The Australian : More questions than answers after the inquest into MI6 spy Gareth Williams' death

Thursday, May 03, 2012

More questions than answers after the inquest into MI6 spy Gareth Williams' death

Fay Schlesinger and Fiona Hamilton | From: The Times | May 3, 2012

THE death of the MI6 spy Gareth Williams is likely to have been "criminally mediated" by another person who locked him a sports holdall and placed it in a bath, a coroner has ruled.

The ruling came as MI6 and the police were accused by the coroner, Fiona Wilcox, of serious failings in the investigation.

The chief of the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS), Sir John Sawers, apologised for adding to the "anguish and suffering" of the code-breaker's family, after his managers did not report him missing for more than a week, potentially allowing evidence to be lost.

Scotland Yard began a review of the 21-month inquiry last night, after the coroner and family levelled criticism at the relationship between the police counter-terrorism command, SO15, and the secret services.

The coroner found that Mr Williams died in the early hours of August 16, 2010, at the MI6-owned flat in Pimlico, Central London, where he lived.

He was probably alive when he entered the bag but succumbed either to poison or suffocation inside the holdall, Dr Fiona Wilcox said after a seven-day inquest.

She said: "I am satisfied ... that a third party placed the bag into the bath and on the balance of probabilities locked the bag.

"The cause of death was unnatural and likely to have been criminally mediated. I am therefore satisfied on the balance of probabilities that Gareth was killed unlawfully."

The inquest had focused on whether Mr Williams would have been able to lock himself inside the 81cm by 48cm bag.

After seeing footage of confinement experts trying to manoeuvre their bodies inside, Dr Wilcox said the the absence of foot and finger prints on the bath and tiles made her certain someone else put the bag in the bath.

The toggles were arranged with peculiar neatness, while someone may have tried to speed up the body's decomposition by turning on the heating despite the warm August weather, and disguised the smell using the bag itself, a screen across the bath and the closed ensuite bathroom door.

There was no evidence pointing to a culprit, and it was unlikely the death would ever be satisfactorily explained, the coroner said, though police said that they were following new leads that had emerged during the inquest.

During a two-hour narrative verdict, Dr Wilcox debunked a string of theories, many of which had some basis in evidence but had been embellished through lurid speculation in the media. There was no evidence that Mr Williams was a transvestite; the $A30,000 of unworn women's clothes in his wardrobe reflected an interest in high fashion, the coroner said. Some may have been gifts for his sister and friends.

Visits to bondage websites represented a tiny proportion of his online browsing and could not be seen as indicative of an active interest or having any link to his death, the Coroner said.

Dr Wilcox said it remained a "legitimate line of inquiry" that the secret services were involved in Mr Williams's death, because he socialised with very few people and would only allow those he knew to enter his flat. But she said "there was no evidence to support that he died at the hands of" spies.

Evidence of Mr Williams's death being linked to his work were also rejected by the coroner, as he was considered a "low-risk" employee. He was on a three-year secondment to MI6 from the Government's listening post in Cheltenham, GCHQ. He had not enjoyed the "rat race" in London, but was buoyant about a return to Cheltenham scheduled for a week after his death.

The coroner ruled out suicide and said: "I find that if he had got into the bag and locked himself in, he would have taken a knife in with him. He was a risk assessor." Speaking of the lack of prints in the bath, she added: "In relation to the prints found within the bathroom, in my view what was more significant was what was not found."

She said that "many agencies fell short", including the LGC Forensics, a contractor that chased a false lead for months after an administrative error. The Met's SO15 officers failed to take formal statements from Mr Williams's colleagues, some of whom later showed a remarkably poor memory of events. The coroner cast aspersions on evidence from Detective Superintendent Michael Broster, who acted as a conduit between MI6 and the Met, after hearing that he seized an iPhone from Mr Williams's office containing a video of him naked but for a pair of boots, and kept it until the next day.

Dr Wilcox said: "I find this is either not what occurred - in which case how did he acquire this phone? - or it demonstrates disregard for the rules governing continuity of evidence."

Mr Broster had also faced censure for allowing MI6 to analyse and assess the relevance of evidence, including nine memory sticks whose existence was only revealed to the investigation's senior officer this week.

On MI6's failure to report the code-breaker's absence from work for a week, Dr Wilcox said she could "only speculate as to what effect this had" on the investigation. She said that evidence given anonymously by Mr Williams's MI6 line manager, Witness G, had "stretched bounds of credibility". Referring to the manager's recollection of attempting to contact Mr Williams on the day after the "punctual" worker failed to arrive at the office, the coroner said "there was no phone call".

Speaking through their solicitor, Mr Williams's family called on the Sir Bernard Hogan-Howe, Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, to review the investigation. They said they were "extremely disappointed" at the secret services' "reluctance and failure" to make relevant information available. They also attacked the "total inadequacies" of the inquiry by SO15 into MI6.

The SIS said that Sir John Sawers "recognises that the Service's failure to act more swiftly when Mr Williams was first became absent has contributed to the anguish of his family. Gareth Williams was a man of remarkable talents which he devoted to public service. The work that Gareth undertook during his career ... made a real contribution to the security of this country."

An MI6 spokesman said: "We fully co-operated with the police and will continue to do so during the ongoing investigation. We gave all the evidence to the police when they wanted it; at no time did we withhold any evidence."

Martin Hewitt, Deputy Assistant Commissioner of the Met, said that investigations into Mr Williams's death were continuing.