Parliamentary elections, summer holidays, Donald Trump, the attack on Utøya, holidays and weekdays.
All this while Michael has been lying dead in his apartment in a gray block east of Oslo.
The anonymous tip
In December 2020, we will receive an anonymous tip. A man has been found dead in an apartment. It’s not that unusual. But it is not as common with tips that someone has been dead for almost a decade.
Who was this man? And why was no one missing him?
The police are also wondering how it is possible for a man to lie dead in his apartment in Oslo for nine years.
– We have thought a lot about it, my colleagues and people who have worked with this for many years. This is a special case, and it makes us ask questions about how it could happen, says Grete Lien Metlid.
She is a police inspector in the Oslo police and has seen a lot. But not this.
Before we try to answer anything, you should know that Michael is not the man’s real name, but one we have invented out of respect for his story.
The enclosed motorman
Michael was below average high. Around 1.70, maybe. He had dark hair. The neighbors perceived him as enclosed. Michael probably liked himself best alone in his own company.
One Saturday in the early 60s, there was an announcement in Norsk Lysingsblad. The magazine the state publishes about everything that is important to bring with it, such as bankruptcies, divorces and marriages. Before, you bought it in kiosks. Now it’s digital.
It read: “Motorman” Michael marries a young waitress. The announcement was signed by the parish priest.
We know a lot of such things about Michael. Things to find in public papers and digitized newspapers and documents.
We know that he was retired and that he was born in another country. But we do not know when he came to Norway or why. Could it have been the young waitress who brought him here?
He died naturally. We also know that he had no contact with his family. That’s how he wanted it. We have asked to speak to them. They do not want that. But they understand why we write about Michael.
The little contact with others
Once in March last year, the caretaker needed to get into Michael’s apartment. The police have told us that. Work was to be done.
Over the years, there have been several things that should have been done. The fire alarms in all the apartments should have been checked for a year. But it was not done in Michael’s apartment.
Since no one got in touch with him, neighbors thought Michael was in an institution. Others thought he had just moved.
That’s not so strange, because no one wanted him? And had the bills not been paid, the apartment would eventually have been forcibly sold.
A few years after the first announcement that Michael married a waitress, a new announcement appeared. This time he married a young office lady.
We know he has several children. We also know that he lived in several places in the capital, before buying the apartment he died in.
He was at some board meetings in the housing association. But he did not seem so interested in talking to anyone, says a neighbor.
– If I met him in the elevator, he only answered yes or no to questions.
But beyond neighbors, the cashier at the store or maybe a doorman every now and then, it does not seem as if Michael had contact with anyone in recent years.
– Based on the picture we have, it is obviously a person who has chosen to have little contact with others, says police chief Grethe Lien Metlid.
In the gray block east of Oslo, the caretaker finally goes to the local police station to have the door opened.
April 2011: Estimated date of death
They set the date based on, among other things, an autopsy, conversations with family and neighbors, and food in the fridge.
2013: Mail in the mailbox
Police have found mail dating back to 2013 in Michael’s mailbox.
2013: Congratulations on your 70th birthday
In the local newspaper, Michael is listed along with several other local anniversaries.
2018: The pension is stopped
NAV stopped the pension because they do not get in touch with Michael.
2020: Found dead
Nine years after his death, Michael is found in his own apartment.
The unknown address
But with the police, they discover that Michael has no address.
He was probably registered with “without known place of residence” once upon a time because the Tax Administration got his mail back.
Thus, it had nothing to say that Michael owned the apartment he lived in. The tax authorities can not say anything about individual cases.
Loans and rent on the apartment were paid on car deductions. But even after he died?
It was not just the caretaker who did not get in touch with Michael. Back in 2018, Nav did not get hold of him either.
They can not say any individual cases, but assure us that they have routines if they do not get hold of people.
First they might check if Michael got any other support from them. And maybe was registered with another address there.
Not that no? No, then they probably checked with Oslo municipality. And Michael’s local bank.
And what did it really say when you looked up Michael’s name on the number information?
After that once, his pension was stopped.
But Nav does not know that Michael is dead. So when it comes to bills and debt collection in his name, they use the suspended pension to pay his bill. Thus, he lives on. On paper.
Maybe Michael would not have stayed for nine years, if this had happened 30 years ago, believes NTNU professor Arne Krokan. He is passionate about trying to understand more about how new technology is changing our society.
