British spy was found poisoned or suffocated in bag

PoliticsEspionage and IntelligenceNational GovernmentBritain

A British spy found dead at his home in 2010 -- his naked body padlocked inside a large red carrying bag stowed in the bathtub -- was either suffocated or poisoned, but it is unlikely his death will ever be satisfactorily explained, coroner Fiona Wilcox said Wednesday.

Gareth Williams' death was "unnatural and likely to have been criminally mediated," she ruled.

He probably entered the bag alive, Wilcox said, reading her ruling to a court around the corner from the home of the world's most famous fictional detective, Sherlock Holmes.

The case has gripped the British public for more than a year and a half, since Williams, an MI6 agent known for his mathematical genius and codebreaking talent, was found dead in August 2010.

An unknown person put the bag containing his body into the bath, Wilcox said.

She appeared briefly overcome with emotion as she came to the end of reading her ruling, her voice faltering as she announced her findings.

Following an official investigation by the coroner's office, the "most fundamental questions as to how Gareth died remain unanswered," Wilcox said Wednesday, adding that there was "endless speculation but little real evidence."

She said it was "extremely unlikely," but not impossible, that Williams, 31, had worked out a technique to get into the bag and lock it from the inside.

But, she said, there was no evidence of foot or handprints on the walls of the bathroom or the bath itself, as might have been expected if he had done that.

There was also no sign that evidence had been tampered with, such as traces of bleach.

The key to the bag in which he was found was inside it with him, and there were others in his apartment, Wilcox said.

There was no sign of a break-in or robbery in his neat, tidy apartment, she said. She described his body as "peaceful" and said there was no indication of a struggle.

Wilcox also said there were no indications that he was feeling suicidal.

British media have reported that Williams' Internet history showed an interest in sex games and bondage, but Wilcox said the codebreaker had made only a handful of visits to bondage sites.

The coroner said there was no evidence of interest in claustrophilia, a fetish for enclosure in very confined spaces.

His apartment contained 20,000 pounds ($32,000) worth of high-fashion women's clothing, unworn and packed as purchased, Wilcox said, but she said she found no connection between his death and his interest in fashion and women's shoes and clothing.

There also was no indication that his death was connected to his work, she said.

He had not taken on any high-risk operations, and he worked only in the UK. There was no evidence of threats arising to him from his work, his employers testified.

Wilcox was highly critical of Williams' manager, who apparently did not notice he was missing for about a week after he died. She said the inability of the manager to recall certain key bits of evidence concerning the week that Williams died "is beginning to stretch the bounds of credibility."

When questioned, the manager said he assumed Williams was absent for a legitimate reason that he had forgotten about. They worked on a small team of four people.

The manager and other SIS employees testified from behind a screen and were identified only as SIS plus a letter -- the Secret Intelligence Service being the official name for MI6.

The coroner said that nothing effective was done to try to establish Williams' whereabouts by his line manager until a week after he died on August 16.

Williams was finally reported missing by a co-worker on August 23, more than a week after the normally punctilious employee had last shown up at work.

"I can only speculate as to what effect this had on this investigation," she said.

Police did not secure the scene until eight or nine days after he died.

Reports about the "body-in-a-bag spy" describe how two experts spent days trying to figure out whether Williams, who was athletic and of medium height, could have contorted himself in such as way as to lock himself into the North Face holdall bag, with a key to the padlock inside.

Video provided to the court shows one of them, Peter Faulding, folding himself laboriously into an identical bag, measuring just 32 inches by 19 inches (81 by 48 centimeters), placed in a bathtub.

Faulding, who specializes in rescuing people from confined spaces, told the inquest that he had tried to lock himself into the bag 300 times without success, according to the Press Association news agency. A second expert witness, also of a size and build similar to Williams, tried 100 times to re-enact the feat without succeeding.

But neither ruled out definitively the possibility that Williams could have somehow done it alone. A small trace of someone else's DNA was found on the bag, helping spawn all kinds of theories -- that he was perhaps drugged by a foreign spy who then locked him in the bag, or that he was the victim of a kinky sexual liaison gone wrong.

Williams was recruited into the intelligence services straight from university, working with Government Communications Headquarters before MI6. The nature of his work and questions around why his spy agency bosses took so long to raise an alert about his absence have added to the intrigue surrounding his death.

The family's lawyer accused MI6 of showing "total disregard for Gareth's whereabouts and safety" before he was found dead at his government-provided home, the Press Association reported.

Concerns about national security have been a factor in the 20-month delay in holding Williams' inquest, and an agency more used to working in the shadows has had an uncomfortably bright light shone into its practices.

Testing did not give conclusive results because the body had decomposed significantly after nine days in the summer heat of his top-floor apartment, toxicology reports posted online say.

Traces of alcohol and a chemical matching the party drug GHB were found, but both can occur naturally as part of the decomposition process, one document says. Williams was teetotal, so "even a small amount of alcohol could affect cognitive capacity," it notes.

A series of photographs provided by the Metropolitan Police show the tidy, impersonal interior of the spy's Pimlico home and the small, white-tiled bathroom where his body was found.

A bicycle parked in the hallway is a clue to Williams' more regular passion, cycling. A glimpse through the bedroom door shows a bed half-made, clothes lying on it. But little else can be gleaned from the images.

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