Despite Olof Palme's position as Prime Minister, he sought to live as ordinary a life as possible. He would often go out without any bodyguard protection and the night of his murder was one such occasion. Walking home from the Grand Cinema with his wife Lisbet Palme on the central Stockholm street Sveavägen, close to midnight on 28 February 1986, the couple were attacked by a lone gunman. Palme was fatally shot in the back at close range at 23:21 CET. A second shot wounded Mrs Palme.
Police said that a taxi driver used his mobile radio to raise the alarm. Two girls sitting in a car close to the scene of the shooting tried to help the prime minister. He was rushed to a hospital but was pronounced dead on arrival at 00:06 CET on 1 March 1986.
The attacker escaped eastwards on the Tunnelgatan and disappeared.
Deputy Prime Minister Ingvar Carlsson immediately assumed the duties of Prime Minister and as new leader of the Social Democratic Party.
Palme's decision to visit the Grand Cinema was made at very short notice. Lisbet Palme had discussed seeing a film when she was at work during the afternoon, and called her son, Mårten Palme, at 17:00 to talk about the film at the Grand Cinema. Olof Palme did not hear about the plans until at home, at 18:30, when he met with his wife, by which time Palme had already declined any further personal bodyguard protection from the security service. He talked to his son about the plans on the phone, and they eventually decided to join Mårten and his girlfriend, who had already purchased tickets for themselves to see the Swedish comedy Bröderna Mozart ("The Mozart Brothers") by Suzanne Osten. This decision was made about 20:00. The police later searched Palme's apartment, as well as Lisbet's and Mårten's work places, for wire-bugging devices or traces of such equipment, but did not find any.
At 20:30 the Palmes left their apartment, unescorted, heading for the Gamla stan metro station. Several people witnessed their short walk to the station and, according to the later police investigation, commented on the lack of bodyguards. The couple took the subway train to the Rådmansgatan station, from where they walked to the Grand Cinema. They met their son and his girlfriend just outside the cinema around 21:00. Olof Palme had not yet purchased tickets which were by then almost sold out. Recognizing the prime minister, the ticket clerk wanted him to have the best seats, and therefore sold Palme the theatre director's seats.
After the screening, the two couples stayed outside the theatre for a while but separated about 23:15. Olof and Lisbet Palme headed south on the west side of Sveavägen, towards the northern entrance of the Hötorget metro station. When they reached the Adolf Fredrik Church, they crossed Sveavägen and continued on the street's east side. They stopped a moment to look at something in a shop window, continued past the Dekorima shop which was then located on the corner of Sveavägen and Tunnelgatan, and headed for the metro station entrance on the other side of Tunnelgatan. At 23:21, halfway across the street and only a few metres from the station entrance, a man appeared from behind, shot Mr. Palme at point-blank range and fired a second shot at Mrs. Palme. The perpetrator then jogged down Tunnelgatan street, up the steps to Malmskillnadsgatan and continued down David Bagares gata [street], where he was last seen.
Thanks to time stamps on records for radio and telecommunication, many events have been determined with a very high precision.23:21:30 — The Palme couple is shot.
23:22:20 — The 90000 SOS emergency line receives a phone call. An eyewitness says there is 'murder on Sveavägen', and is immediately redirected to the police. However the phone call is not redirected properly and the caller is not put through to the police.
23:23:40 — A Järfälla Taxi switchboard operator calls directly to the police dispatch centre on behalf of one of its drivers on the scene. He cannot, however, give any more details than that someone has been shot at the corner Sveavägen/Tunnelgatan.
23:24:00 (ca) — The first police patrol arrives at the scene. Stationed on Kungsgatan, a few hundred feet from the scene, the patrol is alerted by a second taxi driver who heard the emergency call via the taxi radio.
23:24:40 — The police dispatch centre is contacted by the SOS alarm central concerning the shooting on Sveavägen. The dispatch centre operator denies knowledge about any such events.
23:24:00–23:25:30 (ca) — A second police patrol, a patrol wagon, arrives at the crime scene. The patrol was stationed at Malmskillnadsgatan at the time of murder, not far from the perpetrator's escape route. It is ordered by the commanding officer at the scene, Superintendent Gösta Söderström, to immediately take up the hunt for the perpetrator.
23:25:00 (ca) — A passing ambulance is stopped at the scene and gives immediate assistance to the victims.
