Råstam had one question for Sweden’s most abominable serial killer. And the answer turned out to be far more terrifying than the man himself . . .
Walter Mitty Syndrome is a phrase occasionally used by psychiatrists and others in describing a person who prefers a fantasy world to reality, particularly if others consider him a failure, but when the potential for real harm results from his behaviour, it becomes a whole lot more sinister than the fictional stories.
“The desire to want to be somebody important without expending any effort, or making up stories to get attention is actually fairly common,” says Dr Colin Gill, a psychologist and expert on the nature of identity. “Of course, we only hear of high-profile cases such as these, when people get caught out. I suspect there may well be thousands of people telling these kinds of lies or leading double lives.”
In addition to Walter Mitty, the other great anti-hero of self-reinvention is Patricia Highsmith’s Tom Ripley. In The Talented Mr. Ripley , the character murders and then takes over the identity of his friend, Dickie Greenleaf. At one point Ripley says, ” surely it’s better to be a fake somebody than a real nobody“ – a line that articulates the sense of inadequacy that festers inside many of these fantasists. “There is a suggestion that these kind of fantasies reflect some kind of deficit in childhood – they were not noticed, rewarded or loved – and so, later in life, they go on to try and seek the attention or praise that was denied to them,” says Dr Gill. “There is also some evidence to show that this tendency could be (familial); Jeffrey Archer for example inherited some of his talent for invention from his father, who was a bit of a crook and a conman.”
Can’t we all relate to the way this happens? A person, perhaps not used to getting much attention, suddenly as a result of telling a lie finds him or herself basking in the limelight. So they tell another lie, which in turn makes them feel better about themselves; and so the process continues until they have become addicted to, and adept at, deception.
The case examined
Until relatively recently, Sture Bergwall was Sweden’s most notorious serial killer. He had confessed to some 30 murders, and been convicted of eight. He called himself Thomas Quick. During a succession of therapy sessions at Säter Hospital, where he had been imprisoned for various petty crimes, he confessed to one unsolved murder after another, going into grisly detail on his methods. Newspapers soon labelled him as Sweden’s Hannibal Lecter.
However, in 2001, in a complete turnaround, he withdrew from public view and changed his name back to the one he was born with. In 2008, Hannes Råstam, one of Sweden’s most respected investigative journalists and documentary-makers, became intrigued. He visited Sture Bergwall, the former Thomas Quick, at Säter, trawled through the 50,000 pages of court documents, therapy notes and police interrogations and came to the startling conclusion that there was not a single shred of technical evidence for any of Bergwall’s convictions. There were no DNA traces, no murder weapons, no eyewitnesses – nothing apart from his confessions, many of which had been given when he was under the influence of narcotic-strength drugs. Confronted with Råstam’s discoveries, Bergwall admitted the unthinkable. He said he had fabricated the entire story.
The book recounting this extraordinary tale, Thomas Quick: The Making of a Serial Killer, was first posthumously published in Sweden. Råstam died the day after the manuscript was finished. Råstam describes in painstaking detail the way in which the deeply troubled Quick was able to gain key information surrounding each case from psychiatrists, police officers and lawyers, before cobbling together the rambling and confused testimonies into a coherent narrative that could stand up in court.
Hannes Råstam’s attention to detail, willingness to examine seemingly unimportant details in context, and sustained determination was his strength, according to his colleagues. He moved mountains to see justice for the families involved, it was almost an obsession to have the truth exposed. He died of cancer of the liver and pancreas on January 12, 2012, aged 56.
Jenny Küttim, who was Råstam’s researcher for three years on the story, was appalled by what they found. “The worst part is that because of (professional) people not doing their job, there are a lot of killers out there who never got caught or faced justice,” she says.
In Sweden, the book prompted a public outcry and a judicial scandal. Bergwall has now been acquitted of all eight murders. Bergwall’s lawyer is fighting for his client’s release from the psychiatric hospital in which he has been incarcerated for more than 20 years. According to Olsson, the strange case of the serial killer who never was “raises serious questions about the entire legal system”. The defence lawyer in most of the trials, Claes Borgström, never challenged the veracity of the prosecution evidence, was happy enough to go along with Quick, and, by inference, with his client’s instructions. Is this a systemic fault? Once the verdicts were reached, it was difficult for any of the main actors to admit they were wrong, for fear of losing credibility and prestige. Some of them – including the prosecutor, Christer van der Kwast, and the present supreme court judge, Göran Lambertz, have fallen back on the argument that if the courts decided his guilt, and if their procedures were correct, that is enough. The state must be right, even when it’s wrong.
But why would a man confess to such sadistic and violent crimes if he was truly innocent? Talking to Råstam at Säter, Sture Bergwall tried to explain. “It was about belonging to something,” he said, his voice was quiet but insistent and his thoughts intelligently expressed. “I was a very lonely person when it all started,” he continued. “I was in a place with violent criminals and I noticed that the worse or more violent or serious the crime, the more interest someone got from the psychiatric personnel. I also wanted to belong to that group, to be an interesting person in here.”
