They once called him "Sweden's Hannibal Lector."
Whatever the truth behind this label, he would eventually become one of Sweden's most controversial prisoners, and possibly a victim of zealous prosecutors (depending on who you ask).
For Sture Bergwall, and for the countless others caught up in this bizarre case, it all began in 1991 when the then-41-year-old career criminal was convicted for armed robbery and sentenced to the secure psychiatric unit at Sater Hospital, the largest psychiatric hospital in Sweden. Bergwall had a long history of delinquency with repeated convictions for sexual offenses and violence which apparently stemmed from his own difficulty accepting his sexual orientation. All of his sexual offenses involved grooming and molesting young boys. In one case, he had placed his hand over the mouth of a nine-year-old boy to keep him from screaming and, after seeing that the boy was bleeding, fled the scene thinking that he had killed him. This led to his first psychiatric hospitalization in 1969.
While there were no other sexual offenses on his adult record, he continued getting in trouble with the law over other offenses. For example, he was convicted in 1974 for stabbing an acquaintance while under the influence of hallucinogenic drugs. After stabbing his victim twelve times, he then took the bread knife he used and fled the scene (after wiping his fingerprints) leaving his victim behind to get medical help on his own. BThough Bergwall was caught and sentenced to hospital, his victim would be left with long-term physical and psychological problems due to the attack. Finally came the bank robbery in 1990. Bergwall held the wife and son of a bank manager hostage while the manager and Bergwall's accomplice were sent to get money from the bank. Though police rescued the hostages safely, they later described their captivity by Bergwall as a terrifying experience. Bergwall was returned to Sater Hospital.
But that was far from the end of the story for him. Having been diagnosed as being personality-disordered, Sture Bergwall began attending therapy not long after arriving in the hospital. He was also prescribed benzodiazepines as part of this treatment. For reasons that are still unclear, Bergwall began confessing to other crimes that he had supposedly committed and for which he had never been caught. He also underwent a bizarre shift in his personality and changed his name to "Thomas Quick." Quick was his mother's maiden name while he took the name Thomas after a 14-year-old boy Bergwall had allegedly raped and murdered when he was fourteen years old.
Though Bergwall/Quick's confessions were vague and contradictory at first, the details became clearer under questioning by the police and hospital psychologists. He would eventually confess to thirty unsolved murders committed in Sweden, Norway, Denmark, and Finland over a thirty-year period. Police were enthusiastic about the confessions which allowed them to close cases that had gone unsolved for decades. As for the vague details which became clearer over time, psychologists attributed Quick's suddenly clear recall to "recovered memory therapy" which helped him to remember what he had been previously repressing. Sven Christianson, a professor at Stockholm University, visited him on numerous occasions to assist him in "recalling" additional details about the different murders that he had committed. It would also be Christianson who would testify at Quick's various murder trials.
Quick's first murder trial took place in 1994. This was the previously-unsolved murder of 15-year-old Charles Zelmanovits in 1976. According to Quick's confession, he and a confederate had raped and murdered the boy, sexually violated the corpse, and then buried it after removing several pieces. The confederate, according to Quick, later committed suicide. The second and third murders for which Quick was convicted were Dutch tourists Marinus and Janny Stegehuis who had both been stabbed to death in 1984. Other murders for which Quick was convicted included the 1988 murders of 9-year-old Therese Johannesen and 24-year-old Israeli student Yenon Levi.
Though the graphic details of rape and torture were qruesome enough , it was Thomas Quick's claim that he ate body parts from some of his victims that made him a media sensation in Sweden. Family members attending the trials were forced to hear what Quick described about how his victims died and what happened to their bodies afterward. Many of them would be traumatized for years afterward. Despite the lack of physical evidence (the spots he had identified as places where he had buried his bodies yielded nothing), the convincing nature of his confessions, coupled with testimony from forensic experts who believe him to be genuine, were enough to sway the courts. Sven Christianson testified that Quick was a classic sexual sadist. "I looked at his background," Christianson said in an interview with GQ Magazine. "If you look at literature on serial killers and rapists, they start early. He was very consistent, these attacks on young guys. And serial rapes. In the hospital he combined violence and rape, strangulation and rape."
As for Thomas Quick, his long conversations with Christianson, along with studying movies such as The Silence of the Lambs and books like American Psycho, taught him how to project the persona of a serial killer. He would later state that Christianson had asked him about other serial killer such as Jeffrey Dahmer, presumably hoping that Quick would provide him with insight into the mind of a sadistic murderer. According to Quick, talking to a Stockholm professor made him feel important, possibly for the first time in his life.
