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Sweden names suspect but closes case of Prime Minister Olof Palme's 1986 murder

Book reveals Stieg Larsson's cold case files
Book reveals Stieg Larsson's cold case files 09:40
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File picture taken in 1984 shows Sweden's Prime Minister Olof Palme. TOBBE GUSTAVSSON/TT/AFP/Getty

Stockholm — Swedish prosecutors on Wednesday named their main suspect in the 1986 killing of then-Prime Minister Olof Palme, closing the murder case that has gripped the Scandanavian country for more than three decades. The suspect was named as Stig Engstrom, a former advertising consultant known for his staunch opposition to Palme's leftwing policies and who is now dead. 

Palme was gunned down on the evening of February 28, 1986 after leaving a Stockholm cinema with his wife, having dismissed his bodyguards for the evening.

He was shot in the back by his assailant, who fled the scene and left the 59-year-old dying in a pool of blood on the sidewalk.

The gruesome murder shocked Swedes, and the country is said to have "lost its innocence" that day.

More than 10,000 people have been questioned over the years, and 134 people have confessed to the crime though none have been successfully tied to the murder.

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This file picture taken on March 1, 1986 shows a pool of blood and flowers at Sveavagen in Stockholm where the assassination of Prime Minister Olof Palme took place. BJORN ELGSTRAND/TT/AFP/Getty

Chief prosecutor Krister Petersson said they had zeroed in on Engstrom as the main suspect.

"Because he is dead, I can't press charges against him, and have therefore decided to close the investigation," he said.

Engstrom, who was 52 at the time of the murder, was questioned as a witness early on in the investigation but police deemed him unreliable after he changed his story several times.

Media have suggested over the years that he was trying to cover up his role as the gunman. He died in 2000 at the age of 66.

Palme's son Marten told Swedish Radio he believed prosecutors made the right call.

(FILES) picture dated 12 October 1998 of
Christer Pettersson arriving at his flat in the Stockholm suburb of Sollentuna after being acquitted on appeal for the 1986 murder of Swedish Prime Minister Olof Palme, October 12, 1998. ANDERS HOLMSTROM/AFP/Getty

"I think Engstrom is guilty. Given the current situation, I think it is reasonable to close the investigation," he said.

Another man was convicted of the crime in July 1989 after Palme's widow identified him in a widely-criticized line-up.

But Christer Pettersson — a petty criminal and drug addict who shares no relation with the current chief prosecutor — was freed months later by an appeals court which dismissed her testimony on a technicality.

Pettersson died in 2004, while Palme's widow passed away in 2018.

"Part of a conspiracy?"

Chief prosecutor Petersson said investigators believe Engstrom acted alone, but could not entirely rule out the possibility of a broader plot.

"We found nothing to support (the notion of) a conspiracy, but we can't completely dismiss (the idea) that he could have been part of a conspiracy."

He said Engstrom told investigators early on that he had arrived at the scene moments after the shots were fired, and left before police arrived.

But investigators noted inconsistencies in his story. He said he had turned Palme on his side, for example, but police were never able to confirm that information.

"What was strange when we went through the material was that none of the other witnesses have identified him as being present at the crime scene," Petersson said.

Yet, "he told investigators quite a bit about how he acted at the crime scene."

Motive and evidence

Petersson stressed Engstrom's political views as a possible reason for wanting Palme dead.

A Social Democrat known as a great orator, Palme was a controversial figure who infuriated Washington with his vocal opposition to the U.S. war in Vietnam. He also backed communist governments in Cuba and Nicaragua.

At home, he was at odds with the country's business leaders and military, and spoke out against nuclear power.

Engstrom "had an adverse opinion of Palme and his politics... He moved in Palme-critical circles," Petersson said.

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Stig Engstrom, also known as "Skandia-man," is seen outside Skandia's offices at Sveavägen in Stockholm, Sweden, April 7, 1986. GORAN ARNBAECK/TT NEWS AGENCY/AFP/Getty

"We know that he was struggling with financial problems and living beyond his means... He also had alcohol problems," he added.

He also noted that Engstrom had access to weapons through acquaintances and had weapons training.

The gun used in Palme's murder has never been recovered though close to 800 weapons have been tested in the course of the long investigation.

"We have no clear information that can place a weapon in the hands of Stig Engstrom," he stressed.

"But considering what happened, he must have had a weapon in his hand that night," he said.

Swedish police have been accused of botching the investigation early on.

Crucially, they failed to cordon off the murder scene properly, allowing onlookers to walk around and destroy potential forensic evidence, a blunder that still haunts investigators today.

The investigation could be reopened in the future if new evidence emerges.

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