At 11:15pm on February 28, 1986, in downtown Stockholm, longtime Prime Minister of Sweden Olof Palme and his wife Lisbet left the Grand Cinema and began walking down Sveavägen avenue to a nearby subway station to catch a train home. They had no security detail. The Prime Minister often preferred to go among the public as if he were an ordinary citizen.
Passing the Adolf Fredrik church, they crossed to the east side of the street and continued heading south. They paused to look in a shop window, but only briefly. Then, as they crossed the intersection with Tunnelgatan alley, two shots rang out.
Even before Mrs. Palme fell to her knees over her husband, Anna Hage, stopped at a red light nearby, caught sight of a man collapsed on the sidewalk, as a nearby figure dashed into the adjacent alley. Fearing an emergency and being a nursing student herself, she leapt from the car, and ran to the man lying on the snow-dusted sidewalk.
She saw blood coming from his mouth. This was bad.
She reached for his neck. No pulse. She turned him on his back and began chest compressions and attempting mouth-to-mouth. Within moments, a man passing in a taxi, Stefan Glantz, joined her efforts. Neither of them had any idea this was the Prime Minister. This was just an ordinary citizen.
After disputing with the victim’s wife about the importance of the life-saving efforts, someone else began to try to move the victim’s legs, saying he ought to be lying on his side. Anna told him off, saying this man’s heart had already stopped. This was all they could do. She was so engrossed in her work, she made no memory of his face.
25 year-old Lars Jeppessen snapped his head over his right shoulder and saw a man on Svevägen just ahead fall to the ground into his view. He must have been shot. Then, footsteps on the opposite side of Tunnelgatan, but some kind of shed obstructed the source of the noise. Lars turned to look over his left shoulder. A glimpse. Someone, it had to be a man, seemed to fumble with something as he ran toward the nearby stairs. Then, quick as he came, he was obscured again.
Lars dashed after the man, who was now bounding up the stairs. Before pursuing him further, Lars stopped and looked at the man lying on the ground. He wondered if he should help, but he saw others rushing to do so. It was up to him to chase the shooter.
He went to the stairs but stopped at the first step. He didn’t want to follow too closely. At the top of the stairs he saw the shooter pause, only for a split-second, and glance over his right shoulder, before disappearing. Lars ran as fast as he could. But he never caught another certain glimpse of the shooter.
Stig Engström only heard one loud pop, as he left his office building at 44 Sveavägen. He figured it was a car’s exhaust bang. Nothing unusual as downtown noise goes.
As he proceeded down the street, after attempting to check his watch, he saw a man lying on the ground whom he presumed to be a passed out drunk. A woman was on her knees beside him, asking for someone to call an ambulance. A young man and woman hovered over him, and then he saw the blood coming from the man’s mouth. Now he knew something was wrong.
The older woman said he was shot, and the killer had run down Tunnelgatan. Engström looked down that way and saw the silhouette of a figure standing there against a lighted wall, looking in their direction. He looked back at the body on the ground, then back down Tunnelgatan. The man was gone. Then he tried to help turn the victim on his side, to help drain the blood away. He was already dead.
Except… Engström’s story changed… a lot. In fact, his behavior became so bizarre and untrustworthy, he eventually became a suspect in Palme’s murder. In 2020, Swedish police even pronounced with certainty that he was the murderer.
But Engström committed suicide in 2000. With nobody to put on trial, after nearly 35 years of active investigation into the murder of one of Europe’s most controversial cold war era leaders, the police closed the case.
And who really killed Olof Palme…remains a mystery.
Who is Olof Palme?
Of course, to understand why someone would want to kill Olof Palme, we need to know what he was wearing. gestures We also need to know who the guy was. So who was Olof Palme? In short, he was a man of contradictions.
Born in 1927 to a wealthy, conservative family, Palme would go on to become one of the most consequential social democratic leaders in Swedish history: a hero of the working class. Moreover, as a young man, he traveled to America to study at a fine liberal arts college before bumming across America as a hitchhiker. By the way, that school he went to—Kenyon College—pretty cool. Not that we’re biased or anything.
