Stig Engström: How Swedish police finally identified the man they believe killed PM Olof Palme

Stig Engström: How Swedish police finally identified the man they believe killed PM Olof Palme
Members of the public gather by the cordoned-off scene of the crime. Photo: Anders Holmström/Svenskt Pressfoto
Swedish police have named the man they believe killed Prime Minister Olof Palme in 1986 as Stig Engström, an early witness in the case who had experience and access to weapons. Here's a look at how they believe they've solved Sweden's biggest ever criminal investigation after 34 years.

“This is one of the biggest police investigations in the world. It's by far Sweden's biggest criminal investigation ever,” chief prosecutor Krister Petersson told journalists as he announced the historic decision in the case on Wednesday.

What's happened?

In 2017 chief prosecutor Krister Petersson took over the role heading up the police unit investigating Prime Minister Olof Palme's murder 34 years ago.

On Wednesday, he revealed that Stig Engström was the man they believed killed Palme in 1986, but because Engström died in 2000 and therefore can't be prosecuted, the investigation can go no further.

Petersson announced that the probe – the longest-running in Sweden – would be closed.

The suspect Engström has been dubbed 'Skandiamannen' (The Skandia man') in the media because he worked at insurance company Skandia close to the scene of the murder. He was an early witness in the case, questioned by police several times, but only emerged as a potential suspect a few years ago. 

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Prosecutor Krister Petersson at the online press conference on Wednesday. Photo: Stina Stjernkvist/TT

Will the announcement bring closure for Sweden?

Because Engström is dead, the investigation is being closed. 

It's hard to overstate the importance of the Palme murder investigation to Swedish society. Like the assassination of US President Kennedy, everyone remembers where they were when they heard the news.

The murder itself has been described as the moment Sweden “lost its innocence”, particularly as Palme had made such efforts to live a normal life and be accessible to the public, while the long-running investigation and perceived failures by the police have prevented the possibility of closure for the public grief. 

It's hard to say how far Wednesday's announcement will go in providing closure, particularly without definitive proof such as identification of the murder weapon, but it is major news that the country's biggest ever investigation has now reached an end.

Chief prosecutor Krister Petersson said: “I believe that we have come as far with the investigation as possible.”

Asked by The Local if he thought the announcement would be accepted by Swedish people, he said: “We can't have this issue tried and we hope that our conclusions will be accepted by the general public, but I am not so stupid I don't understand that different conspiracy theories will keep afloat in the public domain the way they have done over the past 34 years. But we have a conclusion that we feel that we can stand behind.”

What do we know about Stig Engström?

Engström was born in India to Swedish parents before moving back to Sweden aged 12.

After failing to pass his high school exams, Engström entered the military and worked his way up to become a sergeant. He later trained in graphic design and worked for the Swedish Broadcasting Corporation before becoming an advertising consultant at insurance company Skandia.

He has described himself as being “extremely shy” but “very self-assured” and in an interview with newspaper Svenska Dagbladet in 1982 he recalled playing with “typical war toys” as a child.

In this interview, he also said he had gone through a personal crisis in the preceding years but felt calmer.

In the 1980s Engström also got involved in local politics, representing the conservative Moderate Party. Several people have said that he expressed negative views about Palme but did not think him capable of the murder.

He died in 2000, aged 66. During his lifetime, Engström never faced any charges and he was not one of the prominent suspects.

Stig Engström was questioned as a witness in the early days of the investigation. Photo: Göran Ärnbäck/EXP/TT

Do police think Engström acted alone?

The police said they have spent time looking at different groups and events to see if the murder was part of a conspiracy. Some of the main theories over the years have been linked to the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), the South African police, and even the Swedish police.

“We haven't been able to find any support for the theory of a conspiracy, but it can't be rejected completely that this was part of a conspiracy,” said chief prosecutor Petersson.

He also said that the fact Engström spoke to media several times suggests he was not part of a larger group.

What evidence do police have that Engström is guilty?

From 2017, the police focused on reviewing material linked to the crime scene and the individuals present, Petersson said on Wednesday. This differed from some previous tactics which had focused on looking into groups with a strong motive but were unable to connect these groups with the scene.

Police noticed that although witness statements varied and few could describe the murderer's face, there were some areas where all witnesses agreed – on some elements of the perpetrator's appearance, and the direction they ran.

