crime

The Unbelievable Story of History's Most Incompetent Jewel Thieves

When Sweden's royal jewels went missing from Strängnäs Cathedral, nobody expected them to turn up in a wheelie bin graffitied with the word "BOMB".
November 5, 2020, 9:00am
stealing
Illustration: Lily Blakely

When the doors to Strängnäs Cathedral swung open on a late July morning in 2018, Ludvig Malmquist looked up to give his usual greeting. But this time, he hesitated. The man in front of him was dressed in a jumper and tracksuit bottoms, and a hood covered most of his face. This was odd: Sweden was in the midst of a heatwave at the time, and it was another scorching day outside.

Most people who enter the cathedral dawdle around in the entrance for a while before their eyes catch the light streaming in through the giant arched windows behind the altar. This man was different. He strode straight in, like he knew where he was going. It was strange, but Malmquist shrugged it off. He grew up in this sleepy town an hour west of Stockholm, and in the five summers he’d spent working at the cathedral the most interesting thing he’d experienced was meeting someone who worked at the Bulgarian embassy.

A few minutes later, the man in the strange outfit was back with someone else, and they were striding towards the exit as fast as is possible without running. One was carrying a black holdall on his shoulder. An elderly woman took the words out of Malmquist’s mouth. “Oh,” she said. “They might have been up to something.”

By the time they were out the door, the two men had broken into a sprint, dashing down some wooden steps and grabbing bikes that had been propped up against a small church outbuilding.

A few hundred metres away, Elin Lundgren, her two sisters and soon-to-be brother-in-law were eating lunch on the back porch of their parents’ home when they were startled by the sound of a bike crashing to the ground. The house looks out onto Lake Mälaren, and the man whose bike was dumped on the gravel was scampering towards the water. A second man then arrived on a bike and let it fall to the grass, before moving towards the lake with a sense of urgency.

At first, Lundgren thought someone might have fallen into the water. “I went a few steps forward to look if they needed more help, but I couldn’t see what they were doing,” she remembers. Then she heard the sound of something bashing carelessly against the wooden jetty, followed by an engine revving. The two men roared off in a speedboat, across the lake and into the distance. It was so out of the ordinary that Lundgren’s sister called the police to report what she had seen

The men had also aroused the suspicion of the cathedral’s Chief Verger, Stefan Eklund, who had been walking to midday mass when he saw them running towards their bikes. After hurrying back to the cathedral he was relieved to find staff acting as normal and visitors idly strolling around. But he’s a suspicious person by nature, so rushed down to the the lower sacristy at the far left of the cathedral.

When he got to the door he looked in and immediately pulled out his phone. This was the room where they kept the royal jewels. There was a large jagged hole smashed into the bottom left of the glass case where they were displayed, and a spider’s web of cracks covering most of the rest. Two crowns and an orb were no longer there. Eklund closed the door so no one else could get in the room, and called the police.

By the time the first officer had arrived, the royal jewels had long disappeared into the vast expanse of Lake Mälaren, which contains hundreds of islands and is surrounded by several large towns and the capital, Stockholm.

“I would say that this investigation – in the beginning, at least – was one of the police authority’s greatest,” says Lukas Sterner, one of the investigators later assigned to the case. Despite a helicopter and boats trying to track down the thieves, they were nowhere to be found.

When word got out about what had happened, the story made headlines all over the world. Royal jewels being stolen in broad daylight by thieves who escaped on a speedboat – this was no ordinary burglary, it was a heist of almost Hollywood proportions. However, even the most imaginative writer would have struggled to script the cock-ups and incompetence that led to the jewels eventually being found, and the thieves being put away.

sweden royal jewels stolen

The royal jewels on display in Strängnäs Cathedral in 2004. Photo: Roger Tillberg / Alamy Stock Photo

Speculation about what would happen to the stolen objects began almost immediately after the theft. Within 48 hours of the royal jewels going missing, they had been added to Interpol’s database of stolen works of art.

Sweden’s most famous criminologist is Leif GW Persson, a gruff, grizzled guy in his seventies who’s so well regarded, a popular wine uses his name and picture on one of their bottles. The day after the theft, he told a tabloid newspaper that he thought the way the heist was carried out sounded well planned. If they had driven away, it would have been easier to block the roads and catch the thieves, he said. He thought the items had been stolen to order.