All told, Quick would be convicted for eight murders though he also confessed to nearly thirty others. Some of the murders could not be prosecuted since they had happened more than twenty-five years previously and the statute of limitations had already passed. His last murder conviction was for the death of 11-year-old John Asplund in 1980. Not only did Quick confess to the boy's rape and murder but also that he ate parts of the corpse. The combined sentences for his convictions were enough to ensure he would spend the rest of his life in Sater hospital under closed confinement.
Thomas Quick appeared to revel in the publicity resulting from his convictions. He even wrote a book titled, Kvarblivelse, which was an odd mixture of poetry, literary and musical criticism, meditations on forgiveness, and bizarre anecdotes describing some of the horrendous things that had supposedly happened to him in his childhood. These included fantasies about his stillborn brother's body, how his mother reportedly attempted to kill him, and his relationship with his father. Despite calls to have the book banned, Quick insisted that his book was intended for the families of his various victims.
But not everyone was convinced about Thomas Quick and his convenient confessions. During his various trials, the Swedish media actively debated whether or not Quick had ever killed anyone. The parents of one or his victims, 14-year-old Johann Asplund, were outspoken in insisting that Quick’s confession didn’t match what was known about how their son had died. They also pointed out that many of the details in Quick’s various confessions were obviously made up and that police had consistently failed to find forensic evidence to support what he had been saying. Even after questioning thousands of people, not one reliable eyewitness was ever found by police. Some of Quick’s supposed “victims” even turned up later, alive and well.
Quick's brother, Sten-Ove Bergwall, who was already a published author, came out with his own book titled, My Brother Thomas Quick. This book was meant as a rebuttal to Quick's claims about his family and to vindicate their parents. In retaliation, Thomas Quick wrote a letter to his brother's new wife claiming that Sten-Ove was a child molester and even told police that his brother had been an accomplice in one of the murders. After learning that his brother was in hospital awaiting heart surgery, Quick phoned him in the hospital telling him that he "hoped [his] rotten heart will implode so you die."
Despite suspicions that Thomas Quick was a compulsive liar whose confessions could not be trusted, psychologists insisted that the various inconsistencies could be explained by his memories of the killings being suppressed and recovered during therapy. As Sven Christianson testified during one trial, “Traumatic events are retained in the memory, but there can be protective mechanisms that can work in the unconscious to repress their recall.” Presumably that was enough to convince the courts during his eight separate murder trials.
Despite the growing controversy, Swedish officials continued to insist that no mistake had been made and that he had actually committed the murders. In 2001, apparently tired of the media spectacle and having to help police investigate murders to which he had confessed, Quick wrote an article for a Swedish newspaper announcing that he would no longer help police in any further cases.
What followed was seven years of media speculation and accusations of government incompetence over how Quick’s confessions had been handled. Finally, in December 2008, Thomas Quick unleashed another bombshell. After years of high-security imprisonment, he recanted every one of his confessions during the recording of a TV documentary. Denying that he had murdered anyone, Thomas Quick, who had reclaimed his old name of Sture Bergwall, was requesting that he be released from custody.
And then the legal nightmare really began.
In what would be described as the “most scandalous chapter” in Sweden’s forensic history, Sweden’s entire criminal justice system was basically placed on trial as the courts began to unravel why Sture Bergwall had ever been convicted. Long before he first went on trial, police investigators and forensic experts had been openly skeptical about Bergwall’s “confessions” and dismissed him as a pathological liar, but the circumstantial evidence and the sheer enthusiasm of prosecutors had done the rest.
Working through his attorney, Bergwall called on the Court of Appeal to review his convictions. He blamed his confessions on his own history of mental illness, the benzodiazepine medication that he had been taking at the time, and the overzealous interrogation tactics of the police, prosecutors, and psychologists involved in his case. His attorney also claimed that the prosecution had withheld important information (which the prosecutors denied). On December 2009, the Court of Appeal ordered a new trial for the murder of Israeli student Yenon Levi citing important information that had been withheld from the jury. This included the numerous errors in Bergwall’s confession which failed to match the actual evidence in the case. Bergwall was acquitted a year later. In overturning the other convictions, the court ruled that police and the courts had made numerous critical errors. For many of Bergwall's convictions, the prosecutor simply dropped the charges rather than hold a new trial.
By July 30, 2013, the last of Sture Bergwall’s murder convictions had been overturned and he was released from custody. Though his release plans remain confidential as per standard policy with inmates returned to the community, information provided to the media suggests that he is no longer on medication and is presumably functioning without incident.
