It’s February 28th, 1986, in the Swedish capital, Stockholm.
It’s almost midnight in the heart of the city. But lights still shine from shop windows, lending the freezing sidewalks a soft glow.
A man and woman in their fifties walk arm in arm past the lit storefronts. They’ve just been to see a movie with their son and his girlfriend and they’re on their way home to their apartment in the city. As they make their way to the metro station, they tread carefully – it would be easy to slip, paving stones are covered in grimy ice and snow.
But as they round a corner… they hear sudden footsteps behind them. Before they can turn around…
The man collapses to the ground, shot in the back. The second bullet grazes his wife. And as she falls to her knees, she catches a glimpse of the assailant who sprints away and disappears down a side street into the darkness. The woman cries out for help.
Soon, passers-by gather around. They stare in shock at the sight before them.
It’s not just the blood seeping through the man’s coat into the snow.
It’s his face; one they all recognize.
The man on the ground is Olof Palme, the Prime Minister of Sweden.
Soon, Palme will be taken to the hospital. But it will be too late. At six minutes past midnight, the Prime Minister will be declared dead. His assassination will shock the people of Sweden, give rise to conspiracy theories and spark a decades-long investigation, one that began on the streets of Stockholm on the evening of February 28th, 1986.
From Noiser and Airship, I’m Lindsay Graham and this is History Daily.
History is made every day. On this podcast—every day—we tell the true stories of the people and events that shaped our world.
Today is February 28th: The Assassination of Prime Minister Olof Palme.
Act One: The Trial
It’s July 1989, more than three years after the assassination of Swedish Prime Minister Olof Palme.
In a packed courtroom in Stockholm, Lisbet Palme waits for a judge to announce the verdict in the case of Christer Pettersson, the man on trial for murdering her late husband.
Pettersson is a 42-year-old drug addict from Stockholm. He denies having anything to do with the killing, insisting that he’s always liked Palme. But Pettersson has a long criminal record, including a conviction for manslaughter after he stabbed someone to death with a bayonet.
And there were witnesses to the killing. They all agreed that he was a white male, between 30 and 50 years old, above average height but not remarkably so. And he was wearing dark clothes. But it was Lisbet who picked Pettersson out of a police line-up and identified him as her husband’s killer. Her testimony is the most important part of the case against Pettersson.
Despite a team of 300 detectives working on the case full-time, investigators had few other clues. The only forensic evidence they were able to recover from the crime scene were the bullets, identified as .357 Magnum caliber, fired by a long-barreled revolver. But the murder weapon itself was never found.
The assassination and the subsequent trial received a flurry of media attention in Sweden and all across the globe. Olof Palme was a polarizing figure – the outspoken leader of the Social Democratic Party who was beloved by many on the left, but equally unpopular with conservative voters. With plenty of political enemies, there was no shortage of theories for police to investigate, but few concrete leads.
Until, in late 1988, the police began to hear rumors among small-time crooks and drug dealers that led them to Christer Pettersson. As soon as Lisbet Palme saw him in the police line-up, she said, “That’s him. His face, his eyes, and his nasty appearance. It’s the one who looks like an alcoholic.”
After the years-long search, it all comes down to today when the verdict is due. Lisbet tenses in her seat as the judge reads out the decision of the court.
Christer Pettersson is found guilty and sentenced to life in prison. Lisbet is relieved. It seems that the national trauma unleashed by her husband’s murder is over, as is this dark chapter in Sweden’s history… for the moment.
Three months later, on October 12th, 1989 at the Court of Appeal in Stockholm, a scrum of photographers follow a beaming Christer Pettersson as he walks out of the building. His conviction for the murder of Olof Palme has been overturned.
Many Swedes doubted Pettersson’s guilt long before his trial, and were frustrated with the police for bungling the investigation. They argue the police were slow to respond to the shooting. They didn’t cut off possible escape routes for the killer. And they didn’t seal off the crime scene from onlookers, potentially compromising crucial forensic evidence. To many observers, it was no surprise that the trail ran cold. What was surprising was that the police zeroed in on Christer Pettersson.
