LONDON — In this trench-coated city, where real-life stories of spies and moles and double agents often rival the best fiction, the peculiar deaths of nine British defense scientists in the last 20 months have stirred suspicions that the cases might be connected-and that espionage might be involved.
Those who have studied the deaths-among them opposition politicians, a Cambridge University counterintelligence specialist and some investigative journalists-are loathe to draw any definitive conclusions, because the evidence, although intriguing, is scant.
But they do believe that the seemingly isolated cases bear enough connections and similarities to at least warrant a government investigation into whether some terrorist group or foreign government is involved.
The Conservative government of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, however, insists that the deaths, most of them apparent suicides, are mere coincidences, at best attributable to the unusually high stresses associated with secret defense research.
“The idea that they might have been bumped off by foreign agents is just straight out of James Bond,“ scoffed a Defense Ministry spokesman.
To be sure, the facts would seem to be the stuff of a crackerjack spy novel. Five of the dead scientists worked at classified laboratories of the Marconi electronics company, a defense subsidiary of General Electric Corp. that happens to be the subject of an ongoing fraud investigation into alleged overcharges on government contracts.
Several of the scientists reportedly were working on top-secret research into submarine detection and satellite defenses related to the “Star Wars“
antimissile program. Marconi has declined to comment on their fates.
While some of the deaths appeared to be suicides, circumstances surrounding others were decidedly bizarre. One Marconi computer scientist, Vimal Dajibhai, 24, plunged to his death from a Bristol bridge in August, 1986. He was found with his pants lowered around his ankles and a tiny puncture wound in his left buttock.
The Bristol coroner returned an open verdict in the case, and the puncture wound, according to a coroner`s spokesman, “was a mystery then and remains a mystery now.“
Another Marconi scientist, Ashad Sharif, 26, was found inside his car in October, 1986. He was nearly decapitated, with one end of a rope tied around a tree and the other end around his neck.
The coroner ruled the death a suicide. But Computer News, a weekly London publication that first drew attention to the series of scientists` deaths, reported that a relative summoned to identify the body said he saw a long metal shaft lying on the floor of the car, near the accelerator pedal. The shaft, the relative said, could have been used to wedge down the accelerator. A third Marconi scientist, David Sands, 37, was killed in March, 1987, when his car-containing two full gasoline cans in the trunk-slammed into the wall of a building. Sands` body was burned beyond recognition, with identification made from dental records. The coroner in the case returned an open verdict, ruling that there was neither sufficient evidence of suicide nor of foul play.
What has complicated the arguments of those who would dismiss the espionage theories as mere fantasy is the fact that stranger things have actually happened in Britain.
Ten years ago, Georgi Markov, a Bulgarian dissident who broadcast anticommunist programs on the British Broadcasting Corp. world radio network, was murdered when an unknown assassin, presumed to be a Bulgarian spy, jabbed him in the leg with an umbrella.
The umbrella carried a microscopic pellet laced with a deadly poison that killed Markov within a few days but left no trace in his bloodstream. The pellet is on display at Scotland Yard`s famed Black Museum.
The British have had a more recent reminder of the spies among them every Sunday for the last month, courtesy of the venerable Sunday Times. The paper has been carrying a serialized interview with Harold (Kim) Philby, the infamous Soviet KGB double agent who managed to infiltrate the highest levels of Britain`s intelligence service 30 years ago and betray the entire Western alliance.
It is knowledge of such history that leads Randall Heather, a counterintelligence researcher at St. Edmund`s College, Cambridge, to at least entertain the possibility that the Soviets are capable of a sophisticated attack on Britain`s defense scientists.
“I restrain myself from engaging in conspiracy mania,“ said Heather.
“But it is possible that we are seeing a very quiet type of terrorism here, directed at very specific targets. It is possibly an attempt to intimidate the small group of scientists who work in these fields.
“These are not normal types of accidents and suicides. These are not normal types of people who are dying.“
The most recent death did appear to be a “normal“ suicide. On March 25, the body of a Marconi computer scientist, Trevor Knight, was found in his car inside his garage, with a hose connected to the exhaust. A coroner`s inquest ruled that Knight, 52, committed suicide and died of carbon monoxide poisoning.
But normal or not, Knight`s case prompted a call in the British Parliament for an official government inquiry into the scientists` deaths.
“Some of these cases are very, very strange indeed,“ said Douglas Hoyle, a Labor Party member of Parliament who is pressing for the government inquiry.
“I mean, does anyone really commit suicide with his trousers halfway down? What was the mark on (Dajibhai`s) buttock? A lot of these deaths just don`t look like ordinary suicides. The question is: is there some common element?“
April 17, 1988|By Howard Witt, Chicago Tribune.