2 May 2012

Spy inquest ends with more questions than answers

The coroner in the inquest of Gareth Williams says we may never know how the MI6 codebreaker whose body was found in a locked holdall met his end.

The mysterious death of MI6 agent Gareth Williams may never be be “satisfactorily explained”, an inquest has concluded.

Coroner Dr Fiona Wilcox said “most of the fundamental questions in relation to how Gareth died remain unanswered” despite a multimillion-pound police investigation.

The 31-year-old’s decomposing naked body was discovered padlocked inside a large North Face bag in the bath in his flat in Pimlico, central London on August 23, 2010.

Mr Williams, from Anglesey, North Wales, was working for the foreign intelligence service MI6 as a codebreaker at the time of his death, after being seconded from the the GCHQ eavesdropping station.

Colleagues had failed to raise the alarm when he failed to turn up to work a week earlier.

Dr Wilcox said it remained a “legitimate line of inquiry” that the secret services were involved in Mr Williams’s death as she criticised “shortfalls” by MI6 in passing on evidence to police.

But she said “there was no evidence to support that he died at the hands of” spies.

The coroner said she was “satisfied so that I’m sure that a third party moved the bag containing Gareth into the bath” and said it was “highly unlikely” that Mr Williams got inside his red North Face holdall alone.

She added: “If Gareth had been carrying out some kind of peculiar experiment, he wouldn’t care if he left any foot or fingerprints.”

Dr Wilcox recorded a narrative verdict, saying the evidence did not prove “beyond all reasonable doubt” that the spy had been killed by a third party – the standard of proof necessary for a verdict of unlawful killing.

But she told the court: “I am satisfied on the balance of probabilities that Gareth was killed unlawfully.”

Family’s grief ‘exacerbated’ by MI6 failures

Mr Williams’s family said in a statement:”To lose a son and a brother at any time is a tragedy. To lose a son and brother in such circumstances as have been outlined during the course of this inquest only compounds the tragedy.

“Our grief is exacerbated by the failure of his employers at MI6 to take even the most basic inquiries as to his whereabouts and welfare, which any reasonable employer would have taken.

“We are also extremely disappointed at the reluctance and failure of MI6 to make available relevant information.

“We would like to ask Metropolitan Police Commissioner Bernard Hogan-Howe to look into and review how this investigation will proceed in light of the total inadequacies of the SO15 investigation into MI6 during the course of this inquiry.”

New evidence

Scotland Yard has vowed to pursue all new evidence which emerged over the past week and a half.

Jackie Sebire, the senior detective on the case, said fresh attention could be shone on the codebreaker’s colleagues at MI6 but a source close to the inquiry said officers are still “some way off a breakthrough”.

Police are yet to examine nine computer memory sticks that belonged to Mr Williams but were withheld from the investigation.

It was revealed that the spy had made a “small number” of unauthorised searches of intelligence databases – a breach of MI6 protocol that could have left him open to blackmail. A senior manager in the spy service said this was a possibility but thought the risk was low.

How did Gareth Williams die?

Detectives said from the outset that they believed someone else was involved in Mr Williams’ death, and expert witness Peter Faulding said escapologist Harry Houdini would have found it impossible to squeeze himself into the North Face holdall and padlock himself in.

Bag expert

Mr Faulding tried and failed to carry out the task more than 300 times and William MacKay made more than 100 failed attempts with a yoga-practising assistant.

No DNA or fingerprints were found at the scene but forensic experts said it was entirely possible that someone could break in and kill Mr Williams without leaving any evidence.

Because of the decomposition of the body, any forensic evidence that could have been derived from it has disappeared, so the police investigation has in essence been almost defeated. Anthony O’Toole

Poisoning and asphyxiation are the “foremost contenders” in causing his death, pathologists said.

There were no signs of a struggle on the body, but the fact that Mr Williams was dead for up to 10 days before his post-mortem examination meant many poisons and/or bruise marks could have disappeared from his system during decomposition.

The family’s lawyer Anthony O’Toole said: “Because of the decomposition of the body, any forensic evidence that could have been derived from it has disappeared, so the police investigation has in essence been almost defeated.”

Questions for MI6

At the end of the inquest, MI6 chief Sir John Sawers apologised “unreservedly” to Mr Williams’s family over the way the police inquiry was hampered by his colleagues failing to realise he was missing.

A week elapsed before MI6 raised the alarm over the spy’s disappearance, despite his punctual habits, with colleagues variously saying they assumed he had missed a train, was packing his bags or working on coursework.

An MI6 boss named only as SIS F admitted Mr Williams’s no-show should have been flagged two to four hours after being noted.

Gareth Williams

She said: “We are profoundly sorry about what happened. It shouldn’t have happened and we recognise that the delay in finding Gareth’s body has made it even harder for the family to come to terms with his dreadful death and we are truly sorry for that. I also appreciate the delay had some impact on the police investigation.”

As the inquest neared its end, the secret intelligence service was accused of failing to disclose vital evidence.

The nine computer memory sticks and a black bag were overlooked for 21 months after the death, with the lead detective on the case told of them only this week.

The North Face bag – similar to the one in which the agent was found dead – was discovered by officers under his desk at MI6’s London HQ.

MI6 also examined computer equipment belonging to Mr Williams without telling police.

And Detective Constable Colin Hall of the Met’s counter-terror SO15 branch said his search of the agent’s Vauxhall headquarters was called off shortly after the death was discovered.

Mr O’Toole was blocked on several occasions from asking detectives and MI6 about the use of an apparently unvetted estate agent to let Mr Williams’s flat in Pimlico, which relatives say could have compromised the safety of the property.

A spokesperson for MI6 said in a statement: “we gave all the evidence to the police when they wanted it; at no time did we withhold any evidence”.

More than 10 employees linked to GCHQ and MI6 were allowed to give evidence behind a screen to protect their identities.

A forensic blunder saw detectives spend 18 months investigating a DNA sample found on the spy’s hand before discovering it came from a forensic scientist involved in the case.

Why were details of private life leaked?

Mr Williams who got a first in Maths at just 17, produced “world-class” codebreaking intelligence for MI6 and GCHQ, where he won two awards.

In the months before his death he passed an exam to become fully operational with MI6. His examiner said in a report: “I was particularly impressed with Gareth. This was definitely the most intense operational course that I have seen and the improvement needed was immense.”

But the dead man’s sister Ceri Subbe told the court her brother had become disillusioned with the “office culture, post-work drinks, flash car competitions and the rat race”, and had planned to quit his job.

The inquest revealed intimate details of the codebreaker’s unusual personal life.

The court heard that Mr Williams visited bondage websites, was fascinated by drag queen culture and stashed women’s wigs, make-up and £20,000 of designer women’s clothing and shoes in his flat.

Internet searches by Mr Williams and a video taken on his Apple iPhone suggested he wore the shoes.

He once tied himself to his bed and had to be cut free by his landlord and landlady in his rented flat in Cheltenham, the inquest heard.

But the coroner appeared to rule out the possibility that Mr Williams died as a result of some kind of “auto-erotic activity” and said there was no evidence to suggest the spy was a transvestite “or interested in any such thing”, she said.

“Gareth was naked in a bag when he was found, not cross-dressed, not in high-heeled shoes,” she added.

Referring to claims that he was interested in bondage, the coroner said: “I would have expected much more internet activity to have been recovered.”

The coroner ruled out Mr Williams’s interest in bondage and drag queens in having any bearing on his death as she questioned leaks about his private life to the media, saying: “I wonder if this was an attempt by some third party to manipulate the evidence.”