All of which leaves some fundamental questions that remain unanswered. In a 2013 interview with GQ Magazine, Bergwall remained emphatic that he never killed anyone though his reasons for confessing to so many murders is unclear at best. In describing his long interviews with psychologists such as Sven Christianson, Bergwall said that he learned a great deal about serial killers and that this information came in handy when he needed to convince juries that he was genuine. He said that he enjoyed being interviewed by eminent psychologists and that it made him feel important. Telling them what they wanted to hear was an enjoyable experience for him.
Not that everyone is convinced of his innocence. The same GQ article also interviewed Sven Christianson who continues to insist that Sture Bergwall/Thomas Quick is a sadistic predator who has “made a country’s once proud legal system contort itself into knots” to gain his freedom. Certainly Christiansen was convinced enough of Bergwall’s guilt to write a 2010 book on him titled, I huvudet på en seriemördare (Inside the Mind of a Serial Killer) even after his star patient’s confessions had been retracted. As for Bergwall, he seemed philosophical about ongoing doubts about his innocence. "There's many people—or at least some people—trying to defend their honor. Not to lose face. I'm in the happy position that I don't have an honor to protect."
Sture Bergwall is hardly the first prisoner to create this kind of legal nightmare however. Take the case of convicted American serial killer Henry Lee Lucas, for instance. After his arrest in 1983, he began the long spree of confessions that would make him so famous. While there seems little doubt that Lucas actually committed some of the murders for which he was convicted, his penchant for confessing to numerous murders, including ones that he could not possibly have committed, seems to have been motivated by no more than his desire to improve his living conditions in prison. Based on Lucas’ confessions, the task force that had been formed to investigate him would later “close” hundreds of unsolved murder cases. Much like Bergwall, Henry Lee Lucas would inspire a media circus including books, magazine articles, documentaries, and two movies based on his life.
Though he was sentenced to death, enough questions would be raised about Lucas’ confessions to force the courts to commute his sentence to life imprisonment. Also like Bergwall, the controversy over Lucas’s confessions and whether or not the task force had been fooled would overshadow the Texas criminal justice system for years afterward. Henry Lee Lucas died in prison in 2001, and the mystery of whether he actually committed any of the murders he confessed to, died with him.
So, what can really be said about Sture Bergwall and Henry Lee Lucas that hasn’t been endlessly discussed by the numerous journalists, social critics, and criminologists who have already written extensively about their cases? Though police and prosecutors were likely overly credulous in taking these confessions at face value without the forensic evidence to back them up, their motivation to do so is certainly understandable.
Not only did Bergwall's confessions allow police to close cases that had haunted them for years, but it also provided some closure to the families of the various victims. If nothing else, this case served as a classic reminder of the old truism, "if something seems too good to be true, it usually is." It also demonstrates the difficulty that even trained interrogators have in detecting deception, especially when the deceiver is telling them what they want to hear.
And false confessions are hardly rare. According to the Innocence Project, about twenty-five percent of all prisoners who are eventually exonerated confess to their crime. Though many of these false confessions can be blamed on extreme interrogation techniques, police are also often besieged by people making voluntary confessions for crimes, especially high-profile offenses. After the "Black Dahlia" murder in 1947, dozens of people confessed to the high-profile killing. Whether due to mental illness or simply the attention they might receive from being convicted for the crime, well-publicized offenses have a way of bringing out false confessions and police are usually quite good at sifting out the genuine confessions from the false ones.
Part of the problem rests on the impact that confessions have on the courts and the extent to which prosecutors rely on them. As one U.S. judge noted in a 1986 case, "Our distrust for reliance on confessions is due, in part, to their decisive impact upon the adversarial process. Triers of fact accord confessions such heavy weight in their determinations that 'the introduction of a confession makes the other aspects of a trial in court superfluous, and the real trial, for all practical purposes, occurs when the confession is obtained.' No other class of evidence is so profoundly prejudicial. 'Thus the decision to confess before trial amounts in effect to a waiver of the right to require the state at trial to meet its heavy burden of proof."
So long as confessions are treated as hard evidence, even in the absence of the forensic evidence to back them up, there will be more cases like Sture Bergwall and Henry Lee Lucas. Though prosecutors are relying more on videotaped confessions to rule out potential coercion, it isn't likely to do much to deter the voluntary confessions that can backfire so spectacularly. What that means for future criminal trials is anybody's guess.