Anyways, to Palme America was both an inspiration—possessing a remarkable spirit of equality and openness—and a cautionary tale—as inequality and racism showed the perils of failing to commit fully to one’s ideals. And his travels didn’t end there; in Eastern Europe he grew to despise Soviet totalitarianism, and in Southeast Asia he saw the colonized peoples of the world demanding recognition of their rights to self-determination.
As he returned to Sweden, Palme knew one thing very clearly. The Sweden which raised him, which chose neutrality in World War II, and the Sweden which existed today, which chose silence in the cold war, could no longer be tolerated. If Sweden wanted to practice politics of equality at home, it had to start doing so on the world stage, standing up for the downtrodden not just domestically but internationally.
As luck would have it, political opportunity fell right into his lap, as in 1951 Palme happened to meet then-Prime Minister Tage Erlander on a chance train ride, as he was traveling home, alone and among the ordinary folk, as Social Democratic politicians so often did. Erlander was immediately impressed with Palme, and soon enough Palme was the Prime Minister’s personal secretary.
Over time Palme’s responsibilities grew, and so did the public’s awareness of his contradictions.Here was a social democratic politician, campaigning for the everyman, but who clearly was not one of them. He came from a wealthy family for one, but more importantly, Palme was haughty and strident: a man of immense talent and capability and who wasn’t necessarily humble about it.
Still, he overcame the criticism and became Prime Minister in 1969. Immediately, he sought to remake Sweden’s foreign policy, abandoning quiet neutrality in favor of an aggressive third way between America and the Soviet Union: a fierce critic of American hypocrisy and Soviet horrors all the same. The principle was simple: the downtrodden of the world had a friend in Olof Palme’s Sweden.
Of course, making such friends brings plenty of enemies. At home, as economic troubles began to worsen, critics regarded Palme as more interested in those suffering outside Sweden than within. Though he led his party to its first defeat in forty years, only six years later, in 1982, he led a return to power and return to form: making Sweden into _the _country of support for South Africa’s ANC in their fight against apartheid, among other efforts.
Palme was a brilliant, difficult man. His aspirations were equality, democracy, and international fraternity, but at the same time he liked the spotlight, and was stubborn to a fault. Paradoxically, Palme desperately wanted to be like the people he’d fought so hard for. So, on that cold February night, Palme dismissed his security and set out to see a movie…as if he were just an ordinary citizen.
From the moment Palme fell to the ground, the police were behind the curve. Multiple witnesses phoned emergency services immediately, but the police were late to the crime scene, giving the killer time to escape. It took several minutes to identify Palme, given Lisbet’s non-responsive state of shock. At headquarters, officers failed to put out a call for additional manpower, and Stockholm wasn’t put under lockdown until three hours after the murder.
At the crime scene, witness questioning was terribly disorganized; several witnesses with valuable testimony were sent home. The police perimeter was too small, and passers-by trampled over evidence, including the bullet used to kill Palme.
As time went on, maverick cops developed their own pet theories. The lead officer on the investigation became obsessed with the idea that a leftist Kurdish group was behind the assassination. This wasn’t totally implausible at first, but he stuck with it even after it became clear there wasn’t much to go on. He even shut down an inquiry into Stig Engström, thinking his own theory deserved more attention and resources.
All this police misconduct snowballed, leaving an increasingly cold trail. The murder weapon, determined by ballistic evidence to be a .357 Magnum, was never found, even though there were only 10 such weapons in the entire country which were missing under suspicious circumstances at the time of Palme’s killing. Even as more plausible suspects emerged, the evidence against them was often circumstantial. Capturing the killer started to look unlikely, if not downright impossible.
With little in the way of decisive detective work to narrow things down, the list of suspects in Palme’s murder is immense, running the gamut from completely deranged to highly plausible. Usually intricate theories of tightly organized conspiracies end up on the deranged end of the spectrum, but in the case of Olof Palme, at least one such theory is worth discussing: the South African connection.
The South African
The motive is simple; Palme was the foremost political figure in the west supporting the fight against apartheid. For South Africa’s white-supremacist government, killing Palme could do wonders.
