Transcript: 67. The Gareth Williams Affair | England

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It was late in the afternoon of August 23rd 2010 when police officers arrived at Flat 4, 36 Alderney Street, Pimlico, to conduct a welfare check on its resident. Everything was quiet. It was noticeably warm inside, because, despite being summer, the heating was turned up to 86 degrees. As officers walked through the apartment and called the name of the person who lived there, the only answer was silence. Sounds from the street below seemed louder than they were, as they carefully paced through the apartment. 

The place was tidy, spotless. It seemed to have been abandoned in recent days. There were some boxes and suitcases stacked, like someone was planning on moving out. Electronics were left behind, a laptop, two cell phones, a couple of sim cards… But there was still no sign of Gareth Williams.

Gareth was a Welsh-born crypto-analyst who came to London on secondment from the Government Communications Headquarters in Cheltenham. He had failed to show up for work and it had been a week since anyone had heard from him.

In the master bedroom, officers saw men’s clothing neatly folded and laid out on the bed. A dressing gown and duvet seemed out of place, as they were carelessly thrown on the floor. 

In the ominous silence, they noticed something. A big red duffel bag in the bathtub of the en suite bathroom. As they walked closer, they saw that the bag was zipped closed and locked with a padlock. PC John Gallagher lifted the bag and noticed a reddish fluid trickling out of the bottom. After making a small incision, the officers were able to confirm their worst suspicions: inside the bag was a decomposing body. Have they found the missing MI6 agent?

>>Intro Music

Gareth Wyn Williams was born on the 26th of September 1978 in Valley, Anglesey, Wales to parents Ian and Ellen. He had one sister called Ceri, and they were always close. 

Gareth’s first language was Welsh and he was an exceptionally bright student. His aptitude for mathematics was obvious from a young age. He sat his O-Levels at the young age of 10, and passed. That is a standardised high school test, which essentially means that he passed high school when he was 10.

He stayed in high school, however, and did a part-time degree. He managed to complete his degree in Mathematics at Bangor University by the time he was 17. After that, he went on to complete his PhD in Computer Science at the University of Manchester. From there he enrolled at St Catherine’s College, Cambridge to do a post-graduate degree, but his life would change dramatically, before he could finish his studies. 

The ambitious mathematician came to the attention of Britain’s Government Communications Headquarters (or GCHQ) soon after graduating. GCHQ is the UK’s equivalent of America’s National Security Agency (or NSA). The GCHQ gather information and assess possible security risks to the UK. They are also responsible for securing UK’s own communications. They get their information from monitoring online and telephonic activity. Some of the GCHQ’s practices were exposed by Edward Snowden, like the fact that they spied on foreign politicians during the 2009 G-20 London summit by tapping into their phones and computers. All in the name of national security.

It was rumoured that Gareth Williams was spotted by the GCHQ as a keen online gamer – another thing he excelled at. With his intelligence and qualification in Mathematics, he was pinned to become a valuable asset in the communications security game. When the GCHQ employed Gareth as a codebreaker (or crypto-analyst) he abandoned his studies at Cambridge. 


GCHQ’s iconic building is referred to as ‘The Doughnut’ and is located in Cheltenham. In order to be closer to work, Gareth rented an apartment in the nearby Prestbury, Gloucestershire that would become his home for the next 10 years. 

He stayed close to his family in Wales and visited them often. However, he was very secretive about his job and would never discuss his work with them. Gareth was a quiet and private person who enjoyed the finer things in life: art, music, theatre. He also had an appreciation for fashion and design and it was not unusual for him to give his sister clothing as gifts. Gareth loved cycling and he was at his happiest when he was cycling in the mountains. 

His job required him to spend significant time at the RAF Menwith Hill, Harrogate – which has been described as the largest electronic monitoring station in the world. It is a communications intercept site that provides intelligence to the UK and USA. Because of close relations between international agencies, Gareth also worked at NSA headquarters at Fort Meade, Maryland.

In 2009, he was seconded to Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service, MI6, in London for three years. He gave up his apartment in Prestbury and took occupancy in a government-owned apartment in Pimlico, Central London. 

