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'Spy in the bag' case: Conspiracy theories run wild

Britain is wrestling with one of the country's strangest real-life spy mysteries: the perplexing death of Gareth Williams, a rising star at the MI6 spy agency whose body was found  in a duffel bag in a bathtub at a government flat in London.
/ Source: The New York Times

Britain, home to the MI6 spy agency that inspired the James Bond stories and the billion-dollar film franchise, has been wrestling this week with one of the country’s strangest real-life spy mysteries in a generation, one that has become known popularly as the case of the spy in the bag.

An inquest held just across the Thames from MI6’s headquarters here has brought forth details of the bizarre and lonely death in August 2010 of Gareth Williams, a 31-year-old rising star in supersecret counterterrorism work. He was found in a fetal position, arms crossed on his chest, locked inside a duffel bag resting in an unfilled bathtub at the government flat assigned to him in the upscale Pimlico district of London.

His naked body had been in the bag for a week before it was discovered, so badly decomposed that the police and pathologists have been unable to determine whether he was murdered in what his family’s lawyer has suggested to the court was a plot by others skilled in the “dark arts” of spy work.

That theory has played prominently here, with Mr. Williams depicted alternately as a victim of Russian secret service hit men, extremists with Al Qaeda, or a multitude of other potential assassins working in the murky world of espionage who poisoned him with potassium cyanide or an overdose of a powerful sedative drug, GHB, a theory pathologists said could not be effectively tested because of the advanced decomposition.

Image: Gareth Williams

While the police and MI6 officials have refused to rule out those theories, they suggested a more likely but mundane explanation: that although the day had long passed when the agency dictated agents’ lifestyles, he was leading a doubly secret life, as a licensed MI6 field agent and as a sexual fantasist.

According to this hypothesis, he simply died in a sex game that went wrong, probably involving someone who fled the scene. One of the sparse forensic discoveries at the scene involved traces of DNA that were found on the duffel bag’s zipper and the lock, not belonging to Mr. Williams or to anybody on the police or pathology teams, but too microscopic to offer a trail to anybody else.

The theory of sexual misadventure has been bolstered by evidence that Mr. Williams, a bachelor with no known romantic involvements, went to transvestite performances and visited sites on the Internet dedicated to bondage and “claustrophilia,” a condition that involves getting sexual thrills from being shut in enclosed spaces.

Investigators also discovered that he had more than $30,000 worth of women’s high-fashion clothing, including Christian Louboutin shoes and Christian Dior dresses, in carefully packed bags in his apartment. Much of the clothing was brand new, but some of the 26 pairs of shoes had been worn, and a bright orange woman’s wig was found over the back of a chair, along with a pair of newly pressed men’s underpants, in Mr. Williams’s otherwise sparsely decorated but conspicuously tidy bedroom.

UK spy death: 'Even Houdini' could not have locked himself in bag

At the inquest on Friday, a video was played showing two men hired by the police — one a yoga expert and the other a former military man trained in escape techniques, and both of roughly the same size and height as the muscular, athletic, 5-foot-7-inch Mr. Williams — trying to replicate what he would have had to do to get himself into the bag alone and lock it from inside. Using the same kind of red, extra-large North Face duffel bag, and the tub in the Pimlico flat, the two men were shown contorting themselves — more than 100 times in the case of one man, and 300 times in the case of the other — without managing the feat.

Investigators concluded that someone else had to have helped in closing the bag and locking it. The police have said further that they cannot rule out that Mr. Williams was dead before being placed in the bag, or that the bag with his body in it was lifted into the bathtub from somewhere else. There were no fingerprints or other traces that would have been expected if Mr. Williams had supported himself on the bathtub’s rim while lowering himself into the bag.

Concerns about national security have contributed to the 20-month delay in the inquest.

Image: A combination of still photographs taken from video shows a man trying to lock himself in a holdall in this undated image received from the Metropolitan Police in London
A combination of still photographs taken from video shows a man trying to lock himself in a holdall in this undated image received from the Metropolitan Police in London on April 27, 2012. The video was shown to the Inquest into the death of MI6 officer Gareth Williams, who was found dead in his flat locked in a holdall. The video showed the man demonstrating if it was possible that Williams could have locked himself into the bag. REUTERS/Metropolitan Police/Handout (BRITAIN - Tags: POLITICS CRIME LAW) FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY. NOT FOR SALE FOR MARKETING OR ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS. THIS IMAGE HAS BEEN SUPPLIED BY A THIRD PARTY. IT IS DISTRIBUTED, EXACTLY AS RECEIVED BY REUTERS, AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTSMetropolitan Police / X80001

Mr. Williams, a Cambridge-educated mathematical genius from the mountains of North Wales, was working on what his superiors have described as the practical use of new technologies in the field of electronic surveillance. Police testimony has described him as a picture of tranquillity in death, lying faceup, looking “very calm,” with no injuries to his nails or fingers and no “signs of stress or fear” on his body or on the bag’s interior netting. But the men who tried to lock themselves in the bag, and pathologists, have said at the inquest that he would have suffocated within 30 minutes from a rapid 20-degree rise in heat and a buildup of carbon dioxide.

Family members, including Mr. Williams’s parents and a sister, appealed unsuccessfully to the coroner not to allow the video of the re-enactment to be shown to the court, but it was quickly posted on the Internet after the court session ended. Inquest sessions have been suspended when relatives have broken into sobbing and hyperventilating, on one occasion when a senior MI6 officer testified anonymously from behind a screen that their son’s MI6 supervisor had not been disciplined for failing to report him missing, even though the normally punctilious Mr. Williams had not been at work for more than a week.

MI6 and the other spy agencies in Britain, including Government Communications Headquarters, the powerful, partly American-financed electronic surveillance center, which had transferred Mr. Williams to MI6, are no strangers to scandals that have involved the sex lives of some of their greatest talents.

Alan M. Turing, the mathematician whom many regard as the father of modern computer science, known for leading the team that cracked Nazi Germany’s military ciphers in World War II, committed suicide in 1954 by eating a cyanide-laced apple after being convicted of homosexuality, then a criminal offense. The so-called Cambridge spies of the 1950s, several of whom fled to the Soviet Union, had homosexual liaisons as young men.

But MI6 has used the mystery of Mr. Williams’s death to signal that efforts have been made to neutralize the potential for blackmail in the private lives of British agents. One of the two MI6 officials who have testified at the inquest said the agency knew of Mr. Williams’s sexual predilections, including his visits to bondage Web sites, his interest in transvestite performances and his collection of women’s clothing, and deemed that they posed no problem in his professional life, where he had performed “world-class work.” Other MI6 officials have said some of his work involved close contact with American spy agencies, and visits to the United States.

The MI6 official, identified in court as SIS F — for the Secret Intelligence Service, MI6’s formal name, and “female” — said agents’ sex lives were now their own private concern. “There is no set template for what their lifestyle should be,” she said. “Individuals have lifestyle and sexual choices and sexual preferences which are perfectly legitimate.” But she also said Mr. Williams had used his MI6 computer to make “a small number” of illicit searches on the MI6 database, which she did not detail, that could have made him vulnerable to blackmail by foreign agents. While the agency believed there was no connection between his spy work and his death, she said, that could not be ruled out.

Another clue to Mr. Williams’s mind-set at his death came from a clipping from the newspaper The Observer that was found in his flat. Dated on the day before his last Web search, the article focused on research into what people on their deathbeds most regretted. These included not having the “courage to live true to myself” and wishing they had “stayed in touch with friends” and had “let myself be happier.”

This story, "," originally appeared in The New York Times.