When Palme died, a few people did point at South Africa, but it wasn’t actually until 1996, two years after the end of apartheid, that the theory gained any steam. As the new Black South African government was sorting through the crimes of the period, a former government agent named Eugene de Kock alleged that Craig Williamson, a spy who was known to have assassinated a number of anti-apartheid activists’ families, had orchestrated the Palme murder.
Now, de Kock didn’t say much else, but independent journalists have pieced together a theory.
As it goes, Williamson was selected for the job because he’d spent years infiltrating Swedish organizations which supported the ANC. Rather than pulling the trigger, he would keep his hands clean, providing resources and intel to a Swedish middle man who hated Palme and had the connections to recruit someone for the actual dirty work.
Enter Bertil Wedin, an avowed Swedish right-winger who worked as a mercenary for Rhodesia’s white supremacist government in the 1970s. Williamson and Wedin had met all the way back in 1980, and today stand accused of collaborating on the burglary of anti-apartheid activist offices in London, a charge which, if true, certainly helps paint the picture of these two men as international clandestine criminals.
So the South African government has a motive. Williamson and Wedin have the means. But what about opportunity? Here, the theory gets a bit murky. Perhaps Wedin recruited a disaffected right-winger to do the job, someone without a lot of experience but with plenty of passion, naive enough to take the fall if caught.
Whoever the gunman, the theory goes, they would have been trailing Palme for some time, finally seen their chance that night after the movie, pulled the trigger, and fled.
How does this theory hold up? Well, there’s a compelling motive. Williamson was a serious guy, a bona fide killer. But…it’s pretty incomplete. Who actually pulled the trigger? There isn’t much to say, despite some rigorous journalistic work to figure it out. Not to mention, the accusation by de Kock came at a time when former apartheid officials could get amnesty for their crimes by presenting evidence against each other—that’s not proof he was lying, but he would have had an incentive to do so.
True or not, this theory points to a very real insight about power and identity: the concepts at the heart of Palme’s own story and personal contradictions. Williamson spent his entire career working tirelessly to deny a people recognition of their humanity and their right to self-determination, literally killing those who stood in his way. Apartheid South Africa’s intense need to suppress the desire of millions for recognition of their basic humanity was a powerful force, one that, however unlikely, could have stretched thousands of miles, onto a dark street in Stockholm in February, to take the life of a man who had spent his life doing the opposite.
The Grand Man
Several early witnesses—including Olof’s son, Mårten—testified to seeing someone outside the Grand Cinema before and after the screening and following the Palmes as they left.
The search for the so-called Grand Man led police first to Ulf Spinnars, a seedy character who claimed to know something about the murder. In turn, they encountered Christer Pettersson who, as a friend of Spinnars, was able to provide him with an alibi.
Interestingly, this was not the first time the police had met with Pettersson. After suffering a traumatic head injury as a young man, Pettersson developed a habit of substance abuse and addiction and soon began landing himself in more trouble, ultimately stabbing a drug dealer to death in 1970: an event which garnered him prison time and the nickname, “the bayonet killer.”
But about that alibi. Pettersson claimed Spinnars had been staying at his apartment on the edge of town. That evening, Pettersson had taken the train downtown to visit the Oxen Club which was owned by drug dealer Sigge Cedergren. He then left the club around 10 pm, taking the train home to arrive at about 11:30—a plausible timeline given his apartment’s distance from central Stockholm.
It all made sense. In fact, this whole group of low-lifes appeared to be a dead end. But after two years of fruitless investigations and a decision to retrace their steps, the police noticed an oversight. They hadn’t bothered to ask Cedergren if he’d even seen Pettersson that night at the club. So in 1988, the police asked Cedergren—who was, ironically, at the tail end of a prison stint—about the affair. He hadn’t seen Pettersson that night at all. He volunteered an explanation for the mixup; perhaps Pettersson had wanted to buy some drugs and stopped by Cedergren’s apartment. He lived near the Grand Cinema.
Now they had a suspect. So they sought out Ulf Spinnars once more, who now disputed the very story which provided him an alibi for the murder, asserting that Pettersson hadn’t returned home until 12:30—ample time to have committed the crime.
