A disturbed individual, a flawed justice system, and two stubborn investigative journalists

Hannes Råstam, Thomas Quick: The Making of a Serial Killer.
Translated by Henning Koch.
Edinburgh, Scotland: Canongate, 2014.
459 pages.

Dan Josefsson, Mannen som slutade ljuga : berättelsen om Sture Bergwall och kvinnan som skapade Thomas Quick .
Stockholm: Lind & Co., 2013.

“The story of Sture Bergwall is one that even today’s popular Swedish crime writers – Henning Mankell, Liza Marklund, Johan Theorin, Camilla Läckberg, Stieg Larsson, Åke Edwardson – could not have made up.

Bergwall confessed to 30 brutal sex murders, including of children, and even to having ritually devoured some of his victims. But Bergwall just made up his stories to please his psychiatrists and gain access to the drugs to which he was addicted. He would still likely be in jail if it were not for the investigative journalists who tore the lid off a legal system that failed completely.

Sweden regularly comes out near the top on quality of life indexes. And yet the story of Sture Bergwall shows that it is not immune to serious miscarriages of justice.”

—The editors

 Sture Bergwall was born in Falun, a small city in central Sweden, in 1950. As a teenager he took drugs and struggled with his homosexuality. After Bergwall sexually harassed younger boys, he came into contact with the psychiatric system. In 1970 Bergwall was diagnosed as a pedophile and hospitalized in a psychiatric clinic. A couple of years later, a drugged Bergwall tried to stab a friend. Because Bergwall was still under psychiatric treatment, he was not sentenced.

When Bergwall got out of the clinic, he tried to start over and opened a food concession stand. For a time, his life was more or less stable. But in 1991, Bergwall decided to rob a bank with a friend. Since Bergwall lived in a small city, the bank employees recognized him and shortly afterwards the police stopped by and picked him up. Once again Bergwall was placed in a mental hospital; this time he was diagnosed with a personality disorder.

Up to this point, nothing distinguished Bergwall from any other drug addict with a criminal record and history of mental illness. However, when Bergwall was about to be released from the mental hospital in Säter in 1993, he confessed to the murder of Johan Asplund, a case the police had been trying in vain to solve since the boy disappeared in 1980.

Bergwall’s confession piqued the interest of an ambitious prosecutor, Christer van der Kwast, who was eager to solve the case of the missing boy. Bergwall was represented by a famous lawyer, Clas Borgström, whom he chose after he decided that his former lawyer had not worked hard enough to get him convicted.

Sweden’s legal system is not designed to handle accused people who want to be found guilty. During the following years Bergwall confessed to 30 murders. The prosecutor, Bergwall’s psychiatrist, his lawyer and Bergwall himself all successfully convinced the courts that Bergwall has committed eight brutal rape-murders.

After a while, even the Norwegian police became interested in the convicted Swedish serial killer and got in contact with the Swedish prosecutor. And soon Bergwall was believed to have murdered in Norway as well. In 1998 Bergwall was convicted of the 1981 murder of a Norwegian girl, and in 2000 he was convicted of have murdered two young Norwegian women in 1985. Both trials were conducted in Sweden.

However, not everyone was convinced that Bergwall was a serial killer. Some journalists, police officers and psychologists were suspicious. They pointed to the lack of physical or independent eyewitness evidence of any of Bergwall’s crimes. Additionally, serial killers usually have a modus operandi: they murder in a certain way or search for certain victims. Bergwall, however, had confessed to killing young boys and girls, couples, a lonely tourist and a female prostitute. He seemed to kill just about anyone in front of him and yet left no traces. And he seemed to be a criminal mastermind when it came to murder, but a total failure when he committed minor crimes, for which he was easily caught. To top it all off, two of the people Bergwall said he had murdered were still alive.

On November 15, 2001, Bergwall said he had had enough of the sceptics who refused to believe he was a serial killer. In an op-ed in a prestigious Swedish newspaper, Dagens Nyheter, Bergwall explained that the sceptics had insulted him publicly and therefore he would no longer cooperate with the police and solve other murders. For seven years Bergwall was silent, and the case receded from public view.