While working for MI6, he was working as one of a four-person team. He was what they call ‘operationally active’ and had access to sensitive information regarding foreign intelligence. Gareth’s job, as described by a senior MI6 agent, only known as F, was “developing practical applications for emerging technologies”.

One of his last projects was to assist the NSA to uncover international money-laundering routes, used by organized crime groups. One group the investigation focused on, was a Moscow-based mafia ring. 

Gareth spent most of the summer in the US, a combination of work and travel. He attended DEF CON – a hacker’s convention in Vegas before returning to London on the 11th of August.

By August 2010 he had had enough of the fast-paced life of ‘operational work’ and requested to return to GCHQ. He missed his life in the country and the job in London wasn’t quite his cup of tea. He had confided in his sister about it and she later remembered their conversation. 

"He disliked office culture, post-work drinks, flash car competitions and the rat race. He even spoke of friction in the office."

He had to finish up some work at MI6 in August and he was due some annual leave before his return to GCHQ in September. His previous landlady from Prestbury was glad to hear from him when he called and asked if he could move back into his old apartment.

In the days after his return from the States, he was captured on CCTV travelling around London on the Tube, and visiting shops in the West End and Knightsbridge. He was seen at Harvey Nichols on the 12th of August, at Fortnum & Mason on the 14th and then buying cakes from Harrods the following day. He also went to a comedy club in Bethnal Green in East London to watch a drag show by British comedian, Jonny Woo, called The Jonny Woo Experience. On the CCTV footage he is always alone and looks relaxed as he makes his way from one place to the next.

In the early hours of August 16, his laptop had been used to access a cycling website. This would be the last known actions of Gareth Williams.

On Monday the 16th of August Gareth was supposed to chair a meeting at the MI6 building at Vauxhall Cross, but failed to show up. Gareth was extremely punctual, his colleagues even said that he was ‘like a Swiss clock – very punctual, very efficient’

However, it would take another seven days before they followed up by calling his family, asking if they knew where he was. Their failure to raise the alarm sooner would become a point of scrutiny in the investigation, but more about this later.

MI6 contacted the Metropolitan police and requested they did a welfare check at Gareth’s Pimlico apartment. They found the apartment neat and everything seemed to be in order. There were no signs of forced entry or burglary. It also did not look like a physical altercation had taken place. 

When they found the sports bag with human remains in the bathtub, they realised the magnitude of the situation. Before police could initiate their investigation, the heads of the Secret Intelligence Service and the Metropolitan Police met to decide which agency should take charge of the case. 

Shortly before his death, Gareth qualified to do ‘operational deployment’ (or ‘field work’). Because he had worked closely with the NSA and FBI in America, the US State Department requested that any details regarding his work remained confidential in the course of the inquest. The FBI conducted their own investigation into his death, but kept their findings confidential.

Forensic technicians were sent to the flat on Alderney Street to start the investigation. The apartment was owned by a company registered in the British Virgin Islands and the tenancy was in the name of the secretary of State. Some sources say it was a safe-house, but due to the lack of security measures, it is probably more reasonable to assume that it was a place where security service agents stayed when they had business in London. Gareth, who had a three year secondment, was given access to stay in the flat when he was in town. Bear in mind, the nature of his work meant that he often travelled and only used it as a home-base between trips.

Gareth’s sister, Ceri, said that he was very specific about who he’d let into the apartment, usually only people who had MI5 or MI6 security clearance. He always looked after the keys and made sure no one else had access to it.

How then, could he have ended up dead inside a sports bag? The red North Face bag was locked with a padlock from the outside. The key to the padlock was inside the bag, underneath Gareth’s body. Gareth was naked and placed in a contorted foetal position, with his hands folded onto his chest and his face had a calm expression.

The autopsy could not find any injuries or signs of a struggle on his body. He had some bruises on his elbows, but not significant enough to have caused serious harm. He did not have any patterns of bruising indicating that he was restrained before his death. So how did he get into the bag – was he unconscious when someone stuffed him inside? Or was he threatened to comply, and climbed in by himself?

