011 terrorist attacks on the island of Utøya, during which 77 young people were killed. Rykhus comments in his role as section chief for the forensics department of the National Criminal Investigation Service known as Kripos:
“I sat down and contemplated the situation, then cried as we sent on the last of the coffins from Utøya […] It was crucial to treat every individual with the same care. Each had their own story, each their own identity, and each deserved the same treatment, even though there were so many of them.”.
We manage to contact the senior Kripos official by telephone.
“How strange that you should call,” Rykhus begins.
“It’s not long ago that I was sitting and discussing exactly this case with my partner. She had asked me about any cases that I remember particularly well. ‘I remember a baby found in a churchyard’, I told her. When you called to say that you were looking into the case, I suddenly felt quite curious. Interested to know how things had turned out for mother and child. I mean, it seemed to be a story with a happy ending, didn’t it?”
Rykhus’ question lingered.
We arrange to meet him at Kripos headquarters in Bryn, Oslo.
He recalls things very clearly:
“I remember arriving at the hospital where the baby had been admitted. I saw him lying inside an incubator; his body temperature was very low. In intensive care, I was given two plastic bags, those the baby had been found inside. The placenta was inside one of them. Inside the carrier bags we found a receipt from a shop selling bags and accessories. It was covered in blood that I had to rinse away. We were left with one question: where had the receipt come from?”
“I heard that you’d been trying to get in touch with me,” says Lennart Kyrdalen upon taking our telephone call. He had been the lead investigator on the case at the time and had been the one to locate the relevant shop and to discover that the bags had been paid for by cheque. He had followed this up at the bank, where he had found out the woman’s name and address.
“I have the case file just here. I clearly remember arriving at the apartment block on Ullevaalsalléen. There were two women there. One was fit and well. She had been the one to purchase the bag by cheque, it turned out. The other woman was lying in bed, clearly depressed.”
He had been standing in the apartment with his colleague Laila Back, who had given us her account of the same intense moment.
“She was hiding beneath a duvet. We didn’t get much out of her at first, but then it all came out. She acknowledged the fact that she’d given birth to a baby and left it in the nearby churchyard. She told us the baby had been stillborn. It hadn’t made a sound, hadn’t moved at all, as far as she had been able to tell.”
“Your child is alive,” they had told her.
“I almost can’t put into words what happened next,” Rykhus tells us.
“It was indescribable, her reaction was so overwhelming. She switched between tears and moments of joy.”
POLICE SEARCHING FOR THE MOTHER
“As you stand there and knock, your pulse is relatively high, because you don’t know what’s there, behind the door”
Rykhus had joined the team at the apartment in his role as crime scene investigator.
“In my view, it appeared that there had been a birth in the apartment, after which the mother had believed the baby to be stillborn, which led to her leaving the baby in the churchyard.”
What was it that convinced you so quickly that this was the case?
“It was the spontaneity she exhibited, her surprise, her delight. To hear that her child was alive. For me, her reaction seemed so honest that I decided then and there to believe that things had happened as she had described. She had believed the baby was dead and had acted on that basis, but she had wanted the baby to live. It didn’t cross my mind that she’d been trying to get rid of the baby, and therefore to commit a crime.”
Rykhus explains that the child could well have appeared to be dead, seemingly exhibiting no signs of life.
“It must have been an awful experience. Just leaving the child behind, regardless of the reason, not being able to participate in that child’s life, I’m sure it must be the worst thing to happen to any mother. And then to hear later that your child is actually alive, and likely to survive the time spent in a plastic carrier bag in Vestre Aker churchyard on that cold, cold day…”
Even Rykhus, a man who has examined some of the most shocking crime scenes in Norway, is left speechless.
“From believing the child to be dead and leaving it behind in a churchyard to finding out that it has been found alive and is being treated at the hospital…”
“There’s something about it… well, it’s difficult to talk about. The experience left me reeling. It’s one of those cases when I’ve stepped outside of the professional sphere and instead felt myself becoming emotionally involved. There are so many sides to it – cultural, psychological – and all topped off by the fact that the mother was reunited with her baby. It couldn’t have been any more perfect.”
We ask him if he knows where the plastic bags and receipt ended up, as well as the cheque from the shop.
“It could be in the forensic archives in Bryn,” Rykhus replies.
We ask at the archives. The staff there search for a week without any luck.
“The plastic bags and cheque were most likely destroyed or disposed of when we moved. Apologies,” they inform us.
Laila Back sits at home 23 years later, reflecting on the case.
