LONDON — Even considered individually, the mysterious and brutal deaths cry out for attention.
Vimal Dajibhai plunged 250 feet from a suspension bridge in southwest England, 100 miles from home, in August. When his body was discovered on the hard ground below, small, unexplained puncture marks were found on his buttocks.
A month later, Ashad Sharif died after he looped one end of a rope around his neck, attached the other end to a tree, got into the driver’s seat of his car and sped away.
Then at the end of March, David Sands loaded his car with cans of gasoline and drove it at 80 miles an hour into an abandoned roadside cafe south of London, where it exploded in a fireball so furious that his body had to be identified by dental records.
Considered together, the deaths of these young, apparently well-established professional men share some disturbing characteristics that many in Britain say cry out for explanation.
All were defense researchers working for the sprawling Marconi organization, a major electronics defense contractor. All three were involved in sensitive, defense-related projects. All apparently were suicides, although in none of the cases has a convincing motive been advanced, and there were no witnesses to any of the deaths.
These deaths – along with the unexplained death in February of a fourth defense scientist and the disappearance in January of yet another – have caused no end of speculation and concern in the tightly knit, highly secretive world of defense research.
“I do not wish to be accused of inventing plots more suited to a television thriller than real life,” said John Cartwright, parliamentary defense spokesman for the opposition Liberal-Social Democratic alliance. ”But I think the circumstances of these . . . cases and the possible links between them stretch the possibility of coincidence too far.”
But the government has steadfastly resisted Cartwright’s calls for an official inquiry, contending that there is no evidence of a conspiracy.
“I agree that it is odd that all three were computer scientists working in the defense field,” said Lord Trefgarne, the junior defense minister, “but there any relationship stops.”
Marconi, which employed Dajibhai, Sharif and Sands before their deaths, said an internal investigation disclosed no connection among the three men.
“We employ 35,000 people in 18 separate sister companies,” said a spokesman. “These individuals were working on separate programs for separate companies at separate locations.”
And yet many questions remain unanswered. Why should Dajibhai and Sharif die in Bristol, a city far away from their homes and with which they had no apparent connection?
Why should Avtar Singh-Gida, a Ph.D. student working on a Ministry of Defense-funded project at Loughborough University in central England, disappear without a trace in January two days before his wedding anniversary, when he had already bought his wife a gift and a card?
Tony Collins, a reporter who has investigated the incidents for the weekly Computer News, says that his work has led him to conclude that the three Marconi scientists were all involved in a narrow field of underwater-simula tion projects, an area in which he says Britain leads the world.
“I have no evidence to link them at the moment, but I believe there is a case for investigation,” Collins said in an interview. “The government probably feels there’s not enough evidence. It wouldn’t be like the British to rush into an inquiry.”
Others have raised questions about the fact that the names of two of the men who died and the one who is missing – Dajibhai, Sharif and Gida – indicate that they are from the Indian subcontinent or are of Indian origin.
“I’m very suspicious of this. For a fluke there’s too much in it,” Andreas Fingeraut, a defense economist at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London, said in an interview.
“Some of the top computer programmers in the U.K. happen to be people of Indian descent. They have specialized in it and are very good,” he said.
“I’m not saying they’re a security risk, but maybe somebody, somewhere thought they were.”
Others who may not believe in a conspiracy theory have suggested that the deaths and disappearance could be saying something else: that the world of high-technology defense research has become so competitive that it is driving some of its youngest and brightest workers to suicide.
“People in the defense industry are under tremendous pressure all the time. Competition is tough. The pressure is on for people to come up with new ideas,” said Anthony Watts, who writes about maritime defense research for a publication called Navy International, based in Surrey, England.
“The question of whom you can talk to about your work, and how much you can say is uppermost in people’s minds,” he continued. “It’s a strain on people’s families. Perhaps in the end, some of them crack up.”
Martin Stott, Cartwright’s aide in Parliament, also brought up that theme in an interview last week.
“We wonder whether there was something about the work they were doing that might force them to come out and take their lives. Maybe we’re putting too much pressure on these people,” he said.
Yet those looking for some theme, some reason behind the deaths and disappearance, are finding it difficult to know where to begin.
The first death was reported on Aug. 5, when Dajibhai, 24, was found in the gorge below Clifton Bridge near Bristol. Marconi officials say he worked for Marconi Underwater Systems at Watford, near London, as a junior software engineer checking torpedo-guidance systems. It is not known why he traveled so far from his home in London.
The police inquest into his death returned an open verdict, meaning that it could not be determined whether he was killed, died accidentally or committed suicide.
But in the March 5 edition of Computer News, Collins reported that Dajibhai’s family was not satisfied with the police investigation. And people familiar with the case said that Dajibhai seemed happy, had just purchased a new suit and new shoes, and was looking forward to beginning a new career in London’s financial district.
Although Sharif’s death officially was ruled a suicide, many believe it is just as puzzling. Sharif, 26, worked on electronic test equipment as a computer analyst with Marconi Defence Systems at Stanmore, north of London.
Police in Bristol said that a tape recording found in his car lent support to the verdict that he took his own life. But Collins quoted a member of Sharif’s family who contends that the taped message had “nothing to do with death.”
Sands, 36, was employed by a Marconi subsidiary, Easams Ltd., when he drove his car at high speed into the roadside restaurant in the early morning of March 31. A coroner’s ruling on his death is expected next month.
Police were reported to have said that he was depressed and had argued with his wife, but others said Sands had just returned from a vacation in Venice with his wife and showed no signs of depression.
Marconi officials contend that Sands’ work, although classified, had nothing to do with underwater research. But that certainly was the area of expertise for Gida, 26, who was working on an unclassified government-funded contract on sonar transmission.
He was last seen Jan. 8, when he and a colleague were testing acoustic equipment at a reservoir near the University at Loughborough. Both men went for separate lunches, and Gida did not return. Police are still investigating his disappearance.
Dajibhai and Gida lived in the same building at Loughborough University when they both were students, and a Marconi spokesman said they were “nodding acquaintances.” But there is no evidence to link the others.
The mystery appeared to deepen last weekend, when police in Oxfordshire reported details of the death of Peter Peapell, 46, a lecturer at the Royal Military College of Science at Shrivenham and a former Defense Ministry employee.
He was found dead Feb. 22 under the car in the garage at his home. The car engine was running and the garage door was shut, but an inquest returned an open verdict, which means it could not determine whether Peapell’s death was murder, suicide or an accident.
Yet even those who are searching for some link among these deaths are cautious about adding Peapell’s name to the list. He did not work for Marconi, nor was he involved in underwater research. “I’m rather wary of lumping all these people together,” said Stott, Cartwright’s aide.
Still, Peapell’s death notice seemed to add to the sense of unknown permeating all these cases. Stott and others believe the only way to clear the air is through an official inquiry.
“It may well be that this is all coincidence, a series of mysterious but isolated incidents,” he said. “But it is very strange, and we ought to get to the bottom of it.”
By Jane Eisner, Inquirer Staff Writer
Posted: April 12, 1987