Toxicology showed small traces of alcohol and the recreational drug GHB – but the amounts were very little. Gareth did not drink or take recreational drugs. However, due to the advanced stage of decomposition, both of these could have been present naturally. This infuriated Gareth’s family and forensic scientists. If Gareth’s absence from work was reported sooner, forensic testing could have been much more effective.

Three different pathologists performed post mortem examinations, all three were unable to say what the cause of death was. Most likely asphyxiation or poisoning. The only hint of hope that they had was a small amount of DNA that was found on Gareth’s hand. However, it was later revealed that the DNA belonged to one of the forensic technicians who must have come in contact with Gareth’s hand when they took his body out of the bag. All hope was lost, they had no cause of death and no further evidence from Gareth’s body.

From the onset, the Metropolitan Police said the death of Gareth Williams was ‘suspicious and unexplained’.

Evidence found at the apartment in Pimlico deepened the mystery even further. Strangely, there was no DNA or fingerprint evidence in the bathtub. Not even prints or DNA belonging to Gareth. If he had been living there – remember, he had been back in town for about five days before he was first noted to be missing. If he had showered or taken a bath in that time, there would most definitely have been some traces of his DNA in the bathroom. 

Technicians managed to find small traces of DNA on the zipper-fasteners and handles of the North Face duffel bag, but they were not able to identify who it belonged to. DNA was also found on Gareth’s phone and on a towel, but with no match to compare it to, it didn’t help in moving the case closer to a resolution. All that it proved was that two people other than Gareth had been to the flat, but it was not clear who.

Coming out of the en suite bathroom where the bag was found, investigators looked at the master bedroom. On the bed were stacks of men’s clothing neatly folded and laid out. A dressing gown and duvet were flung onto the floor, out of keeping with the neatness of the rest of the apartment. 

In the living room, on the dining table, there was a cell phone with two sim cards next to it. The phone had been erased and restored to factory settings. In front of the sofa, on the floor was a laptop and another cell phone.

Then some elements drew investigator’s attention, that would feed the tabloid’s lust for scandal and ultimately open another direction for the investigation. In the spare room were large boxes containing £20,000’s worth of designer women’s clothing and shoes. It all looked brand new and the clothing was neatly folded and packed with tissue paper. Only two of the many pairs of shoes had been worn. There was also a bright red ladies’ wig hanging over the back of a dining room chair.

Theories emerged that Gareth could have been a cross-dresser. Some people came forward and said that they thought that he was gay. But there was no evidence of any love interest in Gareth’s life, gay or heterosexual. He was married to his job and preferred to keep to himself. 

Investigators were puzzled by the copious amount of women’s clothing found in the apartment. Gareth’s friends and family members said they did not believe the clothes were ever intended to be used by Gareth. They guessed that he had purchased it to give to his sister and friends. He had an appreciation for fashion, so much so, he had taken two fashion design courses at Central St Martin's college in London without telling his bosses.

It is perhaps not too far-fetched to guess that the clothes had absolutely nothing to do with Gareth Williams. The apartment was not his own, it was government property used by the Secret Service. Could it be possible that it belonged to another agent? A female agent who needed an extensive wardrobe as part of her cover? The clothes were small female sizes, most of them size 8. Even though Gareth was lean and athletic, he was muscular and it does not seem likely that he would have fitted into the dresses. 

In December 2010 details that Gareth visited a number of bondage websites was leaked to the media. This sparked a lot of interest: was the secret agent’s death a BDSM encounter gone wrong? 

A strange incident from his past came out when his landlady who let him the apartment in Prestbury recalled that she was awoken one night by screams for help from Gareth’s apartment. Together with her husband, they rushed to his aid, using their spare key to gain access to his flat. They found him, tied to his bed. He told them that he had tied himself to the bed and wanted to see if he’d be able to get himself out of it, but he had failed. He was embarrassed and apologized, ensuring them it would never happen again. And it never did.

The media sensationalised the fact that he had gone to a drag show shortly before his death. There was also an unconfirmed report of Gareth visiting a gay bar near his office at MI6. They speculated if Gareth had locked himself into the bag, because it aroused him somehow. Claustrophilia is a sexual fetish for being confined in small spaces – could he have been trying it out? Tabloids reported that he had searched BDSM websites in the time leading up to his death.

