The Case of Sture Bergwall, a.k.a. Thomas Quick: Sweden’s Former Serial Killer Acquitted

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Yvonne Asell / AP

File photo of Sture Bergwall, taken on April 15, 2010

Sture Bergwall was once one of the most feared men in Sweden, a confessed serial killer convicted of eight murders who boasted of claiming dozens of other lives.

But a Swedish judge today acquitted Bergwall, who had given himself the name Thomas Quick, of the eighth and final standing conviction. The decision opens the door to Bergwall’s release and ends a strange saga of deferred justice and apparent deception that captivated the nation and also served as a healthy reminder of the importance of skepticism.

“It is an incredible relief,” Bergwall, whose since-renounced confessions confined him to a psychiatric ward for 20 years, told Swedish Radio News. Bergwall will be evaluated before he can walk free.

The former serial killer is the subject of Chris Heath’s nearly 11,000-word profile, published in GQ leading up to today’s decision, that reserves final judgment. Heath instead describes Bergwall’s ordeal as “an awful story about what human beings can do, and about responsibility and guilt, and about deceit and retribution, one that has lessons for us all.”

Bergwall, 63, was convicted between the years of 1994 and 2001 for eight murders based primarily on his confessions, garnering him nationwide notoriety as a grisly sexual predator and serial killer.

In the case that was overturned today, Bergwall was convicted of murdering 15-year-old Charles Zelmanovits in 1976. Bergwall had previously confessed to offering the boy a ride home, sexually abusing him and then strangling him, according to Heath’s article.

But he withdrew his confessions in 2008, saying he made the statements under the influence of doctor-prescribed drugs and under pressure to fill a role that criminal and psychological experts had constructed for him.

Bergwall and his supporters have since battled for his exoneration in the eyes of the public and the courts, along with critics who consider him a liar but not a serial killer.

Heath tells of Bergwall systematically researching unsolved deaths in the library and extrapolating information from his own interrogations that he then repeated back as an indication of his own guilt. The authorities and Bergwall’s therapists also seized on Bergwall’s unfounded claims that he was abused as a child as confirmation of the constructed understanding of him. Heath writes:

“Back when he was Thomas Quick, the crimes he confessed to in therapy dovetailed with the childhood tales of abuse he would manage to remember — it was a central tenet of the therapy that one could not exist without the other. (With, he says, great help — he only had to mention a stick in a story of a childhood day out, he explains, and it was understood that he was referring to his father’s penis.) Each — the crimes, the childhood — was taken as confirmation of the other, and every unearthed memory was seen as an act of bravery on Quick’s part for which he should be congratulated.”

The Swedish justice system has come under fire for pursuing Bergwall primarily on his own word, and Bergwall himself has called for a “responsibility commission” to investigate his convictions. Following today’s reversal, the Swedish Justice Minister said that her office has opened an investigation into what led the system to convict someone of murder eight times and overturn all of them.

Meanwhile, Bergwall has assumed the profile of something of an intellectual, posting regularly on his blog titled the Road to Freedom and drawing more than 5,500 Twitter followers. “Today is a day of joy and reflection,” he wrote in a post on his blog following the decision to overturn his conviction. He has also opened up to the press, giving interviews like the one with GQ and this one, in which he discusses his views on freedom and death.

But Bergwall’s story is complicated by his history of mental illness and criminal behavior. He was convicted in his late teens for molesting four children and, several years later, for stabbing a friend while under the influence of drugs. Then, in 1990, Bergwall and an accomplice were caught after they robbed a bank, which Bergwall says he did for drug money. In the GQ profile, Bergwall says that Quick emerged out of that last incident, when Bergwall, feeling hopeless, saw an opportunity to become something entirely different.

Soon after, under his new name, he began claiming responsibility for past murders.

“Then,” he tells Heath, “I couldn’t back down.”

