Originally published January 4, 2013
One of the first things police noticed on entering the London apartment of the missing man, was the smell of death, exacerbated by the sweltering temperature. It was the middle of August in 2010, and someone had turned up the heat and shut the windows.
The smell was coming from the bathroom, where a large sports bag lay in the tub. Inside the bag, which was locked from the outside, was the badly decomposed body of missing British MI6 spy Gareth Williams.
Investigators did not have much to go on. There were few traces of DNA in the apartment that did not belong to Williams and his family. A suspect would have to have had professional training to know how to enter and leave an apartment without leaving any fingerprints or DNA evidence. Since the body had had over a week to decompose in the sweltering apartment, determining whether he had been poisoned or had suffocated inside the bag was impossible. Traces of alcohol and the date rape drug GHB were found in his body, but according to coroner Dr. Fiona Wilcox, the decomposition process could have produced those chemicals naturally.
Lacking any fingerprints, investigators could not confirm whether someone had stuffed Williams into the bag or not. They speculated that Williams, with his expert spy training, had managed to crawl inside the bag and lock it himself, but the evidence was in conclusive. In fact, the mystery surrounding how Williams got into that bag is at the center of the case.
Police, however, suspected foul play. The mere fact that Williams was a spy aroused their suspicions. Investigators pondered the possibility that, because of his connections to M16 as well as other agencies, including the U.S.’s NSA (National Security Agency), Williams had been the victim of a professionally orchestrated hit.
Investigators also learned that Williams might have led a secret life, possibly involving cross-dressing and the S&M scene in London. Police naturally probed Williams’ private life and sexual interests, the behavior of Williams’ colleagues and superiors at MI6 in the wake of his death drew criticism. Most notably, they did not report him missing for a week. Intentionally or not, these errors committed during the course of the investigation wound up impeding it, leading many to conclude that at the very least MI6 knew more about the circumstances surrounding Williams’ death than the secretive organization was willing to reveal.
The Welsh Math Genius
British intelligence had made good use of Williams’ talents as a cryptologist and computer network expert. His intellectual aptitude became apparent while he was still growing up in Wales, where he excelled in school, and began taking university classes while still in high school. Williams graduated from Bangor University at the age of 17.
He got his Ph.D. in computer science at the University of Manchester, and joined the UK Government Communications Headquarters in 2001. Few details were revealed about his role at the agency other than that he specialized in “applications of emerging technologies.”
Based in Cheltenham, Britain, at first, Williams spent his downtime pursuing his favorite activities: cycling and hiking. He then moved to the London flat where his body was found, and joined MI6’s operations. According to testimony from his family, however, Williams was not happy with his assignment in London: He did not like the hectic pace of city life, nor did he appreciate M16’s macho, cloak-and-dagger culture. He requested and was granted permission to transfer back to Cheltenham to take up his former post at GCHQ, and was scheduled to make the move just a few days after his death.
Court testimony also revealed that Williams was actively involved in gathering intelligence about terrorist activities, which he did by penetrating and monitoring computer and voice networks. Just a few weeks before his death, it was revealed that Williams was responsible for preventing a major jihadist attack on British soil.
According to the Daily Express, Williams intercepted phone calls that matched the voice prints of a terrorist database, composed of Al-Qaeda members and other terrorists. Williams would later travel to Afghanistan with members from the GCHQ and the U.S.’ NSA. It was uncovered that the terrorist group was preparing to launch a major attack against targets in Berlin, London, and Paris and planned to destroy cultural and historical landmarks, such as the Eiffel Tower, the Brandenburg Gate, and Buckingham Palace. The attack was reportedly thwarted by arrests, and by a U.S. drone strike that killed Abdul Jabbar, a Pakistan-born British national. According to the Daily Express, Williams was responsible for saving thousands of lives in Europe.
An S&M Connection?
Williams’ roll in saving lives while serving his country at M16 might have made him a hero, but that is not what the tabloid press chose to focus on. Instead, during the weeks and months after Williams’ body was found, much attention was paid to Williams’ private life, details of which were leaked to the British press.
By all accounts, Williams was very private; he kept mostly to himself, had few close friends and few people outside of his work knew him. However, there were some aspects of his life outside the agency that police theorized could have played a role in his death.
Besides his passion for cycling and hiking, William was a prodigious collector of women’s clothing. Police found over £20,000 worth of women’s apparel at his London flat, a major investment for Williams who earned hardly twice that much in a year. Investigators concluded that the clothing collection, most of which was not his size, reflected his personal interest in fashion itself, an interest he pursued by attending classes at a local fashion design institute in his free time.
