INTERVIEW: Sture Bergwall used to be known as Sweden’s most notorious serial killer. He took the name Thomas Quick in 1992, shortly before confessing to a crime spree going back three decades. Bergwall claimed to have clocked up a gruesome tally of 39 murders and was eventually convicted of eight.
For the last two years Sture Bergwall has lived as a free man. He is now Sweden’s most infamous miscarriage of justice. The last of his murder convictions was overturned in December 2013.
The mystery of how Bergwall made the journey from a small time criminal, sex offender and drug abuser to a Nordic Hannibal Lecter is recounted in a book by Swedish journalist Dan Josefsson called The Strange Case of Thomas Quick: The Swedish Serial Killer and the Psychoanalyst Who Created Him.
His account opens in the summer of 1997 with Thomas Quick searching for the bones of one of his victims in a forest in south east Norway. He is accompanied by quite an entourage: his personal psychotherapist, the senior investigating police officer, his lawyer, a leading memory expert and a couple of psychiatric nurses who have responsibility for his prodigious intake of drugs.
They had all driven up in a minibus from a secure psychiatric hospital, a two and a half hour drive from Stockholm, where Bergwall had been resident for six years. He was sent there as a result of an unrelated crime, a botched bank robbery.
They were there to support the serial killer in his attempt to recall where he had hidden the remains of Therese Johannessen. Thomas Quick claimed that he had killed and dismembered the nine-year old girl in 1988; but, as with his other victims, the events of the murder had been so traumatic that he had repressed the memories.
At this point in the Quick saga, the police had started some 15 investigations as a result of his shocking admissions. ‘That summer, the Norwegians had launched the biggest forensic investigation since the Second World War,’ writes Josefsson, an investigative journalist who has won the Swedish Grand Prize for Journalism twice. ‘Approximately 35,000 cubic metres of the forest lake were drained. The mud was explored to such depth that experts identified decayed materials some 10,000 years old. Sadly, no trace of a body was found.’
Of course, we now know Sture Bergwall made the whole thing up. ‘It was ludicrous. His stories were ridiculous. Nothing added up,’ Josefsson says. ‘He couldn’t show any hidden bodies or people who disappeared – ever. Everything was just crazy but the system around him really wanted him to be the killer. They nourished him.’
Säter hospital has been likened to a Swedish Broadmoor and it was there the Sture Bergwall became Thomas Quick. He started on a pioneering course of psychoactive therapy bolstered by a free-flowing supply of psychoactive drugs. The model of treatment had its origins in a totally unfounded premise that schizophrenia in adults was caused by abuse in childhood often by parents. Säter’s star psychotherapist Margit Norell believed that most of her patients’ problems were the result of repressed childhood traumas.
Norell, who started at Säter in 1975, exerted a cult-like spell over a group of therapists who shared her belief in recovered memory therapy. Bergwall’s appalling confessions tallied with his (false) account of savage abuse at the hands of his parents. His lies and drug-induced delusions were fueled by his craving for the approval of his therapists who, in turned, hoped the Thomas Quick story would provide a much needed validation for their own groundless theories. ‘I confessed to the murders because I wanted to be an interesting patient,’ Bergwall has said. ‘The more grotesque the material, the more pleased the therapist was.’
‘He was too good to be true. They would not let him off the hook and he became a sort of hostage at Säter,’ Dan Josefsson tells me.
The journalist prefaces the book with a telling quote. ‘Loneliness seems to be such a painful, frightening experience that people will do practically anything to avoid it.’ It is striking that the words come from the analyst who Margit Norell idolized. Josefsson’s book isn’t just about Bergwall but it is also about ‘the psychoanalyst who created him’.
It might be tempting to see Bergwall as a victim himself. Does he have sympathy for the man who claimed to be a serial killer? ‘I wanted to forensically describe his criminal activities in the book,’ the journalist replies. ‘He was 40 years old when he came to Säter, had been in and out of institutions and had a lot of therapy.’ He came from a large family – ‘all law abiding citizens’. ‘He was accused of very bad things, molesting 13 year old children when he was 19 over a period of five months. He almost killed a man when he was 23 with a kitchen knife. It was a miracle that the guy did not die.’
‘So I didn’t feel sympathy at all. But in the second half of the 1990s, even though he lied and manipulated his way into Säter, the system around him was so flawed, I started to think that not even someone like him deserves that,’ Josefsson continues. ‘It is offensive to see a system that works so poorly and cannot handle a manipulator. This was a clinic for the criminally insane. Are they not used to people who manipulate? If they can’t deal with someone like him, who could?’
