Swedish authorities have closed their 34-year investigation into the unsolved murder of prime minister Olof Palme, naming a graphic designer at an insurance company as the probable killer but saying he could not be prosecuted because he was now dead.
“We can’t get around one person as the perpetrator: he is Stig Engström,” the chief prosecutor, Krister Petersson, who took over one of the world’s most infamous cold cases in 2017, told a new conference in Stockholm on Wednesday.
Palme, 59, was shot in the back, at close range, at 11.21 pm on 28 February 1986 as he was walking home from a cinema in central Stockholm with his wife Lisbet. The assailant disappeared into a side street, prompting a huge but abortive manhunt and an investigation that has gripped Sweden for three decades.
Known to Swedish media as “the Skandia man” because he was working late in the company’s building near the crime scene on the night of the murder, Engström was questioned several times by police at the time, but ruled out as a suspect.
“Engström is deceased,” Petersson said. “Therefore I am not able to start proceedings or even interview him. That is why I decided to discontinue the investigation.” He said, however, he was “sure” of his conclusion.
Palme’s son, Marten, told Swedish Radio he believed prosecutors had made the right call. “I think Engström is guilty. Given the current situation, I think it is reasonable to close the investigation,” he said.
The killing, described by the Swedish prime minister, Stefan Löfven, as an “open wound”, has left a deep scar on a country that still prides itself on being peaceful and safe, prompting many to say Sweden “lost its innocence” that day. Löfven said on Wednesday he hoped the decision “would allow this wound to heal”.
A petty criminal was convicted of the murder in July 1989 but acquitted on appeal, clearing the field for a multitude of conspiracy theories involving shadowy forces ranging from the South African security services to rogue Swedish police with far-right sympathies, the Kurdish separatists of the PKK and the CIA.
Hans Melander, the chief investigator, said that over the years the case had generated more than 22,000 leads and files occupying 250 metres of shelves. More than 10,000 people had been questioned since 1986, he said, and 134 had claimed responsibility for the murder.
The murder weapon was never recovered despite police testing 788 revolvers over the years, Melander said, adding that the marks on the two 357 Magnum bullets found at the scene – one that killed Palme, and a second that injured his wife, who died in 2018 – were so faint “we can’t even prove they were fired by the same gun”.
But with no possibility of any conclusive new forensic evidence, he said, a new team of investigators appointed in 2016 began an exhaustive review of the circumstantial evidence, including witness statements, and found “one person stood out”.
Engström, whose death in 2000 was reported as a possible suicide and who was 52 at the time of the murder, had a military background, experienced alcohol and money problems, and was a member of a shooting club, Petersson said. “He was also part of a circle that was very strongly critical of Olof Palme and his politics,” he added.
Several witnesses gave descriptions that matched Engström, Petersson said, stating his rough height and noting variously that the fleeing killer was dressed in a long jacket or coat, wearing a cap and glasses, and carrying a small bag.
Engström, whose family repeatedly dismissed accusations he was the murderer, called police and media the day after the assassination, saying he was one of the first to arrive on the scene but had left before police arrived.
He claimed he had spoken to Lisbet Palme and tried to resuscitate the victim, adding that he ran off in an effort to give police vital information that the prime minister’s wife had given him about the assailant’s appearance.
Petersson said there were clear inconsistencies in the story. “What was strange, when we went through the material, was that none of the other witnesses, including Lisbet Palme, identified him as being present at the crime scene,” he said. Yet he “told investigators quite a bit about how he acted at the crime scene”.
Other evidence, including time stamps from Engström’s office, threw up further questions. One key witness, Yvonne Nieminen, told police a man she saw hurrying from the scene, who matched Engström’s description, seemed to be “trying to close his bag while still running, rather than stopping to do so”.
Petersson said Engström subsequently “changed his story many times”, but was inexplicably dismissed by police as a serious suspect as early as May 1987. “Had the current investigating team been in place 34 years ago, I think he would have been detained,” Petersson said.
“In my view, there was sufficient evidence for him to be remanded in custody. That would have given us a reasonable chance to search his office and home, examine his clothing, maybe find the weapon. Unfortunately, we cannot now do that because he is deceased.”
The prosecutor said investigators believed Engström acted alone, but could not rule out the possibility of a broader plot. He also said there was “no clear information placing a weapon in Engström’s hands” but he “must have had one that night.”
Palme, who was prime minister between 1969 and 1976 and again from 1982 until his death, was a controversial, sometimes divisive figure both at home and abroad.
A Social Democrat and passionate orator, he was vocal in his opposition to the US war in Vietnam, publicly supported communist governments in Cuba and Nicaragua and was fiercely critical of the apartheid regime in South Africa.
He is viewed by his supporters as one of the architects of Sweden’s modern welfare state, but was often at loggerheads with big business and the military, and frequently spoke out against nuclear power.