Bergwall had always wanted to meld in. He was a teenage misfit. He grew up in a small town in rural Sweden, one of seven siblings raised according to strict Pentecostal beliefs. He describes himself as a “creative and ambitious” child, interested in theatre and writing. At 14, he grew confused over his sexual inclinations. Ashamed, he kept his feelings from his deeply religious parents. He started experimenting with drugs – amphetamines were his favourite – and, at the age of 19, was accused of sexual indecency. Later, he tried to stab a former lover. In 1990, he tried to rob a local bank dressed in a Santa Claus outfit to feed his addiction. The clerk recognised him. He was incarcerated in Säter hospital for psychiatric treatment. Not a stable individual, then, but not a serial killer – at least, not yet.
As a young man, Bergwall had always hankered after being taken seriously and treated as an intelligent person. For a while, he wanted to be a doctor and read up on psychoanalysis. In Säter, he began to realise he could use this knowledge to get the attention and acceptance he craved. One day in 1992, he asked his therapist: ”I wonder what you’d think of me if you found out that I’ve done something really serious . . .”
“That created a reaction, an interest,” Bergwall says now. “I said: ‘Maybe I murdered someone’ and once I’d said that, there was no going back.” The first “murder” Thomas Quick confessed to was that of Johan Asplund, the victim of one of the greatest criminal mysteries in Swedish history. During a series of therapy sessions and, later, in police interviews, he gave a detailed confession.
But despite forensic technicians searching the locations described by Quick, no remains were ever found. In fact, it took nine years for prosecutors to cobble together a case against Quick – he was finally convicted of the murder in 2001. By that time, Quick had already been found guilty of seven other killings. Yet, oddly for a serial killer, there was no obvious modus operandi: Quick claimed to have killed children and adults, assaulted men and women, using an array of weapons and committing murders in various random locations in Sweden and Norway.
In 1996, he confessed to the murder of a nine-year-old in Norway eight years previously. Quick initially said the girl was blonde and lived in a rural village, but in reality, she had dark brown hair and lived in a tower block in a heavily urbanised area.
“He got zero right,” Bergwall’s lawyer, Thomas Olsson, recalled. “He described a totally different situation in all aspects but instead of accepting that, they went on with 15 new interviews.”
Does Olsson believe Bergwall is dangerous? He snorts. “No! Not at all.” Does he like him? “I don’t like people too much in general…but, of course, if you spend so much time with a client, you always see the person behind the headlines. It all started with a little boy under a Christmas tree, playing with toys and it ended up very tragic. Somewhere along the line, everyone is a victim.”
After “confessing” to the second murder, Quick was driven to Norway. The TV cameras followed his every move. He was rapidly becoming a celebrity in Scandinavia and revelled in the attention. Curiously, he appeared to have a cast-iron alibi for some of his crimes. Although he confessed to killing a teenage boy in 1964 at the age of 14, it turned out that several witnesses could remember seeing him at holy communion with his non-identical twin sister, some 250 miles away. In fact, there was a photograph showing him there. Defenders of the verdicts pointed out that, in interview, Quick had revealed telling pieces of information from each of the crimes that only the killer would know. Still today, there are those who robustly defend the police investigations, including supreme court judge Göran Lambertz, who conducted a week-long review of the Quick case in 2006 in his previous role as attorney general and found it all to be above board.
“There is no DNA nor fingerprints and [the evidence] is not as strong as it could be,” says Lambertz when we meet. “What there is is everything he [Quick] said back then that sort of fits in. He gave a lot of facts about two murders in particular that fit so well with what actually happened and what kind of children these two were.”
But according to Bergwall, a lot of the information was already in the public domain: early on in his confessional spree, he still had regular leaves of absence from the hospital.
“I’d go to the Royal Library in Stockholm on day release and read up on old cases on the newspaper microfiches,” he explains. Bergwall noted down the telling details and which he would later “reveal” in therapy. His therapist would praise him for his bravery in digging deep into his remembered past. The police would be thrilled at the emergence of a credible suspect for a previously unsolvable crime. On at least two occasions, Quick was flown by private jet to take part in reconstructions at murder sites. All the time, Quick was basking in the reflected glory, like a praised child.
“I didn’t need to do much to tell the stories,” he says. “Usually a single newspaper article would be enough. The rest of the information always came during the interrogations from the police, therapists or different people on the investigations team. I knew I just had to listen to pay attention.”
He wanted to be notorious. Now he had managed to revive that notoriety by recanting his ‘confessions’.
The medication role
In all of his therapy sessions and the ensuing police reconstructions, Bergwall was heavily drugged on a cocktail of Benzodiazepines. Medical records show he was being given tablets every couple of hours – often up to 20 mg. of Diazepam, enough to knock some people out cold. A high dosage given to those with poor impulse control can lead to a release of inhibitions and could explain why Bergwall was able to invent such a grotesque litany of crime. At the time, he remembers being fascinated by depictions of fictional serial killers – astonishingly, he was able to borrow a copy of Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho from the hospital library.
“The drugs were very important,” says Bergwall. “I had free access to them and I relied on them to get me into a condition where I could tell stories and make them up.” What effect were the drugs having on him?
