The Coroner has returned a verdict on the death of Gareth Williams…
The cause of death of Williams, 31, who was found padlocked in a holdall in the bath at his flat in Pimlico, central London, was “unnatural and likely to have been criminally mediated”, said Dr Fiona Wilcox.
Passing a narrative verdict, she said she was satisfied that “a third party placed the bag in the bath and on the balance of probabilities locked the bag”.
She said, however, that she doubts it will ever be satisfactorily explained. I’m not going to draw my own conclusions because if this blog has proved one thing it’s that I’m not cut out to be an investigate journalist but, still, I’d like to go through what’s been heard in the last week and tease out its implications.
What’s been established beyond reasonable doubt is that another person or, indeed, other people were involved in Williams’ death. A bag expert – how the hell does one become a bag expert? – tried to wriggle in and lock it and reported that even Houdini would have struggled. We already knew that a person or people had done a formidably efficient job of covering their tracks: leaving the scene free of fingerprints and – unless we’re to believe that a t-shirted Williams consented to having the radiators cranked up in August – turned on the heat to quicken the decomposition of the body. His phone had also been wiped. It’s strictly possible that he could have done this himself but it seems unlikely. If he’d willingly entered the bag he’d have presumably expected to get out again and carry on with his life. Even if no one had meant to do him harm before his death, then, they seem to have become frighteningly clinical once they realised that he’d died.
One of the main reasons I’d thought it was probably murder was the reporting of his position inside the bag. A report described “his arms and legs [as being] contorted behind him” and a policeman was quoted as saying he’d thought “[his] legs and arms had been cut off””. Throughout the inquest, however, he was reported as looking calm with his “hands…resting on his chest”. I’ve no idea what’s behind this apparent contradiction. It doesn’t seem to have been an issue at the inquest so perhaps there’s a simple explanation but I’d like to know it.
Murder remains an extremely plausible explanation. The extraordinary skill with which whoever else was involved covered their tracks points to a competence and callousness that while perhaps the result of instinctual self-preservation would also be explained by malicious plotting. The difficulty of obtaining accurate toxicological results means sedatives and poisons – the latter of which is among the two explanations the pathologist favours – would have been hard to trace.
The only other explanation is that he was involved in a game, be it a part of BDSM practices or even something concerned with escapology, that went horribly wrong. If the Home Office pathologist is correct to say that he could have succombed to carbon dioxide poisoning quickly enough as to have no time to respond I see how this could happen, and Williams’ former landlady’s report of finding him tied to his bed could be evidence of an interest in bondage or escapology so I don’t think one can discount this hypothesis. On the other hand, a nasty episode that could, perhaps, have been inspired by a clumsy interest in these practices, as well as a sporadic number of visits to bondage websites, is not evidence enough to get close to proving this. Tying yourself to a bed – and proving rather bad at freeing yourself – is a world away from such a hugely dramatic and dangerous act of claustrophilia, and if we drew such broad conclusions from everyone’s occasional browsing – well, let’s face it, tens of millions of people would be staggeringly depraved fetishists. Even if you were to presume that he was so inclined you’d have to believe he found a similarly-minded partner without leaving traces of their interaction. It’s possible, again, but whatever David Aaronovitch might say it’s not the “obvious” explanation.
(Now I’ve mentioned the landlady I can’t help noting that in 2010 she said that “when someone has lived with you for ten years you get to know them really well, and Gareth almost became a part of the family”. In 2012, however, she said “we did not become close to him”. I can understand that at varying points in our lives we have different perceptions of the same events but I wish someone had mentioned things like this and, more importantly, the arms and legs contradiction because I hate to live with inconsistencies.)
Whatever the circumstances of his death the behaviour of the MI6 has been appalling. Despite an absence of a week, and despite being told by the human resources department at GCHQ to call the police if Williams couldn’t be reached, an officer was only dispatched when the relevant HR employee heard he was still missing and that his colleagues hadn’t reported it. The interval ensured that the body had decomposed to such an extent that the autopsy involved more guesswork than assured conclusions. Their indifference towards the whereabouts of a valuable employee would be horrible enough if he was actually their’s. But he wasn’t. He was only seconded from GCHQ. The very people who’d told them to call the police. His employers should be screaming for heads to roll but – to the dismay of the family – we’ve learned that neither the line manager or anybody else at MI6 has faced the vaguest repercussions.
Such carelessness is proof of either staggering incompetence or duplicity. Given this it’s also shocking that police had such limited access to the relevant evidence and witnesses held by the secret services. How can we be sure they weren’t covering something up? We can’t. The coroner even said that the hypothesis that Williams was murdered by a colleague is a “legitimate line of inquiry”. (I can’t resist adding that John Rentoul had answered this theory with one of his stubborn “no”’s. I doubt he was in a better position to judge than the, er, well – judge.) Whatever the degrees of madness and malice that were involved, however, it’s a remarkable indictment of the secret state.
I hope Mr Williams can rest in peace. Yet, whatever the precise circumstances of his death, I suspect we should be resting less easily until justice is achieved.