(CN) — In the end, after 34 years of investigations into the assassination of popular socialist Prime Minister Olof Palme, Swedish prosecutors on Wednesday said they did not uncover a wide-ranging political conspiracy behind his killing.
Authorities instead fingered a deceased, bespectacled and unremarkable office worker with conservative political ideas as the lone assassin responsible for Palme’s death on a cold February night in 1986 while he was walking home from a cinema with his wife.
After following thousands of leads and hampered by years of botched police work, Swedish authorities closed the book Wednesday on a political assassination compared to the murder of former U.S. President John F. Kennedy. Both assassinations spawned national agony, complex conspiracy theories, multiple official and independent investigations and scores of books, films and articles.
While not entirely dismissing theories linking Palme’s death to his criticism of South Africa’s apartheid regime, chief prosecutor Krister Petersson said he was confident the assassin was Stig Engstrom, a graphic designer who worked for Skandia, a Swedish insurance company. At age 66, Engstrom killed himself in 2000, making prosecution of the alleged assassin impossible, Petersson said.
“I believe we’ve gone as far as we can in the investigation,” he said during a news conference. “There is one suspect who somehow we can’t get around. He is Stig Engstrom.”
But the prosecution’s decision to wrap up the investigation and accuse Engstrom left many Swedes unsatisfied. Misgivings were deepened by the prosecution’s reliance on a review of old testimony and a failure to present new evidence, most importantly a murder weapon. Swedish news media had reported previously that authorities believed they had found the weapon used to kill the prime minister among a collection of guns owned by a friend of Engstrom.
“But we can’t put a specific gun in his hand,” the prosecutor said. He said investigators found a weapon owned by the gun collector that matches the caliber of bullets fired at the couple, but he said experts believe it would be impossible to verify the same gun was used in the killing.
“This press conference was a colossal disappointment,” Leif Gustav Willy Persson, a well-known Swedish criminologist and novelist, said on Swedish television. He said he had hoped prosecutors would produce new evidence “you can bite into” but that they failed to make a case that would stand up in court.
“So, after all of the build-up and hype before today’s announcement, Sweden’s long national drama is not over,” commented Christian Christensen, an American journalism professor at Stockholm University, on Twitter. “It seems it never will be.”
Prime Minister Stefan Lofven, though, urged Swedes to move on from Palme’s murder on Sveavagen, a busy Stockholm boulevard. He said Swedish governments had taken responsibility for failures in the investigation – such as not sealing off the crime scene – by establishing an inquiry.
“The shots on Sveavagen on that February night in 1986 turned into a crisis, a wound, a riddle without an answer,” he said, according to media reports. “It is my sincerest wish that the wound can now begin to heal.”
On the night of Feb. 28, 1986, a Friday, Engstrom was working late to finish work before a weekend ski trip with his wife, Petersson said in reconstructing the police version of events that led to the murder.
Engstrom clocked out of work at 11:19 pm and headed down the street to catch public transportation home. A short distance from the Skandia office, he ran across Palme and his wife Lisbet walking down the street, Petersson said. The 59-year-old prime minister had earlier dismissed his bodyguards and gone to the cinema with his wife.
Upon encountering Palme, Engstrom shot both the prime minister and his wife before fleeing, the prosecutor alleged.
Petersson declined to speculate on his motive for the killing, saying it was impossible to know what his reasons were because he is dead.
“We don’t have a clear picture at this stage about what made him snap,” he said.
Engstrom was a figure connected to the murder scene from the outset, but he presented himself to reporters and police as an innocent bystander who happened to be one of the first people on the scene of the crime.
He described how he was hurrying down the street to catch a night train home, looking at his watch, when he came across the fallen couple on the sidewalk, the prosecutor said. Engstrom said he did not hear the shots and that he provided first aid to the prime minister and Lisbet, who was grazed by a second bullet, the prosecutor said.
Engstrom even said Lisbet told him about a person, or possibly persons, who shot them. He also said he saw a young man dressed in a dark blue jacket run away from the scene. But his accounts, the chief prosecutor said, were not corroborated by other witnesses.
The day after the killing, Engstrom presented himself in a newspaper article as a witness to the events. He also contacted police the following day to express his alarm over witness accounts he had seen on television about a man running away from the scene, saying he feared those accounts might mistakenly lead investigators to think he was the gunman. He explained that he ran after police officers who’d run off to find the assassin to better describe to those officers the suspect he had seen fleeing the scene, Petersson said.
But Petersson described Engstrom’s witness accounts as subterfuge to cover up his assassination. He said Engstrom had been in the military, belonged to a gun club, was in possession of a weapon that night when he ran into the prime minister and that he frequented “a circle critical of the prime minister.”
Apparently, Engstrom’s allegedly false testimony succeeded. He was dismissed as a suspect and witness by police early in the investigation and only came under scrutiny years later. He even testified in the defense of Christer Pettersson, a criminal who was accused of Palme’s murder and convicted in 1989. But his conviction was overturned on appeal for lack of evidence.
A years-long investigation led by freelance journalist Thomas Pettersson concluded in 2018 that Engstrom was the alleged murderer. The chief prosecutor said the journalist’s work had no bearing on the official investigation, though media reports suggest otherwise.
Hans Melander, the chief of the investigation, described the probe into Palme’s death as one of the biggest ever conducted. He compared it to the investigation of the Kennedy assassination and the downing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland.
Over the past 34 years, Swedish investigators looked into a number of theories. Initially, the first chief investigator pursued the idea that the Kurdish militant group PKK was behind the murder because Palme’s government had declared it a terrorist group. That theory proved ridiculous.
Investigators also spent a lot of effort looking into whether South Africa’s apartheid regime was behind Palme’s killing because of his outspoken criticism of apartheid.
Melander said the theory his death was tied to South Africa was “an interesting lead,” but he said there was not enough “specific information” to make that connection.
Investigations looked into how the Swedish government funneled secret financial support to fight the white government in South Africa. After the fall of apartheid in 1990, a white former security officer, Colonel Eugene de Kock, alleged an agent with the apartheid government murdered Palme because he backed the African National Congress and the black liberation movement.
Swedish authorities also looked into allegations that Swedish police officers and military members were behind the killing. But Melander said there was no evidence to support that theory.
Still, Petersson, the chief prosecutor, said he could not rule out the possibility that Engstrom was part of a larger conspiracy.
“Because the perpetrator is dead, we cannot turn to a court, we cannot have this issue tried,” he said. “We hope our conclusions will be accepted by the general public, but I understand that different conspiracy theories will continue to float in the public domain as they have in the past 34 years.”
Palme was a very popular politician among those on the left in Sweden and he led the country’s Social Democratic party for 16 years before his assassination. His party implemented many of the policies that Sweden became famous for, such as high taxes and a generous welfare system.
His killing shocked Sweden and has become a national obsession. In 2010, Sweden removed the statute of limitations on murders to allow investigators to keep pursuing Palme’s case.
Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.