LONDON, United Kingdom — (DMN/Guardian) – It’s a story that seems like a screenplay for a James Bond movie but the dramatic details and unanswered questions surrounding the death of MI6 spy Gareth Williams are anything but fantasy. He was the best of logicians, according to a former maths teacher, but the manner of Gareth Williams’s death apparently defied logic. The 31-year-old “high-flier” who was possessed of “tremendous technical ability” left a puzzle that may never be satisfactorily solved. To add to his family’s grief, the police investigation saw all vestige of privacy destroyed for a man who was, in life, intensely private.
Those custodians of his memory sat through the inquest as his wardrobe doors were flung open and his computer data analysed amid innuendo and speculation. It cannot have been a comforting experience. His parents, Ian and Ellen, listened as a complicated picture emerged of their prodigy son, the brilliant mathematician who took O-levels at 10 and graduated from Bangor University seven years later. To his sister Ceri, 28, a physiotherapist in Chester, Williams was the perfect “big brother”, always on hand to proffer advice, or pay for “dainty finger sandwiches” at the Ritz on her trips to London. His “passions” were the mountains, fell running and cycling. Strong, fit and muscular, he loved the outdoor life and climbing expeditions with his father.
Having applied successfully for a three-year secondment from GCHQ, the government listening post in Cheltenham, to MI6in London, Williams cut it short and was moving back to the countryside he loved. His closest friends in London described him as “a laugh”, someone to watch DVDs with, or meet for coffee and cake in Knightsbridge. Sian Lloyd Jones, a fashion stylist he had known since primary school in Anglesey, north Wales, and her flat-mate Elizabeth Guthrie, were both “just friends”. Police don’t appear to have found any sexual partner. “Was he in love with you?” the coroner, Fiona Wilcox, asked Jones. “Just very, very fond of me,” she replied.
Neither ever visited his flat, and nor did work colleagues. And neither had knowledge of the £20,000 collection of “high-end” women’s clothing and 26 pairs of designer women’s shoes he kept there. Perhaps they were for “gifts”, they said, maintaining that they certainly wouldn’t be for him. Police thought they, possibly, could fit him. His former landlords in Cheltenham, who rescued him after he tied himself to his bedposts three years before his death, thought it a “sexual” adventure, rather than “escapology”. And he had visited bondage sites, though police did stress only on “sporadic and isolated” occasions. Such visits made up a “tiny” percentage of his web browsing. His family’s lawyer suggested they coincided with him preparing for SIS training courses, and police had tried to discover if his training involved “trying to escape from being tied”, but had been given “no information”.
Video of him posing naked apart from boots, found on his phone, could not be thus explained. Williams’s workmates knew little of him, beyond the “shy” smile of an “introverted” colleague. He avoided after-work socialising, pursuing his hobbies mainly alone. Largely teetotal, he would drink with his female friends in their flat, but not out in company. He was a member of the British Mountaineering Council and the British Film Council, and was passionate about the arts and music. Stephen Gale, a retired GCHQ board member, said it was “very lucky to recruit him” when he joined at 21 with a first-class degree in maths and a PhD in computer sciences. His bosses were so impressed that they paid for him to gain a further qualification in advanced mathematics at Cambridge University, though he didn’t sit the exam after a cycling accident.
Colleagues at GCHQ described him as “the red bullet”, as he flew around Gloucestershire on his bike. He was a “world class” intelligence officer, who spent one year attached to the cryptology team and then five with the maths and number theory team. By 2005 he was on active liaison and technical operations, taking part in anything from theoretical problem-solving to the practical application of the techniques he had developed. He won two awards, one posthumously in 2010 for his outstanding technical contribution in innovation. In 2009, he was part of a team awarded the prestigious Mary Church award in recognition of significant achievement in cryptic analysis. “He was very well liked and very highly respected by his colleagues,” said Gale.
As Detective Chief Inspector Jackie Sebire, the senior investigating officer, pledged the police investigation “would not stop until we find the answers”, she paid tribute to Williams. “He was a brilliant young man who spent his entire adult life working for his country and was commended for it,” she said.
Gareth Williams: the key unanswered questions
Could Williams’s death be linked to his work?
