If you read anything this morning, it should be Chris Heath's stirring profile in GQ of a Swedish serial killer who has been locked up in a mental hospital for the last 23 years for committing at least eight gruesome, sexually violent murders — but the catch is the killer may have cooperated with authorities too eager to solve the cases in order to fuel his own egomania and drug addiction.
Sture Bergwall is better known in Sweden as Thomas Quick -- a ruthless serial killer and sexual predator who, in the 1990s, was convicted of murdering eight people and confessed to murdering 30 in all. He would speak openly and honestly, without filter, in front of attorneys, reporters, and families about sexually abusing, dismembering and eating parts of his victims after killing them,. He's known as Sweden's Hannibal Lecter. He's spent the last 23 years of his life serving time in a secure psychiatric unit at Säter hospital in a remote part of Sweden. (Though Bergwall was not the inspiration for the infamous character.)
Quick was a prolific interview for a while in Sweden. He became the country's most well known serial killer during his trial. But after he went silent in 2001, there was a tidal change in public opinion about him: an argument emerged that he was, in fact, innocent. There was enough evidence to suggest Bergwell is telling the truth, too. Bergwall's convictions came during interrogations where he was heavily drugged and often got details of his crimes wrong -- something prosecutors were maybe too quick to overlook:
If he initially said something that was the opposite of the facts—a victim's hair was blond, not dark; a road was to the right, not the left—it was seen not as wrong but as a sign of how much torment his guilt was causing him and how hard it was for him to fully acknowledge the awful things he had done. (He was majestically slippery. One time he justified a wrong hair color by saying that he tended to see painful material as a photographic negative.) If he said something that was simply wrong, it could be explained away as him trying to throw off the investigators. But whenever he said something that fit the known evidence, it was habitually accepted as a true memory.
Some inconsistencies presented as facts in the trial -- about Bergwall's upbringing, the crimes he committed, and even some damning physical evidence -- have since been refuted. Tests proved a key piece of evidence used to convict Bergwell -- a bone fragment found at a specific site where Bergewll claimed he buried a piece of a victim -- was actually some plastic, wood and glue. But Burgwell, this killer who spoke openly and in great detail about committing unspeakable acts against other humans, claims he only did it for the "benzo." Bergwall was serving time in Säter for a botched bank robbery he claims he did for drug money to fuel his benzodiazepines addiction when he realized one day that the doctors, who were ready to release him, would suddenly pay attention and fuel his addiction if he confessed to some horrible psychiatric past:
This changed significantly when he began to suggest that things in his childhood may have been darker than they actually were. Eventually he “remembered” for the first time a sexual assault by his father. Now, all of a sudden, his therapist seemed engaged and interested, and the reaction made Bergwall feel important. At this time he was actually being prepared for release, but back then this opportunity didn’t seem too enticing—he had lost contact with almost everyone he had known, alienated his remaining family (both his parents were dead), and had few prospects. Anyway, he soon took a step that guaranteed he wouldn’t be set free anytime soon.
Säter hospital is on the edge of a lake, and one day, on a supervised swimming trip, Bergwall said to one of the nurses chaperoning him: “I wonder what you’d think of me if you found out that I’d done something really serious.” In subsequent therapy sessions he explained what he meant. The Johan Asplund murder was famous in Sweden and remained officially unsolved. Bergwall now suggested that he had been responsible.
Heath goes into great detail about the inconsistencies and lapses on both sides of this issue -- the convincing argument that Bergwall is the serial killer he's always been, and the unbelievable yet equally convincing story that Bergwall may somehow be telling the truth all these years later. That Bergwell may be the egomaniacal drug addict who confessed to sexually assaulting and eating other humans just to get his next fix. Bergwall remains in Säter, awaiting a complicated court system to decide which version of the truth will go down in the history books. For now, Heath's story is the one you should read.
[Image: Bergwall (right) speaks with a European interviewer from inside Säter]
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.