Did MI6 'dry clean' this flat to cover up the spy in a bag murder? Not one fingerprint and five missing hours before police called
By Paul Bracchi and Chris Greenwood | April 6, 2012
The secret service slang for having removed or destroyed incriminating evidence such as fingerprints from the scene of a crime is ‘dry-cleaned.’
It is a phrase now being used frequently in connection with the case of MI6 spy Gareth Williams, whose body was found locked in a sports bag at his home 20 months ago. The question being asked in law enforcement circles is, was the flat where he lived ‘dry-cleaned’ before police even arrived?
Detectives working on the case — one of the most mysterious and baffling of recent times — are convinced it was, in order to cover up the truth: that a colleague was involved in his death.
The chain of events that led to this sinister conclusion, we have been told, began on the evening of Sunday August 22, 2010, when Mr Williams had arranged to meet up with his sister Ceri.
They had planned to go to a comedy club in the capital. Mr Williams didn’t turn up. Ceri rang her brother’s mobile. He didn’t answer. She tried him at home. He didn’t pick up the phone there, either.
Had he been a banker, say, or in advertising, she might not have alerted his ‘employers’.
But for the past year, he had been working for the secret service — recently qualifying for operational deployment — on secondment from GCHQ, the Government’s listening post in Cheltenham.
So the next morning, she rang mi6. She informed the human resources department of Gareth’s non-appearance the previous evening, adding that his behaviour was totally out of character.
The call was made at 11am. At 4pm, MI6 got in touch with Scotland Yard and officers were dispatched to check on Mr Williams at his flat in Alderney Street in Pimlico.
He was too late. Gareth Williams, 31, was dead, curled up naked in the foetal position inside a red North Face holdall, which had been padlocked from the outside and placed in his bath. The bathroom itself, as you can see from the first photographs taken inside the apartment, is windowless. It adjoins the master bedroom.
Why had it taken MI6 five hours to contact Scotland Yard? Detectives are in little doubt. ‘The suspicion is that MI6 went round, found him dead and did a pretty damn good “dry-cleaning” job before we even knew about it,’ an impeccable source with full knowledge of the 20-month police investigation told the Mail this week.
The forensic team found no trace of any fingerprints, apart from those belonging to Mr Williams. No DNA, apart from his. Nothing to suggest anyone had ever been inside the apartment, apart from him. It was as if he had been living in an hermetically-sealed bubble.
MI6 would have had no difficulty gaining access to the flat. They had a key to the front door. It was a secret service ‘safe house’, after all, just a mile from MI6 headquarters on the other side of the River Thames (barely five minutes away by car) and was registered to a company in the British Virgin Islands.
The controversy surrounding the death of Gareth Williams was ignited at a pre-inquest hearing last week, when his family claimed there had been a cover-up involving the ‘dark arts’ of the ‘secret services’. The Mail has been told that the police share that view. It is an opinion, no doubt, that will be forcefully expressed at the full inquest next month.
Among the few facts that seem to be beyond dispute is that whatever may have occurred at 36 Alderney Street, Mr Williams was not alone when he died. Someone else must have been present, because the bag in which he was found could not have been locked from the inside.
This was the verdict of an expert in rescuing people from confined spaces — hired by the police — who got into a similar bag to test whether it was possible. He found that it wasn’t.
The question is: was the ‘third party’ taking part in a sex game with Mr Williams which ended in tragedy? Or was he murdered because of his espionage work?
Mr Williams — a Welsh speaker raised in Anglesey, North Wales, by father Ian, who worked at a nuclear power plant, and mother, Ellen — has been described as ‘quiet and unassuming’ by everyone who knew him. Until he was ‘loaned’ to MI6, he lived, without a TV, in the annexe of an elderly couple’s home in Cheltenham, where he had been a code-breaker at GCHQ for the past decade. His only interest seemed to be cycling.
A more complex picture of his private life emerged after his death. Most relevant in the circumstances, perhaps, was evidence he had visited bondage websites on his computer.
Much has been made of the fact that these possible sexual tastes may have led to his death, but do they deflect suspicion from the secret service?
Where would a man with limited social contacts have met someone to share these interests, if not at work? Where else can a spy look for safe company, if not among other spies? Police believe this is the most likely scenario: that Gareth Williams and a colleague (maybe even a senior colleague) were engaged in a bizarre sexual game that went terribly wrong.
It was covered up, so this theory goes, to prevent an even bigger scandal in MI6, one that might have left a fellow agent facing possible manslaughter charges.