Few details were made public about Gareth Williams’s work, except that he designed “practical applications for emerging technologies” and was deemed “low risk”. Although he had passed the course to become “fully deployable” six months before his death, he was only operational in the UK and not overseas. He had contact with two “undercover” agents, but according to SIS that did not increase his risk. A witness identified only as SIS F said an internal review had confirmed: “There was no evidence of any specific threat to Gareth and we concluded there was no reason to think his death was anything to do with his work.”
His flat, according to the letting agent he rented through, had been leased by the secretary of state since 2003. MI6said it had not arranged the let. GCHQ said it was a private rental through an approved letting agency. Williams was due to move back to Cheltenham the week after his death, and another GCHQ employee was trying to contact him to view the flat in the week he was missing. No details were given of who previously rented it. SIS denied it was a safe house. But Anthony O’Toole, lawyer for the family, said: “We are concerned that if this had been in continuous occupation by a member of the services since 2003, then whilst it is not a ‘safe house’ it may be known to certain parties as being the residence of SIS.”
Williams had carried out a small number of searches on the SIS database that were “unauthorised” and not apparently operationally linked, which, “theoretically” could have exposed him to pressure from “malign” persons unknown, but it was thought unlikely by his SIS bosses. His most recent assignment had been a “hackers” conference in Las Vegas, known to have been attended by criminal hackers, from which he returned on 11 August 2010. He had requested a move back to GCHQ in Cheltenham from MI6. Among reasons he gave to his sister was “friction” at the MI6 London HQ.
Robin Williams, family solicitor: “We are disappointed at MI6 for failing to make relevant documents available”
Could his death be linked to his private life?
Williams’s wardrobe included £20,000 of “high-end” women’s clothing, size small to medium, and 26 pairs of women’s shoes, size six and six-and-a-half. Female wigs and makeup were also found. He had accessed “bondage” websites. There was video footage on one phone of him posing naked apart from leather boots. The landlady of the annex flat he had rented in Cheltenham for 10 years said she and her husband had found him shouting for help, with his hands tied to his bedposts, three years before his death. He said he was seeing if he could get free. They cut him free, believing it “sexual rather than escapology”.
He had visited a transvestite act two days before he failed to turn up for work, and had accessed drag queen websites. He had taken two fashion design courses at Central St Martin’s college without telling MI6. But, the inquest was told, the visits to the bondage websites were “sporadic and isolated”, making up a tiny percentage of his time online. O’Toole suggested the bedpost incident coincided with his first, failed attempt to join MI6, and the website access coincided with his future successful application, and then preparation for training courses. Detective Chief Inspector Jackie Sebire agreed it was possible he was “preparing” for courses in “escaping from being tied”, and has asked for information on the courses, “but no information has come back”.
She confirmed he had not visited “sadomasochism” or “claustrophilia” sites. At 60kg (9.5st) and 1.72 metres (5ft 8in), Williams could “possibly” have fitted into the clothes and, she thought, the shoes too. Friends did not believe he bought them for himself, but as “gifts”. The shoes would have also fitted his sister. There were unverifiable reports of him visiting gay bars. Police found no sexual partner.
Could a “third party” be involved, or was he alone?
Sebire said she had always believed a “third party” was involved, either in the death or in locking Williams in the bag. Inconclusive fragments of DNA components from at least two other contributors were found on the bag. Two experts tried, and failed, a total of 400 times to lock the holdall from inside. One would not rule it out. “There are people around who can do amazing things and Mr Williams may well have been one of those persons,” said one expert, William MacKay. No prints were found on the tiled bathroom walls where police expected he would have steadied his balance if getting into the bag alone.
No other conclusive DNA has yet been found in the flat, with tests ongoing on a crumpled towel found in the kitchen. A bag expert, Peter Faulding, said Williams would have to be “dead or unconscious” when placed in the bag. The pathologist Richard Shepherd said it “more likely than not” he was alive because it was “not easy” to place a floppy, newly dead body in as neat a position as Williams was found in. If in the bag alive, he would have been overcome by CO2 toxicity within two to three minutes “at most”, said another pathologist, Ian Calder. Keys to the padlock were found under Williams’s right buttock.
