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.