Prime Minister Palme shot dead: Sweden re-opens the country’s most shocking unsolved case
A chief prosecutor with experience in organised crime will be heading a fresh investigation into the murder of Swedish Prime Minister Olof Palme. The man soon to be at the head of the operation, Krister Petersson, has solved a number of high-profile cases, including the 2003 killing of former foreign minister Anna Lindh, who was stabbed to death in September 2003.
Petersson will be stepping into his new role in February, according to Sweden’s prosecution service. Meanwhile investigators continue to look at the three decade-old cold case, which featured in Real Crime issue 16.
As the operation prepares to probe deeper into the politician’s murder, we look back on the details of the shocking day Prime Minister Palme was shot.
The murder of Sweden’s prime minister in 1986 is something of a national obsession. Olof Palme, a man described as a “revolutionary reformist”, was shot on his way home from an outing with his family in the middle of Stockholm. The assailant fled and police had a hard time gathering a description of them. His wife was also attacked but survived, pointing the finger of suspicion at a local convict who had already served time for manslaughter. However, this suspect was cleared of the murder after police failed to find definitive proof that he was the perpetrator. Other suspects ranged from African special agents to the CIA, but eventually the trail went cold on the hunt for the person who killed Sweden’s leader.
The weapon used to deliver the fatal bullets has never been recovered, but could possibly be the key to the country’s three-decade-long riddle. At the intersection of Sveavägen and Tunnelgaten is a small plaque in the pavement to commemorate Palme. Well wishers and supporters left red roses for months afterwards and police eventually set up CCTV near the plaque hoping to catch the murderer, but so far they have not seen a single suspicious soul return to the scene of the crime.
Socialism and Scandal
Born in 1927, Olof Palme grew up well educated. In his early years he studied law and journalism at Stockholm University. By the time he became prime minister, he was well versed in his role within government. He joined the ruling Social Democratic Party, and became the parliamentary secretary to his predecessor Prime Minister Tage Erlander by 1953. The SDP had by then largely abolished poverty in Sweden and the country was a shining light to the rest of Europe, having survived the knock-on effects of World War II that were largely affecting many other countries. Sweden, in its neutral state post-war, had come out on top, with an impressive national health service and gallant social services. But the one thing Sweden lacked was a successful parliament, and by the 1960s, the nation recognised Palme’s potential of rising to the top.
He acted as a lobbyist for prime minister Erlander, delivering presentations and speeches to parliament that highlighted his natural flair and talent. A multilingual Palme made quite an impression on his countrymen, while evoking the envy of other MPs who failed to rouse the same admiration in their native language. Those who opposed him distrusted him. Although he had become a socialist, Palme was born into an upper-class family and he stuck out like a sore thumb within his own party. But for all his talents and privilege, Palme lived a frugal life: he lived in a small terraced house in suburban Stockholm with his wife, noblewoman Lisbet Beck-Frris, and their three young sons. Palme washed his own dishes, ironed his own clothes, answered his own telephone and commuted to work on a scooter.
Many outside the sphere of Swedish government disliked Palme because he was outspoken and blunt. In 1968, in a bid to oppose the Swedish Communist Party and the Vietnam War, he controversially compared the US Army to murderers and the war they fought to the Nazi genocide. However, Palme claimed that although he was not overly keen on its politicians, he admired the USA, and he made it clear that he considered Sweden as part of the Western world.
In 1969, Palme took the reins of the party from Erlander. By the mid 1970s, he had made many enemies by taxing small businesses out of existence, subjecting students to a more ‘experimental’ curriculum and putting more children into care than ever. In the 1976 general election, Palme was beaten by a coalition of conservatives and liberal democrats. However, securing his leadership of the country once again in 1985, he brought about more liberal policies – but by now he was also strongly hated by the right-wing society of Sweden, who considered him arrogant and a radacalist, while the conservatives considered him a class traitor. Palme was suspected of tax evasion and accused of being schizophrenic, unfaithful to his wife and a homosexual by his enemies when they launched a hate campaign against him.
The morning of 28 February 1986 was just like any other. Palme ran errands and attended meetings, and although his bodyguards were present at some of these appointments, Palme dismissed them during the day, feeling no need for security to accompany him further. Many commented on how jolly the prime minister had been throughout the day, although occasionally some would find his behavior rather odd. When Palme came into the Rosenbad dining room (in the Swedish state’s Rosenbad building) after lunch, he was incredibly angry, but he would not tell anyone why. But according to those who saw him that day, his mood gradually lifted.
