The Week : Death of a GCHQ code-breaker: no wonder his family smell a rat

Monday, April 02, 2012

Death of a GCHQ code-breaker: no wonder his family smell a rat

Gareth Williams's family are right – this has always looked like the work of a meticulous professional killer

Crispin Black | April 2, 2012

THE pre-inquest review held in London last week into the mysterious death of the GCHQ code-breaker Gareth Williams, whose body was found in a locked holdall in his Pimlico flat in August 2010, has thrown up a number of new and surprising twists.

The most startling is that the single unexplained DNA sample recovered from Williams's hand and which the police felt was a significant lead for nearly 18 months turns out to come from one of the forensic scientists who attended the scene – a labelling cock-up by the forensic laboratory, apparently.

The lawyer representing Williams's family, Anthony O'Toole, also suggested that there were no signs of covert entry into the flat but an expert despatched to examine the door discovered that it had already been removed from its frame, complete with locks.

No wonder the family are smelling a rat. They like just about everyone else reject the Houdiniesque theory that Williams somehow locked himself into the small holdall and are convinced that a third party must have been present in the flat even though no unexplained DNA or fingerprints have been discovered.

O'Toole put it this way on the family's behalf: "The impression of the family is that the unknown third party was a member of some agency specialising in the dark arts of the secret services – or evidence has been removed post-mortem by experts in the dark arts."

The Williams family's instincts look spot on. It has always looked like a professional affair: people with experience in "wet jobs" - the KGB slang for murder and assassination - either working for a foreign intelligence agency or a criminal enterprise.

Getting into someone's house to have a look around and then getting out again without leaving any trace is much more difficult than the Bond films would have us believe. It requires long training and then meticulous attention to detail, invariably against the clock.

Unless the individual or team is very skilled they will usually leave some small sign of their presence – a book placed back on a shelf out of order or some tiny forensic trace like a hair or a piece of dried skin. Killing someone without leaving any tracks is even more difficult. That forensic and other evidence may eventually lead the police nowhere is a fact of life. That there is no forensic evidence at the scene at all suggests a high level of skill and coolness of mind by the perpetrators.

In the Williams case, truth seems stranger than fiction. But we can glean some clues from the world of fiction - in particular the locked room or impossible-crime detective story. Out of fashion these days, it was once all the rage. Conan Doyle's only specimen, The Adventure of the Speckled Band, is consistently voted the best of all the Sherlock Holmes stories and Agatha Christie's And Then there Were None is the best-selling detective novel ever.

The key to both tales and indeed all impossible-crime cases in a locked room is that however complicated, bizarre and unlikely the circumstances, the explanation is always simple. In some way the room was not locked at all. The most popular tricks are secret passages or sliding panels or a poison administered earlier. A less common device but one found in a number of golden age novels and short stories is the "unhinging and rehinging of a door or windows". Quite.

We may never know how Gareth Williams died. But we do know about the leisurely pace and Janet and John blunders of the investigation so far. More energy is required – perhaps the full inquest which starts on 23 April will kick-start the process.