A Prime Target: The Murder of Prime Minister Olof Palme


A Prime Crime

The nation’s Chief Executive is shot while in public and is rushed to the hospital. Doctors work feverishly but are unable to save him. A shocked nation goes into mourning. Years after the assassination, conspiracy theories abound as to who was responsible.

Such an occurrence describes the globally known assassination of United States President John F. Kennedy over 56 years ago. It also describes a murder occurring in 1986, which, outside of Scandinavia, is lesser-known.
The Prime Minister of Sweden is the Nordic country’s equivalent of the President of the United States. Thus, the assassination of Swedish Prime Minister Olof Palme can rightfully be compared to President Kennedy.
A cornucopia of conspiracy claims continues to surround both crimes. One huge factor, however, separates the two assassinations. History has officially closed the book on the Kennedy assassination, but the murder of Prime Minister Palme is still open.

Olof Plame became Prime Minister of Sweden in 1969, a position he held until his murder 17 years later. He was the leader of the left-wing Swedish Social Democrat Party.

Palme’s reign coincided with the escalation of Cold War tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union. He adopted a policy of non-alignment with both superpowers and spoke critically of both countries’ foreign policies.

Palme drew the particular ire of the United States when he became the first Western head of state to visit Cuba following the 1959 revolution that brought Fidel Castro to power. His speech praising the revolutionaries was not well received by Cuba’s neighbor to the north.

Prime Minister Palme valued his independence and was determined to live as ordinary as possible for a head of state. He was often seen in public without any bodyguard protection; the evening of February 28, 1986, was one such occasion.

Despite protests from his entourage, the Prime Minister gave his protectors the evening off as he looked forward to a night at the movies with his family.

That evening Palme and his wife Lisbet met their son Marten and his girlfriend at Stockholm’s Grand Cinema, where they watched the comedy “The Mozart Brothers.” After the movie ended at approximately 11:00 p.m., the foursome chatted for fifteen minutes before the two couples headed their separate ways. Olof and Lisbet Palme began walking toward the Hötorget metro station.

After crossing the street, the Palmes briefly stopped to gaze at some displays in a shop window before continuing past a corner deli.

Several minutes later, officially at 11:21 p.m., according to Swedish authorities, a man approached the couple from behind and twice shot the Prime Minister in his back at point-blank range. After firing a third shot that grazed Mrs. Palme, the perpetrator jogged into the darkness.

Paramedics quickly arrived on the scene and rushed Sweden’s first couple to Sabbatsberg Hospital. The shots had severed the Prime Minister’s spinal column and aorta, and he was pronounced dead. Lisbet Palme was not seriously wounded.

Multiple people witnessed the shooting but could provide only vague descriptions of the assassin. He was generally described as between 30-50 years-old, 6″-6’2″ tall, 185-200 pounds, and wearing a dark jacket or coat. The descriptions varied so much that police deemed them insufficient to develop a composite sketch of the suspect.

The shots were determined to have probably been fired from a Winchester-Western .357 Magnum 158 grain metal piercing revolver. The two bullets recovered from the street were the only forensic evidence as such weapons do not automatically eject cartridge cases.

Based on the bullets’ lack of certain characteristic deformations, investigators concluded the shots had been fired from a barrel not shorter than 4 inches, meaning the murder weapon would have been a conspicuously large handgun.

Thirty-three-year-old Victor Gunnarsson, a right-wing extremist who hated Palme’s polices, was immediately declared the prime suspect in the murder of the Prime Minister. He matched the general description of the assassin. A witness placed Gunnarsson at a bar near the Grand Cinema that evening, voicing his discontent about the Swedish leader to anyone who would listen.

Gunnarsson was arrested but soon released after no one picked him out of a police lineup. Nothing linked him to the killing, but he was guilty in the eyes of public opinion.

Ostracized and unable to find work in his home country, Gunnarsson moved the United States, settling in Salisbury, North Carolina, a town of approximately 33,000 people in the west-central part of the Tar Heel state. In January 1994, Gunnarsson’s near-naked body was found in a wooded area about 90 miles from his home. He had been shot twice in the head with a .22 caliber firearm.