Skeptics were quick to point out that Pettersson had no motive for killing Palme, and there was no evidence linking Pettersson to a murder weapon. All the police had, it seemed, was the word of the Prime Minister’s wife, Lisbet, but even that was suspect.
When Lisbet came to police station to identify the killer, detectives told her in advance that their suspect was an alcoholic. During the line-up, the police stood Pettersson next to eleven clean-cut, well-dressed men. By comparison, Pettersson was dressed in ragged clothes and had bloodshot eyes. With the police’s suggestion in her mind, she didn’t hesitate to identify Pettersson as the killer.
Relying on such dubious evidence, Pettersson’s conviction was quickly overturned by the court of appeals. But for Pettersson, the three months he spent in solitary confinement felt like an eternity. In compensation, the court awarded him the equivalent of $50,000.
Pettersson is thrilled to be walking the streets as a free man. And as he returns to his apartment, he shoves his way through the crowd of reporters, a cigarette drooping from lips and several bottles of liquor in his hands. It won’t be long before he drinks and parties his large compensation away.
Meanwhile, Lisbet Palme remains convinced that Pettersson is the killer. But with no new evidence tying him to the crime, there will be no retrial. The case will remain unsolved, as will the mystery of who really killed the Swedish Prime Minister. But then, years later, the case will find new life in the midst of a separate investigation into another political atrocity known as “apartheid”.
Act Two: Theories
It’s September 1996. It’s been more than a decade since Swedish Prime Minister Olof Palme was gunned down on the streets of Stockholm. But thousands of miles away, in the city of Pretoria, South Africa, the case is about to take an extraordinary turn.
Eugene De Kock, a former colonel in the South African security police, stands trial. He’s accused of leading a hit squad responsible for multiple murders. Hoping to trade what he knows for a lighter sentence, De Kock starts spilling secrets about the inner workings of apartheid, a murderous system of institutionalized legal segregation in parts of Africa.
In 1996, the horror of apartheid is over. But back in the 1980s, when Olof Palme was assassinated, South Africa was a racist, apartheid state. Most of the population was black, but the government was entirely in the hands of the white minority – and they maintained their grip on power through brutal repression and political violence.
Leading the fight against apartheid was the African National Congress, or the ANC. As a result of their opposition, the white minority government outlawed the ANC and was determined to deny them any recognition as a legitimate political force.
But in early 1986, Olof Palme gave permission for the ANC to set up a quasi-embassy in Stockholm. The move outraged the South African government, who already suspected Sweden of secretly funding the activities of the ANC. Just a week later, Palme was dead.
At the trial, De Kock testifies that the assassination of Olof Palme was ordered by the government of South Africa. Under oath, De Kock claims that he was part of a secret government operation targeting foreign supporters of the ANC.
It’s a breathtaking and unexpected breakthrough in a case that has remained dormant since the acquittal of Christer Pettersson in 1989. And almost immediately, Swedish detectives fly to South Africa.
Soon, their investigation into De Kock’s statements lead them to another former apartheid killer, a man named Henry Bacon. Bacon’s mother was Swedish. He made numerous trips to the country throughout the 1980s. And he owned a .387 Magnum handgun – the same type of weapon used in the murder of Olof Palme.
But Bacon denies any involvement in the killing. And police are unable to match his handgun with the bullets used in the murder. Once again, the trail runs cold.
It’s 2018 in the city of Gothenburg in southwest Sweden.
A large box arrives at the home of freelance journalist Thomas Pettersson. Though they share the same last name, Thomas is not related to Christer, the man who was once convicted of the murder of Olof Palme. But Thomas is obsessed with the case. He’s been investigating it for the last twelve years and his book about the assassination is just about to be released.