The exact cause of Mr William’s death is still unknown. The heat generated inside the holdall meant his body was in a heavily decayed state when it was discovered.
He may have died from asphyxiation or hypercapnia, a catastrophic build-up of carbon dioxide in the blood. He might have climbed into the synthetic rubber sports bag voluntarily or he could have been unconscious when placed there.
Gareth Williams, like all members of the security services, would have undergone strict vetting before being recruited. For MI5, MI6 and GCHQ, officers are required to have the highest clearance of all. Developed Vetting, it is called, a nine-month process of interviews and background checks into his family history and personal circumstances.
A prediliction for sexual peccadillos would have almost certainly been picked up. The process is not foolproof, but it is highly effective.
Mr Williams’s family and friends insist he has been smeared to deflect attention from the real story. Contrary to early claims, no bondage equipment was ever found in Alderney Street and the only evidence of his interest in bondage is contained on his computer.
Is it possible that his laptop might have been tampered with when his flat was ‘dry-cleaned?’ Police believe that whoever cleaned up the flat deliberately left the laptop on the dining room table for them to find, along with his mobile phones and SIM cards, all neatly laid out.
‘It was just too easy for us to find these things,’ said the source.
There is at least one notorious precedent (that we know of) for a secret-service-inspired smear campaign against one of its own agents. It is the case of Jonathan Moyle, another British intelligence agent, who was found hanging by his shirt from the rail in a walk-in wardrobe, with a pillow case over his head, in the Chilean capital Santiago in 1990.
MI6 planted the suggestion he had died while engaged in an auto-erotic act. In fact, Moyle had probably been drugged, suffocated, injected with a lethal substance, then strung up — a view supported by the British coroner, who returned a verdict of unlawful killing at his inquest eight years later, following a campaign by Mr Moyle’s father, Tony.
His son was investigating the arms trade with Iraq, which was then the subject of an arms embargo which prevented Britain from selling weapons to the country. ‘British companies were arming Saddam Hussein and British ministers were well aware they were doing so,’ Mr Moyle said at the time.
Those responsible for the death have never been brought to justice.
The parallels with Gareth Williams are chilling. If he was murdered, the reason almost certainly lies somewhere in his professional life. Many workers at GCHQ spend their time trawling through emails, text messages and telephone calls, looking for that one communication that might prove crucial. They seek intelligence on a wide range of targets, including terrorists, organised criminals and hostile foreign governments.
Gareth Williams, it seems, was no ordinary GCHQ operative. Hence his deployment to MI6. He was working on equipment, it has been claimed, that tracked the flow of money from Russia to Europe.
The Russian secret services have shown themselves willing to act without restraint and strike at the heart of Britain. Relations with Moscow sunk to their lowest point since the Cold War in the wake of the murder of former agent Alexander Litvinenko in 2006. He was poisoned with radioactive plutonium, prompting a murder inquiry that implicated Russia.
The following year, a gunman from Russia was arrested at the Park Lane Hilton on a mission to murder oligarch Boris Berezovsky. He and Litvinenko were outspoken critics of the Russian government. In other words, they were seen as a threat.
Might Gareth Williams also have been viewed as a threat, albeit for very different reasons?
Crispin Black, a former intelligence officer and adviser to the Government and the Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC), is convinced Mr Williams was murdered by foreign agents.
‘It has always looked like a professional affair: people with experience in “wet jobs’’ [KGB slang for murder and assassination] either working for a foreign intelligence agency or a criminal enterprise,’ he says.
‘Go with the facts. The body is in the bag because it is going somewhere and it’s in the bath because once it has been removed it is easy to destroy any forensic residue. For some reason the disposal of the body was interrupted — but the killer or killers knew what they were doing.’
Why would MI6 cover up Mr Williams’s murder? Maybe it wants to conceal the identity of a country or group that killed him to serve some diplomatic end, like in the case of Jonathan Moyle.
Or was it to spare them the embarrassment of having one of its agents killed in a ‘safe house’, in the shadow of the secret service headquarters?
Officers on the case still prefer the ‘sex game’ theory. Meanwhile, at their bungalow in the village of Valley, on the west coast of Anglesey, the parents of Gareth Williams are keeping a dignified silence.
‘It has been a very distressing time for us,’ is all his mother Ellen would say when contacted this week.
Indeed, the past few days couldn’t have been more distressing with the countless unanswered questions still surrounding the death of her son.
‘The family have deep concerns as to whether the inquest will ever get to the bottom of what happened,’ said Anthony O’Toole, the barrister who represents the Williams family.
‘We know that there was somebody in the flat — that is beyond dispute.’