Before, maybe Michael went to the bank to pay his bills and took the bus to Nav to sign papers. But then everything became electronic and automatic.
Society forgot to change the work process. Because even if the systems can warn that something is wrong, such as that Michael suddenly has no registered address, nothing more is followed up. It just stays in the system somewhere.
– It is a kind of powdered responsibility. In a way, it is the price we have paid to get digital services, says Krokan.
The crowded mailbox
Michael’s mailbox is and remains a mystery. From the time he died in 2011 until he was found nine years later, he has probably received over 1400 letters.
Every week, an average of three letters are dumped in every single mailbox in Norway. There are quite a few fewer than just a few years ago. Since the turn of the millennium, the volume of letters to Norwegian households has fallen by an average of 70 per cent.
We’ve talked to several people who think that Michael’s mailbox may have been emptied.
The police found mail in the mailbox from 2013. So where is all the mail that must have dumped into his mailbox the first two years he was dead?
The post office cannot give us an answer. They do not say anything about individual cases.
But they too have routines. The post office simply put a letter in the mailbox to Michael and wrote that the mailbox was full.
Michael continued to receive mail, year after year. The post office sent in return, year after year. They warn no one. Unless they get to know something the police should know about.
The digital society
A few years after Michael’s death, perhaps someone who knew him once upon a time sent him a thought. Maybe they knew he was 70 years old. Maybe they were reminded when they read about him in the column “jubilants” in local newspapers. Several years after his death.
Even birthday congratulations are taken care of by technology, through the news agency NTB’s automatic jubilee service.
But when we use technology to solve something, another problem often arises. We simply cannot expect technology to solve things we ourselves have not perceived as a problem.
– We can not blame anyone for not having come up with a system that captures this, says Professor Arne Krokan.
But if society believes a solution is needed, technology can help us discover people who have been dead for a long time. Like Michael.
A few years ago, some smart people sat down. They wanted to improve another system. The tax authorities, banks and the Brønnøysund registries would make it easy for people to apply for loans.
Before, you had to submit a bunch of documents. But now you can send one consent-based loan application. Three systems talk to each other. And the documents are collected for you.
It makes life easier for everyone.
– It was only wise people who sat down together, and not something the politicians had decided.
It has supposedly saved society 12 billion kroner in ten years.
Let’s say Nav had notified when they did not get in touch with Michael. Or that the post office notified when the mailbox was not emptied. Or the bank that the account had not been touched for many years. Had enough red flags appeared, the system could have alerted.
– And it is possible to do today, if you think that there is a risk that a certain number of people may end up in such a situation, the professor says.
The old milk in the fridge
The same day that the caretaker goes to the police, they enter the apartment in the gray apartment building in Oslo east. There they find Michael dead.
The apartment was neat and peaceful. It was locked. There was food in the fridge and rubbish in the rubbish bin. To the police, at first glance, there was no sign of anything unusual.
This is not so strange, because last year 27 people were dead in Oslo, Asker or Bærum for over seven days before they were found. The year before there were 32 people. One person was dead for almost seven months.
When the police took a closer look at the food in the fridge, they were amazed. The pink carton of skimmed milk had an expiration date of 6 May 2011.
Police also found a letter inside Michael’s apartment dated April 29, the same year. That probably means he must have been in the mailbox that day or later.
This is also the date the police set as the day he died.
The day Prince William and Kate got married in Westminster Abbey in London. And seven days before the milk in the fridge expired.
It is a discretionary date. A date they set for public registers and probate. A date for about when they think he died. Nine years before he was found.
The special after he died
Had it not been for a caretaker who wanted to do his job in the gray apartment building east of Oslo, Michael might still have been there.
We do not know why Michael chose the life he did. Or why he isolated himself from others. Details of a lived life found in public papers do not give us the answers we are looking for.
– The special thing is what happens after he dies, that he is not found, says police chief Grete Lien Metlid.
Maybe the answer is a combination of many things. A digital society. Car pull. Systems that do not talk to each other. Misunderstandings. Coincidences. That he managed alone. And the choice to isolate himself so much from other people, that no one called for him when it became quiet.
– We really think that it should not be possible.
Maybe we need to accept that there is an opportunity to live your life all alone – and not be missed when you die – in the middle of the big city?
Did you think of something when you read this article? Or do you have a tip? Feel free to send me an email!
Do you have tips for other issues I should look at?
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