The two crowns and orb taken were made for the funerals of Sweden’s King Charles IX, who died in 1611, and his wife Christina, who died in 1625. During this period, whenever a monarch died, specially-commissioned jewellery would be carried on the funeral procession and placed with the body.

The stolen crowns are made of gold and dotted with crystals, enamel and pearls. They are detailed and delicate and considered the most exquisite of all Swedish funeral regalia. They remained with the bodies of Charles and Christina for more than 200 years, before being put on permanent display in 1910. For insurance purposes, they were valued at 65 million crowns ($6.5 million).

One expert told me the jewels’ cultural value is equivalent to the British family’s crown jewels. They aren’t as famous, of course – many Swedes hadn’t heard of them before the burglary – but they were well enough known that the thieves would have struggled to sell them. It’s nearly impossible to find a buyer for famous stolen items, according to Luigi Mancuso, a specialist on cultural art theft at Europol’s European Serious Organised Crime Centre.

Well-known art and objects are rarely stolen, but when they are it’s typically for two reasons, Mancuso says. The first is to solicit a ransom for their safe return. The second, as the criminologist GW Persson suggested, is that they’re stolen to order by a peculiar type of rich collector, who wants an item for their personal archive.

The market for stolen items of cultural value is controlled by complex networks of professional criminals who are able to identify, steal and then traffic items. “They are not like mafia-type of organisations,” Mancuso explains. “They are more loose networks where individuals and groups join together on common criminal projects based on their different specific tasks. There are basically masterminds who are able to coordinate different people – thieves, mules, art dealers.”

While the heist might have sounded Hollywood in scale, it was obvious to police that it had not been carried out with the level of precision you’d see in a Steven Soderbergh blockbuster. For a start, the thieves had left behind the Queen’s orb and two sceptres that were secured in the display case by a thin piece of wire that could have been handled with just a small wire cutter.

Then there was the blood. Quite a lot of it. Visibly smeared on one of the sceptres. And on the jagged glass of the shattered case. And in drops on the floor. And on one of the bikes.

By the morning after the theft, the police were banging on the door of one Nicklas Bäckström, whose DNA matched blood found at the scene. The 22-year-old was already known to police and – unsurprisingly, for someone who’d bled all over the scene of a crime – no one answered the door when they came knocking. It would be another six weeks before Bäckström finally reappeared, walking into a police station half an hour from where he lived to hand himself in.

Despite his blood being found all over the crime scene, Bäckström still denied any involvement. By the time he was questioned, the case had been handed from the local police to a specialist unit within the national police (NOA) that deals with cultural and heritage crime.

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Lukas Sterner is one of the unit’s lead investigators. He typically spends his time investigating the illegal trade of wildlife, and is a long way from the stereotype of the dishevelled and highly strung detective of numerous TV dramas. He’s calm and seemingly unflappable, and when we met in the late summer of 2019 he was tanned, with his dark blonde hair swept back off his face.

The day of the theft was his first back at work after his summer holiday. He was drinking a cup of coffee in the break room when he heard what had happened. “It sounded like— I wouldn’t say a bad Hollywood action movie, but it sounded a bit sensational,” says Sterner. “At the same time, one of the guys left clear evidence in the form of blood, so I had my doubts about how professional they really were.”

Sterner and his team dropped everything else they were working on to try to find the jewels. While he couldn’t disclose all the details of what they did, Sterner said they dipped into their “tool box” of options to tap the phones of a dozen of Backström’s friends, to see if that provided any clues as to the jewels’ whereabouts.

However, by the time Backström’s case came to trial, in January of 2019 – five months after the theft – the jewels were still nowhere to be found.

During his testimony at the courthouse in Eskilstuna, a city a half hour’s drive from the cathedral, Backström gave his explanation of why his blood was on the bikes and the display cases. He denied being involved in the theft, saying he’d simply stolen a bike and a boat to give to someone else in Strängnäs, for a reason he was never told. He added that he’d just so happened to wander into the cathedral the day of the heist, and heard a loud bang. He saw two men walking away from the jewel room, when he spotted the broken display case, greed got the better of him and he decided to reach in to take one of the sceptres – but in doing so cut his hand, explaining all the blood. Finally, he said, he fled the church without telling anyone what he had seen, and drove home.