That's why Thomas is excited to receive the package. He carries the box into his kitchen and slices through the packing tape with a bread knife. Piled inside, fresh off the press, are copies of his book – “The Unlikely Murderer”
Thomas began his investigation in 2006. He set aside decades of conjecture and speculation that had grown like weeds around the killing - all the talk of international conspiracies and cover-ups. Instead, he returned to the known facts about the case. He focused on police reports from the night, the witness statements, and the forensic evidence.
As he conducted his private investigation, something jumped out at Thomas. One of the witnesses’ accounts didn’t match what the other witnesses had told police. To Thomas, that seemed unusual and it made him suspicious.
The witness was Stig Engström, a bespectacled 52-year-old graphic designer, whose office was right by the crime scene. He claimed to police, and the media, that he was the first witness to arrive after the shooting; that he spoke with Lisbet Palme, and that he helped in the futile efforts to resuscitate her dying husband.
But nobody else remembered seeing him. And Engström couldn’t identify most of the other witnesses either. In fact, the only witness to the murder that he could recall were the ones who had seen the killer fleeing.
At the time, the police did briefly consider Engström a person of interest, before dismissing him as a useless publicity seeker. The police had written him off, and so had everyone else until Thomas Pettersson took up the case.
For more than a decade, Thomas delved into Engström’s life, building a picture of a man desperate for attention, who hated Olof Palme, and who had access to guns. Thomas interviewed Engström’s ex-wife, as well as old friends and colleagues. The one man he couldn’t speak to was Stig Engström himself. Engström had died in 2000 in a suspected suicide. Whatever secrets he had, he’d taken them with him to the grave.
So now in his kitchen in Gothenburg, Thomas flips through the pages of the book, proud of what he’s accomplished.
The result of all his years of work will cause a media sensation in Sweden. The book will eventually be adapted into a popular television series. And it will lead Swedish police to finally close the case that’s been baffling them for decades.
Act Three: Case Closed?
It’s June 10th, 2020, in Stockholm, Sweden and a long-awaited press conference is about to be underway.
The chief of the country’s Prosecutor's Office is soon to announce the identity of the assassin of Prime Minister Olof Palme.
It’s an investigation that has been open for more than thirty years. Countless conspiracy theories have sprung up around the case. The finger has been pointed at a diverse array of alleged assailants, from corrupt policemen to foreign spies, to criminal gangs, even the CIA.
But then, a few months ago, in February of 2020, the Swedish chief prosecutor promised a breakthrough. He told the media that he would soon reveal what really happened that night. And ever since, speculation has been growing that the prosecutor’s office has discovered new evidence that will finally lay the mystery of Olof Palme’s murder to rest.
But when the press conference begins, it proves to be a disappointment.
The name of the prime suspect is a familiar one. The chief prosecutor says his office believes the murderer of Olof Palme was Stig Engström.
He tells the assembled journalists that Engström “acted how we believe the murderer would have acted”. But the promised new evidence doesn’t materialize. In fact, there is little beyond what’s already been published in Thomas Pettersson’s book.
The chief prosecutor can’t say whether Engström acted alone or in concert with others. There are no new forensics. No new witnesses. Still, no trace of the murder weapon. And the prosecutor admits that even if Engström were alive, he wouldn’t have enough evidence to bring charges against him. But nevertheless, after 34 years, the case is officially closed.
The investigation may be over, but for many Swedish citizens, and for many more across the globe, the murder remains an open wound. In the end, there are far more questions than answers. In the end, there are far more questions than answers, and the disturbing truth is that the people of Sweden may never know why Olof Palme died, who killed him, and what really happened on that cold night of February 28th, 1986.
Next on History Daily.March 1st, 1872, Yellowstone is established as the world’s first national park.
From Noiser and Airship, this is History Daily, hosted, edited, and executive produced by me, Lindsay Graham.
Audio editing by Mollie Baack.
Sound design by Derek Behrens.
Music by Lindsay Graham.
This episode is written and researched by William Simpson.
Executive Producers are Steven Walters for Airship, and Pascal Hughes for Noiser.