A journalist who interviewed him that day for a trade union magazine was delighted that the prime minister was in such a good mood, but when he asked him to pose for a photo by the window, Palme declined. “You never know what may be waiting for me out there,” he told the journalist, who found his sudden sullenness strange. His day over, Palme returned home to his elegant residence in the Old Town. He and his wife Lisbet had discussed seeing a movie later that day although there were no set plans for their evening. Lisbet had wanted to see ‘My Life As A Dog’ at the Spegeln cinema. Later that day, Olof had phoned his son Marten and the pair discussed many a topic including the idea of going to see a film. Marten and his girlfriend had already booked tickets to go to the Grand Cinema to see ‘Broderna Mozart’ (The Mozart Brothers), a comedy that had been released a week previously. Marten invited his parents along with them – they later decided to join their son at the Grand Cinema, leaving their house at around 8.30pm.
As you would expect, a number of people noticed the prime minister and his wife that evening – he had appeared on the pages of their newspapers for decades, after all. A woman spotted the pair as they came out of their front door, and a ticket conductor wished the pair a pleasant journey as they purchased tickets for the subway, but he stated later that he found it odd that the prime minister was without a body guard. While waiting for the north-bound train, the pair received glances from people too shy to speak to Palme, while some were more than happy to acknowledge him. While many people noticed the prime minister’s casual stride, others observed him with a much more nervous disposition. Throughout their journey, nobody was seen following the prime minister at any point.
Last Walk Home
Once at the theatre, the family congregated outside for a short while as Lisbet and Olof brought their tickets. The box office clerk was delighted that the president had attended that evening, and although the film was sold out, she allowed him to sit in the theatre director’s seats. The film finished a few minutes after 11pm but the family stayed behind as the crowd filtered out of the cinema. Eventually the family left and huddled outside. A witness claims to have seen Olof and his son arguing, but his son later said that his father had become annoyed when he went to look up the name of one of the actresses in the film in a nearby shop window selling programs, before the shop turned its window lights off just as he was peering in. Marten admitted that this was rather strange behavior for his father to become annoyed over something so trivial. Marten suggested that his parents might like to join them for a drink but they declined, noticing the time ticking on. Instead Palme and his wife decided to make their way home. Lisbet wanted to get the train, but Olof made a comment about how fortunate he felt that a prime minister could walk home at night just like any other citizen. The pair walked side by side as a thin layer of snow and ice covered the ground. While they passed some hardy people in the street, few Swedish residents like to be out in the sub-zero temperatures at night, and by this time the streets had begun to clear. The couple made their way down the west side of Sveavägen, towards the northern entrance of the Hotorget Metro Station, eventually coming to the corner of Sveavägen and Tunnelgatan and making their way to the metro station on the other side.
Witness Ignes Morelius first observed a man who would moments later gun down the prime minister, dressed in a long, dark overcoat standing outside the entrance of a shop called Dekorima. At first he through that the man, dressed and acting suspiciously, was involved in a drug deal or a robbery. He looked as though he was waiting for someone. When he spotted the prime minister, he walked towards him. Morelius’s first thought was that he was about to snatch Lisbet’s handbag but instead he grabbed the prime minister by the shoulders before shooting him in the back at point-blank range. “Oh my God, he’s shooting!” Morelius exclaimed as he watched the prime minister fall. Lars Jeppsson heard Lisbet cry out, “No, what are you doing?” A bullet had grazed her but she instead rushed to her husband’s side as he lay in a pool of blood in the soft snow. The assailant holstered his gun and made a run for it up a side alley called Tunnelgaten, bolting past Jeppsson, who watched as he climbed the 89 steps up to the Brunkeberg ridge, two or three at a time, looking back every so often. Jeppsson decided to pursue the man, running past the scene of the crime he has just witnessed. At the top of the stairs, he ran into a man and a woman who pointed Jeppsson towards David Bagares Gata street. They had seen a man in dark coat flee in that direction. Jeppsson could scarcely see him up ahead before he ducked into a bank of parked cars. While Jeppsson later claimed that he did not hear a car pull away or a door slam, he was unable to find the man he had chased through Stockholm’s streets. On the other side of town, the Palmes arrived at Sabbatsberg Hospital. At 1am that morning, the first broadcast announced Olof’s death.
With “sketchy” witness reports and very few clues, the search for Palme’s killer was proving difficult.
As daylight broke the following morning, Palme’s death sparked the biggest manhunt in the nation’s history. The capital was closed off as police issued a nationwide search for the assassin. However, the police were late to seal off the crime scene and failed to effectively comb over the grounds for evidence – passersby were the first to find the bullet of the suspected murder weapon. Police issued an alert for a dark-haired man aged 35 to 40 and dressed in a long, dark overcoat but admitted that the witness reports were “sketchy”. While some witnesses to the slaying said that Palme’s assassin engaged him briefly in conversation before shooting him, others said that the assailant began firing as soon as he reached the prime minister.
