While Sweden isn’t immune to the phenomenon of serial killers, compared to other similarly advanced countries, they’ve had few. John Ingvar Lovgren, the first to hold the title of serial killer in Sweden, confessed to murders and rapes committed between the late 1950s and early 1960s. After his confession, he was placed under psychiatric treatment until the early 2000s, when a physical illness necessitated his release. He died not long afterward, in 2002. Anders Hansson, a hospital orderly, poisoned at least 30 patients, killing 15, in the late 1970s. Hansson, too, was sentenced to psychiatric treatment. (I find this fascinating. In the United States, with so many serial killers, we imprison them. They are considered untreatable. In Sweden they are seen as people suffering from mental illness and are given treatment, and even released back into society when deemed cured.)
For a brief time, however, there was a 3rd, more deadly serial killer to make a name for himself in Sweden. For over 20 years Thomas Quick (the name the murderer chose for himself, as it sounded more like a serial killer’s name than his birth name, Sture Bergwall) was the most celebrated serial killer in Sweden. He was the boogey man under the bed, the rustling in the bushes, Bloody Mary in the mirror.
The only problem was that he was innocent.
In 1950, Sture Bergwall was born into a large family. One of 7 children, he got a bit lost in the shuffle, but by all accounts, he led a normal childhood. His family was deeply religious, and by his mid-teens, Bergwall realized his family’s religion was in direct conflict with his burgeoning homosexuality. He knew these feelings would make him an outcast in his family. Bergwall would hope that his family would find a way to accept his differences … eventually, but deep down he knew he was too “different” to be accepted by anyone. You see, along with his attraction to same-sex partners, he found himself drawn to sadism. This made him feel confused, different, and abnormal. In his own words, he wanted to be a “normal” homosexual. He didn’t want to be a slave to his cravings.
As his feelings of solitude grew, Bergwall took to drugs and alcohol to blunt his feelings, and eventually to petty crimes to support his habits. His drugs of choice were amphetamines and attention. His thievery would land him in hot water, but first on his list of offenses was sexual assault. By the age of 19, he had already been accused of molesting other boys. In what would be a bizarre pattern of not standing trial for his offenses, Bergwall would not serve time for this infraction. Life, however, was definitely not moving in the direction he had hoped for.
Growing more and more frustrated with what he felt were his strange sexual cravings, Bergwall decided to do something about it. His solution was to go to a gay club, pick up a man by the name of Lennart Hoglund, and go home with him. Anticipating a sexual interlude, Hoglund instead found himself being stabbed 12 times by the demented would-be lover. Despite the savagery of the attack, Hoglund survived his wounds, and Bergwall ended up in a psychiatric hospital.
He was never tried for the attempted murder and received treatment instead. Perhaps the Swedish belief in treating violent criminals has something going for it because upon his release, Bergwall lived a different, drug-free life. Through the 1980s he lived the “normal” life he so craved. By 1990, however, drugs once again became a driving force in his life, and he was soon back to committing crimes to support his growing habit. In 1991, Bergwall kidnapped a bank manager from his home, holding the family hostage while his partner in crime took the bank manager to the bank to collect the money. In the hours Bergwall was alone with the bank manager’s wife and children, he let his sadism get the better of him. Details are unknown to the general public, but it’s safe to say the bank manager’s wife and children were traumatized by the terrifying circumstances of their captivity.
Sture Bergwall, however, was a failure at crime. He was recognized behind the Santa Claus mask he wore during the kidnapping, and once again found himself a resident of a psychiatric hospital. This time, though, his sentenced was to be carried out in Sater, a psychiatric hospital for the criminally insane, and his life would never be the same.
At this time, the hospital in Sater was known for its progressive treatment plans for their residents. In a nutshell, it was believed that the criminally insane committed their crimes for very specific reasons. In particular, it was believed that trauma experienced as a child, especially sexual abuse, led to repressed memories, which in turn led to the criminal reenacting those crimes they witnessed and/or experienced. The treatment plan was to help the patient discover these repressed memories, understand them and see the correlation between the trauma and the crime, in order to cure their criminal form of insanity. It was felt that once the trauma was remembered, there would no longer be a need to reenact it. This wasn’t a generic trauma-creating-trauma scenario. The staff at the hospital in Sater believed that if a patient strangled somebody, for instance, then there must have been a time in childhood where the patient witnessed a strangulation and repressed the memory. It was quite specific. The witnessing and subsequent repression of the event is what caused the criminals to act it out.