In 2008 Bergwall, who had been using the alias Thomas Quick, was contacted by a journalist, Hannes Råstam. Råstam was working on a documentary setting out the views of the two camps on Bergwall’s guilt: was he a murderer or a storyteller? While working on the documentary, Råstam discovered a pattern in which Bergwall’s confessions improved over time, becoming more specific. Råstam found out that Bergwall’s interrogator (always the same person) helped Bergwall with details by asking leading questions. When Råstam went to talk to him, Bergwall unexpectedly told the journalist that he had never committed any murders at all.

Råstam assembled documents Bergwall has collected and put him in touch with a competent lawyer, Thomas Olsson, to appeal the murder convictions. The result is unique in Swedish history. After successfully appealing two murder convictions, in 2011 Olsson turned his attention to the most famous case, the one of the missing boy, Johan Asplund. No body had been found despite Bergwall’s efforts to tell the police where he had buried Johan’s body parts. At the time, the court found it troubling that the police could not find Johan Asplund, but convicted him anyway.

But Olsson was able to prove that Bergwall did not have a clue about Johan’s body. When he began his confession, Bergwall said nothing about specific marks on Johan’s body. Johan had a varicocele and a birthmark. It was only after a while, with the interrogator asking his leading questions, that Bergwall started to talk about specific characteristics of Johan’s body. Bergwall could not say how he had travelled to Johan’s city. He did not have a car or a driver’s licence at the time. At first, Bergwall had claimed that a friend took him and that together they killed and dismembered Johan. However, when Bergwall’s friend turned out to have an alibi, Bergwall claimed instead that he had just borrowed the car. When the police searched the car, they found no trace of body parts.

Five months after Bergwall’s lawyer appealed the case, the chief prosecutor decided to drop it for lack of evidence. The same happened to the remaining five cases.

Råstam died of cancer in 2012 in the course of the appeal process.Thanks to a very stubborn journalist, Sweden now had one fewer serial killer and one major legal scandal. Another journalist, Dan Josefsson, asked how this could happen in the first place. Josefsson went undercover at Säter hospital, where Bergwall had spent ten years, and got to know the psychiatrists.

Josefsson discovered that Bergwall had become anxious when he was scheduled to be released after the bank robbery. He had concerns about his addiction and was unwilling to go back to the city where he had robbed a bank and committed sexual offences against boys.

Bergwall became fascinated with the way the hospital staff treated one of Sweden’s most notorious criminals, Lars-Inge Svartenbrandt. Svartenbrandt was diagnosed as a psychopath, a condition for which there is no psychiatric cure. However, Säter is a progressive institution, and the staff claimed they had treated Svartenbrandt. No one had ever before cured a psychopath, and the institution trumpeted its success. But it was illusory. Shortly after his release, Svartenbrandt robbed a gas station. In the course of the robbery there was also a hostage-taking.

Bergwall noticed that the staff treated Svartenbrandt as a star. He concluded that his own problems were not interesting enough. To get attention, Bergwall knew he had to come up with something special. During this period, Swedish media were preoccupied with the disappearance of Johan Asplund. Bergwall saw an opportunity.

A problem for Bergwall was that he didn’t know much about the disappearance of the young boy, so he was – naturally – a bit vague about the details. However, fortunately for Bergwall, theories of repressed memories were popular among psychologists at the time.

As with many trends, the idea of repressed memories first became popular in the United States. All of a sudden people came out of therapy sessions and claimed they now remembered abuse they had experienced long ago as children. The theory made its way into the legal system, and people was sent to jail because their alleged victims started to remember terrible things in the past.

However, some researchers were very sceptical of the theory of repressed memories. One of them was the cognitive psychologist Elizabeth Loftus, who had earlier conducted experiments to test how our memories work. In one of her experiments, Loftus showed people a video of a car crash and then asked participants questions about what had happened. The result revealed that the assessed speed of the cars depended on how the question was asked. If the respondents were asked about the speed when the cars “smashed” into each other, the speed was higher than when the same situation was phrased as the cars “hit” each other.

Our memories are, in other words, created in part by our present selves. They can very easily be manipulated. Genuine victims of trauma do not seem to repress their memories. Studies of Holocaust survivors found that victims had quite clear and correct recollections of details and names. Actually, the hardest part for them was to forget. Faced with this kind of criticism, the doctrine of recovered memory ceased to be fashionable and disappeared from the legal system.