Heath asks Bergwall to respond to continued skeptics who believe Bergwall’s new incarnation is the fabrication. “I’m not that smart. Thomas Quick’s story shows that,” Bergwall says. “People have to ask who manipulated who.”

Bergwall’s case has been long shrouded with questions. The court’s decision on his innocence won’t dispel the mystery.

32 comments
pinklola91
pinklola91

I'm gonna use this for my iMovie in class

roginlon
roginlon

The fact that glambertz in the commentary field is a Swedish supreme court judge says it all....

glambertz@hotmail.com
glambertz@hotmail.com

It should be pointed out that it has – of course – not been established that Bergwall is not guilty. And it is far from clear that there were serious mistakes made when he was sentenced. Most people – and almost all media here in Sweden – ignore both the fact that there is a lot of evidence against him and the fact that there have never been any strong suspicions against anyone else concerning any of the murders.

Anton Edema
Anton Edema

Swedish Justice - asking us to do the same ?

lazarus00000
lazarus00000

When he murders more young boys, are they going to give him the PIECE Prize?

Mad dogs need to be put down, not rescued.

Joyce Mueller
Joyce Mueller

Being caught in his own web of a false confession, does not erase the guilt of his other criminal activities and the need to remain incarcerated.

toydrum
toydrum

The biggest problem I see with these convictions is that by accepting the words of a man known to be mentally ill with nothing to back those statements up, is that it stopped any investigation or reopening of the cold cases.  The real killers were left free to kill again.

Helen Tatsios
Helen Tatsios

acquitted such a dangerous man? This is nuts.

NoBigGovDuh
NoBigGovDuh

This is the country that wants to prosecute Julian Assange. They do not allow bail or contact with the outside before the trial. 

MichaelSweden
MichaelSweden

Probably the worst case of injustice in Swedish modern history. Just the most incredible heights of stupidy from prosecutor van der Kwast, the manipulative police officer Pentinen, crackpot psychiatrists, and his lawyer Borgström. The most incredible flights of fantasy from the mentioned people accepted as facts by very silly judges. A case built on stuff that a 12 year old child immediatly would recognize as obvious falsehoods.

loadcode
loadcode

@toydrum Agree, it is reckless of the police to be so eager to get some guy just any guy rather than the actual killer.  Studies apparently show that 30% of people admit to things they did not do during interrogation.  Confessions just like eye witness accounts are much less reliable than people think.

loadcode
loadcode

@Helen Tatsios Making up murders don't make you dangerous. Committing murders make you dangerous. It seems he is only guilty of the former.

inachu1
inachu1

-- continued 

But even then Dexter in 97 did not have a name yet as I never ever named him.So I was asked "So what did you name him?" But now that you ask I feel like his name should be David.DAVID?!?!?! they all grumbled that name sucks! Another person whom everyone else did not like either was a big fan of Dexters Laboratory cartoon show replied.... His name should be Dexter.Jeff Lindsay replied. Why Dexter? The cartoon fan said because he seemed weird like that.So today I told the idea and how Dexter came about to a cashier at a store I frequent and she got scared and asked. So wait! you are scaring me.... Is Dexter Fictional or real life?I told her He could have been real life but one thing changed the kid that prevented him from becomming really Dexter.

In 1994 I was sent to a private christian school where I was baptised. In turn he slowly faded away.

glambertz@hotmail.com
glambertz@hotmail.com

Mostly information he gave that the courts thought could reasonably not come from any other person than the murderer. Such as two saws that he said he had used to take the bodies apart and that were found with metal detectors (under grass, leaves etc. in the woods) at the places where he said he committed the murders. Such as a carving in a birch tree which he said he had made to find the way back to the murder scene; that was also found after he had described the place. Also, a sniff dog marked by barking at exactly those spots which he pointed out and where said he had "handled" the bodies. He led the police directly to places where bodies were found, he said he stole a bicycle in a small village where a bicycle was stolen the day before one of the murders. A boy´s head was found on an island many years after the boy disappeared, and it was found there after Bergwall had given information. Etc. etc.  

