Merrell Williams earned $9 an hour as a lawyer's clerk. Then he leaked papers that might sink the $50bn tobacco industry. Now he's frightened

The White Mustang convertible looked a little seedy. The driver appeared to be in his fifties, plump with unkempt sandy hair and a boozer's ruddy complexion, essentially the description I had been given. But the car did not stop at the cafe where I had been told to wait for him. It kept going down the street.

A few minutes later the car passed by again. I got a better look at the driver and was now convinced that he was the man I had come to meet. On the next pass the car stopped and the driver got out and walked towards the cafe. He looked like someone who'd been up all night and had slept in his clothes. "I'm Merrell Williams," he said. "Sorry I'm late, but I had to see if anyone was following me."

"They are still following you?" I asked.

"Oh, yes," he said, "they're there. They'll probably always be there. They like to know everywhere I go and everyone I meet."

Merrell Williams, one-time actor, drama teacher, garage hand, law clerk and failed family man, is America's most famous document thief since Daniel Ellsberg, a defence analyst at the Pentagon who in 1971 leaked top-secret documents about America's involvement in Vietnam. From 1988 to 1992, Williams worked in Louisville, Kentucky, as a $9-an-hour clerk in a law firm representing Brown & Williamson, a subsidiary of the British tobacco company, BAT Industries, which makes Kool and Viceroy cigarettes. During that time he removed and copied more than 4,000 confidential documents which reveal the company's concealment, over 40 years, of its own research into the dangers of smoking.

As a whole, the $50bn-a-year industry may never fully recover from this spectacular leak. The documents are being used in scores of lawsuits claiming damages from the tobacco companies for the effects of smoking. In more than 1,000 lawsuits over 40 years, the tobacco companies never paid a penny in damages, but the documents could well change that. They were crucial in a decision by a Florida jury in August to award a 65-year-old man $750,000 for his lung cancer after smoking for 43 years. To survive the impact of the leak, the tobacco companies may have to strike a deal with Congress to settle current suits. Such a deal would have to take account of claims by 17 states seeking reimbursement of medical expenses paid for the care of poor people with smoking-related illnesses. The total sum involved could be hundreds of billions of dollars, which could bankrupt at least the smaller companies.

The industry remains defiant and frequently reassures shareholders of its blue-chip stock that all will be well. None the less, B&W went to extraordinary lengths to prevent the documents from reaching the public, even attempting to bring pressure on Congressmen and journalists. But the efforts failed. The documents are now available on the Internet, and more than half a million copies have been downloaded. You can buy a full set on a CD-Rom for pounds 125. The documents have also been the subject of two books in America. One, an academic work, The Cigarette Papers, analyses and reprints many of them. Another, Smokescreen: The Truth Behind the Tobacco Industry Cover-up, quotes them extensively. On Thursday, Channel 4's Dis-patches features a documentary about Williams and the effect his papers are having on the industry worldwide.

Williams himself has become a hero of the anti-smoking crusaders and is being sought by Hollywood producers for his story. But they are not alone in hunting him down. B&W is suing Williams for breach of confidence, for extortion and profiteering. The company regards him as a common thief and would like to put him in jail. For months, it successfully gagged him with a court order so strict that he wasn't even allowed to talk to his own lawyer. He is still forbidden to disseminate the documents. He may end up in jail for contempt of court by refusing to answer questions about when and how the documents became public. There is also a covert campaign against him, he believes, with his phone tapped and his house bugged. He is sure that he is being followed by tobacco company agents.

The strain of his private war against Big Tobacco is starting to show. His Kentucky lawyer, Fox DeMoisey, once described Williams's face as looking like "10 miles of bad road". That's about how he looked when I first met him in that cafe on Main Street in Ocean Springs, a quiet, lazy town on Mississippi's Gulf coast.

AS A child, Williams used to spend summers here. He has returned as a drifter. He was virtually broke, until one of the lawyers suing the tobacco companies took pity on him, bought him a $110,000 house and a $15,000, 30ft sailing boat, and found him some work as a paralegal with a local law firm. He has no family or real friends and is consumed by fears of retaliation from the tobacco industry; but his worst enemies are loneliness and depression, for which he takes medication and receives therapy.