“If the child had died in the churchyard, the situation would have been entirely different. Leaving an individual in a helpless situation like that, or failing to help someone in critical need, both are serious criminal offences. But postpartum psychosis takes many forms. The mother must have gone into shock after the birth.”
Back pauses for a few seconds.
“Norwegian authorities considered the woman to be sufficiently capable of caring for the infant. I was a little concerned, to be frank. I was worried that after receiving the boy back into her care, she might remove him from the country only to leave him somewhere else. ‘Had she given birth to a baby she didn’t want? Would the child be left elsewhere on her way home?’ I wondered.”
“So things are fine, you say? Goodness me. And he’s fit and well?”
“Well, that’s what we’re going to try to find out.”
“It’s a fairy-tale story, in that case! I’ve been in Manila myself; it’s not always a bed of roses. And it was such a small detail that led to us solving the case. It’s just like we learned: it’s the little things that are most important. Without that receipt, we’d have had real problems finding the mother.”
Did the police believe the mother?
“It wasn’t my view that she’d done anything unlawful or tried to get rid of the baby.”
Kyrdalen, the lead investigator on the case, had asked us to meet him at midnight during his nightshift to see the case file documents. Before long, he’s sitting in front of us in the same police station where he had interviewed the woman a quarter of a century before our visit.
He leafs through the reports and interview transcripts, arrest order, search warrant and list of charges with a code to indicate the case had been dropped alongside a comment: ‘No evidence of punishable offence’. For the very first time, he shows us extracts from the interviews.
Kyrdalen reads the texts and reaches the following surprising detail:
“The woman explains that she felt uneasy an hour after having returned to the apartment. She returned to the churchyard to find that the child had disappeared.”
“She went back to see if the child was alive after all?”
“There’s nothing more about that here. It was tragic. She must have been suffering from postpartum psychosis after the traumatic birth. But she was charged. We eventually came across a legal paragraph, one that’s rarely ever used, but which is intended to protect women who commit offences against their children in the 24 hours after birth.”
It had cleared things up.
“The mother sent me cards for several years afterwards. To thank me. She told me that things were going well for them. One year I even received a Christmas card.”
Tor Schou Nilsen is presumed to have passed away. It is the parish secretary of St. Olav’s Cathedral who heavily implies this to be the case, a source assumed to be relatively reliable on such a matter.
The man who found the baby cannot be located in the central register or any of the easily accessible systems. We start looking for where he might have been buried. Search engines exist to help in such cases, archives where you can type in a name and will be given the name of the churchyard, as well as a grave number for the deceased. Might he be buried in the same churchyard where he had found Victor Olav, the living newborn baby inside the plastic bag?
We track down Tor’s wife, Reidun, who is listed in the telephone directory. Eventually we dial her telephone number.
“Hello, we’re calling about a special case that your husband was involved in back in 1991.”
“I see,” she replies gently.
“It must be about the baby boy my husband found in the churchyard. It was quite the story. But you’d be much better off speaking to him about this. He’s sitting just here.”
Tor Schou Nilsen is alive?! This is welcome news.
“Hello, Tor speaking.”
After a short while, we ask if he can recount the story as he remembers it.
“Where to begin…”
“Well, I was the one who found him,” he says quietly.
“It was 23 or 24 years ago now. Goodness gracious. We can meet, if you like, it’d give me the chance to gather my thoughts.”
He is sitting on a bench outside a café in Røa, Oslo, wearing a blue jacket and a pair of blue trousers.
“Shall we take a seat in the café and get a cola? Then I can tell you all about it.”
It was autumn, the ground was frosty, he begins.
“It was sheer luck that I turned up when I did. If I’d come by an hour later, I wouldn’t have heard a thing, and I certainly wouldn’t have found the baby. It would all have been over for him. But the little one lived to fight another day!”
“I was the only person in the whole graveyard. But then they managed to get the baby to the hospital. My job was done at that point. Or at least, I thought so. I went home to find journalists everywhere, inside and out. There were interviews and all that kind of nonsense.”
“I heard later that the baby had rallied. Then I received a phone call from the hospital: ‘The baby’s mother would love to meet you!’”
“I was shown into a room at Ullevål Hospital. The mother cried. I was allowed to hold the baby. That was just a few hours before they left the country.”
A year later, he received a thank you card from her.
He’s 81 years old now. 23 years, 5 months and 12 days have passed since he first found the baby.
He takes us to the churchyard, showing us the way.
“The bag was lying just here. There used to be a shrub planted here,” he says, pointing.
The churchyard is deserted, just as it had been on that fateful Tuesday in 1991. There was not a single soul to be seen.
He had been here just a week beforehand, planting some lilies on the grave of Oscar and Esther, the same grave he had tended back in 1991.