Investigators had to determine if it would have been able for Gareth to have climbed into the bag himself. This could either have been as part of a BDSM game, OR it could have been an escapology exercise gone wrong, OR he could have been forced to do so by a third party, OR it could have been an attempt to end his own life. 

They were able to rule out the suicide theory pretty quickly. Although Gareth was not 100% happy with his current job situation, he was about to return to GCHQ and his old apartment in the country. There were no indications that he was depressed or suicidal. He had made plans to meet his sister a couple of days after his death, which proved that he did not foresee his own demise.

From the investigation into Gareth’s personal life, it became evident that he was not into BDSM. The percentage of time Gareth spent on the websites was small. It only happened from time to time and none of the sites included anything about ‘claustrophilia’. The searches were made on his phone, not his laptop and it only happened four times in the space of two years. It is more than likely, that the sites were pop-ups that he clicked – whether by accident or knowingly. Nothing else in his life supported the theory that he ever practiced BDSM. Not that there is anything wrong with it, but going on a tangent about unsubstantiated assumptions was not going to solve the case. 

The fact that the key to the padlock was found inside the bag, gave the escapology theory some credence. But if he had entered the bag as part of an escapology exercise, surely there would have been evidence that he had researched it somehow. He would perhaps have done contortion training or educated himself in the art of escapology. But remember, the padlock key was found under his body. Surely if his plan was to lock himself inside the bag, he would have kept the key close at hand, to make escape possible. Within the confined space of the bag, and the way his body was contorted, it would have been impossible to reach the key.

A group of experts were brought in, among them a yoga expert, as well as a military expert, about the same build as Gareth, only slightly smaller. Between them, they made more than 400 attempts to see if Gareth could possibly have locked himself into the bag. The task of fitting a man of Gareth’s size into a sports bag would not have been an easy one. 

Although they proved that he could have climbed into the bag by himself, the shape of the bathtub was a hindrance. He would have had to prop himself up and push against the sides, entering the bag head-first. They would definitely have found his DNA or fingerprints on the sides of the bath. Once he was inside the bag, in the confined space, he would not have been able to hook the padlock into the zipper and lock himself inside. There was simply no way that this is what happened. 

Because of the position Gareth’s body was in, experts concluded that he must have been alive but unconscious when he went into the bag. In the confined space of the bag, he would have suffocated to death in a matter of minutes.  

If he was unconscious but alive when he was placed into the bag, someone else had to be there. This was no accident or role-play gone awry, this was a murder and someone’s attempt to dispose of the body. It is possible that the plan was to take the bag and dispose of it somewhere else, but the person who had locked him inside could have been interrupted and planned to come back at a later stage.

To many people, including ex-MI6 agents who were interviewed about the case, what was significant about the evidence at the apartment on Alderney Street, was perhaps not what was found, but rather what was NOT found. The lack of fingerprints, footprints and DNA in the bathtub made it clear that there had been some kind of a clean-up. Gareth’s family suspected that MI6 was involved in the cover-up. Because of the nature of his work in the secret service, it is not impossible to conclude that the MI6 had been to the flat BEFORE police was asked to do a welfare check. 

They waited for seven whole days from the first time they realised Gareth did not show up for work, till they informed police. A former, anonymous MI6 agent said that it was customary for British intelligence to clean up if one of their agents perished. He said that if they did do it in Gareth’s case, it would have been to make sure that top secret information did not get into the wrong hands. However, that also means that vital evidence was destroyed. Which bode the question: are intelligence agencies above the law?

Gareth’s funeral was held at the end of September 2010 in Anglesey. The head of MI6 was there too and said that Gareth was a talented person, who did valuable work in the interest of national security. His headstone, inscribed in Welsh, says: Special Son and Brother – Free in the Mountains.

The investigation had no solid leads. It was estimated that Gareth’s death occurred a week before he was found, around the 16th of August. The heating in the apartment was turned up, in the middle of summer. This would definitely have expediated decomposition. This meant that if he was poisoned, it would have been harder to test for substances. Although the leading theory was that he was poisoned, it was extremely difficult to prove. 

