Seattle Times : British police now say death of ‘spy in a bag’ accidental

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

British police now say death of ‘spy in a bag’ accidental

More than three years after the naked, decomposing body of British spy Gareth Williams was discovered stuffed inside a locked gym bag at the bottom of his bathtub, the mystery over his bizarre death lingers, and a police investigation has done little to clear it up.

Los Angeles Times and The New York Times | November 13, 2013

LONDON — Scotland Yard on Wednesday reversed a coroner’s finding of foul play in the 2010 death of British spy Gareth Williams, concluding that an accident was likely responsible for the death of the code-breaker whose naked, decomposing body was found stuffed inside a zipped and padlocked gym bag.

London Metropolitan Police investigators had undertaken a review of evidence in the case 16 months ago, after initial restrictions on homicide detectives’ access to details of Williams’ intelligence work were lifted by the British secret service, MI6.

Deputy Assistant Commissioner Martin Hewitt told journalists in London that investigators only had access to Williams’ work files and colleagues after the coroner’s conclusion in April 2012 that his death was likely “criminally mediated.”

“On balance, it is a more probable conclusion that there was no other person present when Gareth died,” Hewitt said, according to the Daily Telegraph.

The body of the then-31-year-old intelligence operative, who at the time of his August 2010 death was on temporary duty in London from his listening post in Cheltenham, was found in the empty bathtub of his apartment after he failed to show up for work for a week.

His naked body was curled in a fetal position inside a sports bag in an otherwise empty bathtub. In a twist worthy of a spy movie, the bag was padlocked, but the keys to the lock were inside the bag, beneath the decomposing body.

Williams had evidently led a very private existence, with few close friends. But with its tantalizing glimpse into the secretive world of espionage, the “spy in a bag” case drew intense interest from the news media, which speculated that Williams might have been assassinated, or might have died as an accidental consequence of an interest in escapology or bondage.

Hewitt conceded that uncertainties remain and that a definitive ruling on Williams’ cause of death may never be reached.

The revised assessment immediately prompted speculation that authorities were attempting to obscure some embarrassing or sensitive issue in the death.

The BBC quoted its internal-affairs correspondent as saying the findings that Williams was likely alone when he died as a result of an accident “were likely to fuel theories of a successful cover up by the intelligence agencies.”

The Daily Mirror’s website posted “10 questions which are still unanswered more than three years after Gareth’s death.” The mysteries cited included why Williams’ MI6 colleagues failed to inquire about his absence from work for a week, how the door to his apartment came to be locked from the outside after his death, whether the heat was turned on in the apartment to accelerate the body’s decomposition and preclude certain forensics tests, and why there were no fingerprints found on the bathtub.

Sky News reported that two contortion experts working on the earlier inquest tried 400 times to lock themselves into a similar bag and failed. Shortly after the earlier probe ended, though, an army sergeant was able to demonstrate that it was possible to zip oneself into such a bag from the inside in the cramped position in which Williams’ body was found, Sky reported.

Although the police did not themselves demonstrate that it was possible for a person to lock himself inside a bag, Hewitt said, they saw video footage of this being done.

Why Williams would have done so was not clear. The 2012 coroner’s inquest heard evidence that he had visited websites dedicated to bondage and “claustrophilia,” which involves seeking sexual thrills from being shut in enclosed spaces.

Williams’ family said in a statement Wednesday that they stood by the coroner’s findings — that he was probably the victim of an unlawful killing — rather than those of the police.

“We are naturally disappointed that it is still not possible to state with certainty how Gareth died, and the fact that the circumstances of his death are still unknown adds to our grief,” the family said. “We consider that, on the basis of the facts at present known, the coroner’s verdict accurately reflects the circumstances of Gareth’s death.”