It was time to talk to Pettersson. His alibi didn’t change much, but it was now—a couple years later—more detailed. He’d left in the early evening, gone to the Oxen Club, hung out with Cedergren and his girlfriend where, incidentally, he’d signed an affidavit as a witness to their opening a shared bank account, gotten drunk, gotten on the train home, fallen asleep, passed his stop, and had to go all the way back home, thus explaining his late arrival.
Except…neither Cedergren nor his girlfriend testified to seeing Pettersson at the club that night, and that document existed but was undated. Pettersson just might be their culprit.
So the police set up a lineup. A key ‘Grand Man’ witness and Olof Palme’s son Mårten, who both testified to seeing someone follow the Palmes from the theater, picked out Pettersson, although quite tentatively. Then, they called in Lisbet Palme to view a video lineup—she refused to be anywhere near the killer—and she identified Pettersson, stating, “It’s evident who it is.” That was enough. Christer Pettersson was charged with the murder of Olof Palme.
The trial that began in June of 1989 was a disaster for Pettersson. His defense lawyer was unnecessarily confrontational with Lisbet Palme, who remained a sympathetic figure with the Swedish public. In fact, Petterson was convicted almost exclusively on the basis of her testimony.
However, the conviction was not unanimous, and Pettersson was granted an appeal. Two months later, citing evidence of Lisbet Palme’s state of shock and unreliability along with police misconduct in nudging her selection at the lineup, while lacking evidence for any clear motive for Pettersson, his appeal was successful. Christer Pettersson was innocent.
Without compelling new evidence, it was impossible to retry him, even as he made conspicuously self-incriminating remarks in media appearances, apparently motivated by compensation for his sensationalism. Petterson died in 2004, leaving behind a frustrating trail of circumstantial evidence and unanswered questions.
Maybe he had the means. Cedergeren—who dealt not only drugs but weapons—claimed he sold Pettersson a revolver which matched the forensic criteria. As for motive, the popular theory goes, ironically enough, that Cedergren bore a passing resemblance to Palme and Petterson, for whatever reason, had it out for him, like he did for the last drug dealer he killed. After all, considering opportunity, it’s plausible he was hanging around the area of the theater and on a dark night could have mistaken Palme for Cedergren or someone else.
However, the most compelling part of the story is merely how good a story it is. Palme was an extraordinary politician who wanted to walk the streets of the capital with his wife as just an ordinary citizen in the city he loved. One can almost say, if Petterson did it, that Palme got what he wanted: dying an anonymous, sudden death in a case of mistaken identity, as if he were nobody at all.
But what if there were a more poetic ending? What if the suspect was also more credible—enough to convince Swedish police in 2020 to name him Palme’s killer and close the case? Well, there is: Stig Engström, the third eyewitness from the beginning of the video, whose story kept changing.
The Skandia Man
Let’s take a look at what he said to police the night of the murder. According to the notes,
“Engström had finished work for the evening and had just come out into the street when he heard what he first thought was an exhaust bang. However, he soon saw that someone was lying on the ground and also that there were people around him. As he passed the alley by Tunnelgatan, he looked there.” Against a lighted wall, “he saw a man in his 20s, wearing a dark blue jacket.”
A couple notes on Engström’s timing and position. According to this telling, he’s just outside 44 Sveavägen—roughly 50-60 meters away from the shooting when it occurs. And, according to Ensgtröm, he clocked out at 11:20 pm. The shooting took place at approximately 11:21 and 20 seconds. So he would have had to clock out in the late seconds of 11:20 at the earliest, if he really heard the shooting just outside his office. That is, as long as the time-clock is accurate.
So Engström says he heard a bang, then saw Palme surrounded by witnesses, and then saw a man lurking in Tunnelgatan. In fact, that’s all pretty reasonable. Lars Jeppessen—the second eyewitness from the intro, the man who chased the killer in the alley—testified the same night to police, according to their notes, that he “hesitated for a moment whether to rush down to the injured person or whether to pursue the perpetrator.” He would later clarify that he crossed to the other side of Tunnelgatan before doing so — a crucial detail because this makes him visible from where Engström was standing.
