On the trail of Palme's killer


Sweden: Nearly 18 years later, an investigator hunts the man who assassinated the prime minister - and shattered the nation's self-image.

January 22, 2004|By Scott Shane | Scott Shane,SUN STAFF

STOCKHOLM, Sweden - At 11:20 on the night of Feb. 28, 1986, a gunman approached Swedish Prime Minister Olof Palme and his wife, Lisbet, as they walked home after watching a movie in Stockholm and fatally shot the 59-year-old Social Democrat.

Nearly 18 years after that brazen assassination shattered Sweden's self-image and set off the biggest murder investigation in the nation's history, Stig Edqvist is still on the case.

A veteran of the Swedish National Police, Edqvist directs the 15 detectives still assigned to find Palme's killer. He has a deadline to bring the killer to justice: The 25-year statute of limitations on the Palme murder expires in 2011.

"It's very complex. It's long ago. But I hope we'll solve it," says Edqvist, 55, a taciturn, blond-haired father of four who entered police work three decades ago after serving in the Swedish army. He took over the Palme case in 1997 after returning from Holland, where he spent three years investigating Balkan atrocities for the international war crimes tribunal.

When a big crime occurs, some of the Palme investigators may be temporarily redeployed. That happened in September, when Swedish Foreign Minister Anna Lindh was fatally stabbed in a Stockholm department store. But the investigation of that case brought quick results, and a 25-year-old Swede of Serb origin who says voices told him to kill her is now on trial.

The Palme case, by contrast, seems to have no limits. Like the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in the United States, the case has become a magnet for conspiracy theories that reflect Palme's status as a political lightning rod both in Sweden and for his stands on Third World causes.

Born to a wealthy family, he championed the poor and disaffected, whether South African rebels or American draft dodgers. As prime minister from 1969 to 1976 and 1982 to 1986, he drew both adoration and hatred.

So the question of who might have wanted Palme dead long ago turned the investigation into a monster with global tentacles and a mountain of paperwork to match.

"If you read 300 pages a day, we calculated that it would take eight to 10 years to read the entire case file," Edqvist says. "Everything is involved - KGB, CIA, PKK [the Kurdistan Workers Party], South Africa. You can name it."

But if the scale of the investigation is unprecedented for this nation of 9 million people, so was the impact of the crime. Sweden's homicide rate is low, and all but a few of the 100 or so killings each year are straightforward domestic cases.

Before 1986, Swedes thought of assassination as something that happened elsewhere - notably the United States. To find a Swedish leader murdered in office, you had to go back all the way to 1792, when King Gustaf III was gunned down at a masked ball. That may have been why Palme felt comfortable dismissing his bodyguards before heading home on foot from the Grand movie theater after watching a comedy called The Mozart Brothers.

His murder shook Swedes' complacency. Today, the headquarters of the Social Democratic Party - directly across from the Grand - is protected by steel doors with electronic locks and bullet-proof glass.

"A lot of people say the Palme murder was when we stopped being so innocent," says Agneta Karlsson, the deputy party secretary.

Outside her office, a party poster says, "Sweden needs more cooperation and togetherness," reflecting the culture of consensus that the 1986 assassination called into question.

The spot where Palme was killed is marked today only by a modest brass plaque in the sidewalk in front of an art supplies store. But the unresolved case still haunts Swedish society.

Edqvist recalls his incredulity upon learning of Palme's murder in a 1 a.m. phone call to a northern town where he was tracing a missing woman.

"Suddenly we realized that Sweden is not a special country," he says. "Everything that happens elsewhere can happen here, too."

For years afterward, Edqvist worked on other cases, chiefly the dozen or so "complex homicides" assigned to the national police each year. The Palme investigation was plagued by accusations of bungling and whipsawed by competing theories of who had a motive: Kurds upset at Sweden's failure to recognize the PKK; right-wing Swedish police and military officers who felt Palme had sold out to Moscow; agents of the white South African regime infuriated by Palme's support for the African National Congress; or intelligence operatives from the KGB, CIA or Mossad, depending on one's political bent. At least two police chiefs, a justice minister and a prosecutor have lost their jobs over the case.

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