“As a result of that we arrived at the conclusion that there was a person who didn't match the rest of the pattern, a person who didn't fit in,” said police officer Hans Melander.

“His (Engström) statement couldn't be corroborated with the statements of other witnesses so we started to consider this during the summer of 2017. During the autumn we then started to work actively with this, and after a short while we presented this information to the prosecutor and were instructed by prosecutor Petersson to continue to focus on this individual.”

The evidence against Engström is based on his and other witness statements, and his actions on the evening and during the time afterwards.

Police have not been able to identify the weapon that killed Olof Palme. They have tested over 700 guns in the course of the investigation, but have not been able to link any single weapon to the two bullets found at the scene.

But police do know that Engström had access to guns of the same kind.

“He was used to using weapons, he had been employed by the military, he was a member of a shooting club. A friend had a room full of guns, he was a collector, and we have retrieved at least one gun which corresponds to the calibre we suspect was used during the crime,” said prosecutor Krister Petersson, though he said that the National Forensic Centre had been unable to link a specific weapon to the murder.

“His relatives and people who knew him described him as having a very negative view of Olof Palme and his politics. We also know that he had financial problems, and had a problem with alcohol and received treatment for that,” Petersson added.

What was Stig Engström doing at the scene?

Before becoming a suspect he was an early witness in the case and was questioned by police several times, saying that he arrived at the scene immediately after the shooting while on his way to the Stockholm metro. 

He told police he was wearing a knee-length dark coat, a cap, glasses, and had a small bag around his wrist. This information, together with his height of 182cm, fitted with how many of the other witnesses described the suspect. 

Engström himself told police he believed he was the man in the descriptions, and that he had been mistaken for the murderer while running after police. But he said he had seen the perpetrator run away wearing a blue quilted jacket, and that Lisbet Palme had also told him the murderer wore a blue jacket. That's despite no record of Palme's wife speaking to or giving a description of the perpetrator to any civilians at the scene.

What's more, none of the other witnesses remembered Engström acting in the way he describes – being one of the first on the scene, helping to administer first aid to Palme, and pointing police in the direction he saw the murderer run.

“When we've gone through the material, what is odd is the fact that none of the other witnesses on the scene of the crime recognised Stig Engström at all as having been there at the scene,” said Petersson. “If he was there, he disappeared before he made any impression on any of the witnesses at the scene of the crime. Even though it was chaos at the scene, he definitely did not act the way he claimed.”

How did Engström act after the crime?

Petersson describes how Engström's actions and statements following the murder raise further suspicion.

Security guards at the Skandia office said Engström returned there, shaken up, at around 11.40pm.

The day following the murder, Engström called his employer asking for information on the time he had left the office, telling Skandia that he needed the information to share with the police and the media – despite the fact he had not yet provided any information to media or police at this point, and when he did it came after he himself contacted them. 

He then spent the day calling police, even stating that the description in the news broadcast could be him and telling them that he believed the perpetrator was a man in a blue jacket. And after that, he called newspaper Svenska Dagbladet, whose reporters visited him at home and wrote an article based on his statement.

Prosecutor Petersson noted that Engström appeared in several TV and newspaper reports on the murder, often criticising the police for not taking his statement seriously. This is despite the fact that his statement – inconsistent with most of the others – was taken several times, and Petersson said the man could be “mocking the police”.

Why did it take so long to get an answer?

Petersson said that the initial investigation was carried out differently than it would have been today, and that the current team would have investigated Engström.

There have been criticisms of the way it was handled in the early stages, particularly the questioning of Lisbet Palme and failure to properly cordon off the crime scene, meaning possible forensic evidence was destroyed.

“What has made the investigation more difficult for us is that more than 34 years have passed since the assassination. A number of witnesses are no longer with us or are very old. Evidence does not improve over time,” Petersson stated.

“We hoped to get clear indications from the National Forensic Centre but they said based on today's technology it won't be possible to tie a weapon to the murder scene, so what we have to work with is more or less the same forensic evidence that was secured at the time.”

Petersson also said that the huge amount of media coverage, and publication of witness photos and statements, may have harmed the investigation. “We noticed that statements given by witnesses would vary a lot between the initial interviews and what they said once they had read what other witnesses said, so this made our investigation difficult,” he said.

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