He was not much better off when he started to work indirectly for Brown & Williamson at the beginning of 1988. He was living in Louisville and was divorcing his second wife. He had two menial jobs, one as a handyman, the other raking leaves. Then he heard about an opening with Kentucky's largest law firm, Wyatt, Tarrant & Combs, which represents B&W. The job, according to court files, was to "analyse and classify documents in connection with the defence of smoking and health lawsuits". It gave Williams liberal access to company secrets, hundreds of boxes of confidential documents about research into smoking and health carried out in the 1960s and 1970s, mostly by B&W's London-based parent company, BAT Industries. He was astonished by what he saw. In public, the company had always denied that nicotine was addictive or that there was any causal link between smoking, lung cancer and heart disease. In private, the company's internal research provided a very different picture.

The documents contain two key revelations. Stan Glantz, author of The Cigarette Papers and a professor of medicine at the University of California, San Francisco, says that the first revelation was the very sophisticated work carried out in the Sixties on nicotine pharmacology; to understand how nicotine was addictive and how it worked on the brain. "This work was 25 years ahead of what was going on in the general scientific community," Glantz says.

One of the documents that caught Merrell Williams's eye was a 1963 memo written by Addison Yeaman, a vice-president and general counsel for B&W. In a comment on a recent research paper, Yeaman wrote, "Moreover, nicotine is addictive. We are, then, in the business of selling nicotine, an addictive drug ..."

Today, the tobacco companies, including B&W, say the effects of nicotine do not meet their definition of addiction. It does not produce, they say, tolerance, intoxication or euphoria, and does not cause physical dependence, loss of self-control or inability to function. The consensus of the scientific community, however, is that nicotine is an addictive substance.

The second key revelation in the documents was that the company gave its lawyers progressively greater control over policy - especially where it involved internal scientific research. "They developed a very elaborate system whereby any potentially damaging scientific report would be filtered through the legal department," says Professor Glantz. Each company carried out its own research but since the Fifties scientific research for the big tobacco companies had in addition been coordinated by an umbrella organisation, the Council for Tobacco Research, in New York. Around this time, lawyers took a greater part in directing projects there too, often choosing research that would help them in defending lawsuits.

When it came to discussions about the harmful effects of smoking, and the charges that it caused lung cancer, B&W was even loath to use the word "cancer" in its internal reports. The codename "Zephyr" was used instead. Williams found, and copied, memos from lawyers warning against "careless statements" in internal documents that could be used in court. These included "the search for a safer cigarette" and "healthy cigarette", because such phrases implied that the cigarettes already on the market were unsafe.

Williams, a smoker of B&W's Kool brand, was horrified; both because of what might have happened to his body, and at the idea that, by working at the law firm, he might himself be taking part in a conspiracy. It was then, he says, that he became a crusader for a wider goal - telling the world about the evil tobacco companies.

B&W maintain that Williams never had the public health in mind; that he was simply out for personal gain. The story of Williams's self-destructive life and how he came to steal the documents leaves room for both interpretations. But there is little doubt that in making the documents public, Williams put himself at great personal risk, and damaged his health. Like the tobacco companies, he may never fully recover.

WILLIAMS was born in 1941 in Louisiana into a middle-class family. He went to the University of Waco in Texas, and dedicated himself to acting, drinking and raising hell. He had a brief spell in the army, then got a doctorate in drama. He taught speech and theatre but soon acquired a reputation for being late for class and leaving early. He married, divorced, married again and had two children. He lost his teaching job in the early Eighties and returned to Mississippi's Gulf coast. He thought about becoming a shrimper; but his second wife, fed up with his lack of ambition and money, soon persuaded him to move to Louisville, her home town.

It was some weeks after he started work for the law firm that he began furtively taking notes and stuffing the scraps of paper into his socks. He would write them up at night when he got home. The heavy security at work was a problem. Supervisors watched the paralegals, and there was a guard on the door of the document warehouse who was supposed to examine bags.

In time, Williams became bolder. He started taking documents out in his lunch hour and copying them. He had an old back brace, a sort of corset that he used at the gym, and would stuff documents into it and walk out past the guard. The papers made a crinkling noise as he walked, so he used to carry a packet of crisps as a decoy.

By 1990, he was divorced again, gaining custody of his children, and had met his third wife. By this time he had a cache of documents at home and was wondering what to do with them. He says he took a walk into the hills outside Louisville and asked God for guidance. The answer came back loud and clear: that he should make the documents public. "I am not saying that God said, `Steal documents', but after that I did," says Williams. He thought the growing US anti-smoking movement would leap at the chance of exposing the documents. Court challenges to the tobacco companies were intensifying, and there seemed to be cracks in their legal armour. In a 1988 case, a New Jersey jury awarded a lung-cancer victim $400,000, but the tobacco company appealed and the plaintiff couldn't afford to continue.

