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Gareth Williams: Death of a Spy

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To his friends, he was a quiet, generous guy who rarely called attention to himself. But to his British spy colleagues, Gareth Williams was a math genius who cracked codes for MI6-that is, until he didn’t show up for work on Aug. 16, 2010. Over the next week not one of his colleagues from the spy agency checked into why their normally punctual colleague was missing. Finally, a call from Williams’s family prompted police to pay a visit to his two-bedroom London flat. There they found the single, 31-year-old naked and decomposing inside a padlocked gym bag in his bathtub. They also found women’s clothing and accessories-$32,000 worth of designer clothes, 26 pricey pairs of shoes and wigs-and, on Williams’s computer, a history of visiting bondage Web sites.

The shocking death cast an unwanted spotlight on the shadowy world of British spies, but what became public over the course of an eight-day inquest into Williams’s cause of death was far more disturbing. Indisputably, the mountains of evidence concluded that Britain’s assorted spy and police agencies had bollixed their 21-month investigation of Williams’s death from start to finish. “Many agencies fell short,” said Dr. Fiona Wilcox, the coroner. In her dramatic narrative on May 2, she ruled that while it was impossible to know exactly what happened to Williams, she said he probably died “unlawfully,” either by poisoning or suffocation. Most shocking of all, the coroner said “it was a legitimate line of inquiry,” that the code breaker might have been killed by another member of MI6, also known as the British Secret Intelligence Service. “The cause of death was unnatural and likely to be criminally mediated,” she said.

The ins and outs of investigative incompetence particularly upset Williams’s mother, father (an engineer) and sister (a doctor). His parents still live in North Wales, where Williams grew up focusing on cycling and math.

“To lose a son and brother in such circumstances as have been outlined here,” the family said in a statement, “only compounds the tragedy.” Offering no excuses, the spy agency apologized for not acting more swiftly when Williams didn’t show up for work and for the family’s “suffering.” Meanwhile, police plan to take DNA samples from up to 50 agents, and Scotland Yard vowed to continue the investigation.

Despite all the female paraphernalia, coroner Wilcox noted that Williams was “not cross-dressed” when he was found, and concluded there was no evidence either that Williams had been a transvestite or that his personal life had anything to do with his death. As for being the target of foreign spies, tantalizing testimony established both that Williams had conducted unauthorized searches of secret files, which could have put him at risk from “hostile and malign” forces, and that he had nine memory sticks in his office-an uncommon device in a workplace where information can’t leave the building. Will the public ever know how the spy died? “It is unlikely,” Wilcox said, “the death will ever be satisfactorily explained.”