Olof Palme’s murder has been called the Swedish equivalent of President Kennedy’s assassination. Gunnarsson was not the likely assassin, and he was not silenced for the same reason many believe Lee Harvey Oswald was killed. Instead, he was shot to death by a jealous former boyfriend of the woman he had recently begun dating.

Regardless, many in Gunnarsson’s homeland still believe his murder was poetic justice. Despite his disdain for Olof Palme, no evidence has been found linking him to the assassination.

In December 1988, almost three years after Prime Minister Palme’s murder, an alcoholic and drug user named Christer Pettersson was charged with the murder after Lisbet Palme picked him out of a lineup as her husband’s killer. Pettersson, who had previously been convicted of manslaughter, was convicted of Palme’s murder, but the verdict was overturned on appeal the following year.

The Swedish appellate court cited several reasons for reversing the lower court’s decision.

• Failure of the prosecution to produce the murder weapon;
• Lack of a motive for the murder;
• Doubts about the reliability of Mrs. Palme’s identification of
Pettersson and her testimony; and
• “extremely gross errors” by the police in arranging the lineup.

In the late 1990s, several people came forward saying Pettersson had confessed to killing the Prime Minister. He allegedly told associates it was a case of mistaken identity. He had intended to kill fellow drug dealer Sigvard Cedergren. Cedergren resembled Olof Palme and often walked along the same route the Prime Minister was walking that evening. However, the claims were made by petty criminals who altered their stories, and officials deemed the contentions uncredible.

Pettersson was awarded about $50,000 in compensation for defamation by the police and wrongful imprisonment. He quickly squandered his windfall on alcohol and drugs but augmented his income through media interviews.

In 1998, the Swedish Supreme Court rejected an appeal to retry Pettersson. He died from a cerebral hemorrhage in 2004, legally declared not guilty in the assassination of Prime Minister Olof Palme.

As with the assassination of President Kennedy, no shortage of conspiracy theories exist regarding the murder of Prime Minister Palme. Some of the opinions are listed below.

• He was silenced by the CIA for his support of communist Cuba
• As the U.N. mediator seeking an end to the Iran-Iraq war, he was
assassinated because he fell afoul of Iran-Contra
• He was taken out by an operative of the former Yugoslavian security service.
• He was killed by the South African Cooperation Bureau for speaking out against Apartheid.
• His murder was linked with arms trades to India.

• He was killed by Chilean Fascists for granting asylum to leftist
Chileans following the overthrow of Salvador Allende in 1973.
• He was killed by a conspiracy among Swedish right-wing extremist police officers.
• He was killed by the PKK (Kurdish Worker’s Party) for the arrests of Kurds living in Sweden.

Olof and Lisbet Palme had been married for thirty years at the time of his assassination.

Lisbet did not remarry. She died in October 2018 at age 87, still believing Christer Pettersson was the man who had murdered her husband.

On February 18, 2020, Krister Petersson, the Swedish chief prosecutor in charge of the investigation into the assassination of Prime Minister Olof Palme, announced a likely assassin had been identified and that further information will be provided at a later date.

Petersson, (different spelling and no relation to Christer Pettersson) also announced that if prosecutors are denied the opportunity to try the suspect, they will close the investigation into the murder of the Prime Minister.


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Further Reading:
Dagens Nyheter
Los Angeles Times
New York Times


Recommended Reading:

Blood on the Snow: The Killing of Olof Palme

More About Our Wonderful Guest Blogger:

Ian Granstra is a writer and a native Iowan now living in  Arkansas.Growing up, he enjoyed watching real-life crime shows and further researching the stories featured. He wrote about many of them on his personal Facebook page, and several people suggested he should start a group featuring his writings. Ian founded the Facebook group “Murders, Missing People and More Mysteries” in August of 2018 he writes about many cold cases. The group also features many current criminal cases in the news. When Ian isn’t writing, he enjoys exercising, traveling and collecting sports cards. He’s also a big animal lover (his Facebook nickname is “beagle lover.”)


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