Remember when I said one of Bergwall’s drugs of choice was attention? With this therapy, he damn near overdosed on attention. It all started one day when Bergwall casually asked his therapist what would happen if he had done something really, really bad.
And Thomas Quick was born.
In 1980, Johan Asplund failed to arrive at school one morning. Later that afternoon, when his absence was discovered, hordes of neighbors and community members went into high gear, trying to find the boy or some clue as to what had happened to him. The 11-year-old boy became one of the biggest unsolved mysteries in Sweden. His body was never found, and to this day, the circumstances of his disappearance have never been revealed. His family still waits for some kind of resolution to this case. But for a brief time in the early 1990s, they thought they had gotten their answers.
Sture Bergwall, now Thomas Quick, “remembered” that he had killed young Johan after raping him in the woods. He led police to the area where he had buried Johan’s body parts (he claimed to have dismembered him), but no sign of a body was ever found. Despite the lack of a body – or any other hard evidence, for that matter – Quick was convicted of the boy’s murder. While this was his first confession, it would be the 8th murder that Quick was convicted of – all convictions were based on his testimony alone. There was absolutely no physical evidence that Quick had committed any of these murders; his accounts of the events was enough to convict him.
Imagine the attention Quick got with each confession.
After the first confession (which ended up being his last conviction), the “memories” came pouring out. Thomas Quick confessed to 30 murders in all by the time the confessions stopped. Details were of little concern to Quick. He quickly learned to read the investigators’ body language and would change his details as the investigators telegraphed the truth to him. He might, for instance, say he strangled a victim, but on seeing the investigators’ reactions, he’d change the mode of death to stabbing, then shooting, and until finally settling on beating as the cause of death, as the investigators “told” him. He was never able to lead the investigators to any bodies but spent a lot of time traveling around the countryside looking for burial sites and enjoying dinners out with the investigators and therapists.
The trauma of the confessions caused severe anxiety for Quick, but the hospital was able to help him out by prescribing massive doses of benzodiazepines. The more memories unearthed, the more anxiety he felt, and the more benzos he received. He even twice attempted suicide, as the memories were so traumatic for him. After all, Quick didn’t just remember raping and killing these people; he also dismembered and even ate his victims. He was truly a monster.
After years of therapy and memory retrieval, Thomas Quick’s full story eventually came out. His memories proved Sater Hospital’s hypothesis on childhood trauma and the criminally insane. In fact, Quick was their star patient; the poster child for regression therapy. Everything they speculated was proven in living color with this one man’s story. And what it story it was.
Thomas Quick remembered the night it all really started for him. He was 4 years old and his father was raping him. Through his tears of pain and fright, Thomas saw his pregnant mother walk into the room, panic, and quickly leave. The shock of seeing her husband raping their child was too much for the poor woman, and she went into preterm, precipitous labor. Within moments she reentered the room, a small baby in her hands, the umbilical cord still attached to the placenta, which was still in her uterus. Quick distinctly remembered the cord leading back up under his mother’s skirt. Mind you, his father was still raping Thomas at this point. Apparently being discovered by his wife meant little to him. For some reason, upon the mother’s return to the room, Quick’s memories showed that both parents savagely attacked the newborn infant, viciously tearing it apart and eating him. They even made Thomas eat some of his baby brother, who he had named Simon. His father then forced him to help bury the little dismembered body . . . or what was left of it.
During Quick’s confessions, investigators and therapists noticed that every time he came close to a revelation, Thomas would mutter “No miss, no miss.” With the memories of this abuse coming to light, they were able to put together what Thomas meant by his mutterings. “No miss” was “Simon” backwards. Therapists put together that the trauma of seeing, and forcefully participating in Simon’s murder caused Quick to suppress the memory. His subconscious, however, remembered the abuse, and more importantly, remembered Quick’s feelings of guilt, not only of participating in the murderous cannibalism but of not helping Simon in the first place. His crimes were his way of reenacting Simon’s murder. He wasn’t killing these people, he was collecting body parts to put Simon back together. Now that the memory was excavated from his subconscious, however, there was no longer a need for him to kill. His subconscious and conscious were one; there was no need to reenact the murder. He was on the road to recovery.
What a breakthrough! This therapy would surely revolutionize the treatment of all the criminally insane, possibly all criminals in general! Thomas Quick was a star and was lavished with attention.