Oscar Røtterud, who passed away on the 22 September 1962, and his wife Esther, laid to rest in the same grave, who passed away on the 7 November 1984, both of their names listed on the headstone.
“Just think, what are the chances? I was standing in the churchyard and tending to my in-laws’ grave when I heard these whimpers. I thought it was birds. Before I knew it, there was a blue baby lying in front of me.”
Tor pauses for a few moments before adding:
“I was so flustered, as I’m sure you can imagine, even if you never have and never will experience it yourself. It’s natural to feel slightly shocked. It isn’t exactly an everyday occurrence.”
He shows us exactly where he went when he heard the baby’s cries, and how he had opened the bag. We walk up towards the church where he had run to fetch help.
“I had wondered to myself. I mean, the mother came from down there carrying the bag. Someone would surely have reacted to a bawling baby in a plastic carrier bag? Maybe it had been so quiet that she had thought it was dead.”
The experience remained with him for many years after the event.
“It’s been a while now. But whenever there are stories in the news about floods and other kinds of catastrophe in the Philippines, I think of the boy and hope things have turned out well for him this time, too,” he says.
THE MAN WHO FOUND THE BABY
“I was flustered! That’s a good way of putting it, isn’t it? It’s not an everyday occurrence, this.”
One day in August 2014, we pick up on a press announcement issued by ski champion and cross-country skiing world cup title winner, Martin Johnsrud Sundby:
“My beloved step-father Asbjørn Langslet passed away on Friday 08.08. He has meant such a lot to me throughout my life. I wish to spend time with my mother and the rest of my family, and will not be participating in this year’s Toppsportsveka sporting event,” he writes.
“Asbjørn Langslet?” we say, the recognition dawning on us.
The doctor who had saved the baby?
The death notice is printed on 13 August in Aftenposten, one of the country’s national newspapers.
My beloved husband, and our dear, devoted
Born 8 January 1939
Died 8 August 2014
You will be sorely missed for the man that you were
Martin og Marieke
He is due to be buried at Sørkedalen Church five days later at 13:00.
Some days later, on the page of the newspaper where the obituaries are printed, one in particular strikes us. It was submitted by a mother:
“In the tired, old barrack buildings at Ullevål Hospital, a daily battle was fought to save the life and improve the health of infants. We stood on either side of my son’s tiny cot. I felt so anxious and distressed. I made a comment to the effect that I was doing all I could even to hope for the best.
‘You must never give up hope. There is always hope!’ the doctor told me, his tone warm and firm. That doctor was Asbjørn Langslet.
Much like us, many anxious parents have sought hope and assurances from their doctor […] His professional skills and cheerful approachability meant so much to so many terrified parents. During a hectic working day, he made time for the little ones. Nothing was too good for them […] We remember him as an outstanding doctor who offered light and hope to so many in the most difficult of times.”
Nothing is written about his involvement in saving a Filipino boy whose birth began outside an apartment block in Oslo and who was later found in a churchyard one October day in 1991.
But where is Erland Døviken, the final member of the unprompted group of people who had contributed to saving Victor Olav? The man who drove through the churchyard when it was a matter of life and death, when seconds and minutes were crucial, when parish clerk Berit Pihl Johansen had taken a seat beside him in the car holding a newborn baby in a plastic carrier bag and had simply shouted, “Drive!”
“Heavens, has it really been 24 years?”
Ellen Døviken (70) speaks to us on the phone from Spain. She is Erland Døviken’s daughter.
Ellen remembers it well. Her father had been so flustered when he had come home. Beside himself. Nobody had believed him; they’d been sure it was a tall tale he’d conceived.
Ellen Døviken’s voice lowers.
“Dad’s no longer with us. He passed away on 5 May 2003, he was 76. He had Parkinson’s disease. He was alright for a while, but then he was moved into a nursing home. He was very weak. He’s buried at Vestre graveyard.”
When they had been packing away the things in his house after his death, his daughter had found the newspaper clippings, articles he had cut out of the paper at the time about the people who had saved the baby’s life.
“Even though he had never liked to mention the fact that he had played a part in such a heroic deed, he’d have liked to hear that you’re following up on things. I can only hope he’s keeping tabs up there.”
The boy in question, Victor Olav, now 23 years old, is sitting beside us in a café in the Manila Bay at the junction where Guanzon Avenue meets United Nations Avenue, where there are garages, banks, insurance firms, religions and hospitals aplenty. He fills in some of the blanks relating to his early life..
The Pasig River flows serenely by not far from here.
“So… what exactly did she tell you? Your mother?”