Lisbet told police that she vaguely recognised the man who had shot her husband but was unable to immediately identify him. Police were keen to downplay the idea of a political assassination. However, one report quoted police sources as saying they were investigating Ustachi, a Croatian separatist movement, in connection with the assassination after Palme denied clemency to the man convicted of murdering the Yugoslav ambassador in Stockholm in 1971.
33-year-old Victor Gunnarsson was arrested in March accused of the killing after it was determined he had been close to the scene of the murder and “had no clear alibi”. He had connections to various extremist groups, and police had found anti-Palme pamphlets inside his home from one of the groups. But due to a lack of evidence, he was released on 11 April. Further investigations led police to the theory that a professional killer assassinated Palme. Stockholm police commissioner Hans Holmer followed up an intelligence lead passed to him and arrested a number of ‘Kuds’ living in Sweden after allegations that a formerly declared terrorist group, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, was responsible for the murder. The party denied its involvement in the murder. Claes Zeime, the judicial head of the investigation into the shooting, said police have studied 16 organisations without finding a link.
Almost three years after Pamle’s death, police arrested 41-year-old Christer Pettersson, a criminal, drug user and alcoholic with a history of violent crime, including a manslaughter conviction for stabbing a drug addict to death with a bayonet in 1970. When Pettersson stood trial for the murder the following year, Lisbet insisted that Pettersson was the man that she saw that night, having picked him out of a police line-up. The evidence surrounding the prosecution’s case against Pettersson was entirely circumstantial, and he firmly denied the murder charge against him. At his trial, which started on 5 June 1989, Pettersson told the court: “I did not kill Prime Minister Olof Palme. I did not try to kill Mrs. Palme. The shooting was an infamous crime that I could never have committed.” When he tried to defend himself by saying he had been home at the time, a close friend discredited his story.
Pettersson was found guilty and sentenced to life in prison in July, but the country barely had time to rejoice at the idea of the murder being solved before the conviction was overturned unanimously in October due to a lack of evidence. The courts had no motive for Pettersson’s ‘crime’, no murder weapon and no hard evidence proving he was guilty. Pettersson died in September 2004 after suffering cerebral hemorrhaging following a knock to the head. He had reported being harassed by the police on 15 September, the day before he sustained his head injury. His associates later claimed that he had admitted his role in the murder but explained that it was a case of mistaken identity. Apparently he had meant to kill a drug dealer dressed in similar clothing, who often walked along the same street at night. Experts predicted prior to his conviction being overturned that, should he be freed, it would be impossible to find the killer as all the witnesses statements pointed to Pettersson as the gunman, despite no witnesses having seen Pettersson with a gun in his hand.
More than three decades on and the killer remains a mystery, but Sweden has not forgotten its loss.
The Palme investigation is one of the biggest in the world, overtaking the scale of investigations into the JFK assassination and the Lockerbie bombing. The case remains open. Under Swedish law, a case cannot be closed until the police have both the murder weapon and the murderer. In the past three decades since Palme’s slaying at a ‘busy’ intersection in Stockholm, police have questioned more than 10,000 witnesses, produced approximately 90,000 pages of reports and crossed off around 133 potential assassins from their list of suspects. Experts claim that it would take a legal expert nine years to read through all the archived material of the case, which takes up 250 metres of shelf space. To this day five police officers dedicate most of their time to the unsolved case, spending their time testing weapons and following up leads.
Palme was not the last Swedish politician to be murdered. In 2003, Foreign Minister Anna Lindh was stabbed to death in a Stockholm department store. She was also without her bodyguards. In 2012, Olof Palme’s son Joakim said his father usually had a bodyguard but had sent him home that evening after deciding not to go out. When his plans changed, Mr Palme’s son said his father had tried but failed to reach anyone at Swedish security services, so he headed out anyway to the cinema with his wife. However, he admitted that even if there had been a bodyguard there that night, there was no guarantee his father would have lived.
In 2014, there was another development as it was revealed that the Swedish crime author Stieg Larsson, who died in 2004, had sent the police 15 boxes of files in connection to his own investigation into Palme’s murder. The newspaper was given access to Larsson’s files and found that a suspect for the killing did not have an alibi. The man in question was thought to have had close links to South African security forces. In 2016, the country commemorated 30 years since his killing with thousands of residents flocking to the corner where Palme was shot to pay their respects with mountains of red roses, the symbol of his political party. The country has still not forgotten what happened to the prime minister who liked to walk alongside them.
The case is without much hope of a conviction, despite a $7 million reward for any information that will bring Sweden closure. Every year on the anniversary of his death, the police’s Palme Group invite witnesses or anyone with any new information to come forward via their hotline, which usually receives about 100 calls. But to this day they await the ringing of the telephone and a voice at the end of the line that will deliver a lead strong enough to solve the country’s biggest mystery.
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