On the last day of the trial, the two prosecutors, Isabelle Bjursten and Reena Devgun, caught the early morning train from Stockholm to Eskilstuna to make their final arguments. They were tired, but happy it was soon to be over, and were in the middle of discussing that day’s proceedings when Bjursten got a call from Lukas Sterner.

“Hi. How are you?” the police investigator began. “I won’t be at the last day of the trial because my child is sick.

“And by the way, they found the jewels.”

As Bjursten recounts, “I was like ‘What? What? What!’”

She later found out that the jewels weren’t discovered in the hidden room of a private collector’s mansion, or being transported out of the country on a private plane. They were found in a snow-covered car park in Åkersberga, the Stockholm suburb where Backström is from. In the early hours of the morning, a security guard spotted an upturned rubbish bin on top of a blue car. The word “bomb” was spray-painted on its side.

The police were called, and when they looked inside they saw all three of the stolen objects. The king’s crown was bent and twisted; its pearls and crystals had fallen off, and some were missing. The orb was completely deformed: the two halves had come apart, and it was dented and scratched. Mercifully, the queen’s crown had only very minor damage.

Strängnäs Cathedral jewel robbery

The bin the jewels were found in. Photo: Police handout

One theory is that someone put the stolen objects there in the hope that their discovery might help Bäckström get a shorter sentence. However, it ended up sealing his fate: his DNA was discovered on the damaged items. He recanted his earlier plea, now saying that someone had given him the idea a week before and had offered him 50,000 to 60,000 Swedish Crowns (£4,300 to £5,200) to steal the jewels.

He was cagey about whether a buyer had been found for the items before the theft, and gave nothing away regarding who had put him up to it. He admitted to googling the items before the robbery, but other than that Bäckström said there had been no planning – despite a bin bag containing a sledgehammer being found in a bush next to the cathedral, which he said he’d left there in the days before, plus the stolen bicycles left nearby a few days before the crime and the clothes he wore to cover his neck tattoo.

Having been found guilty, Bäckström was sentenced to four-and-a-half years in prison. He refused to say who was with him in the cathedral, but the police didn’t need his help: after a second set of DNA was found on the recovered items, it was traced to Bäckström’s best friend, Martin Cannermo.

Cannermo, who was 26 at the time, had been investigated earlier on in the investigation, but no evidence was found of his involvement. Even after his DNA was found, he denied being involved in the theft: someone had given him the stolen goods and he wanted them to be found, he claimed, which is why he put them in a bin and wrote “bomb” on the side – as a way to guarantee they ended up in the police’s hands. His DNA was found on the items because he had used his work gloves, he explained, which he uses to wipe his face when he gets sweaty. And he didn’t just call the police and tell them where to find the jewels, because he didn’t want to run the risk of being tracked by the police.

Though the police may have found Cannermo’s DNA, they couldn’t initially put him at the scene of the crime. None of the witnesses had got a clear view of the two men, and the descriptions of them were pretty vague.

It was during a check of Cannermo’s bank account that the police were able to find a second piece of evidence linking him to the crime. In Sweden, there is a popular mobile payment app called Swish. On the day of the theft, Cannermo had made a Swish payment of 1,000 Crowns (£86), along with the message, “Thank you!”

The police thought they might have found another accomplice in the recipient of the Swish payment, but ruled him out after speaking to him.

The man – who is in his fifties, works in a respected job and didn’t want his name used in this story – was in his summer house by the lake on the day of the theft. He was drinking a coffee in the garden when he heard the sound of a boat engine revving over and over, and someone splashing in the water. He originally thought it might be people fishing, until he spotted them drifting into the reeds and shouted to ask if they needed help.

In the boat were two young men in their early twenties, shirtless, tanned and muscular, with tattoos. One had an injured hand wrapped in some kind of fabric. The man realised instantly that something on their boat must have broken, but they seemed clueless. They happily accepted his offer to tow them, and so for 45 minutes he used his dinky plastic vessel to pull their aluminium speedboat, unaware the royal jewels were laying on the floor in a sports bag. All the while, police were mobilising a helicopter and boats in a desperate race to track them down.

