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The serial-killer anatomy of a Swedish scandal

The Local · 16 Dec 2013, 10:14

Published: 16 Dec 2013 10:14 GMT+01:00

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The National Board of Forensic Medicine (Rättsmedicinalverket) has decided that Quick, who has reverted to his original name Sture Bergwall, will keep receiving treatment but not in a mental hospital. But in order to understand why he ended up standing trial for eight murders that he later said he did not commit, we need a short recap.

From 1992, the already incarcerated Bergwall began to confess to a series of unsolved murders that he, after being in therapy at Säter Mental Hospital - part of Sweden's correctional services -  remembered committing. At the time, he was taking plenty of benzodiazepines, a strong form of psychoactive drugs, to which he said he became addicted. He realized that he would get his hands on more of the drug if he confessed to further atrocities during the therapy sessions. Not all the cases were “strong” enough to go to trial. There was a score of confessions, but some would never make it to the courtroom. Bergwall, who had adopted the name Thomas Quick - a combination of Thomas Blomgren whom he “killed” in 1964 and the maiden name of his mother - was in the end convicted of eight murders.

One detail apparently failed to be examined. Bergwall could not have killed Blomgren. Bergwall was attending his Christian confirmation at the time of Blomgren's murder. This fact, in combination with Bergwall's drug abuse, could have illuminated the weakness of the entire case. But it would land on Bergwall's shoulders to clear his name, not on the justice system's.

After he quit his medication, Bergwall withdrew all his confessions. Swedish prosecutors cannot prosecute without enough evidence to reasonably secure a verdict. Without the confessions, the cases crumbled and the charges were withdrawn. This summer, prosecutors dropped the eighth and final murder charge. Bergwall has since been fighting to get a new assessment of his mental state, and said he hopes to walk free. The saga took one of its last twists this week, as the Forensic Medicine Board allowed him to receive therapy in a more open form.

For an outsider, it can seem rather strange that a junkie addicted to pills could be convicted of eight murders with the help of “hidden memories," only accessible by therapy. There was no shortage of critics during the time the confessions played out either. Retired criminology professor, TV personality, and Sweden's in-house crime sage Leif G.W. Persson bluntly questioned Bergwall's supposed modus operandi, saying it would be impossible for one man “to go around like a bloody slaughter machine all over Scandinavia."

Another critic was psychologist Ulf Åsgård, who had helped the Swedish police catch a real serial killer - “Laser Man” John Ausonius who terrorized Stockholm in 1991-1992 by shooting foreign-born Swedes with a laser-sight rifle.

Yet Persson and Åsgård were ignored.

So how could the Sture Bergwall/Thomas Quick scandal happen?

Let us speculate that there was something in the air in Sweden that made society ready for such a grizzly tale. The shelves of book stores were being filled with foreign gore (this was before the proper birth of the domestic Nordic Noir genre) - Brett Easton Ellis' novel American Psycho, with its yuppie freak Patrick Bateman, had recently been translated to Swedish (Bergwall would later cite American Psycho as "inspiration"). Cinema-goers, meanwhile, were gripping their velvet-clad seats as Jodi Foster and Anthony Hopkins faced off in Silence of the Lambs. Reality offered its ready examples too. In 1994, British police arrested serial killer couple Fred and Rosemary West - a case widely reported on in Swedish media. 

Put simply, Sweden in the early 1990s was ready for a serial killer of its own. In Thomas Quick, there was enough material to fill several horror novels: childhood abuse, necrophilia, and cannibalism. The media lapped it up. 

The Swedes were also rather blue at the time - suffering a financial crisis that was considerably worse than the one that would come in 2008. So in that sense, a "real" serial killer provided a form of psychological relief, and excitement. I would argue that the Swedes were almost envious of other countries' psychos, and wanted their own.

You cannot, however, use culture and sentiment as an excuse for what happened. What was unfurling would become one of the worst legal scandals in Swedish history. Police officers, therapists, and lawyers misinterpreted, ignored and cheated their way through the evidence-gathering, blatantly putting aside the bits that spoke against Bergwall's own version of events. The media also played an important part in the massive hoodwink, because reporters took all the "official" truths for granted. Few were the journalists who questioned the "perfect story." 

Story continues below…

An important question is who will pay, if at all, for allowing this to happen?

Sweden's Justice Minister Beatrice Ask has appointed "The Quick Commission", headed by political science professor Daniel Tarschys. He is a former member of the Riksdag and a professor of political science - he is thus not a lawyer. This could mean that that case is investigated from a political and not a legal point of view.  It is unlikely that the commission will yield true power to change any structural weakness it finds to lay behind the many ill-made decisions that saw Bergwall wrongfully convicted of eight murders. 

David Lindén is a PhD student in history at King's College London and is currently a liberal political commentator for Borås Tidning (BT). Previously he was a visiting scholar at University of North Carolina. Follow him on Twitter here.

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