What does this travesty of justice says about the Swedish criminal justice system that looked so carefully at the case: for example, the investigating officer Seppo Penttinen who conducted more than 100 interviews in the Quick case or prosecutor Christer van der Kwast who, with almost no experience of murder investigations, suddenly found himself landed with one of Sweden’s most notorious crimes? ‘He was keen to investigate every murder – and that was one of the big problems. They never let anyone else in,’ says Josefsson.
What about the courts that upheld a string of convictions in the face of a total absence of physical evidence? The system became fatally contaminated by ‘groupthink’, the journalist argues. ‘An entire group’s ability to think critically was wiped out. It seems ludicrous if you’re not inside the group. An ability develops to push anybody out who thinks critically so as to protect the faith. It is very much like a religious cult.’
In Margit Norell, the Säter sect had its charismatic leader. Josefsson says: ‘Groupthink is more about respecting the leader and thinking they have superior knowledge. Nothing that anyone could ever come up with is anything that he has not already thought of. You begin to believe everything is OK even when you know it isn’t.’
There are so many inconsistencies in Bergwall’s bizarre confessions, in retrospect, it is impossible to take them seriously. For example, when Bergwall first admits to the murder of Therese Johannessen, he rhapsodizes about her ‘blonde, should-length hair, her hair flows around her as she runs’. Despite a traditional Norweigan name, Johannessen was from Pakistan. She had short black hair.
‘He just ad libbed his way through the interview,’ recalls Josefsson. Bergwall later explained to Seppo Pentinnen the process by which he retrieved repressed memories. He likened it to developing a film: ‘The dark becomes light, and the light especially becomes dark.’ ‘At that point he probably believed some of the things he said because he was so drugged up,’ says Josefsson.
Superior knowledge into the human soul
Bergwall was given complete licence to say what he wanted because, as Pentinnen explained as part of an advanced interviewing leadership course for the Police College, it was all part of his ‘venetian blind’ technique. ‘SB begin his accounts by twitching a little, opening up a few slats. It exposes some of the core of the crime which makes his story of interest to the police. But at the same time he allows you to peak through the slats, he displays completely mistaken facts. He calls it a “deliberate diversions”.’
The Swedish criminal justice agencies unquestioningly soaked up the pseudoscience around recovered memory because, the police believed, the Säter therapists had ‘superior knowledge into the human soul’.
Dan Josefsson sees such dangerous groupthink elsewhere in the justice system and, for example, in the treatment of claims of historic sexual abuse. ‘There have been lots of innocent people convicted because women, and it often [but not always] is women, have been victims of bad, unscientific psychotherapy,’ he says. ‘They have given testimony and misled the courts although they did it very often in good faith.’
In 2006 a report by the Swedish Chancellor of Justice (called Wrongly Accused, and written by Hans-Gunnar Axberger) identified cases where people were convicted for sentences of three or more years but were later granted appeals. The report reckoned that between 1950 and 1989 only two cases fulfilled such criteria but between 1990 and 2005 there were 11. Of that number, eight involved sexual crimes and six featured ‘repressed memories’.
The journalist also sees a parallel between the uncritical take of the courts in the Quick case and the long time reluctance to take a serious look at the science behind shaken baby syndrome.
As reported on the Justice Gap, there has been a major Swedish study by the SBU, an independent agency that assesses healthcare interventions, casting considerable doubt on the research behind the so called ‘triad’ theory – i.e., that the combination of three symptoms (brain swelling, intracranial bleeding, and bleeding in the retina) is definitive evidence of baby-shaking.
‘Circular reasoning has infested almost the entire body of research. Everything has been based on assumptions that were not fact,’ he says. ‘This diagnosis is more fake than fact. Science has been used to cover up ideological motives.’
In light of the Thomas Quick scandal, how do the Swedes regard the safety of their justice system? ‘I’d say that they have a much more positive view than they ought to. I have thought a lot about that over the last few years,’ he replies. ‘It is pretty clear to me that a very important function of the legal system is to make the majority feel that it works. Most people will never be the victim of a crime, at least not a serious crime, and they will never be offenders or accused of a crime and certainly not accused of one that they had not committed.’
It is a luxury that allows them to live in ‘a false ideal that this system works much better than it really does’, Josefsson says. ‘I have this idea that those [professionals] in the higher ranks of the legal system – the Supreme Court – when they see a journalist like me waving my hand in the air saying: “But he didn’t do it and you put him away for two years. It was a rotten police investigation etc.” They just look at me and think I am naive. They take the pragmatic view that if we make a song and dance about every case [that goes wrong] then people will think maybe this system isn’t safe – even for me.’