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How a small Swedish town ended up at the centre of a sect murder

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How a small Swedish town ended up at the centre of a sect murder
The house of the pastor whose wife was found murdered in mysterious circumstances. Photo: Sara Winsnes/SvD/TT
16:49 CEST+02:00
In Sweden, the small town of Knutby became infamous 15 years ago when a local church congregation was linked to an attempted double murder. As three former members of the "sect-like" congregation face new charges unrelated to the previous court case, here are the key things to know about what's known in Sweden as the 'Knutby drama'.

The case in brief

In January 2004, a man was found shot in Knutby, a town of a few hundred residents north of Uppsala, before a young woman (his neighbour and employee) was found murdered in her bed just hours later.

The murdered woman's husband was a pastor in the local pentecostal church, and the day after the murder, his former nanny confessed to the killing.

In May 2019, new charges were brought against three former members of the congregation, unrelated to the 2004 case.

READ MORE: All of The Local's articles on Knutby

Three members of Knutby sect face charges 15 years after trial that shook a nation
File photo: Tomas Oneborg/SvD/TT

The murder

The victims were Alexandra Fossmo, wife of the pastor Helge Fossmo, and 30-year-old Daniel Linde, the husband of the Fossmos' former nanny.

Alexandra Fossmo was killed after being shot three times and stabbed in her bed in the early hours of January 10th, 2004, shortly before Linde was shot in the face and seriously injured, after answering the door to the assailant. He survived the attack.

The following day, 26-year-old Sara Svensson, who had previously been employed as a nanny to the Fossmos, confessed to the killings and showed police where the gun was, but it soon became clear that her motive was complex.

It later emerged that Svensson and Helge Fossmo, the pastor, had been romantically involved and that he had manipulated her through anonymous text messages she interpreted as messages from God.

READ ALSO: Deadly violence in Sweden fell in 2018, preliminary stats show


Sara Svensson escorted to court during the trial. Photo: Bertil Ericson/Pressens Bild/TT

In court, Svensson said: "Helge's word was my law. By the grace of God I got to be his slave." She said the pastor had told her that God had said the Christian commandment forbidding adultery did not apply to him.

In late 2004, Svensson was sentenced to institutional psychiatric care for murder while Fossmo, despite not being the one who carried out the killings, received life imprisonment for incitement to murder and attempted murder. At the time, Fossmo denied any involvement, but he confessed in 2006, claiming his feelings and behaviour had been "impregnated by a poisonous sect culture".

Svensson was later released from care, while Fossmo remains in prison.

READ MORE: Knutby nanny who killed lover's wife set free

Fresh charges

Unrelated to the previous court case, on May 14th, 2018, it was announced that three former members of the congregation would face new charges, relating to assault and sexual exploitation of people in a position of dependence. One of those to be charged, although not in relation to sexual crimes, was Åsa Waldau, the sister of Fossmo's murdered wife and a key member of the congregation known as the Bride of Christ.

Prosecutors said that there was a "punitive culture of violence" within the congregation, with Waldau accused of biting a person in the face and stabbing another in the hand with a fork, as well as multiple instances of hitting people and slamming their heads into the wall. She denies all the accusations.

Two men also face charges, one of assault and unlawful coercion and the other of sexually exploiting a person who was dependent on him, in this case a teenage girl. The former has confessed and testified in connection to some of the other charges, and the latter man denies the allegation.

A court illustration of Åsa Waldau and her lawyer during the 2004 trial. Image: Birgitta Schölander/SCANPIX/TT

Life in the congregation

Members of the Knutby congregation believed that Jesus would soon return to earth, and Fossmo and Waldau were two of the highest-ranking members; there were seven leaders in total.

Witnesses have previously told a documentary by national broadcaster SVT that Waldau's position of power allowed her to convince others to do what she wanted, as those who disobeyed could face assault or ostracism. Members were expected to give around ten percent of their income to the group.

The parish in Knutby was formally closed down in 2018, at which point only a few members remained.


The offices of the parish in Knutby. Photo: Pontus Lundahl / TT

Earlier this year, a thesis by a researcher at Gothenburg University looked into the impact on children who grew up in the congregation. Doctoral student Sanja Nilsson interviewed former members aged between seven and 25, and painted a picture of a hierarchical community where members had varying status. Some children were reportedly taken from their parents to be raised by other members of the community.

"Social exclusion was recurrent. If you were judged to be wrong, you were excluded from the group. This could be for about a week or several years – those who suffered the most felt very bad psychologically and felt that they did not want to live anymore," Nilsson told the TT newswire at the time.

"Life in the congregation was focused on the present. They had to be ready for Jesus to return at any time. The children were not well-prepared for the future and many still struggle to come to terms with their past, the former leaders and parents," she said.

 

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