And who would have wanted to poison Gareth? Because he spent most of his time either working or cycling, his social life was quiet. Occasionally he met up with friends for cake and tea, but he never entertained at home. One of the residents at 36 Alderney Street told police that they saw a couple in the common hallway of the building, in the summer before Gareth’s death. The couple said they had a key to Flat No. 4 – the flat where Gareth was staying. They said that a man called Pierre Paolo had given the key to them. Police released composite sketches of the two possible suspects. The man and woman were both in their twenties and Mediterranean in appearance. They also appealed for information about Pierre Paolo, but no leads came in. 

The nation held their breaths as more details about the investigation were revealed at the Coroner’s Inquest. Coroner, Dr Fiona Wilcox dismissed the cross-dressing and BDSM theory off the bat and said that this information was leaked to the press in a probable attempt to manipulate the media.

Expert witness Peter Faulding explained his attempts to climb into the bag and lock himself into it. He told the coroner what his conclusion was:

"I couldn't say it's impossible, but I think even Houdini would have struggled with this one." 

Many witnesses were called to testify about Gareth’s private life, as well as his professional life. Some MI6 agents could not have their identities revealed and testified from behind a screen. At the inquest, metropolitan police investigators learnt for the first time that MI6 had searched Gareth’s locker in the MI6 building shortly after his disappearance. They found nine memory sticks, something that was not allowed at MI6, because it could be to take information out of MI6, OR to bring information in. It was a huge violation and Gareth would have been in big trouble because of it. However, due to the nature of its contents, MI6 did not hand the evidence over to Metropolitan Police. 

At the conclusion of the inquest, the coroner ruled that Gareth’s death was QUOTE unnatural and likely to have been criminally mediated END QUOTE. Coroner Dr Wilcox said she was “satisfied that on the balance of probabilities that Gareth was killed unlawfully.”

After the Coroner’s finding, the Metropolitan Police re-focussed their investigation for another 12 months. This time, focusing on MI6 staff. However, they came no closer to solving the bizarre case. In the end, Deputy Assistant Commissioner Martin Hewitt said that the ‘most probable scenario’ was that he accidentally locked himself into the bag, could not get himself out again and tragically passed away.

So the coroner’s inquest ruled that Gareth was most likely murdered, but the subsequent investigation concluded that his death was an accident. The bottom line was: nobody knew what had happened to cause Gareth’s death.

It was not a far stretch to imagine that his death was somehow related to his work. For other agencies, Gareth would have been the ideal target to corrupt. He had high security clearance and was privy to valuable intelligence. He came from the country and lived by himself, working temporarily at MI6. He wasn’t married and his closest family and friends lived in Wales. His extended professional network was in Cheltenham, not in London. He was vulnerable if a rival agency wanted to find a way into the MI6. But they would have underestimated Gareth’s integrity. 

Although details of Gareth’s work are confidential, it may be helpful to consider the context of his world at the time of his death. 2010 was a big year for cyber-espionage. The malicious computer worm, Stuxnet, was uncovered in the months leading up to his death. Stuxnet targeted data communications systems and is believed to be responsible for causing substantial damage to Iran’s nuclear program. The worm is believed to have been created by American/Israeli counter-intelligence, although neither country has ever admitted to it. 

Online tensions were raging internationally between players like Russia, Iran and China. Exactly HOW involved Gareth was in cyber warfare, we’ll never know. But, as a codebreaker, he would certainly have had intimate knowledge about what was going on.

In 2015, former KGB agent, Boris Karpichov who defected from Russia, claimed that Russian Foreign Intelligence, known as SVR, was behind Gareth’s murder. Karpichov alleged that the SVR tried to blackmail Gareth into becoming a double agent, but he was not interested. He played a trump card, saying that he knew of an SVR spy within GCHQ. Was this perhaps why he wanted to return to GCHQ, to snuff out the spy? Did the SVR stop him before he could expose the mole?

