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Tuesday, December 12, 2023

Gareth Williams: The Man in the Bag

     Gareth Williams grew up in North Wales, graduated from Cambridge University and earned a Ph.D. from Manchester University. A math genius, he was hired as a codebreaker at the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) in Chetenham, England. A fit, slender man of five-foot seven who participated in competitive cycling, Williams kept to himself and lived a somewhat secret life. The quiet 31-year-old bachelor had become a rising star in the secret world of counterterrorism.

     In 2010, after ten years at the GCHQ electronic surveillance facility at Chetenham, Mr. Williams was transferred to the secret British intelligence gathering agency M16 in London. He lived on the top floor of a 5-story townhouse in the upscale Pimlico neighborhood of West London. The government-issued flat was less than a mile from M16 headquarters.

     In August 2010, Mr. Williams, who didn't make a habit of missing work, hadn't been seen at M16 headquarters for more than a week. He was not on vacation or special assignment, and didn't answer his phone. His M16 supervisor did not report him missing, but residents of his townhouse, after not seeing him around, called the police.

     On Monday afternoon, August 23, 2010, police officers broke into Gareth Williams' apartment. In the bathroom they saw, sitting in the empty tub, a large cylindrical North Face sports satchel (called a duffel bag or holdall). The bag had been secured by a small padlock. After breaking the lock and unzipping the satchel, the police found the decomposing body of a nude man in a fetal position with his arms crossed over his chest. The man in the bag was Gareth Williams.

     Officers with Scotland Yard's Homicide and Serious Crime Command conducted a crime scene investigation. There was no evidence of forcible intrusion into the apartment. (The front door had been locked from the outside which suggested that someone had been in the flat with Williams when he went into the satchel.) The apartment showed no signs of a struggle or theft. Moreover, the crime scene investigators found no latent fingerprints or trace evidence that may have contained DNA. It seemed the death site had been forensically sanitized.

     The day after the gruesome and perplexing discovery, Home Office forensic pathologist Dr. Ben Swift performed the autopsy. Because of the decomposition Dr. Swift could not pinpoint the time of death. The condition of the corpse also precluded any kind of toxicological analysis to determine if Williams had been poisoned. The forensic pathologist found no evidence of physical trauma on the body, including Williams' fingers and nails. From this Dr. Swift concluded that Mr. Williams had not tried to escape the confines of the sports bag.

     While the manner of Gareth Williams' death--homicide, suicide, natural or accidental--could not be forensically determined, Dr. Swift reported that the likely cause of death was oxygen depletion, or hypercapnia--a build up of carbon dioxide inside the bag. The forensic pathologist speculated that Williams would have suffocated within 30 minutes.

     A series of experiments conducted by two men of Williams' size and fitness, revealed that it was virtually impossible to put oneself in that bag. It would also have been extremely difficult for one person to put a dead body in the satchel. This led some investigators to conclude that Williams, with the help of someone else, had willingly climbed into the bag.

     In Williams' apartment detectives found $35,000 worth of designer women's dresses, plus 26 pairs of expensive women's shoes. In addition to a bright orange female wig, investigators found cocaine and a cache of gay pornography. Mr. Williams' had also visited several web sites for practitioners of bondage, S & M and a phenomena called "claustophilia," the experiencing of sexual pleasure by being confined in small enclosures.

     When officials at M16 were informed of Mr. Williams' apparent sexual preferences--his cross-dressing, bondage and gayness--his supervisors said they had been aware of all of that. In the world of modern espionage the private sexual lives of their counterterrorism officers was no longer of interest to agency administrators. Shortly after the discovery of Williams' body M16 released a statement that his death had nothing to do with his work.

    There were those who believed he was poisoned to death--perhaps by potassium cyanide, or the sedative GHB--by either Russian secret service hit men, Al Qaeda operatives or assassins from other unfriendly countries.

     Another school of thought involved the theory that Gareth Williams was murdered by a gay lover. Perhaps the most popular belief was that Williams had died as a result of some kind of sadistic or masochistic sexual act gone wrong, something in the line of auto-erotic asphyxiation. If the later were the case, the manner of his death would be accidental. But questions remained. Who helped Williams into the satchel then locked it from the outside? Who had a key to his flat? And why hadn't this person come forward?

     In November 2013, following a Metropolitan Police twelve month investigation, Deputy Commissioner Martin Hewitt announced that the "most probable scenario" regarding Williams' death was that he died in his flat alone after accidentally locking himself into the bag. However, in October 2015, Boris Karpichkov, a former KGB agent who had defected from Russia, stated that "sources in Russia claimed that Williams had been murdered by members of the Russian Foreign Service.

     Gareth Williams' bizarre death received very little media coverage in the United States.
     In England, Peter Faulding, in his book "What Lies Beneath: My Life as a Forensic Search and Rescue Expert," published in January 2023, makes the argument that Mr. Williams was murdered. The author based his conclusion on the fact he had tried and failed 300 times to lock himself in a holdall the way Gareth Williams would have.