The man ended up handing the job over to a second good samaritan, who had been fishing in the lake and towed the pair to a house that Cannermo’s friends had been renting.

The duo thanked the first man and wrote down his phone number. He thought they seemed like typical men their age – decent, even – but wasn’t counting on them actually sending him any money, so it came as something as a surprise when his phone notified him that a Swish payment had been made.

Cannermo later claimed he’d sent the money on behalf of a friend, but that didn’t fly: it was the second piece of circumstantial evidence linking him to the crime. Bäckström spoke at Cannermo’s trial, denying his friend had played any part in the theft, but it didn’t make a difference: he was sentenced to three years in August of 2019 after losing an appeal.

Somewhat surprisingly, none of the witnesses, police or prosecutors had anything bad to say about either Bäckström or Cannermo. They didn’t seem like the kind of people you’d expect to do this type of thing, multiple interviewees told me. They seemed like typical Swedish guys of their age who had taken the wrong path. Bäckström seemed shy – nice, even. Both had been working in regular jobs: Cannermo was a carpenter and Bäckström had been helping a friend build jetties that summer.

However, police did say that both of the convicted men had been part of a group they had been tailing for years. Its members had only been convicted for minor offences, but they were suspected of many more thefts, robberies and smash-and-grabs. Most of them had strange double lives, said police, where they worked jobs during the day and committed crimes at night.

Cannermo had only just been released from prison when he was convicted for the royal jewel theft. He’d been inside for three months after being convicted of stealing cable used for fibre internet, worth a couple of million crowns (£174,000). Both he and Bäckström were considered to be peripheral members of the group they were said to be part of, according to a local police officer who knows them. He thought it very unlikely either man would be the mastermind behind any great plot.

Cannermo still denies being the second person in the cathedral, and he told his lawyer Tobias Enochson that he had no interest in speaking to me for this article. As for the accusation that he is part of some criminal organisation, Enochson said that when the police group people from the same area together, it makes them sound more organised than they really are. That being friends – or even just associates – with people who have committed crimes doesn't necessarily make them part of a gang.

Bäckström wrote back to me in English, politely turning down my offer to talk, but said his situation and the media attention – he was named in international coverage – had hit his family pretty hard. A friend of his told me that Bäckström was “ashamed” of what he had done, and that he was using his time in prison to study.

Strängnäs Cathedral jewel heist

Police tape at Strängnäs Cathedral. Photo: IBL/Shutterstock

After everything that went wrong, it’s no surprise that some of those close to the case write off the heist as two friends who had a bad idea and executed it like the amateurs they are.

Another possibility is that they did it out of sheer hubris, and realised afterwards that the jewels couldn’t be sold. As Luigi Mancuso from Europol explained, “Sometimes, [stolen] important works of art were recovered just because thieves were not able to sell them.” When a different set of Swedish royal funeral regalia were stolen from Västerås Cathedral in 2013, they were found dumped by the side of a road after a police tip-off.

Or maybe there was a buyer from the start, who had ordered the pair to steal the jewels. But if that was the case, the buyer would have been dissuaded by how damaged the jewels were – the most likely explanation for that damage being that the objects were hit with whatever the thieves used to smash the display case, given that the most damaged items were the ones directly behind the hole.

The two stolen crowns and orb were returned to the cathedral earlier this summer and placed in a new glass case. There are still no security guards watching over them, and no velvet rope. Like before, visitors can wander as close to them as they like. But even for someone looking closely, there are no marks, dings or scratches to indicate the jewels were ever damaged at all.

The case is now closed, but Lukas Sterner still doesn’t think we know the entire story.

“We got the stuff back, and we got two good convictions, so we are more than happy with the result,” he said. “But I wouldn’t say that the case is entirely solved. There are lots of guys that I know are involved, but we couldn’t find evidence.”

He said he approached Bäckström at his trial and asked him to contact him in ten years – the statute of limitations will have expired by then, meaning he can tell him why they really stole the jewels without fear of prosecution.

So far, Bäckström has said nothing. So, while the police might have found the men who stole the jewels, they’re unlikely to find out why for at least another decade – if ever at all.