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Their Firm Linked to ‘Star Wars’ : British Scientists’ Deaths--Suicides or Conspiracy?

Times Staff Writer

When 38-year-old computer scientist David Sands’ car crashed into a derelict restaurant not long ago in the south of England, the police reported his death as a routine traffic fatality.

Others are skeptical. For Sands was the third scientist working for the defense contractor Marconi Ltd. to die in violent, mysterious circumstances in the last six months. All three were involved in sensitive, defense-related projects; all were apparent suicides, and there were no witnesses to any of the deaths.

A fourth scientist, engaged in similar work at Loughborough University, in the Midlands, disappeared last January. The police have reportedly scaled down their search, but the man’s family is talking of hiring private detectives to carry on.

Marconi Ltd. is one of a handful of European companies directly involved in the Reagan Administration’s Strategic Defense Initiative, the “Star Wars” program for a space-based missile defense system. But officials of the government and Marconi alike insist that none of the victims were directly involved in the program.

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The Ministry of Defense and police investigators say they have found no evidence of a conspiracy, yet a nation that revels in spy stories and has produced such tellers of espionage tales as Ian Fleming and John le Carre has found it difficult to accept the deaths as coincidental.

John Cartwright, a Social Democratic member of Parliament and his party’s spokesman on defense matters, has called on the Defense Ministry to undertake an investigation.

“Two main features link these four cases,” Cartwright said in a letter to the ministry. “Each of the individuals was a computer scientist involved in defense research. And in each case there was no obvious motive to lead any of these men to commit suicide or to disappear.”

Lord Trefgarne, the minister of state for defense procurement, confirmed that all four men were working on defense projects, and he promised to keep the matter under review but said there was no need for a formal investigation.

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“I agree that it is odd that all were computer scientists working in the defense field, but there any relationship stops,” Trefgarne said.

Besides Sands, the scientists involved were Vimal Dajibhai, 24, a computer programmer employed by Marconi Underwater Systems at Croxley Green, north of London, and Ashad Sharif, 26, a computer analyst employed by Marconi Defense Systems at Stanford, also north of London.

Dajibhai, who was working on the Tigerfish torpedo project, fell to his death from the Clifton suspension bridge in Bristol, 125 miles west of London, last Aug. 5. According to people familiar with the case, Dajibhai seemed happy, had just purchased a new suit and new shoes and was looking forward to beginning a new career in London’s financial district. An inquest into his death was inconclusive.

Sharif was reportedly working on electronic testing equipment and was about to get a job promotion. He died in macabre circumstances last Oct. 28, also in Bristol, when he apparently tied one end of a rope around a tree and the other around his neck, then got into his car and stepped on the accelerator. An inquest ruled suicide.

‘Straight as an Arrow’

Sands drove his car at high speed into the roadside restaurant at 7:30 a.m. on March 31. Driving conditions were reportedly good, and a police officer described the road as “straight as an arrow” at the place where Sands was killed. Sands had just returned from a vacation in Venice with his wife.

He was employed by a Marconi subsidiary, Easams Ltd., near Basingstoke, working on design for command, control and communications systems. Easams Ltd. is involved in “Star Wars” contract work, but a Marconi spokesman said Sands was not working on that project. A coroner’s ruling on Sands’ death is expected May 22.

Avtar Singh-Gida, 26, disappeared last Jan. 8 near Loughborough while conducting underwater acoustics experiments at a reservoir. His work was related to an unclassified defense project.

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According to his family, Singh-Gida was looking forward to a wedding anniversary and had already bought a gift and a card for his wife.

Tony Collins, a reporter who investigated the first two deaths for Computer News, a weekly aimed at the electronics industry, says his work has led him to conclude that the three Marconi scientists were all involved in a narrow field of underwater simulation projects, an area in which he says Britain leads the world.

“I can’t speculate on the possibility of a conspiracy, but I’m investigating possible links between those who died,” he said.

A Marconi spokesman said an internal security investigation turned up no connection among the three men.

‘There Was No Collusion’

“They worked on separate projects, at separate locations for separate companies,” the spokesman said. “There was no collusion, there is no conspiracy. We’re satisfied nothing is wrong.”

Police departments in the three counties where the deaths and disappearance occurred said Tuesday that despite increasing publicity and speculation, the cases will continue to be dealt with as routine.

Since the emergence of publicity about the three Marconi scientists, other reports have surfaced recently of scientists working either in computer technology or defense jobs who have died mysteriously.

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Peter Peapell, 46, a metallurgist and lecturer at the Royal Military College of Science at Shrivenham, who reportedly was involved in defense work, was found dead in his garage Feb. 21, apparently of carbon monoxide poisoning.

For many people, the questions surrounding the Marconi scientists’ deaths and the disappearance of Singh-Gida have only been heightened by the reports of additional incidents.

“I do not wish to be accused of inventing plots more suited to a television thriller than real life,” Parliament member Cartwright said. “But I think the circumstances of these four cases and the possible connections between them stretch the possibility of mere coincidence too far.”


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