A Scots businessman who died after buying a shipment of deadly snakes over the internet during a trip to America may have injected himself with an overdose of venom.
As the family of Garrick Wales, 48, laid him to rest near his home in Kilmacolm, Inverclyde, near Glasgow yesterday detectives in Arkansas said the circumstances of his death remained a mystery.
Mr Wales, a computer programmer with three children, was found dead in a rented car near an airport at Little Rock, Arkansas, on 13 May half a mile from where a wooden box containing four African snakes was discovered.
Police initially thought he may have been attacked by one of the reptiles whose venom can induce paralysis and death within 10 to 30 minutes of a bite.
Although Mr Wales was not known to be a collector of snakes or a dealer in exotic animals in Scotland, he had made previous purchases of poisonous reptiles during business trips to the United States.
On the morning of his death he had collected a shipment containing a 14in twig snake, a 6ft green mamba, a 4ft black mamba and a 5ft forest cobra - all of which can kill a man - from Little Rock airport.
The shipment had been sent to him by a dealer in Florida from whom he had bought the snakes over the internet.
Staff at the Exotic Reptiles Jungle shop, which advertises "wild-caught imports", "bargains galore", green mambas retailing at £84 and Egyptian cobras for £56, sold the two boxes of snakes to Mr Wales. They said he had told them he was a "snake aficionado" and was planning to give them to a friend in Arkansas as a gift.
By arranging to have the snakes sent to Little Rock Mr Wales appears to have been acting within the law because unlike Florida, Arkansas does not require people to have a licence to keep lethal animals.
But police have not yet been able to trace the friend and there were suggestions yesterday that Mr Wales may have injected himself with the venom.
Police are understood to have found a bundle of unused syringes in the car and in Mr Wales's pocket but there was no evidence of him having any antidote to the venom.
A police spokesman in Little Rock said an autopsy had failed to find any obvious wound which would indicate a snake bite.
Forensic examination of the body is believed to have found signs of old needle marks and one theory is that he may have been trying to build up an immunity to snake bites by deliberately injecting a small amount of venom into his system. However, experts in handling poisonous snakes say that although people have been known to successfully build up an immunity to snake venom in this way, it is a dangerous method.
Venom from snakes such as those bought by Mr Wales renders victims immobile within minutes because the neurotoxins that are released prevent any control over limbs before slowly spreading to the lungs and causing asphyxiation.
Although such a death is known to be violent and painful, it is believed that police in Arkansas are still awaiting results of toxicology tests to show whether there was any snake venom or other poisons in Mr Wales's system. Officials in Scotland have confirmed that Mr Wales did not have a licence to keep dangerous animals in the United Kingdom and a visit to his home earlier this week revealed no evidence of any other creatures likely to pose a risk to people.
Detective Eric Knowles of Little Rock police said: "Whether he had a snake fetish, we just simply don't know. We can say that this is definitely not a homicide. There is definitely no foul play as far as someone else contributing to his death. All other possibilities remain open to us."
Second only to drugs, the illegal trade in wild and exotic animals is big business and police in Little Rock are anxious to discover what Mr Wales was doing with this, and previous shipments, of dangerous snakes. A spokesman for Inverclyde Council, who confirmed that Mr Wales was not registered to handle dangerous animals, said: "It is a complete mystery. We have no record of him at all and indeed there is nobody in the west of Scotland licensed to handle animals like these.
"Officers from the council visited the family and although they are extremely distressed we were able to establish that there are no animals on the premises which could be a danger to the public."
Although Mr Wales's interest in snakes appears to have been a well-kept secret, Lyn Dalgleish, a family friend, said there had been a rumour last year that Mr Wales was bitten by a snake while climbing in South Africa and had been very ill for a time as a result.
The state of Arkansas borders Tennessee, where snake-handling is a regular practice among fundamentalist religions because worshippers believe that touching poisonous serpents marks them out as true followers of God.
Yesterday Mr Wales's family held a service of thanksgiving at the Old Kirk, in Kilmacolm, where Mr Wales lived with his wife, Pamela, and their three children, Christopher, Zoe and Michael.
Although friends were invited to the service, the burial was strictly private and instead of flowers mourners were encouraged to donate money to Mr Wales's favourite African charity.