loadcode
loadcode

I'll have to correct myself. While he probably didn't kill anybody, I see from articles I read, that he was still quite a horrible man. Probably a good thing he has been locked up for a long time. I guess the question is whether he is safe to let out again. I doubt it, because if he is a pedofile, then that will never be cured.

kimmo
kimmo

@glambertz@hotmail.com 

I now see the fundamental problem in your thinking. You take for granted that the police are telling the truth, that their narrative of the events and the order in which they took place is completely accurate. How can you be so sure that the information Bergwall gave to the police was given before the police found the evidence from the scene of the crime? How can you be so sure when everything about the investigation was so thoroughly manipulated to provide exactly the results the investigators wanted? The investigators systematically lead Bergwall, I mean really lead him by the arm, towards the right answers. They even allowed him to guess the answers, ignoring the wrong answers and accepting the one accidentally correct answer as evidence of his guilt.

You seem to have no concept of balance in these things. Just like the investigators you assume that if there is towering evidence against his guilt and only a fragment of something which could, possibly, be construed as evidence for his guilt, then the latter and not the former must be the truth. This is not a rational way of thinking but suggests the kind of mentality which causes innocent but stigmatized individuals to be convicted.

And it is not even that I absolutely believe he is entirely innocent. He may well have done something in the past. It is just that the way the police and the psychiatrists went about investigating the case sends shivers down my spine when I think about the implications to human rights and the democratic order of society. If all criminal cases were investigated by the kinds of people who were in charge of this case, we would be living in a world in which the authorities are at liberty to construct anyone they want as a depraved criminal.

glambertz@hotmail.com
glambertz@hotmail.com

Friends, I am leaving this conversation now. I recommend you, if you want to really search for the truth, to carefully study the six murder verdicts and the documents from the extraordinary procedure where Bergwall was acquitted + the book he wrote himself, Kvarblivelse, and the book that Janne Mattsson wrote after interviewing him, Gåtan Thomas Quick. Unfortunately this is all in Swedish. You can say it as forcefully as you wish that it was a scandal of justice. But it wasn´t. Take care.

glambertz@hotmail.com
glambertz@hotmail.com

@loadcode And how do you explain the sniff dog? First Bergwall found the places and pointed them out. After that the dog entered and found its way to the right places. The dog has been trained and tried. It barks when it finds a place where there is or has been a human body. It doesn´t bark where there has been an animal body.

You say that by getting the wrong man we let the real killer or killers walk free. But do you know how many of those 8 murder cases were “cold”, i.e. the police had in principle given up? Do you know how many years passed after the murders before Bergwall said he committed them? Between 9 and 21 years had passed and there was no real suspect in any of the cases. There was absolutely no reason to believe that “the real killer” would have been found. Everyone working with the cases believed – and I think all of them are still convinced – that he was correctly convicted, i.e. that there was evidence beyond reasonable doubt.

You are right that he might be guilty of some murders and not guilty of some. And of course you are also right that in that case it is problematic. But there is plenty of evidence against him in all eight murder cases. He has also told in a very realistic way about quite a few other murders that he said he committed and where no other murderer has been found.

glambertz@hotmail.com
glambertz@hotmail.com

@loadcode We know because the police had no idea about the saws, the carving, the boy´s head etc. before Bergwall told them about it. And the same is true for a lot of information. For example: When the prosecutor said, concerning one of the murders, that Bergwall would have to come up with more facts to make it possible to prosecute he came up with 5 more pieces of information that noone had heard of before and that were checked and found correct. It is true that he could have learned about the roads to the murder scenes from the police, but from the films it doesn´t seem like that at all. It is also true that he could have learned about the bike, but if you believe the interrogation protocol it did not happen like that. If the police falsified and manipulated the protocols (which they say they absolutely didn´t), then you have to take away a lot of the evidence. But there are still at least 50 independent items which noone could have taught him.