This is a vital point in Engström’s alibi. If he really saw Lars, it makes his guilt very hard to believe. Recall that at the time Lars was standing in that spot, he testified the killer was already bounding up the steps and had made it some distance. To see Lars would have been very difficult from anywhere other than where Engström claimed to be standing himself.
What about the rest of his statement? Well, he makes a few bizarre remarks, but they’re ultimately explained, with a little investigation. Unfortunately, there’s just not enough time for two people making monthly videos to get into them here, but if you want to learn more, supporters on Patreon get access to our podcast, where we discuss things that don’t make the cut for videos, like this. Link in description.
So Engström’s first statement makes enough sense. The problem is, he didn’t stick to it.
First, his position at the time of the murder changed. The earliest police notes imply he claimed he was 50 yards away when he heard the first shot,  but he later claimed to be much closer, saying he’d “walked with quick steps, almost half running, as he was in a hurry to get to the subway. When [he] was about 20 meters from the intersection at Tunnelgatan, he heard a bang.” Part of the discrepancy may be attributed to the police abridging the story in the earliest notes, but there are bigger problems. If Engström was just 20 meters away and jogging, it’s unlikely Anna—the intro’s first eyewitness, Palme’s first attendant—or Stefan could have gotten there before Engström. Further, Engström’s jogging makes little sense, as he had plenty of time before the last train.
Second, the timing started to get fuzzy, too. In his third conversation with police Engström attempts to explain his failure to register the gunshots appropriately, claiming that he was distracted trying to look at his dark watch. But he’d just then clocked out of work — if he was worried about time, surely he’d taken a look at the time then, before mistakenly assuming he needed to rush to the station.
Finally, in successive statements Engstrom expanded his own involvement in administering first aid to Palme, from casting himself as a helpless bystander to offering advice about how best to position the victim, all the way to actively attempting to turn him on his side. There are other examples, but these are the most conspicuous instances of apparent dishonesty, and they all have one thing in common — a persistent effort to establish himself closer to the crime and more involved in the aftermath.
Put another way, if he were innocent, Engström’s first story is perfectly credible. He left work, heard the shot, ran to the scene, and even saw Lars Jeppsson where he’s supposed to be, confirming the timing. End of story. So…why lie?
Well, perhaps he got lucky with his first story, perhaps he’d caught a glimpse of Lars when Lars caught a glimpse of him! After all, Lars’s description of the killer—middle-aged, “dark down jacket,” something “like a cap on his head, and with a “wide back”—sounds rather like Engström: a heavy-set, middle-aged man, who wore a dark coat and a cap the night of the crime.
According to the 2020 police announcement, the motive is simple. Engström craved attention: a middle-aged guy working late nights in a dead-end job who strolled out into the street one night, exhausted and bitter, and saw a man who had it all. He was famous, beloved by many countrymen: a politician who had the confidence—the arrogance—to waltz around at night alone, as if nothing could touch him. But Stig had the chance to put him in his place. So he did.
Of course, murder is rarely rewarded with adulation and fame, but scorn and infamy. Unless you kill Shinzo Abe — check out our video on that assassination after this one.
So Engström fled. Dissatisfied, he sought the limelight, telling the police a story that made him seem important. But it wasn’t enough. He even complained to his wife the police weren’t paying attention to him. In response, he changed his story and inflated his role.
So, he’s got a plausible motive. But what about means and opportunity? It turns out Engström had a neighbor-acquaintance who collected guns and owned a revolver which fit the forensic search criteria. So he could’ve had means. As for opportunity, a building employee testified that the time-clock—essential to Engström’s alibi—was one minute fast, meaning that if Engström’s timecard showed 11:20 pm, he really clocked out at 11:19 — much too early for his story to make sense and early enough to spot Palme walking down the street, tail him, and commit the crime. Engström begins to look like quite a believable suspect.
Except… another building employee claimed the time-clock was a minute slow, which means Engström would have really clocked out at 11:21 — perfectly in time for his original story to add up and late enough to make it impossible for him to shoot Palme. The police never tested the time clock.
Once again, his original story was believable. So why lie?
Well, perhaps the police are right about Engström’s character, even if he didn’t kill Palme. He was an early arrival to a freshly-murdered prime minister but was ignored by police on account of lacking any useful information. So, he changed his story and exaggerated his role to gain attention. Simple and believable.