Other details police uncovered about Williams’ private life prompted investigators to suspect that he may have been a transvestite, possibly involved with the local S&M bondage community. Witnesses reported seeing him, on occasion, at transvestite clubs and gay bars, according to the Daily Mail. Police found a video on one of his cell phones of him dancing naked, wearing only women’s boots. However, police never found evidence that Williams had gay relationships. In fact, they never found evidence that he had relationships of any kind, with women or men. His friends and relatives continued to insist that he was heterosexual.
One incident that lent credibility to the theory that Williams was interested in sexual bondage, came from his landlady. She told investigators that on one occasion, while renting a floor of her house, Williams had once cried to her out for help. She and her husband responded, discovering Williams tied to his bed, wearing only underwear. He explained that he was trying to see if he was able to free himself after being tied up. The landlady reported that she suspected Williams was seeking sexual thrills by tying himself up.
While there continues to be much speculation by police and the media that Williams was involved in a sexual stunt that resulted in his death, his family and friends think otherwise. Wilcox, who released her verdict in late 2012, cast further doubts that Williams was killed during a sexual misadventure.
If someone had entered the apartment without force, it indicated that Williams had let that person in, and that it was a colleague. Williams would have only trusted a colleague to enter the flat, which had served as housing for MI6 officers before Williams moved there.
Wilcox also questioned MI6’s intentions for mishandling the case. Suspicious were raised from the beginning, when the agency waited for over a week to alert police that Williams had not reported to work, despite the extremely sensitive nature of that work.
Other details smacked of a professional hit. The bag, for example, had been placed in the bathtub, which would have facilitated the draining of bodily fluids as the corpse decomposed. Turning up the heat in the apartment helped to speed decomposition, making it more difficult to determine cause of death.
MI6 found and removed USB memory sticks that Williams had, in violation of protocol, brought home from work. The agency, however, did not share the contents of the USB keys with police, citing security concerns. MI6 officials also did not communicate the possible reasons why Williams breached the agency’s security rules by taking classified data from the agency to his apartment in the first place.
An Elaborate Cover Up?
If the bizarre nature of his death was part of a setup staged by a professional from the intelligence community, it would almost certainly not be the first time such an incident occurred. Many M16 and other spies have turned up dead in the aftermath of what looked like embarrassing sexual encounters. According to the Daily Mail, there have been more than 17 deaths of British agents who have died under suspicious circumstances during the past 50 years. Of those deaths, a third died while engaging in what appeared to have been bizarre sexual acts. The motive in staging these sex scenes was to prevent investigators from discovering the truth, according to the Daily Mail.
In one incident in 1990, Jonathan Moyle, a British journalist and editor of Defence Helicopter World, was found dead in his hotel room in Chile, hanging naked in his closet with a pillowcase over his head. British officials initially claimed that he had asphyxiated himself as a way to heighten his pleasure during sex. He was officially in Chili to investigate an arms deal for his magazine, but years later, British intelligence divulged that the 3-year former RAF officer was actually working undercover for MI6 seeking intelligence about an arms deal between Chile and Iraq. It took an aggressive legal campaign spearheaded by the family against the British Secret Service before officials reluctantly agreed to apologize and acknowledged that Moyle was probably murdered.
British politician and former BBC newscaster Stephen Milligan also died under suspicious circumstances in 1994. Milligan, believed to have ties to the British intelligence community, was found dead in his London flat tied to a chair wearing only women’s leggings and suspenders. There was a cord wrapped around his neck and a bag over his head. Part of an orange was stuffed in his mouth. Despite the sexual implications of the circumstances, the true circumstances of Milligan’s death remain a mystery.
Many Questions, More Answers … And More Questions
In her official verdict, coroner Fiona Wilcox downplayed the possibility that Williams was killed during a sex encounter and said that his death was likely “criminally premeditated.” She also concluded that Williams was probably “killed unlawfully,” and while she did not have conclusive proof, the coroner also said that a member or members of the MI6 or GCHQ could have been involved.
Gareth Williams’ family remains adamant that MI6 at least knows more about his death than the agency’s members are willing to reveal. They have openly questioned how the rumors, that the family continues to deny, of the sordid details of Williams’ his private life could have been mysteriously leaked to the newspapers. The family claims that Williams has been the target of a smear campaign.
John Sawers, head of MI6 and GCHQ, offered a “profound apology” to Williams’ family for the delay in taking action after Williams was reported missing. However, MI6 officials have denied that his death was the result of the espionage-related “black arts.” Family members, however, remain unconvinced and are using legal channels to get the British secret service as well as the police to reveal more about what they may have uncovered about the case.
After the coroner concluded that Williams was killed and did not die by sexual misadventure, police at Scotland Yard stated that they have exhausted all of their leads, and that Williams ‘probably locked himself in holdall’ willingly, because they keys were found inside. Also a retired Army sergeant, William MacKay, demonstrated for police how Williams could have done it.
Police however continue to assure the public that they haven’t given up yet, so the mysterious death of Gareth Williams will most likely remain a hot topic for 2013.