Sex work never has been a safe job and as long as it remains criminalized, it never will be a safe job. Due to their often-transient lifestyle combined with the secrecy surrounding their work, they are quite often targets to sadistic predators. One such woman who fell victim to one such offender was 28-year-old Catrine da Costa.
Throughout the spring of 1984, Catrine worked as a sex worker on the streets of Stockholm. Catrine had fallen down on her luck and turned to sex work as a means to fund her drug addiction. Malmskillnadsgatan in Stockholm, Sweden, was the main street where sex workers gathered and it was Catrine’s haunt.
The last time Catrine was seen alive was on the 10th of June, 1984, when a client let her out of his car on Malmskillnadsgatan. After not hearing from her for a couple of days, Catrine’s mother reported her missing. Despite Catrine’s problems in life, she always remained close to her mother and it wasn’t like her to not keep in contact with her family. Her mother had every right to worry.
On the 18th of July, the first grim discovery was made.
Underneath an overpass in Solna, just north of Stockholm, a bin bag was found containing dismembered remains. These remains were identified as Catrine’s by her fingerprints. A couple of weeks later, another bin bag containing more remains was discovered less than a mile away. Catrine’s head, internal organs, one breast, and genitalia were never found. No cause of death could be determined. However, it was evident she had been murdered.1
The murder became known in Sweden as “styckmordet” (the cutting up murder) and it truly shocked the country. While it wasn’t uncommon for sex workers to be murdered, the mutilation of Catrine’s corpse stuck in the minds of the locals. In fact, the murder was the inspiration behind four books, several documentaries and numerous newspaper and academic articles in Sweden. The case was also an inspiration of the book, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.
Shortly after the discovery, Teet Harm, a local pathologist working at Karolinska Institute, was suspected of the murder and subsequently arrested. Harm had a keen interest in death by strangulation and wrote numerous papers on the topic. He was frequently called on by police to assist in murder cases and unexplainable deaths. In fact, in 1982, Harm’s wife was hanged in her bedroom. The verdict was suicide but police allegedly suspected that Harm had murdered her. At the time, she had been planning on divorcing Harm and it was noticed that in the wake of her death, Harm appeared calm and even cold. In the words of one colleague, he came across as “creepy.”
Harm was brought to authorities’ attention when his former father-in-law contacted police to divulge his suspicions about his daughter’s death as well as Catrine’s death. Harm was known to consume violent pornography and frequent sex workers. Police took his photograph to the red light district and almost 50 women said that they recognized him, one of whom said he had been violent with her and she was afraid of him.
Following Harm’s arrest, his home was searched and police discovered a knife and a leather sheath. His former supervisor, Jovan Rajs, performed Catrine’s autopsy and was adamant that whoever dismembered her, must have been someone who was skilled in dissecting humans. He became so convinced of Harm’s guilt that he told police: “I think if you do not establish his guilt, then you might as well all go and hang yourselves.”
However, not long after the arrest, Harm was released without charge.
Another suspect came to light the following year when the former-wife of Thomas Allgen, a general practitioner, told police that she believed Allgen had been molesting their daughter. Coincidentally, Allgen and Harm knew each other and had worked together at the same hospital in Stockholm between 1980 and 1981. While investigating the molestation, Allgen’s former-wife, Christina, told them that her daughter had started talking about witnessing a dismemberment. In fact, according to Christina, their daughter had said that Harm was with her father during the dismemberment. “Daddy cut off the breast… They took the head off and threw it away, then the lady was chopped up,” she recollected.2
Following the new revelation, both Harm and Allgen were ordered to stand trial. During the pretrial investigation, a married couple who owned a photograph shop told police that in summer of 1984, they developed and processed film roll that contained graphic photographs of a body cut into pieces. According to the couple, two men came to pick the photographs up and claimed that they were part of a secret investigation. The couple picked both Harm and Allgen out as the two men.
Both Harm and Allgen were subsequently both acquitted. However, following a public outcry, they were ordered to stand trial again. They were acquitted once again. However, the judge was swayed by Allgen’s daughter’s testimony and the proximity of Catrine’s body parts to the hospital. He relayed his belief that the two men were guilty of dismembering Catrine but not of her murder…
Due to the statute of limitations, neither man was convicted of any crime. They were both released free men.
After the verdict, District Attorney Staffan Bergman told local newspaper, Svenska Dagbladet, that Catrine theoretically could have fallen and dismembered herself and that the murder hypothesis was built on circumstantial evidence. “On the other hand, there is quite a bit that points to murder. I haven’t heard of anyone being dismembered after a natural death,” he added.3
In the wake of their acquittals, Kammarratt, Sweden’s main administrative court, withdrew Harm and Allgen’s licenses to practice medicine.
The murder of Catrine provoked the women of Sweden to rise up and protest against male brutality. In fact, the case led to a change in the law on prostitution. Men who pay for sex are now criminalised. Despite the uproar and popularity, the case garnered over the years, the murder of Catrine still remains unsolved.
Another suspect in the murder was a Polish butcher named Stanislaw Gonerka, who had been released from a psychiatric hospital just three months before Catrine was killed. He was sent to the psychiatric hospital after murdering a young woman in 1974. He had strangled her and dismembered her body and stuffing the remains into bin bags. Much like Catrine, his victim’s head was never discovered. Furthermore, Gonerka had no alibi and was known to frequent Stockholm sex workers and a number of them were terrified of him. He passed away in 1987.
Sadly, in 2009 the statute of limitations on the case ran out, meaning that nobody will ever be tried again for the murder of Catrine. It’s said that half of Sweden know exactly who killed Catrine and believes they got away with it. The other half, however, believes that the arrest and trial was the worst miscarriage of justice in history.
- The Daily Telegraph, 28 November, 2010 – “The Girl Who Really Kicked the Hornet’s Nest”
- Times, 31 May, 1988 – “Court Drama Exposes Puritanical Sweden”
- The Local, 11 July, 2009 – “Da Costa Murder Probe Officially Laid to Rest”