23:26:00 — The police dispatch centre calls the SOS emergency centre to assure them they are informed about the events on the Sveavägen/Tunnelgatan intersection.
A third police patrol wagon arrives at the scene; the patrol was refuelling at a gas station when they were called out to the scene.
A second ambulance arrives at the scene to assist colleagues from the first ambulance.
23:28:00 — The first ambulance leaves the scene, rushing for the Sabbatsberg Hospital with prime minister Olof Palme and his wife. Mrs Palme, not being severely wounded, refuses to leave her husband.
23:30:00 — Superintendent Söderström contacts the police dispatch centre to inform them that it is the prime minister who has been shot.
23:31:40 — The SOS central is informed that the ambulance has arrived at the hospital.
00:06:00 — Prime Minister Olof Palme is pronounced dead at the Sabbatsberg hospital.
00:45:00 — Deputy Prime Minister Ingvar Carlsson arrives at Rosenbad.
01:10:00 — First radio broadcast about the murder.
04:00:00 — First television broadcast about the events.
05:15:00 — The government holds a press conference.
The only forensic leads left by the assassin were the two bullets fired, identified as Winchester-Western .357 Magnum 158 grain metal piercing. Both bullets matched the lead fragments found in the clothing of Olof and Lisbet Palme. Because the weapon was a revolver (which does not automatically eject cartridge cases) there were no cases to recover for ballistic examination - only the two bullets recovered from the street. From the bullets' lack of certain characteristic deformations, investigators concluded they had been fired from a barrel no shorter than four inches; thus the murder weapon would have been a conspicuously large handgun. The singularly most used weapon for this type of ammunition is the Smith & Wesson .357, which is why great efforts have been made to locate a weapon of this make.
Throughout the investigation, Swedish police have test-fired approximately 500 Magnum revolvers. The investigation has placed particular emphasis on tracking down ten Magnum revolvers reported stolen at the time of the murder. Out of these all have been located except the Sucksdorff revolver, a weapon stolen from the Stockholm home of Swedish filmmaker Arne Sucksdorff in 1977. The person who stole the weapon was a friend of drug dealer Sigvard "Sigge" Cedergren, who claimed on his deathbed that he had lent a gun of the same type to Christer Pettersson two months prior to the assassination.
Another weapon that has figured prominently in the investigation is the so-called Mockfjärd gun. This weapon, a revolver of the type Smith & Wesson Model 28 ("Highway Patrolman") with .357 Magnum caliber, was first purchased legally by a civilian in the northern Swedish city of Luleå. The gun, along with 91 metal-piercing bullets, was stolen in a burglary in Haparanda in 1983 and is believed to have been used in the robbery of a post office in Mockfjärd, Dalarna that same year. A lead isotope analysis of a bullet fired during the robbery confirmed it to have the same isotopic composition as the bullets retrieved from the assassination crime scene, verifying that the bullets were manufactured at the same time. In the autumn of 2006, Swedish police acting on a tip communicated to the Expressen newspaper retrieved a Smith & Wesson .357 revolver from a lake in Dalarna. The gun was determined to be the same one used in the post office robbery in Mockfjärd, confirmed by the gun's serial number. The gun was transferred to the National Laboratory of Forensic Science in Linköping for further analysis. However, the laboratory concluded in May 2007 that tests on the gun could not confirm whether it was used in the Palme assassination, as it was too rusty.
There were several witnesses to the murder, of whom more than 25 have come forward to the police. The killer was described by witnesses as a man between 30 and 50 years of age, about 180 to 185 centimetres tall, and wearing a dark jacket or coat. Many described him as having walked with a limp or otherwise clumsily. No witness was in a position to observe the killer's appearance in any detail. A police sketch of the supposed killer was widely circulated in the media a week after the murder, leading to a massive influx of tips from the public, but it was later determined that the witness on whose statement it was based probably had not seen the actual assailant. No good description of the killer's appearance therefore exists. Witnesses agreed on the killer's escape route.
Palme's assassination remains unsolved, with a number of alternative theories surrounding the murder. At the time, a murder under Swedish law was subject to prescription in 25 years. The law was later changed to prevent the Palme case from expiring, and thus the police investigation remains active.
In January 2011 the German magazine Focus cited official German interrogation records in connection with another investigation from 2008 as showing that the assassination had been carried out by an operative of the Yugoslavian security service.
