U.K.’s Spy in Bag Case: Coroner’s Verdict on Gareth Williams Raises More Questions than Answers

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PA / AP
PA / AP

A Metropolitan Police handout CCTV image of Gareth Williams at Holland Park Tube station on August 14, 2010.

Gareth Williams—the MI-6 spy whose body was found naked and decomposing inside a padlocked bag in his bathtub—was probably “unlawfully killed,” but it is “unlikely” authorities will ever unwind the exact circumstances of his death, a coroner has concluded.

Speaking on the eighth and final day of the inquest into the death, coroner Fiona Wilcox also said that it remained “a legitimate line of inquiry” that the secret services may have been involved in the tragedy. But she stopped short of suggesting that fellow spies killed him, emphasizing that there was no evidence he had been murdered by one of his own. Wilcox did, however, criticize the bungled investigation. “It would appear that many agencies fell short,” she said, referring to a DNA mix-up made by the forensics team, breakdowns in communication, the pursuit of leads leading nowhere, MI-6′s delay handing evidence to Scotland Yard, and the fact that Williams’ colleagues—who failed to report that he had gone missing—never gave formal statements. The Secret Intelligence Service also found and examined several memory sticks found among Williams’ possessions, but never handed them over to the detectives investigating his murder.

(MORE: Gareth Williams Inquest: Who Put a British Spy in a Bag?)

The verdict—essentially that the court doesn’t know how Williams wound up in the fetal position inside a padlocked bag, and that investigators have contributed to the haze—has left Williams’ loved-ones in dismay. “To lose a son and a brother at any time is a tragedy,” the family said in a statement read by their lawyer after the inquest concluded.  “To lose a son and brother in such circumstances as have been outlined during the course of this inquest only compounds the tragedy.”

Williams, a math prodigy who completed university at the age of 17, was close to his family but led a secluded life. His former landlady described him as a “private person” who rarely had visitors. A fellow student who took a 10-week fashion course with him said he enrolled in the course without telling any of his friends. “I considered him to be naive somewhat,” she told the inquest, adding that he was nervous and frequently apologized. “[He was] not worldly or streetwise.” Given the highly sensitive nature of his work as a codebreaker, he could not discuss the particulars of his job with anyone.

The mystery that colored the 31-year old’s life also defined his death. Experts could not agree on how Williams had died because his body had been decomposing for a week when it was discovered on Aug. 23, 2010. Benjamin Swift, one of the pathologists, said “poisoning or asphyxiation” were the most likely contenders. Once inside the red North Face duffel bag, Williams would have died from rising carbon dioxide levels within three minutes.

(MORE: British Spies Hack Al-Qaeda’s Magazine)

That assumes that Williams was alive when he entered the bag—a suggestion the coroner accepts. It’s still unclear whether he was forced inside, or whether he climbed in willingly. In either case, detective chief inspector of the London Metropolitan Police Jackie Sebire is “satisfied that a third party may have been involved.” Inconclusive DNA fragments from two people were found on the bag, and the coroner determined that it was “highly unlikely” Williams could have climbed into the bag alone. Two escape artists—acting on behalf of the inquest—tried and failed to lock themselves in a bag from the inside. They failed on all 400 of their attempts. Bizarrely, all surfaces around the bathtub—including the walls and the sides of the basin—were free of evidence. “If Gareth had been carrying out some kind of peculiar experiment, he wouldn’t care if he left any foot- or fingerprints,” Wilcox said.

The “peculiar experiment” refers to the theory—which the coroner rejected in her verdict—that Williams’ death stemmed from an interest in “auto-erotic activity,” bondage, or cross-dressing. During the inquest, Williams’ former landlady testified that she and her husband once had to cut him free after they discovered him in his underwear with his hands tied to his bedposts. He claimed he had wanted to see if he could escape—a reasonable explanation for a ciphers expert. His landlady thought the act was “sexually motivated.” Police previously revealed that Williams had visited bondage sites on four separate days. But the coroner said “much more internet activity” would have been needed to draw a link.

Police also found make-up, wigs, 26 pairs of women’s shoes, and $32,000 worth of women’s clothing in Williams apartment. Video footage on one of his phones showed him prancing naked while covering himself with a pair of leather boots. But Wilcox believes the attire reflected his interest in fashion: he had attended fashion courses outside of work, and his sister said he was very generous with gift-giving. As for the wigs, she described them as “far more consistent with dress-up such as attendance at a manga conference.” Earlier in the inquest, one of Gareth’s friends explained that they shared an interest in the Japanese genre of cartoons and comic books.

The coroner stressed that Williams was not a transvestite.  “Gareth was naked in a bag when he was found, not cross-dressed, not in high-heeled shoes,” she said. And even if he had a sexual interest in female shoes, that’s not so bizarre: she claims it is more common than people think. For her, the various leaks about Williams’ personal life could represent efforts “by some third party to manipulate a section of the evidence.”

Williams’ parents and sister have vowed to keep searching for answers. “Our grief is exacerbated by the failure of his employers at MI-6 to take even the most basic inquiries as to his whereabouts and welfare, which any reasonable employer would have taken,” they said in a statement. They also called on Metropolitan Police Commissioner Bernard Hogan-Howe “to look into and review how this investigation will proceed in light of the total inadequacies” of the investigation into MI-6.

In this tragic story of whodunnit, the Williams family provide one of the few certainties: “We cannot describe the depth of the sorrow his absence leaves in our lives. We love you, Gareth, and will treasure your memory eternally.”

(MORE: The Wife of Ex-KGB Agent Alexander Litvinenko Continues Her Quest for Justice)

Adams is a staff writer at the London bureau of TIME. Find him on Twitter at @willyleeadams or on Facebook. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.
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