By all accounts, Gareth Williams was a brilliant man. Born September 26, 1978 in Anglesey, Wales, he began studying mathematics at the university level while still in primary school; his former teachers called him an “exceptional” student, and one of the best logicians they’d ever seen. He earned a first in maths from Bangor University at the age of 17, went onto gain a PhD at the University of Manchester, and by the age of 21, had been recruited by the British intelligence and security agency GCHQ. He began a post-graduate course at St. Catharine’s College, Cambridge around the same time he began at GCHQ, but dropped out to focus instead on his budding career; work became his life, and for nearly a decade, it remained so. In 2009, he went on a one-year secondment to MI6, with his return date to GCHQ being at the beginning of September, 2010. But he would never work for GCHQ again — or for anywhere else, for that matter. On August 23, 2010, he was found dead in his flat in London’s Pimlico area. He was just a month shy of his 32nd birthday.
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Although this would be a tragedy in any case, Williams’ death was made even more troubling by the manner in which he was found. Police made the visit to his home that Monday August a welfare check after his colleagues expressed concern due to not hearing from him for a number of days. When they gained entry into the flat, they found a large red North Face athletic bag in the bath of the master bedroom’s bathroom. The bag was padlocked from the outside — and inside were the naked, decomposing remains of Gareth Williams.
Questions flew fast and furious about the case, fed by its puzzling circumstances and the top secret nature of Williams’ work. Coroner Dr. Fiona Wilcox found in her examination of the body that there were no apparent injuries, nor traces of alcohol or common recreational drugs in his system; furthermore, there were no signs of a struggle and a distinct “lack of evidence that he made any frantic attempt to get himself out of the bag.” A cause of death was not able to be determined. The Metropolitan Police considered Williams’ death “suspicious and unexplained” as they set forth to investigate — but the conclusion of the three-year-long investigation would not tie up neatly with a bow, leaving nearly all the questions surrounding the death unanswered.
The facts are these:
- Williams was last seen alive on August 15, 2010. He is believed to have died on August 16.
- Initially it was believed a third has been present at the time of Williams’ death; later, though, police concluded that it was “theoretically possible” for Williams to have locked the padlock from inside the bag himself.
- Even so, no DNA matching Williams’ was found on the lock; nor were his palm prints found on the rim of the tub.
- A couple in their mid-20s were buzzed into the entrance of the building in late June or July; although they were thought possibly to have something to do with Williams’ death, Williams may or may not have been the one to buzz them in. The police were never able to identify, nor locate them.
- Williams’ once woke his landlady in the middle of the night calling for help, leading her to find entering his flat that he was tied to his bedposts. He told her had had done it merely to see if he could escape, and that it wouldn’t happen again.
- The discoveries that he occasionally visited bondage websites and owned a £20,000 collection of women’s clothing did not shed any light on the subject. It was determined that the bondage website visit occurred too infrequently to indicate an active interest; additionally, Dr. Wilcox acknowledged that Williams may have had “a sexual interest in ladies’ footwear,” but added, “but there I suspect he is not alone.”
- The fact that SIS did not report Williams missing for a week may have led to loss of forensic evidence.
- There was no evidence that Williams had taken his own life, or that his death had anything to do with his work.
The results of the investigation are inconclusive. In a two-hour narrative verdict in May of 2012, Dr. Wilcox noted that although the death had “immediately raised the possibility of foul play,” there was not enough evidence to formally rule it as an “unlawful killing.” She did, however, state that she believed a third party had placed the bag into the bath, and “on the balance of probabilities locked the bag.” Even without the evidence, there was a strong possibility that the death “unnatural and likely to have been criminally mediated.” In contrast, however, the Metropolitan Police offered a reexamination of the evidence in November of 2013 that supports the theory that Williams was alone at the time of his death. They determined it to be “probably an accident.”
Either way, though, Dr. Wilcox was right when she stated in her May 2012 verdict that “most of the fundamental questions in relation to how Gareth died remain unanswered.” We don’t know the whole picture, and what we do know appears contradictory without the missing information. The theories that his death was connected to his work and subsequently covered up, too, persist. “It is unlikely this death will ever be satisfactorily explained,” Dr. Wilcox said in 2012 — a sentiment echoed by Deputy Assistant Commissioner Martin Hewitt in 2013: “But the reality is that for both hypotheses, there exist evidential contradictions and gaps in our understanding.”
Gareth Williams was laid to rest in Angelsey in September 2010. He is still mourned and missed by his friends, colleagues, and loved ones.