A Swedish extremist, Victor Gunnarsson (labeled in the media 33-åringen, "the 33-year-old"), was soon arrested for the murder but quickly released, after a dispute between the police and prosecuting attorneys. Gunnarsson had connections to various extremist groups, among these the European Workers Party, the Swedish branch of the LaRouche Movement. Pamphlets hostile to Palme from the party were found in his home outside Stockholm.
In December 1988, almost three years after Palme's death, Christer Pettersson, a criminal, drug user and alcoholic, who had previously been imprisoned for manslaughter, was arrested for the murder of Palme. Picked out by Mrs Palme at a lineup as the killer, Pettersson was tried and convicted of the murder, but was later acquitted on appeal to the court of appeal. Pettersson's appeal succeeded for three main reasons:Failure of the prosecution to produce the murder weapon;
Lack of a clear motive for the killing;
Doubts about the reliability of Mrs Palme's testimony and "extremely gross errors" by the police in arranging the lineup.
Additional evidence against Pettersson surfaced in the late 1990s, mostly coming from various petty criminals who altered their stories but also from a confession made by Pettersson. The chief prosecutor, Agneta Blidberg, considered re-opening the case. But she acknowledged that a confession alone would not be sufficient, saying:
He must say something about the weapon because the appeals court set that condition in its ruling. That is the only technical evidence that could be cited as a reason to re-open the case.
While the legal case against Pettersson therefore remains closed, the police file on the investigation cannot be closed until both murder weapon and murderer are found. Christer Pettersson died on September 29, 2004, after suffering a cerebral haemorrhage caused by a fall during an epileptic seizure.
According to a documentary programme broadcast on the Swedish television channel SVT in February 2006,, associates of Pettersson claimed that he had confessed to them his role in the murder, but with the explanation that it was a case of mistaken identity. Allegedly, Pettersson had intended to kill Sigvard Cedergren, a drug dealer who customarily walked along the same street at night and resembled Palme both in appearance and dress. The programme also suggested there was greater police awareness than previously acknowledged because of surveillance of drug activity in the area. The police had several officers in apartments and cars along those few blocks of Sveavägen but, 45 minutes before the murder, the police monitoring ceased. In the light of these revelations, Swedish police undertook to review Palme's case and Pettersson's role. Writing in the newspaper Dagens Nyheter of 28 February 2006 other SVT reporters scathingly criticized the documentary, alleging that the film-maker had fabricated a number of statements while omitting other contradictory evidence, in particular his chief source's earlier testimony that could not be reconciled with his claim to have seen the shooting.
On 21 February 1986 — a week before he was murdered — Palme made the keynote address to the Swedish People's Parliament Against Apartheid held in Stockholm, attended by hundreds of anti-apartheid sympathizers as well as leaders and officials from the ANC and the Anti-Apartheid Movement such as Oliver Tambo. In the address, Palme said, "Apartheid cannot be reformed, it has to be eliminated."
Ten years later, towards the end of September 1996, Colonel Eugene de Kock, a former South African police officer, gave evidence to the Supreme Court in Pretoria, alleging that Palme had been shot and killed in 1986 because he "strongly opposed the apartheid regime and Sweden made substantial contributions to the ANC". De Kock went on to claim he knew the person responsible for Palme's murder. He alleged it was Craig Williamson, a former police colleague and a South African spy. A few days later, Brigadier Johannes Coetzee, who used to be Williamson's boss, identified Anthony White, a former Rhodesian Selous Scout with links to the South African security services, as Palme's actual murderer. Then a third person, Swedish mercenary Bertil Wedin, living in Northern Cyprus since 1985, was named as the killer by Peter Caselton, a member of Coetzee's assassination squad known as Operation Longreach. The following month, in October 1996, Swedish police investigators visited South Africa, but were unable to uncover evidence to substantiate de Kock's claims.
A book that was published in 2007 suggested that a high-ranking Civil Cooperation Bureau operative, Athol Visser (or 'Ivan the Terrible'), was responsible for planning and carrying out Olof Palme's assassination.
The 8 September 2010 edition of Efterlyst, Sweden's equivalent of BBC TV's Crimewatch programme, was co-hosted by Tommy Lindström, who was the head of Swedish CID at the time of Olof Palme's assassination. After being asked by Efterlyst's host Hasse Aro who he believed was behind the assassination of the Prime Minister, Lindström without hesitating pointed to apartheid South Africa as the number one suspect. And the motive for this, he said, was to stop the payments (financed by the Soviet Union) that the Swedish government secretly paid, through Switzerland, to the African National Congress.