Boris Karpichov defected to the UK in 1998, turning his back on his former comrades by informing British Intelligence about the inner-most workings of the KGB. After the fall of communism the KGB was succeeded by the SVR. He has been very vocal in the media and even claimed that he was one of six former Russian agents on a hit list okayed by Putin. 

Karpichov lived in the same vicinity as Gareth Williams in London. He was used to looking over his shoulder and take particular notice of suspicious vehicles or people who might have been following him. He claimed, that in the days leading up to Gareth’s death, he saw a number of vehicles casing out the area, in the exact manner Russian counter-intelligence would do. He noted all the movements, because he thought they might have been out to get him. According to Karpichov, the last drive-by he saw was on the 15th of August, the day before Gareth died. 

This was a stunning revelation and investigators needed more information. Karpichov told them about a Russian mole inside the British spy network, whose codename was Orion. Orion and Gareth became friends when they worked together at the listening post in Harrogate. 

The Russians wanted Gareth to become a double agent in an operation called ‘Sweetie’, because of his passion for women’s clothing. Karpichov alleged that Russian agents had drugged Gareth one night and dressed him in women’s clothing while he was unconscious. They took photos and used it to blackmail him. Pulling the strings was Orion’s spymaster, who used the codename Lukas and posed as a wealthy Eastern European businessman.

Gareth would not budge; he was not interested in becoming a double agent. He alluded to the fact that he knew about Orion, hoping they would back down. But he had overplayed his hand. The SVR realised he knew too much and because he refused their offer of becoming a double agent, they had to eliminate him.

According to Karpichkov, Lukas showed up at Gareth’s apartment under the guise of wanting to smooth things over. As a peace offering he had a bottle of wine. This was the first part of the plan. The wine was spiked with a mixture of amyl nitrate and the Viagra drug Sildenafil and within minutes Gareth passed out. 

A special ops team known as ‘The Cleaners’ came in to finish the job. They used a plant-based poison made from belladonna, aconite and black – a potent cocktail that was designed to leave no trace during a post mortem examination. The poison was dripped into his ear using a needle-less syringe. 

There was also the possibility that Gareth was killed elsewhere and that his body was already in the sports bag when it was placed in the bathtub of his apartment. Karpichov speculated that the intention was probably to dispose of the bag, but something must have prevented ‘The Cleaners’ from finishing the job. 

If Karpichov’s version of events is true, it still brings some questions. In a way, it seems believable enough. Gareth’s secondment to MI6 was for three years, but after a year he was ready to go back to GCHQ in Cheltenham. Was he perhaps ordered to go back and find a way to expose Orion?

Gareth was known to be very strict about whom he allowed into the government owned apartment in Pimlico. Would he have let ‘Lukas’ inside late on a Sunday night? How would the Russian spymaster have convinced Gareth to drink wine without any suspicion. Was the man who showed up at his door perhaps his old friend from the listening post, in Harrogate, the double-agent, Orion. Was he tasked with cleaning up the situation before his cover was blown?

Gareth lived on the top floor of a stucco terrace that had been converted into apartments. To get to the top, a visitor would have to walk up the stairs past the other apartments in order to get to Gareth’s place. There is no report from neighbours that Gareth had a nocturnal visitor. Of course, it is possible that there was someone and that nobody heard them arrive or leave, but it doesn’t seem very likely.

In an article in Wales Online, Anthony Glees, director of the Centre of Security and Intelligence Studies summed up what he had heard from people working in the secret service. They referred to secrets and mysteries – secrets were to be uncovered, but mysteries were meant to remain unsolved. Professor Glees commented:

"I don't believe in mysteries - mysteries are simply where all the secrets have not yet been uncovered, and I don't think all the secrets as far as Gareth Williams is concerned have been uncovered at all."

The world of MI6 has so many complexities involved. So many factors, everyday civilians would never know the extent of their work. Some may feel it’s better that way. In the case of Gareth William’s bizarre death, it is perhaps Boris Karpichov’s explanation that makes the most sense. With clandestine operations, mysteries and secrets, chances are that Gareth’s killer or killers will never be brought to justice.  

If you’d like to read more about this case, have a look at the resources used for this episode in the show notes. 

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