NORMAN BAKER: How the body in a bag spy Gareth Williams was murdered by Russians and smeared by MI6
It is ten years since Gareth Williams, a brilliant mathematician from the security services, was found dead, his naked, decomposing body padlocked into a red holdall in the bath of his London flat. His face was serene, his hands neatly folded on his chest in an almost religious pose. The key to the lock lay beneath his body.
The distress of the 31-year-old’s family and friends was made all the harder to bear by the bewildering shortage of answers as to how or why he had died. And today, a decade on, the official police explanation remains that it had been an accident. We are told that Williams died alone in his Pimlico flat as the result of a solo sex game that went wrong.
The authorities would like us to believe that it was nothing to do with his employment at GCHQ, the Government communications analysis centre in Cheltenham, and nothing to do with his work for MI6 in London, the secret intelligence service to which he’d been seconded.
But this account is wearing thin and, as the years pass, the doubts are piling up.
Why, for example, was there such a long delay before MI6 spies ‘discovered’ the body of their colleague? You might have thought the security services would keep a close eye on such a star operative.
Why did MI6 give every impression of trying to hinder the police investigation?
And who exactly was responsible for smearing Williams’s reputation with lurid sexual allegations in the weeks and months that followed?
It is ten years since Gareth Williams, a brilliant mathematician from the security services, was found dead, his decomposing body padlocked into a red holdall in the bath of his London flat
These questions help point to a very different version of events from the one that the police and security services are keen to promote – one that not only places Russian assassins at the heart of Gareth Williams’s death but implicates MI6 in the bizarre cover-up that followed.
Williams, an expert in analysing codes and a keen amateur cyclist, was last seen alive on Sunday, August 15. Later, when his computer was examined at his Alderney Street apartment, it showed that someone visited a cycling website at 1.15am the following day. After that, there was no further trace of his movements.
It is puzzling then – according to the official version of events – that it was more than a week later, on the morning of Monday, August 23, before MI6 finally got around to investigating his absence, after a call from Williams’s worried sister, Ceri.
He had been due to chair an MI6 meeting on Monday, August 16 and attend another on Friday, August 20, but had failed to appear. Apparently, nothing was said. On the evening of August 16, the analyst had been due to meet a colleague from GCHQ who was interested in taking over his flat. But, once again, Williams’s absence seems to have passed without comment.
Can it really be true that the disappearance of a man with the reputation for being as accurate as a Swiss watch set no alarm bells ringing? I doubt it. I have spoken to a number of intelligence experts who, without exception, view this supposed oversight as unbelievable. I am told that steps would have been taken within an hour to speak to him or track him down.
This was certainly the view of the Westminster coroner, Dr Fiona Wilcox, who handled the 2012 inquest into his death. She said MI6’s account of the delay ‘begins to stretch bounds of credibility’. Indeed.
It was falsely suggested that he used drugs and paid for male prostitutes.
It seems certain to me that the absence of Gareth Williams prompted an immediate MI6 investigation, that officers went to his flat and were confronted by the gruesome evidence of his death. His apartment in Alderney Street was part of an MI6 safe house with an alarm system connecting it to headquarters. I’m told there would have been other security systems, too, and his bosses would have been alerted to any problem almost from the outset.
Why, then, would MI6 choose to lie about the delay? And why would they allow the body to lie in the bath for a week until the police became involved?
Someone certainly wanted the evidence to disappear. It was the height of summer, yet the heating had been left on full, causing the corpse to decay rapidly. Williams’s DNA was literally disappearing down the bath’s plug hole.
Then came a series of unpleasant stories about his supposedly unorthodox sex life.
A tabloid newspaper was told that Williams had been a secret transvestite who might have been killed by a gay lover. Women’s clothing of his size had been found at his flat. It was reported that cocaine was discovered along with gay pornography and various bits of sado-masochistic equipment. It was falsely suggested that Williams had been in the habit of paying for male prostitutes.
Where had these smears come from? Not, it seems, from the police, who angrily denied the stories. There was no evidence that Williams had used escorts, they said, and no evidence that he had bought sex gear or used drugs.
We have been here before, of course. Back in 1990, a British agent called Jonathan Moyle was found almost naked, crammed inside a 5ft hotel wardrobe in the Chilean capital Santiago. His head was in a pillow case and his body was encased in a polythene bag.