There were no signs of a break in, but if the mortice lock on the front door was off, someone could open the other lock by reaching through the letterbox, the inquest heard. No data on his laptops or phones revealed contact with anyone suspicious. But an iPhone at his flat had been reset to factory settings just before his death. There were no signs of struggle on his body.
Was he drugged or poisoned?
The degree of decomposition made it impossible to rule out. The body had deteriorated due to heat. It was summer. For some unknown reason the heating was on in the flat.
Were “secret agents” specialising in the “dark arts” involved?
O’Toole said: “The impression of the family is that the unknown third party was a member of some agency specialising in the dark arts of the secret service, or evidence has been removed postmortem by experts in those dark arts.” Each organisation was granted permission to withhold sensitive evidence from other parties and the public. One iPhone found on the table in the flat had been wiped on or before the last day he was seen and it was impossible for tell if it was done manually or remotely. Police said the service provider had “no data history”, which they took to mean no calls or website browsing had taken place.
Williams’s belongings at MI6 were in a shared cabinet with a combination lock used by others, and only examined three days after his death. GCHQ equipment was examined shortly afterwards. SO15 officers said they had requested the items be secured prior to police examination and were assured they had been. Detective Constable Simon Warren, who examined Williams’s laptops, memory sticks, CDs and DVDs said “any data even at the lowest levels can be changed or deleted”. But he said there was no evidence files had been amended since his death. By the time his line manager reported him missing, Williams had not been seen for eight days, and chances of retrieving viable forensic evidence were much reduced because of decomposition.
WEBSITES AND SMARTPHONES: As part of the inquest, Mr Williams’ computers and phones were examined. Detectives said the computers had been used to visit bondage websites. But, the inquest heard, this did not necessarily suggest an ongoing interest in such sites. Mr Williams’ phones also had bondage websites in their browser history, while a smartphone found on a table contained no data because its factory settings had been restored.
Gareth Williams inquest exposes police difficulties when MI6 is involved
The difficulties homicide detectives face investigating any suspicious death of a secret intelligence service officer came under intense scrutiny during the Gareth Williamsinquest. Fears of risk to national security or individual witnesses force Scotland Yard to operate at arm’s length when dealing with MI6and GCHQ. Once the body is identified as an operational Secret Intelligence Service (SIS) officer, different rules come into play. Detective Chief Inspector Jackie Sebire, senior investigating officer in the Williams case, and her team were allowed no direct access to sensitive witnesses or evidence. Instead, security-cleared officers from SO15 – counter-terrorism – acted as go-betweens.
So, SO15 officers, not those from homicide command, interviewed SIS witnesses, in the presence of their line managers and legal representatives, and put the questions murder detectives would rather have put themselves. Then instead of producing signed, sworn, verbatim statements, SO15 produced “anonymised” notes, drawn up after interview. It is not “impossible” to get a homicide detective vetted and cleared to question SIS, but it would take time and is not the normal procedure adopted. Sebire admitted homicide would have liked “primary access”. She added: “That simply wasn’t possible in those circumstances. “Given the circumstances, this was the best possible scenario”. She had faith in the SO15 officers deployed to assist, the inquest heard.
Difficulties, however, were apparent. Not until the penultimate day of the inquest was Sebire made aware that potential evidence, namely nine assorted memory sticks and a black holdall found at Williams’s office at MI6 HQ in Vauxhall, central London, even existed. She was not given an inventory of items and documents found in Williams’s shared locker, or in a locked North Face bag under his desk, because none was drawn up due to the “sensitive nature” of some of the contents. The MI6 offices had been searched by the SO15 forensic officer Detective Constable Colin Hall, under the leadership of SO15 Detective Superintendent Michael Broster, accompanied by two SIS officers.
Sebire said she would “have expected to have been told” about this potential evidence, “so we can review It and assess its value”. Throughout the inquest, the Williams family lawyer, Anthony O’Toole, was critical of the way the investigation was being handled. S015, he said, simply took assurances from SIS without questioning. There were “errors” and “discrepancies” in the anonymised statements, which he described almost like “attendance notes”, and no SIS officers had been given the notes to review or check for accuracy, he said. “It was almost under the Old Boys’ Act,” he said to Broster of assurances given by SIS. “They told you that and you accepted it.”
The BBC and ITN contributed to this report.