Telegraph : Gareth Williams verdict: the case reviewed

Wednesday, May 02, 2012

Gareth Williams verdict: the case reviewed

It could have been straight out of a crime novel: the secretive world of spies, a bizarre unexplained death, a police puzzle and wild goose chases and a hidden life of womens’ clothing and bondage websites. But for the death of MI6 codebreaker Gareth Williams, it was very much a case of fact being stranger than fiction.

By Tom Whitehead, Security Editor | May 2, 2012

From the moment his naked, decomposing body was discovered in a padlocked sports bag in a bath in August 2010 the mysterious death grabbed the public attention and fuelled an army of conspiracy theories.

Over eight extraordinary days at Westminster Coroners’ Court, involving more than 40 witnesses including anonymous spies speaking from behind a screen, an incredible story emerged, albeit one that asks more questions than it answers.

Coroner Dr Fiona Wilcox vowed to carry out a “full, fair and fearless” inquiry to determine how Gareth came to die and whether sinister forces had a hand.

What followed was an unending series of twists and turns and unprecedented scenes of men trying to lock themselves in to hold alls, potential evidence emerging 20 months after his death and accusations of cosy relationships between senior police officers and MI6.

And at the heart of it was a family devastated by grief, stunned by a secret life they never knew, determined for answers and traumatised by an apparent disregard for their son’s wellbeing.

The death

The body of Mr Williams was discovered naked, in a foetal position in a padlocked North Face hold all measuring just 81cm by 48cm.

It was found in the bath of the Pimlico flat in London where he lived alone while on secondment to MI6 from GCHQ on August 23, 2010.

When found it had been sitting there for a week and was badly decomposed.

Because of the sensitive nature of his job a convoluted police investigation began.

Detective Chief Inspector Jackie Sebire led the Met team investigating the death. But because neither she nor her officers were suitably cleared for national security data, officers from the Met’s counter terrorism unit acted a conduit between her and MI6.

His last known activity was browsing a cycling website in the early hours of Monday August 16.

The secret life

A hidden life of Mr Williams also emerged during the painstaking investigation.

He had a penchant for buying expensive womens’ clothing, had visited bondage websites, tied himself to his bed and was recorded on his phone prancing naked but for a pair of leather boots in front.


The first riddle was how Mr Williams could have been missing for a week at one of the country’s most sensitive organisations without anyone raising the alarm.

The codebreaker was known for his meticulous time keeping and professionalism and should have been back at work from a foreign trip on Monday August 16.

He did not show up all that week and missed two pre-arranged meetings with other intelligence officers.

Despite working in a small office with just three others, no one thought it strange.

His line manager, known only as witness G, thought he must have forgotten he was on a course or something similar and made only the most cursory attempts to contact him by phone.

There were also suggestions of confusion over who was responsible for his whereabouts as he was due to return to GCHQ, having cut short his secondment, the week after he was found.

He was not officially classed as missing until Monday August 23 and even then it took another four hours before the police were notified and his body discovered.

Alive or dead

Central to the case was whether he could get in to the bag himself and, if not, whether he was alive or dead when placed in it.

Two experts in confined space rescue or “unusual occurrences” tried and failed more than 400 times to climb in to a bag unaided and lock it.

Videos of their attempts were shown to the hearing.

One concluded even Harry Houdini would struggle and that Mr Williams was “dead or unconscious” when he went in to the bag.

Pathologists would later estimate that “poisoning or asphyxiation” were the most likely causes of death and that he would have been overcome by carbon dioxide within three minutes of being placed in there.

But because the body was so badly decomposed several poisons, including cyanide and chloroform, could not even be tested for.

The third party

The police investigation had its own problems.

No usable DNA was recovered from the flat and police spent more than 18 months chasing one encouraging sample before discovering it belonged to one of the forensic officers who attended the scene. An error in recording it for checking had sent police on a wild goose chase.

However, DCI Sebire is convinced a third party was involved and that the death is “suspicious”.

Weak traces of DNA of at least two other people were found on the bag but they may never be sufficient for a match.

The “Old Boys” club

The issue of how much help DCI Sebire received from MI6 and the counter terror officers acting as the link was also a constant focus.

Anthony O’Toole, the family lawyer, raised concerns over what assurances were taken that none of Mr Williams’ work equipment and belongings were “interfered” with before being handed to police.

He was concerned that counter terror officers simply accepted what the intelligence services told them because they were acting almost under an “Old Boys Act”.

In dramatic events on Tuesday, Dr Wilcox accused Det Supt Michael Broster, who headed up the counter terror team, of not being “completely impartial”.

It emerged nine memory sticks possibly belonging to Mr Williams and a sports bag similar to one he was found in were discovered at MI6 but never passed to the investigating team.

Det Supt Broster insisted he was impartial throughout.

The family trauma

For Mr Williams’ parents Ian and Ellen and sister Ceri Subbe, the hearing has been a daily ordeal.

On several occasions relatives were overcome with emotion, especially as they heard of the apparent disregard and apathy his colleagues had in noticing he was missing.

MI6 said it was “profoundly sorry” for the failures.

The shock of learning of Mr Williams alternative lifestyle will also have taken its toll but they acted with dignity throughout.

Their lawyer Mr O’Toole has suggested those specialized in the “dark arts” were involved in the death and that all the family want are answers.


DCI Sebire has insisted the investigation will continue until answers are found.

Results are expected within weeks as to whether a DNA sample has been recovered from a towel found in the kitchen.

And a full review of the case will be carried out in light of all the evidence that has emerged during the inquest.

No evidence that his death was linked to his work or his private life has been unearthed and the inquest has failed to answer many key questions.

For the police and the family the quest goes on but unlike the crime novels, this mystery may never be solved.