Guests at a British Embassy cocktail party, including journalists, were discreetly told that Moyle had been conducting an auto-erotic experiment when he died. They were not told that he had uncovered a plan by the Chilean company Industrias Cardoen to sell 50 American-made Bell helicopters to the Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein. It later transpired that Moyle had been drugged, suffocated and injected with a lethal substance. A Chilean investigation concluded he had been murdered and a British coroner agreed, recording a verdict of unlawful killing.
The distress of the 31-year-old’s family and friends was made all the harder to bear by the bewildering shortage of answers as to how or why he had died
Then, in 1994, it was reported that Conservative MP Stephen Milligan had been found dead on the kitchen table of his home, naked except for a pair of stockings and suspenders. There was a black bin liner over his head, a length of flex around his neck and a segment of orange in his mouth. Who leaked these circumstances to the press, and why?
What was not reported was the fact that the Eastleigh MP – the parliamentary aide to the Minister for Defence Procurement, Jonathan Aitken – had discovered evidence of illegal British arms sales to Iraq by the precision tool manufacturer Matrix Churchill.
If MI6 seemed only too keen to promote the story that Gareth Williams’s death was a sexual matter, the police thought differently and believed from the outset that he had been murdered.
I am told by a well-connected source that MI6 was so unhelpful to the Metropolitan Police that they threatened to walk away from the case. It took a top-level meeting between Sir John Sawers, the head of MI6, and Sir Paul Stephenson, the head of the Met, before an uneasy way forward could be agreed.
Next, the police officer leading the investigation, Detective Chief Inspector Jackie Sebire, was instructed to use officers from the SO15 Counter Terrorism Command to liaise with MI6. The reason has never been explained, but it is clear to me her determination to unearth the truth was not shared by SO15. It is also clear that vital evidence was withheld from her investigation. Sebire’s team were not even allowed to speak to Williams’s MI6 colleagues.
It was only at the inquest, almost two years later, that it emerged that Williams, after his death, had been found to possess nine MI6 memory sticks. This was news to Sebire. Whatever they contained, a source told me that the sticks had been wiped by MI6.
The inquest also heard that when SO15 officers visited MI6 headquarters on the south bank of the Thames, they were shown a cabinet used by Williams but that, lamentably, they failed to make an inventory of its contents.
The claims made about his death are so ludicrous as to be insulting.
A locked holdall believed to contain personal and work-related items was found under his desk, yet the police officer who discovered it, Detective Constable Colin Hall, told the inquest he had been instructed to leave it where it was.
In the event, the coroner was not distracted by the smears about Williams’s sex life and declared herself ‘satisfied that, on the balance of probabilities, Gareth was killed unlawfully’.
Sebire agreed, concluding after the inquest that ‘it’s highly likely that a third party was involved in Gareth’s death’.
Much attention was paid to whether it had been possible for Williams to climb into a holdall, zip it closed, padlock it, then put the key under his body.
The sheer difficulty seemed convincing evidence that, at the very least, others were involved in his death. And there was no evidence that Williams had any sexual interest in confined spaces. A couple of escapology experts tried hundreds of times but failed to achieve the feat. But then a strange story popped up in one newspaper claiming that a retired Army sergeant had shown how the feat was indeed possible and that ‘Scotland Yard detectives had been able to repeat the experiment’.
In November 2013, the police announced that they had concluded that Williams’s death was ‘probably an accident’ after all and the case was closed.
It would be interesting to know what Sebire made of this volte face. Subsequently promoted to the rank of Assistant Chief Constable in Bedfordshire, she has failed to return my calls.
Deputy Assistant Commissioner Martin Hewitt declared there was ‘no evidence that Williams’s death was connected to his work’ and said it was ‘beyond credibility’ that MI6 had destroyed any evidence. Yet the inquest had heard there were no fingerprints, palm prints or indeed any traces of Williams’s DNA on the rim of the bath, the bag zip or the bag padlock.
So, aside from locking himself into a bag in a manner that escapologists found impossible to repeat, we were now being asked to believe that Williams had miraculously wiped away all traces of his entry into the bag.
The inquest was told that the front door and locks had been removed before the police arrived. Had he done this as well?
And had he also turned the light off in the bathroom and shut the door? And turned the heating up to full in the middle of summer?
Had he also wiped his phone and returned it to its factory settings? For that is how it was found.
These claims are so obviously ludicrous as to be insulting.
Williams was murdered, and for reasons flowing from his highly sensitive work investigating the laundering of Russian money.
At the time of his death, he was creating computer defences for the City of London and would have been aware of many illegal transactions. He was a key person for national security. He often spoke to the US National Security Agency and was a regular visitor to its headquarters at Fort Meade in Maryland.