“A lot happened inside of me. I’d get high, I’d get a kick and then I’d have lots of fantasies. My imagination would run wild. In one sense, they gave me a lot of creativity. It was like a vicious circle. The more I told, the more attention I got from the therapists and the police and the memory experts and that meant I also got more drugs.”
There was a clique of people around Quick, variously described as being akin to “a cult”, “a travelling circus” and “a religious sect that did not welcome dissenting beliefs”. The same police officer, therapist, prosecuting and defence lawyer dealt with each of his confessions through the years. Even the same sniffer dog, Zampo, was used to trawl each “murder” site.
“During the course of the investigation, Quick mentioned at least 24 different places in Sweden and Norway where he had committed murders,” says Leyla Belle Drake, who was Hannes Råstam’s literary agent. “Zampo marked for human remains 45 times at those 24 locations. Not a single trace of blood or body parts was ever found. The dog was just as bad as the rest of them.”
The case was heavily guided by psychoanalysts who believed in repressed memories. Their leader was Margit Norell who founded her own association of like-minded psychoanalysts and who believed in repressed memories and their origins in real events. For them, the Quick case would be ‘proof’ that the theory was correct. Publication of the conclusions would mean prestige and money. The theory this select group propounded was that the patient had repressed extremely traumatic memories, which resurfaced in the form of dream-like sequences that could often be littered with inconsistencies. It was only through repeated therapy sessions with trusted confidants and the administration of calming drugs that the real narrative could emerge. (See Why Freud was wrong on repressed memory)
For Jenny Küttim, this is one of the most scandalous elements of the whole strange affair. “He was a mental patient in a mental hospital in Säter,” says Küttim, her restrained anger almost tangible. “He was the only one who didn’t have a job. The other people around him were the ones who were meant to be saying ‘No, we don’t believe you.’ In that sense, you cannot blame Sture Bergwall, because a lot of people around him should have said no. At the same time, he’s also to blame because he’s hurt a lot of people by telling these stories.” A ‘no blame’ culture out of control.
Back in Säter hospital, Sture was asked whether he thought what impact his confessions might be having on the victims’ families?
“Yes. I did think of them, but I didn’t. In a way, I was ruthless, but that was also one of the effects of the benzo [Benzodiazepine]. It meant I could ignore any compassion.”
Did he know he was lying? “This is the most difficult part to explain. There was an awareness that it was lies. At the same time, I was living in this role as Thomas Quick and in this role, I could forget that awareness. During the Thomas Quick years, I tried to hang myself. I banged my head against the wall until it bled. In the nights, I would wake up screaming ‘No!’ In the middle of the nights, there was an awareness that it was all make believe and then when I woke up, I got a dose of benzo and I could forget it and push it aside.”
In 2001, a new clinical director at Säter reviewed Quick’s medical records. He was shocked to discover the dosage and Quick’s supply of drugs quickly dwindled. Once he stopped taking them, he stopped confessing. Instead, he announced to journalists that he would no longer co-operate with the police and withdrew from public view. He then kept his silence for seven years until Hannes Råstam tracked him down.
“Hannes was a very intense person with an ability to really listen to other people and also to share,” says Bergwall, for the first time showing some small hint of emotion. “I remember the third time we met, Hannes had seen the videotapes of the police reconstructions and he said: ‘I can see you’re high on drugs.’ It was the first time that I remember thinking: ‘Something’s going to happen.’ I felt: ‘Yes! Something’s going to change’ and I was ready to confess”. Such a sentiment that Harold Shipman also reportedly felt upon detection.
“It was so liberating to finally tell the truth and to know that I didn’t have anything to fear since it was the truth.”
Not everyone believes Sture Bergwall is himself a victim of one of the grossest miscarriages of justice in recent times. There are those who point out that he has a track record of lying convincingly and manipulating people.
Judge Göran Lambertz cautions against “rushing to conclusions”. He believes that in the pile of false details Bergwall gave to police, there might still be some elements of truth. This position has made him deeply unpopular in certain parts of Swedish society, especially with those – like Thomas Olsson and Jenny Küttim – who are campaigning for Bergwall’s release.
“A lot of people have made their careers on the Thomas Quick case,” says Küttim. “So today they have a lot to lose.”
Lambertz is dismissive when I put this to him. “Oh yes, I’m a hated man,” he says blithely. “I think Sture Bergwall is fooling us now, that’s what I think. I don’t think he’s harmless. He may be a nice old man, I don’t know, but the psychiatrists up there say he is still dangerous.”
And what if Bergwall is acquitted of all these murders by the courts? Will Lambertz still be sceptical? Will he apologise for conducting a review six years ago into the Quick case which found no fault with the police investigation?
“It could be right [to acquit him], it could be all wrong. It could be somewhere in the middle, I don’t know. But if you ask me what I think, I would think it is more wrong than right.”
In December 2008, Bergwall recanted his confessions, and denied taking part in any of the murders for which he was convicted, or any of the other murders he has confessed to. Subsequently some of murder convictions were revoked and finally in July 2013 he was cleared of any remaining murder charges by the Swedish authorities. Bergwall is still kept in psychiatric confinement pending further psychiatric evaluations.