The Body in the Bag: The Gareth Williams conspiracy theories keep coming

It’s the kind of discovery that is guaranteed to make headlines. Police are called to a flat in Pimlico, South London, on 23 August 2010 and discover the body of GCHQ mathematician Gareth Williams stuffed in a bag which had been padlocked and left in a bath.

When it became known that Williams had recently been on secondment to MI6 and had also worked with the FBI, the conspiracy theories started to fly. Fleming would have been proud.

Gareth Williams and the crime scene
Gareth Williams and the crime scene

The facts of the case are relatively sketchy. Williams, who was a keen cyclist and walker, had last been seen alive roughly a week before the gruesome discovery. The holdall he was found in had been padlocked from the outside. At the inquest in March 2012, the coroner, Dr Fiona Wilcox, said that there were no injuries on his body, no signs he had been involved in a struggle and there were no signs of alcohol or recreational drugs in his system. It is also accepted by most parties that Williams died some considerable time before the police gained entry to his flat.

Unfortunately, everything else we think we know about Williams’ death is either conjecture or disputed. The police at one point even tried to suggest that Williams padlocked the bag himself, although an expert brought in to examine the holdall concluded that this was practically impossible. The police then offered a startlingly unhelpful analysis:

“If he was alive, he got in [the bag] voluntarily or if not, he was unconscious and placed in the bag.”

We may never know what actually happened in that Pimlico flat in August 2010, but it has to be said that some of the theories are highly suggestive and some of the newspaper headlines make for interesting reading. It is unfortunate that the majority of these were not based on anything more than speculation at the time and have simply promoted an image of the Security Services that comes straight from a spy novel.

For example, the lawyer who represented Williams’ family at the inquest, Anthony O’Toole, told the court that if a second person had not been present when Williams died, somebody broke into his flat afterwards – despite there being no forensic evidence to substantiate this assertion. However, this has not stopped the Daily Mail from running a story with the headline: “Agents killed the body-in-bag spy… then got into his flat through skylight to destroy evidence” (15 August 2015).

Whilst there does appear to be some evidence of the crime scene having been tampered with – although again, there is speculation here – it is hardly conclusive proof that nefarious villains dressed like the Milk Tray Man would risk such an undertaking.

A police support officer stands guard at Williams' Pimlico flat
A police support officer stands guard at Williams’ Pimlico flat

On the subject of evidence tampering, the media theorists do seem to be on slightly firmer ground. Although there was no apparent sign of forced entry, it was noted that the door locks had been removed and that Williams’ iPhone had been reset to factory default settings.

Unsurprisingly, the papers had a field day with this. The Telegraph concluded that Williams had been killed by someone skilled in “secret service dark arts” (30 March 2012) – which only reinforces the image of ninjas abseiling through skylights.

More specifically, The Independent declared that Williams was “killed by Russia for refusing to become a double agent” (28 September 2015). This latter headline was provoked by unsubstantiated claims provided by a former KGB agent who probably has an axe to grind with his former employers, and in the light of the Alexander Litvinenko assassination, the Russians are probably quite easy targets for this kind of thing.

The behaviour of SIS (Secret Intelligence Service, or MI6) and the Metropolitan Police’s Counter-Terrorism Command (SO15) came in for severe criticism from the Coroner during the inquest, leading some papers to suggest at best a cover up. The Guardian’s headline of 2 May 2012 was perhaps the most tempered: “MI6 and Met condemned over Gareth Williams’s death” although the text does speculate on whether or not they were responsible for removing DNA and other evidence.

The Daily Telegraph went so far as to suggest collusion: “Secret Meeting between MI6 and Police hours after discovery of spy Gareth Williams’s death” was the headline of 22 April 2012. Not helpful when there’s an ongoing murder investigation.

An image of the bag's padlock, released by police
An image of the bag’s padlock, released by police

The BBC’s stance on the mystery was perhaps the most bizarre and perhaps reflected the author’s subconscious yearning for a Dennis Wheatley novel: “Phone and sim cards found laid out in ritual manner” ran the tagline to their story on 1 September 2010.

This wasn’t a detail that other media outlets had picked up on and doesn’t appear to have been repeated anywhere else – but what a fascinating idea! As if this case didn’t have enough mystery surrounding it already.

The investigation into the death of Gareth Williams remains ongoing and, as such, any and all information may be valuable. But there is every possibility that we will never find out what really happened in that Pimlico flat, partly because of the lack of genuine evidence, but also because of the media’s apparent attempts to fit a few sketchy facts to a dashed good story.

Like the Black Dahlia in 1947, the battle between the facts and the headlines was always going to be one-sided.

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