The theory of repressed memory also became popular in Sweden, and the Swedish courts had cases, some of them quite famous, in which memories of this kind were an important part of the chain of evidence. Some of the psychologists who believed in repressed memories worked at the Säter mental hospital.

Margit Norell, who for many years had functioned as therapist for the psychologists and psychiatrists at Säter, also really believed in repressed memories. Norell was very influential and some of the psychologists even saw her as a “mother.” One day the psychologists told her about Bergwall and his confessions. Norell immediately became interested. Thanks to her strong influence, the psychologists gave her the files they had on Bergwall. Norell gave instructions on how to treat him. Bergwall could be Norell’s and Säter’s proof that their therapy worked. Norell was so fired up that she began to work on a manuscript about Bergwall, in which she described her efforts to open him up and thereby solve murder cases.

Bergwall’s lack of recall of the details about the missing boy was quite easily handled by the theory of repressed memories. According to the theory, and his psychologists, the reason for Bergwall’s problem in remembering the specific circumstances of Johan Asplund’s disappearance was his anxiety about the terrible things he had done. To open up Bergwall’s capacity to remember, he needed therapy and medication. All of a sudden, the hospital had a potential new star, a serial killer whose crimes only could be solved by the institution’s skilled specialists – and Bergwall had all the drugs and attention he could ask for. As a bonus, the police could solve murder cases that were still open.

The therapists at Säter could also “explain” why Bergwall killed and raped. The outcome of the therapy was a “memory” that Bergwall was raped by his father as a young boy. During the assault, his pregnant mother supposedly saw them. In Bergwall’s telling, his mother became upset and accused the little boy of seducing his father. In fact, she became so upset that she had a miscarriage on the floor. The parents supposedly forced the young Bergwall to eat his brother together with them. In this bloody scenario, the parents also had intercourse. From this event the psychologists built a theory that the reason Bergwall butchered his victims was to try to rebuild his little brother for whose death he felt responsible. It did not matter that Bergwall’s siblings said their mother was not pregnant at this time, or that there was no medical record of her pregnancy. Since the siblings also had repressed memories, it came as no surprise that they denied the whole thing.

It should be said that the courts noticed that Bergwall has not been consistent in his confessions. For example, Bergwall described one missing girl as a stereotypical Norwegian girl with blue eyes and blond hair. However, her father came from Pakistan and she did not have blond hair or blue eyes. But as the interrogator asked more questions, the girl’s complexion darkened. Bergwall was convicted of murdering the girl, even though her body was never found despite far-reaching attempts. Bergwall said he had left some parts of her body in a nearby lake. The police emptied the whole lake, but found nothing. The only physical evidence was what they took to be a fragment of a child’s bone found in the forest. On appeal, the “bone” was analyzed and turned out to be a piece of wood.

Josefsson revealed that Margit Norell was able to establish a little sect of psychologists around her. She met with Bergwall’s interrogator and consulted him on repressed memories and how to handle Bergwall. In 2006 Norell died. Since the police never discovered any of the bodies Bergwall claimed to have butchered, Norell’s manuscript on the serial killer with repressed memories was unknown until Josefsson came across its existence. Josefsson was able to win the confidence of Norell’s followers as someone who would finally get her the posthumous attention they thought she deserved. But his book The Man who Stopped Lying actually reveals a manipulative person whose influence laid the groundwork for one of Sweden’s biggest legal scandals.

When it came out in 2013, Josefsson’s book sparked an outcry. A royal commission was launched. Bergwall is today no longer a patient at the Säter hospital. A court decided that he was no longer in a need of their care.

The turmoil when Bergwall was declared innocent in all eight murders become even more intense when a Supreme Court judge, Göran Lambertz, said that there was no wrongdoing in the Bergwall case. As Chancellor of Justice, Lambertz had looked into the case, and after just a few days came to the conclusion that the police work had been excellent. Moreover, the judge had collaborated with the former prosecutor, Bergwall’s interrogator and Bergwall’s attorney. Their emailed correspondence ended up in the newspapers where readers could see how they developed their response to the critics.

The case of Sture Bergwall reminds us on how things can go completely wrong when a group of people cling to an idea that is immune to reality. And if the people who believe in the idea also have powerful positions, the affair will end badly – even in Sweden.