In effect, this motive cuts both ways; explaining his behavior whether he’s guilty or innocent. Indeed, most on both sides of his case point to his attention-seeking as the primary motive for his behavior. Yet again, a frustratingly inconclusive theory.
But while the case for Engström’s guilt is riddled with holes, it has some convincing moments: perhaps most of all, because it offers en even more poetic ending than Pettersson. An extraordinary man of great impact walks the streets at night, pretending to be ordinary. Not only does he die an anonymous death, a sort of wish ironically granted. He’s gunned down by his polar opposite: an ordinary man who thought with the pull of a trigger, he could change his fate, become extraordinary. And here we are almost forty years later, still talking about the lowly Stig Engström.
Whether Palme was killed by a villainous secret agent, a hapless drug addict, or a hopeless loser, the story of his death is a fascinating one.
Of course, there’s the extraordinary drama of it all: walking alone in the dark, cold, February evening; a shadowy gunman slipping away into the night; the police blunders; and the many compelling and bizarre suspects.
But there’s something just a bit deeper in all the drama: a real insight about what it means to live in a democracy.
Palme was a man of contradictions: a rich man working for the poor, a powerful individual who believed in group solidarity. But so was Sweden: a country which preached at home the obligation of each to his neighbor, while opting for neutrality and shirking that responsibility on the world stage.
Because democracy is full of contradictions like these. Liberalism proclaims universal, inalienable rights, but it also must tolerate differences between countries, lest we attempt to police the world. Democracy prizes the voice of the individual, even as it attempts to draw citizens together in coexistence and compromise.
What’s more, democracy promises that all are equal, even as some like Palme are regarded as special—still a citizen, but something more—while some like Engström may still yearn, even violently, to be something greater than yet another citizen in the crowd.
Chris Mosey, Cruel Awakening: Sweden and the Killing of Olof Palme (St. Martin’s Press: New York, 1991), 41-43. ↩︎
Ibid., 66, 71. ↩︎
Ibid., 79, 81-82. ↩︎
Ibid., 83. ↩︎
Ibid., 80, 83-84. ↩︎
Leslie Derfler, The Fall and Rise of Political Leaders: Olof Palme, Olusegun Obasanjo, and Indira Gandhi (Palgrave MacMillan, New York, 2011). ↩︎
Ibid., 16. ↩︎
Ibid., 16-17. ↩︎
Ibid., 34, 57; Jan Bondeson, Blood on the Snow: The Killing of Olof Palme (Cornell University Press: New York, 2005), 171. ↩︎
Ibid., 19-20. ↩︎
Ibid., 16. ↩︎
Ibid., 27. ↩︎
Ibid., 27-31, 50 ↩︎
Ibid., 88-89. ↩︎
Ibid., 86. ↩︎
Ibid., 52. ↩︎
Jan Stocklassa, The Man Who Played With Fire: Stieg Larsson’s Lost Files and the Hunt for an Assassin, translated by Tara F. Chase (Amazon Crossing, Seattle, 2019). Page numbers unavailable due to .epub file form. ↩︎
Bondeson, 112-113. ↩︎
Ibid., 119. ↩︎
Ibid., 116-118. ↩︎
Ibid., 118-119. ↩︎
Ibid., 122. ↩︎
Ibid., 122. ↩︎
Ibid., 126. ↩︎
Ibid., 129-130. ↩︎
Ibid., 126-127. ↩︎
Ibid., 128. ↩︎
Ibid., 139-140. ↩︎
Ibid., 140-143. ↩︎
Ibid., 144-147. ↩︎
Ibid., 149-150. ↩︎
Ibid., 147. ↩︎
Ibid., 145. ↩︎
The Skandian Man Speaks, https://magasinetavsnitt.wordpress.com/2022/02/11/skandiamannen-talar-ett-forhor-om-palmemorde/. ↩︎
Roland Bergstrom, Police Interview, 06/09/1986. http://lennartremstam.blogspot.com/2015/05/skandiavittne-3-roland-bergstrom.html ↩︎