On Aug. 16, 2010, British spy Gareth Williams failed to attend a meeting at MI-6, Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service. On Aug. 23, his family notified police that they last heard from the 31-year-old—a math prodigy who had finished university at the age of 17, and gone on to become a codebreaker for MI-6—10 days earlier. When a police officer entered Williams’ apartment later that day, he noticed four items on the table: a cell phone, two SIM cards, and a woman’s wig. In the bathroom, he saw a red duffel bag in the tub with a padlock connecting the zippers.
“I am realizing it is something serious and my concern was to not damage anything in a crime scene,” police officer John Gallagher told the inquest into Williams’ death Monday afternoon. When he lifted the bag, red fluid began oozing out. “Then there was the smell. Probably as a result of moving the bag. It is unusual because normally you would expect to smell it earlier,” he said. Williams’ naked and decomposing body was locked inside.
In the 21 months that have passed since Williams’ death, detectives have drawn a blank—and left his grieving family to wonder what exactly happened. At the start of the inquiry on Monday, coroner Fiona Wilcox, who is overseeing the proceedings, promised a “full, fair and fearless” inquiry. Around 40 witnesses will give evidence over the next week, including Williams’ friends, police and intelligence officers, and forensics experts. They will, no doubt, explore the family’s suggestion that a third party was involved in Williams’ death—and that someone organized a cover-up. Their lawyer has previously stated that the lack of fingerprints and DNA at the crime scene suggests agents schooled in “the dark arts of the secret services” played a role.
Williams had told his family about his line of work, but he never elaborated on the details of any specific cases. He did, however, give them insights into working at MI-6, where he was completing a three-year secondment at the time of his death. “He disliked office culture, post-work drinks, flash car competitions and the rat race,” his sister Ceri Subbe told the court. He also spoke of “friction” in the office and had requested to return to his previous post at GCHQ, the government listening agency that cracks codes and identifies potential cyber attacks, among other things. Subbe says Williams was desperate to leave London for Cheltenham, where GCHQ is based. He was “a country boy and the city life did not quite suit him.”
Despite the family’s close relationship, Subbe did not know her brother owned around £20,000 ($32,000) worth of designer women’s clothing. He had a deep interest in fashion and had attended two six-week fashion courses, Subbe said. She added that the expensive clothes were likely gifts intended for other people, or merely reflected his interest in fashion. Detectives also found tickets to a drag cabaret show inside the apartment.
The inquiry will also probe whether Williams could have locked himself in the bag as part of a sadomasochistic sex ritual. Forensics experts have suggested that such a feat would be difficult, if not impossible. As such, Detective Chief Inspector Jackie Sebire, who is overseeing the police investigation, has previously said it is likely someone helped him into that bag. “If he was alive, he got into it voluntarily or, if not, he was unconscious and placed in the bag,” she said in 2010. Police know that Williams had visited bondage websites in the months leading up to his death, as well as websites that gave instructions on how to tie people up.
Subbe doubts that Williams would have let anyone inside his apartment who had not been cleared by security services first. “He was very strict about only allowing people who had been vetted to visit his flat,” she said. “I cannot emphasize enough his conscientiousness.” Given that he was “the most scrupulous risk-assessor” she knew, it’s difficult for her to accept that he would put himself—or allow someone else to put him—inside a duffel bag.
But Williams had withheld information from his family before. On April 22, it emerged that Williams had confided in a friend that he feared he was the target of hostile surveillance. The Sunday Times (of London) reported that Williams told Elizabeth Gutherie—the daughter of a New York stockbroker—about his concerns. She’ll give evidence later this week.
New information will be welcome news for Subbe and her family. In recent weeks, they have grown increasingly frustrated over what they perceive as a botched investigation. Last month, the family learned that forensic teams had mistakenly marked DNA on Williams’ hand in 2010. They only recently realized it belonged to a scientist who had visited the crime scene. And the police’s desire to speak with a couple spotted in Williams’ building a month before his death proved irrelevant: they were merely acquaintances of Williams’ neighbors.
The only certainty for Subbe is that she still has more questions than answers. Rightly or wrongly, every detail now hints at something sinister. Police removed the front door to Williams’ apartment despite there not being any sign of a break-in. MI-6 has not revealed what case he was working on at the time of his death, supposedly in the interest of national security. And his colleagues—secret service officers with sharp, detail-oriented minds—didn’t realize he was missing for more than a week. “I cannot think as to why anybody would want to harm him,” Subbe said Monday.
The inquest continues.