West End Extra : Coroner records 'unnatural death' verdict, but will we ever know what really happened to the spy found in a holdall?

Friday, May 04, 2012

Coroner records 'unnatural death' verdict, but will we ever know what really happened to the spy found in a holdall?

by JOSH LOEB | May 4, 2012

THE building that hosted the inquest into the death of Gareth Williams is located just steps from Sherlock Holmes’s fictional home in Baker Street.

But perhaps even someone of the calibre of Arthur Conan Doyle’s legendary detective might lack the ability to unravel what has already become known as “The Alderney Street Mystery”.

An inquest, held inside the annexe of the creaking Marylebone Council House building in Marylebone Road, concluded this week after seven days of evidence and a blizzard of media coverage.

It has almost certainly been the most complex Westminster coroner Dr Fiona Wilcox has heard since taking up the post a year ago, and it is hard to imagine a more haunting case.

Mr Williams, 31, a prodigious agent for MI6, was found dead inside a padlocked holdall in a bath in an en suite bathroom at his Pimlico flat on August 23, 2010.

He was naked and was lying on his back curled up in a partial foetal position.

There were no signs of a break-in or struggle at the property.

The flat was eerily tidy and neither Mr Williams’s fingerprints nor his footprints were evident on the bathroom tiles or sides of the bath.

No forensic traces have yet been pinpointed from which any third party can be identified, but experts are still analysing mystery DNA found on the holdall in the hope this could yield a breakthrough.

In her summing up on Wednesday, Dr Wilcox ruled out the possibility that Mr Williams could have zipped himself into the holdall and locked it, still less accomplished this within the even more restricted confines of the bath.

She said: “I am satisfied so that I’m sure that a third party lifted the bag into the bath and, on the balance of probabilities, locked the bag."

"The cause of his [Mr Williams’s] death is unnatural and is likely to be criminally motivated.”

She said it was probable that Mr Williams had died inside the holdall, adding that it was logical to assume this had been placed in the bath to allow the products of decomposition to drain away.

The door of the bathroom had been shut, preventing the smell from spreading.

Mr Williams worked at MI6’s headquarters in Vauxhall, where he was on a secondment from the GCHQ listening station in Cheltenham.

Described as a scrupulous risk assessor, he only ever let vetted people into his flat.

He was last seen alive on Sunday August 15, 2010, and an analysis of one of his iPhones showed it had been reset to factory settings, essentially wiped clean of data, on that date.

Dr Wilcox speculated that “this may have been the phone by which some third party had made some arrangement to meet with Gareth”.

On August 16 Mr Williams failed to appear for work.

Incredibly, he was not reported missing until August 23.

The heating in his flat was on despite the fact that it was a sweltering August, and this caused the corpse to decompose faster than it otherwise would have done.

On the fourth day of evidence, Anthony O’Toole, the lawyer for the Williams family, said MI6’s delay in raising the alarm over the disappear­ance had produced “horrendous results”.

“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 effect been defeated,” he said.

Dr Wilcox, who recorded a narrative verdict of “unnatural death”, criticised MI6 for this, prompting an apology from the organisation’s chief Sir John Sawers, who promised lessons had been learned.

The court heard that SO15 counter-terrorism command had acted as a conduit between MI6 and DCI Jackie Sebire, the detective leading the case.

But they repeatedly failed to pass potentially vital information on to her.

DCI Sebire said the inquest had raised new lines of inquiry, and she appealed to anyone with any information to come forward, but Dr Wilcox said she believed it was unlikely Mr Williams’s death would ever be satisfactorily explained.

The Williams family have always said they believe “some agency specialising in the dark arts” either had a hand in Mr Williams’s death or cleaned up afterwards.

That impression looks set to remain in the minds of many people, particularly those who have borne witness to this gripping and almost unprecedented window into the cloak-and-dagger world of secret service spooks.