Spy in the bag: The mysterious death of Gareth Williams

September 23, 2018
Gareth Williams

ON August 23, 2010, police found the body of a naked man in the bathtub of his flat in Pimlico, London, zipped inside a red North Face bag which was padlocked shut from the outside.

Gareth Williams
Gareth Williams

The key to the padlock was found in the bag, beneath the man’s body. This would all be strange enough, but to complicate the mystery, the man in question was Gareth Williams, a Welsh mathematician who was working with the British Secret Intelligence Service, also known as MI6. In other words, a spy.

Hailing from Anglesey, Wales, Gareth Williams was a true whiz kid, getting a first-class math degree from Bangor University when he was only 17. He subsequently got his Ph.D. from the University of Manchester and went to work for Government Communications Headquarters, or GCHQ, who in turn seconded him out to MI6. Due to the top-secret nature of his work for the Secret Intelligence Service, the investigation of his death had to be handled in a less-than-routine manner.

Because the details of his case could not be immediately revealed to the public, or even to all of the police who were involved in the investigation, there are those who still believe that key elements of his death were covered up, falsified, or intentionally lost. Some sort of conspiracy would certainly explain many of the bizarre elements surrounding Williams’ death, including the strange arrangement of his body, the fact that no fingerprints or DNA were found on the bathtub or the bag, and that no drugs or poisons were found in a subsequent toxicology report.

Indeed, in 2012, a coroner’s inquest determined that it would have been almost impossible for Williams to have locked himself in the bag in question and concluded that his death was “unnatural and likely to have been criminally mediated.” Unfortunately, there wasn’t enough evidence for the inquest to render any more definitive verdict.

The coroner’s inquest led to a second investigation by the Metropolitan Police Department, which also led nowhere substantial, leading officials to declare that the “most probable scenario” was that Williams had died alone after accidentally locking himself in the bag, possibly as an act of solo bondage play that ended tragically.

While accidentally locking yourself in a bag seems like an absurd conclusion at a glance, there were certainly reasons for the police to have their suspicions. Three years before his death, Gareth Williams had been found by his landlady and her husband, tied to his bed and screaming for help. He told them that he had tied himself to the bed in order to see if he could get loose. Was that the truth, or was something more sinister going on? Perhaps someone else had tied Williams up, someone whose identity he wasn’t free to divulge to his landlady. Or perhaps he really had been practicing his escape artist skills. After all, as a spy, one never knows when the skills of escape might come in handy.

Another possibility that was brought up during the inquest was that Williams was interested in bondage. He had apparently spent some time on bondage websites, though the coroner determined that the visits were “intermittent” and not frequent enough to suggest an active interest in the lifestyle.

Still, that, combined with the tying-himself-to-the-bed incident, was enough for some people to write off Williams’ death as a sex game gone wrong.

The strange case hasn’t remained quiet in the years since Williams’ death. In 2015, Boris Karpichkov, a former KGB agent who had defected from Russia, claimed that Williams had been murdered by members of the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service by means of an “untraceable poison introduced in his ear.” According to Karpichkov, the reason for Williams’ murder was a failed attempt to recruit the Welsh mathematician into becoming a double agent. In the course of the attempt, Karpichkov said, the Russians discovered that Williams knew the identity of a Russian mole within the British Government Communications Headquarters and killed him in order to keep him from talking.

The counter-narrative sounds like something right out of a spy novel, with the double-agent in the GCHQ going by the code-name Orion, while Karpichkov calls the Russian assassins who did Williams in “The Cleaners” and claims that they used belladonna, aconite, and black henbane, according to some sources.

Karpichkov isn’t the only one who suspects that Russia might have been behind Williams’ death. According to a lengthy investigation by BuzzFeed News, several United States intelligence officials have confirmed that Gareth Williams is one of the 14 or more people who may have been killed by Russian assassins on British soil.

After former Russian agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia were poisoned with a Novichok nerve agent in Salisbury in March of 2018, Colin Sutton, a former Metropolitan Police detective and the senior officer on the scene of Williams’ death, has called for a fresh look into the strange case, “in light of the recent Russian activity in the UK.” Whether yet another investigation of the “spy in the bag” will shed any new light on the mysterious death of Gareth Williams remains to be seen, but it seems impossible to deny that there are still more questions than answers in this haunting case.

By ORRIN GREY