glambertz@hotmail.com
glambertz@hotmail.com

Kimmo, there is a lot of information he gave that he could not have found out about in any of the 3 or 4 ways you mention. Did you hear about the test he took in the Gry and Trine murder cases? And how do you explain the results of the sniff dogs?

glambertz@hotmail.com
glambertz@hotmail.com

Johan, let´s take the evidence piece by piece. What is wrong and retro-fitted when it comes to 1) the saw in Örjeskogen, 2) the saw in Piteå, 3) the carving, 4) the boy´s head, 5) the bike, 6) the roads to the murder scenes, 7) the sniff dog? There was quite a lot of "serious evidence" against Bergwall and what really counted was the evidence that he could not have gotten from the police or from the libraries. The policemen say they did not manipulate anything and noone has seen him at the libraries studying the murders. Why do you believe Bergwall - who has been lying a lot, you must admit - and not the policemen?

But let´s start with the evidence. What´s wrong about those 7 points I mention?

kimmo
kimmo

@glambertz@hotmail.com

How did Bergwall come by all that information about the crimes if he isn't guilty of committing them? In three ways:

1) First, he carefully studied the details from any information freely available to him, such as he found from media sources and library archives. 

2) Second, he was systematically given information about the crimes by the investigators. Details were leaked to him both directly and indirectly by way of suggestions and leading questions.

3) Third, and this is the most absurd of all, he was allowed to guess until he got the right answer. Only the answers he guessed right were taken seriously by the investigation, while any answer he guessed wrong was simply ignored.

One of the people conducting the investigation was a psychologists who systematically trained Bergwall to give all the right answers. He believes in something he calls "cognitive interview techniques" which incredibly include the practice of feeding the suspect information about the crime he is supposed to have committed. In this way Bergwall was able to give the investigators the impression of knowing very much about what had happened to the victims, although he had otherwise no knowledge of the cases apart from what he had learned from media sources.

The psychologist also believes in another unscientific theory, the theory of traumatically "repressed" memories. This theory allowed him to rationalize Bergwall's inability to provide the investigation with the correct answers. When Bergwall accidentally guessed something correctly, it was supposed to prove his guilt. When he guessed something incorrectly, it was also taken as evidence for his guilt because it supposedly proved that he was confused by traumatically repressed memory. Convenient, isn't it?

The key to understanding this whole mess is, in fact, the involvement of psychologists in the investigation. Psychologists are too often naively trustful of unscientific theories and completely blinded by professional egotism and hubris. They should have no place in any process as serious as a criminal investigation. All investigation of crimes should rely on objectively verifiable technical evidence, not mumbo-jumbo psychology designed to obfuscate and compromise objectivity.

JohanRönnblom
JohanRönnblom

@glambertz@hotmail.com Your description of this evidence is simply wrong and retro-fitted to appear more impressive. It is like a medium who first say something vaguely about water, and then after the facts are known claims that he correctly stated that the person died from ingesting sleeping pills (which were taken with water, you see!).


It is theoretically possible that Bergwall committed some of these murders, but I would say that it is more likely that you did it yourself. Which means, of course, extremely unlikely - but possible. The likelihood that Bergwall did it goes down because there has been so much investigation - with his eager assistance - that it seems exceptionally unlikely that no serious evidence would have been found if he had been the perpetrator.


loadcode
loadcode

@glambertz@hotmail.com How do we know the police did not accidentally feed him this information? At the crime scenes he seemed to have gotten most things completely wrong at first until they repeatedly asked him. Through multiple iterations he eventually got it right. Clearly this happened on multiple occasions, so how can we trust any evidence which is supposed to come from Thomas Quick himself? The police will have not interest in highlighting that they largely helped him point of the correct things.

Now he did enough bad things, that it is probably okay that he is locked up. But by getting the wrong man we let the real killer/killers walk free.

And of course it might be possible he was guilty of some of the murders, but not all of them. But that would still be problematic, because then someone who should have been brought to trial is not.