Gareth Williams caught on CCTV at Holland Park Underground station
What is the evidence of Russian involvement? From July 2010 onwards, defector and former KGB double-agent Boris Karpichkov began noticing cars with Russian diplomatic number plates parked near, or driving slowly by, Alderney Street. He recorded the numbers. Living close by at the time, he was worried about his own safety.
The Russian cars were seen on numerous occasions between July 6 and 9, and then again from August 12 to 15, the last day of Williams’s life. They have not been seen since.
In this looking-glass world, it is standard practice to monitor targets ahead of a ‘hit’ – to see what time they leave, where they go, what time they return, who else might be around.
Had Williams been blackmailed? There is some evidence he might have been gay, though colleagues describe him more as asexual.
Being homosexual would not have been a problem for MI6. I know from my time as a Home Office Minister that those in sensitive positions are expected to reveal everything as part of the vetting process, including who you’ve been to bed with and what you did when you got there. Providing there is no illegal activity, the evidence is simply recorded. No judgments are made.
For the Russians, however, it is a different matter. They still take the view that homosexuality is a weakness to be exploited – and it is entirely possible they attempted to do so.
Boris Karpichkov says his Russian contacts have told him of a Russian operation to target Williams, which was disparagingly codenamed Operation Sweetie.
I have been told by a well-placed source that, not long before his death, Williams had been drugged and rendered unconscious while on holiday in America. A compromising scene was then created around him and photographed. I have no proof, but it is a tactic often used by the Russians.
MI6 prefers to drown the truth about a loyal agent in a sea of smears.
Perhaps, too, the Russians were aware that the code-breaker had gained improper access to material within MI6 which was not relevant to his work.
Specifically, he had obtained the guest list for an event in London which was to be attended by former US President Bill Clinton. It was reported that he did this ‘for a friend’, but the reason why has never been made clear. If known by the Russians, that could certainly have been grounds for blackmail.
It is also true that Williams made and received some unexplained payments. In the days between August 11 and 15, three lots of £2,000 were paid into his bank account and then withdrawn shortly afterwards.
These might have been the £2,000 tax-free sums he was paid monthly as a London supplement while he on secondment to MI6 from GCHQ. More unusual were the two piles of notes, each totalling £500, found in his flat after his death.
In the days following the discovery of his death, this newspaper revealed that £18,000 had disappeared from one of his bank accounts two months earlier, and at that point its destination had not been traced. Also in his flat were unopened bags containing designer women’s clothes worth £20,000.
The Mail on Sunday also suggested that Williams’s bank and credit cards had been used in the week between his death and the official discovery of his body in the bath.
Where does all this leave us?
I do not believe that Gareth Williams was anything other than a good man, loyal to his country.
I believe it was entirely possible the Russians were blackmailing him, but that his reaction would have been to tell his line managers.
Did they encourage him to play along and pretend he had fallen under the Russian spell?
According to Karpichkov, Williams was visited by an East European businessman codenamed Lukas, whom he let into his flat. Lukas was there to blackmail Williams into becoming a double-agent.
Is it possible that, as Karpichkov suggests, Williams let slip that he knew the identity of a Russian mole in a senior role at GCHQ? This man, codenamed Orion, was a key person for the Russians and they could not risk him being outed. Such an admission would have been catastrophic, tantamount to Williams signing his own death warrant.
But Williams, remember, was a mathematician, not an experienced agent in the field.
According to Karpichkov, Lukas drugged his wine to leave him unconscious and then a specialist Russian team was called in to finish the job with a cocktail of plant-based poisons, leaving no trace at the post-mortem.
The fact that he was placed in a bag suggests that the Russians intended to remove him from the flat so that he became a missing person rather than a death, and any investigation was delayed. Were they interrupted? Or perhaps MI6 found the body before they could return.
Now, with a corpse on their hands, it was MI6 which had the problem. There were many reasons not to publicise such a brazen Russian ‘hit’ on their own territory, or answer the questions it would inevitably raise.
And if, as Karpichkov and my own sources suggest, they really did have a GCHQ mole in their sights, MI6 might well have concluded it was better to delay ‘finding’ the body, then explaining the death as a sexual escapade. That would give them time and opportunity to identify the Russian agent – and who could say that such a decision was entirely wrong
Gareth Williams, however, paid not only with his life but his reputation, like Stephen Milligan and Jonathan Moyle before him.
MI6 knows very well what happened on that terrible August night in Alderney Street but prefers, for the moment, to hide it – drowning the truth about a loyal agent in a sea of sexual fantasies and smears.