In his 2005 book Blood on the Snow: The Killing of Olof Palme historian Jan Bondeson advanced a theory that Palme's murder was linked with arms trades to India. Bondeson's book meticulously recreated the assassination and its aftermath, and suggested that Palme had used his friendship with Rajiv Gandhi to secure a SEK 8.4 billion deal for the Swedish armaments company Bofors to supply the Indian Army with howitzers. However, Palme did not know that behind his back Bofors had used a shady company called AE Services — nominally based in Guildford, Surrey, England — to bribe Indian government officials to conclude the deal - the Bofors scandal.
Bondeson alleged that on the morning he was assassinated, Palme had met with the Iraqi ambassador to Sweden, Muhammad Saeed al-Sahhaf. The two discussed Bofors, which al-Sahhaf knew well because of its arms sales during the Iran–Iraq War. Bondeson suggested that the ambassador had told Palme about Bofors' activities, infuriating Palme. Bondeson theorized that Palme's murder might have been inadvertently triggered by his conversation with the ambassador, if either the Bofors arms dealers or the middlemen working through AE Services had a prearranged plan to silence the Prime Minister should he discover the truth and the deal with India become threatened. According to Bondeson, Swedish police suppressed vital MI6 intelligence about a Bofors/AE Services deal with India.
The Swedish journalist Anders Leopold, in his 2008 book Det svenska trädet skall fällas ("The Swedish Tree Shall Be Brought Down"), makes the case that the Chilean fascist Roberto Thieme killed Olof Palme. Thieme was head of the most militant wing of Patria y Libertad, a far-right political organization, financed by the US CIA. According to Leopold, Palme was killed because he had liberally given asylum to so many leftist Chileans following the coup that overthrew Salvador Allende in 1973.
In an article in the German weekly Die Zeit from March 1995, Klaus-Dieter Knapp presented his view of the assassination as a result of a conspiracy among Swedish right-wing extremist police officers. According to this report, the murderer was identified by two witnesses who happened to be at the scene and who knew the murderer from previous encounters.
Hans Holmér, the Stockholm police commissioner, followed up an intelligence lead passed to him (supposedly by Bertil Wedin) and arrested a number of Kurds living in Sweden, after allegations that one of their organizations, the PKK, was responsible for the murder. The lead proved inconclusive however and ultimately led to Holmér's removal from the Palme murder investigation. Fifteen years later, in April 2001, a team of Swedish police officers went to interview PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan in a Turkish prison about Turkish allegations that a dissident Kurdish group, led by Öcalan's ex-wife, murdered Palme. The police team's visit proved futile.
In 2007, renewed allegations of PKK complicity in Palme's assassination surfaced in Turkish media during the Ergenekon investigation, which was ongoing as of October 2008.
The Turkish newspapers have several times claimed that the PKK has admitted the murder but the PKK have always denied all claims. In 1998, the PKK said that there is a strong indication that the Turkish side is trying to discredit the PKK using Olof Palme's murder. Also many Kurdish organizations believe that the initial claims were propaganda of the Turkish government.
Another plot sees the involvement of the CIA and the Italian masonic lodge Propaganda Due led by Licio Gelli who wrote, in a telegram to Philip Guarino, that "the Swedish tree will be felled".
John Ausonius, "the Laser Man", also known as John Stannerman, was initially one of the suspects but it turned out that Ausonius had a solid alibi, as he was imprisoned on the night Palme was shot.
Trowbridge H Ford, a former US army intelligence agent now living in Stockholm, among other bloggers, theorizes that Palme, as the UN mediator seeking an end to the Iran-Iraq war, was assassinated because he fell afoul of Iran-Contra.The cost of the investigation stands at SEK 350 million, €38 million or US$45 million as of 25 February 2006.
The total number of pages accumulated during the investigation is around 700,000. According to criminologist Leif G. W. Persson, the investigation is "the largest in global police history".
The reward for solving the murder is SEK 50 million (approximately €5 million or US$7 million.)
In the 1998 Swedish fictional thriller film The Last Contract (Sista kontraktet), Palme's assassination was portrayed as having been planned by a hired assassin.