Over 30 years after Sweden’s prime minister was gunned down on the streets of Stockholm, the mystery may finally be solved
It was a shocking crime by any standards, but in placid Sweden it was unthinkable. On the cold and wintry evening of February 28, 1986, Olof Palme, the country’s longtime prime minister, was walking home from the cinema, through downtown Stockholm, with his wife. The couple had gone out for the evening, on short notice, without a bodyguard.
Forty minutes before midnight, Palme was killed by a shot to the back, at very close range. His wife, Lisbet, was wounded by a second shot. There were several witnesses to the assassination, but none of them got a good look at the gunman. The prime minister was rushed to the hospital, only to be declared dead on arrival.
A massive manhunt ensued but didn’t make much progress since the description of the killer offered by witnesses was vague: white, between 30 and 50 years of age, of average height and build. This was clearly no random act, and Sweden went into a kind of shock. The country was unaccustomed to political violence, and Palme for decades had been an international icon, a lion of the democratic socialist left.
More than 10,000 people were questioned by the police during the course of the murder investigation, while 134 came forward to confess to the crime—all falsely. The inquiry soon stalled for lack of solid leads and appeared dead in the water until 1988, when the police arrested 42-year-old Christer Pettersson, a habitual criminal and addict who had previously been jailed for manslaughter.
The case seemed to be closed when Lisbet Palme identified Pettersson in a police lineup, but doubts lingered since the police never found the murder weapon, a .357 Magnum pistol, neither could they detect a motive for why a petty criminal—a fellow socialist like Pettersson—killed the prime minister. Nevertheless, Sweden wanted closure, and Pettersson was convicted and sentenced to life in prison.
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