Gareth Williams, the MI6 officer whose naked body was found in a padlocked bag, was probably the victim of a “criminally mediated” unlawful killing in which poison may have been used. That was the verdict reached yesterday at the end of a highly charged inquest into the death marked by accusations of an official cover up.
The discovery of 31 year old Mr Williams’ body, in a North Face holdall, in the en-suite bath of his flat in Alderney Street, Pimlico, south west London, due to his profession as an intelligence cypher expert had resulted in international interest and speculation about what happened.
The conclusion reached yesterday by coroner, Dr Fiona Wilcox, effectively pointed towards murder by a “third party” who had apparently managed to eliminate any evidence of their complicity. However, because of a series of blunders, one of the most high profile murder investigations in recent times may never be solved.
“It is unlikely this death will ever be satisfactorily explained” Dr Wilcox, told a packed hearing with Mr Williams’ family, representatives of intelligence services, and senior Scotland Yard officers among those attending. “Most of the fundamental questions in relation to how Gareth died remain unanswered”.
She continued: "I find it more likely than not that Gareth entered the bag alive and then died very soon afterwards either from the toxic effects of carbon dioxide and heat before he was able to make a concerted effort to escape from some unknown poison dioxide and heat. “I am satisfied so that I am sure that a third party on the balance of probabilities locked the bag placed the bag in to the bath where it was found.”
The Coroner maintained that it remained a "legitimate line of inquiry" that the intelligence services were involved in the death of 31 year old Mr Williams, who was on secondment to MI6 from GCHQ at the time, although she stressed "there was no evidence to support that he died at the hands” of a government agency.
But there had been repeated revelations of shortcomings in the inquiry and this week Westminster Coroner’s Court heard that potentially critical evidence, including nine memory sticks belonging to Mr Williams and a bag of the same make in which he was found, was only handed to police this week, 21 months after his killing in August 2010.
Dr Wilcox had been particularly severe in her criticism of the Metropolitan Police’s Counter Terrorism command (SO15) which had been tasked with liaising between the murder squad and MI6. At one stage she accused a senior officer, Detective Superintendent Michael Broster of collusion with MI6 and “not being impartial” in the case.
The inquest had also heard that Mr Williams’ immediate superior at the intelligence service did not raise an alert for seven days after he had failed to turn up for work and basic procedures in such a situation were not adhered to. The resulting delay of seven days, decomposition of the body in the Summer heat, enclosed in a holdall, meant that vital forensic evidence was lost and Mr Williams’ parents could not view their dead son.
At the end of proceedings the inquest heard an unprecedented personal apology from Sir John Sawers, the head of the Secret Intelligence Service [MI6] to Mr Williams’ family.
In a statement Sir John acknowledged that the “Service’s failure to act more swiftly when Gareth first became absent from work has contributed to the anguish and suffering of his family.
“On behalf of the whole organisation, we regret this deeply and apologise unreservedly. Lessons have been learned, in particular the responsibility of all staff to report unaccounted staff absences".
Sir John continued: "Gareth Williams was a man of remarkable talents, talents which he devoted to public service. The work that Gareth undertook during his career both at Cheltenham and London made a real contribution to the security of this country and of its citizens. Gareth continues to be mourned by his friends and colleagues."
Members of Mr Williams’ family, in particular his mother, had been unable to sit through some of the more harrowing evidence. Yesterday, in a statement read out by their solicitor, Robyn Williams, they said“"To lose a son and brother in such circumstances as have been outlined during the course of this inquest only compounds the tragedy.
"Our grief is exacerbated by the failure of his employers at MI6 to take even the most basic inquiries as to his whereabouts and welfare, which any reasonable employer would have taken. We are also extremely disappointed at the reluctance and failure of MI6 to make available relevant information.
"We would like to ask Metropolitan Police Commissioner Bernard Hogan-Howe to look into and review how this investigation will proceed in light of the total inadequacies of the SO15 investigation into MI6 during the course of this inquiry."
Detective Chief Inspector Jackie Sabire, in charge of the team investigating Mr Williams death, said” "I've always been satisfied a third party may have been involved in his death and the coroner has confirmed that in her finding today. "The inquest has raised several new lines of inquiry and the investigation will refocus and actively pursue all the evidence heard and all the new lines of inquiry. I urge anyone who knew Mr Williams or had contact with him to search their conscience and come forward with any information about what had happened.”