In 1990, Williams contacted a sympathetic law professor, Richard Daynard of Northeastern University, and a well-known journalist who used to work for the Washington Post. But both shied away from a confrontation with the industry. The documents were too hot, they said; the company was bound to sue. "You can't do anything," Daynard told him. "You'll go to jail."

But Williams was now a man with a mission. Obsessed with his documents, he imagined himself as some sort of spy, his life in peril because he knew too much. He loaded two boxes of documents into his car and drove them to a friend's house in Florida, an old campus colleague, for safekeeping.

After four years with the Louisville law firm Williams was laid off. On his last day, in March 1992, Williams bade his supervisor goodbye and walked out with a box of his personal things including a final bundle of documents. The guard never even looked inside the box.

A year later, Williams was rushed to hospital for a heart by-pass operation. He calls it another message from God. "He tried to kill me," he says. The message was: you smoked, and the tobacco company caused your heart disease, so sue them. Soon afterwards, he told his secret to his Louisville attorney, Fox DeMoisey, who suggested a novel legal strategy: Williams should give the documents back, then sue the company for causing him distress and depression - at seeing what the documents revealed - and for causing his heart problems.

A sealed box of documents was returned to B&W, but Williams kept copies. The company responded by suing Williams for fraud, theft and breach of contract. DeMoisey proposed an out-of-court settlement: $750,000 to Williams and a further $1.75m to his children over time. The terms were rejected and B&W launched a massive effort to prevent the documents from becoming public. The company obtained a court ruling forbidding Williams to disseminate them, or even talk about them to his own lawyer.

None the less, Williams was determined that the information should come out. In another of his dramatic life changes, Williams divorced his third wife, moved back to Mississippi in 1994 and sought out anti-tobacco lawyers. One of them was Dick Scruggs, who had made millions suing asbestos companies and was about to launch a big claim against the tobacco industry. Scruggs recalls that Williams was scared, looked sick and talked in riddles. Williams gave a copy of the documents to Scruggs. A former navy pilot, Scruggs flew a copy in his personal plane to the Washington office of Congressman Henry Waxman, chairman of the Congressional sub-committee inquiring into smoking and health. Other copies were leaked to all the major US newspapers and to the archives of Professor Glantz's university at San Francisco (UCSF). On reading the Addison Yeaman quote about nicotine being an "addictive substance", Scruggs remarked, "These guys are toast."

B&W stormed into court, issuing subpoenas against everyone with anything to do with the documents, including journalists and Congressman Waxman. Waxman was astounded: "Not only had I never received a subpoena of this nature before, I had never heard of a Committee of Congress being subpoenaed by the target of its own investigation." All the subpoenas were eventually thrown out by the court.

Undeterred, the company sent private detectives to the UCSF campus to spy on anyone asking to see the documents. The company also sued the university, demanding their return. "The librarian said, no, that book-burning went out in the 1930s," said Glantz. The university won. Shortly thereafter, the documents became available on the Internet.

B&W continues to pursue Williams, trying to get him to admit that there was a deal with Scruggs; the documents in return for a house and a sailing boat. The company implies that Scruggs may have been involved in unethical conduct. Both Scruggs and Williams deny that there was a deal. Scruggs says that Williams was doing something admirable in exposing the tobacco companies, he needed help, and he gave it to him. "He's a great American," he said.

B&W is claiming more than $1m in damages from Williams. The company says that Williams always hoped to profit from his thievery, and that he stole a selected - or biased - group of papers that distorts the true picture of its activities.

WILLIAMS'S life was falling apart long before he stole his first document. But his battle against Big Tobacco has pushed him close to breaking-point. He has a home, true, and a job, but little beyond that. "What do I do with my time?" he asks. "I'm a professional defendant."

In the tradition of the more complex Southern characters of Tennessee Williams and William Faulkner, the former actor prefers the role of anti- hero, to that of plain hero. "There's a certain point in life," he told me at one stage, "when you realise that you're a total failure. I mean, in my opinion, I'm a total failure." Later, he was more positive: "You can call me Robin Hood, or you can call me a thief. But in the end I met my goal. I got the documents out."

"But they would say you are a thief," I said.

The charge focused Williams's wandering mind into a flash of lucidity. "And what did I steal? The truth?" !

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