After Quick’s 8th conviction (for the murder of Johan Asplund), Quick suddenly became silent. He stopped cooperating with police. He had helped solve 30 murders, but it looked like he wasn’t going to wipe the books clean after all.
An old therapist of Quick’s had returned to the hospital. He had been gone for those years Thomas was remembering committing nearly every unsolved murder in Sweden, and when he returned, the therapist found Thomas was being given absurdly large amounts of benzodiazepines. He quickly fixed Thomas’ medication regimen, and Thomas Quick was no more.
Not so oddly, throughout the years of confessions, people were in doubt of his stories. His “facts” were often wrong, and in one instance, 2 people he claimed to have murdered were found alive and well. To add insult to injury, none of the DNA evidence matched Quick. When he did get details correct, it was with the help of court transcripts and police reports made available to him during his trials.
During the filming of a documentary on the murders of Thomas Quick, the protagonist took back all his confessions. By this time he was off the massive amount of medications he had been getting, and perhaps he realized his confessions meant life in the psychiatric hospital. He had hurt his family with his allegations of sexual and physical abuse and felt he’d never be able to make amends. It was time to come clean.
It wasn’t hard for the courts to admit he need to be retried on all the murder charges, and Bergwall was eventually exonerated of all the crimes. After 23 years in the psychiatric hospital, Sture Bergwall was a free man.
Repressed memories are known as dissociative amnesia. This is an actual condition that can be caused by trauma or stress. I personally can attest to the authenticity of this condition. As a 7-year-old I was playing with the neighbor kids. It was Halloween, and my brother was dressed like Igor (I, like usual, was dressed as a princess). Igor was chasing me through the neighbor’s yard. I turned to see how close the monster was to me and ran neck-first into a rope my friend and I had tied to two trees earlier that day. The next thing I knew, my brother was walking me home. He had his arm around my shoulder and was being really nice to me, which scared me to death. Why in the world would he be nice to me? I had a huge rope burn on my neck and couldn’t go trick-or-treating that year, and boy was I pissed. It was a relatively mild childhood injury, however. I wasn’t hospitalized. I didn’t even need stitches, but I had absolutely no memory of it happening until one day, 11 years later, when I got out of the shower and saw a huge scar on my neck. The thing is, that scar was there the whole time, I just never saw it! Within seconds of seeing the scar, the whole incident came back to me like a movie playing on fast forward. It felt like I was actually smacked in the face with the memory! I couldn’t believe that I had forgotten the incident, but what really rocked my boat was that the scar was clearly visible on my neck, and for 11 years I didn’t see it. It was like it wasn’t there. I ran to the phone and called my brother, and asked him if he remembered that Halloween, and he did. My parents didn’t remember it, though. You see, to them, it was just another childhood boo-boo, but to me, it was truly frightening. I obviously passed out or at least blacked out, and waking up to my brother being nice to me was terrifying. For my brother, it was frightening because he had nearly killed his little sister by chasing her into a rope. Of course, it wasn’t his fault, but his 9-year-old mind must have been very, very scared of the consequences.
Again, this was a minor incident, but the effects were long-lasting. I still don’t like people touching my throat, even though I now know why. My little 7-year-old brain decided not to consciously remember the incident, and therefore the scar did not exist. Imagine what severe trauma can do to the mind.
What happens when the memories aren’t real, though? Some studies suggest they are just as traumatizing.
While Sweden struggles to fix an obviously broken legal system that would convict a man of 8 murders based on nothing but his testimony, the rest of us are left wondering about the man himself. Sture Bergwall spent 23 years at an inpatient facility for repressed memories that were not real, but did he really believe it? Was this the case of a lonely man finding acceptance and attention by being a monster or did he really believe these memories? Maybe his high doses of benzodiazepines and other medications played a part in his repressed memories, as did the investigators’ and therapists’ encouragement. It’s well known that hypnosis as a tool for unearthing repressed memories is useless. A person under hypnosis will lie to please the hypnotist. It’s not known if hypnosis was used as part of Bergwall’s therapy (his hospital records are sealed), but pleasing his therapists almost certainly played a role in these confessions.
In the end, though, Bergwall finally got the acceptance he was always looking for.
Today he’s out of prison and has reconciled with his brother. He’s no longer on any psychiatric medications, it having been determined that they weren’t necessary.
No cold cases were solved. None of the families found answers to the most burning questions in their lives. For a time, though, Sture Berwall was the most important person in Sweden.