ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
The peculiar circumstances surrounding the death of British spy, Gareth Williams, in London three years ago is bound to provide endless material for the writers of spy stories, detective novels and crime lab thrillers. Williams was a mathematician on assignment to MI6, the British equivalent of the CIA. His dead body was discovered in his apartment, in the bathtub, inside a duffle bag. The Brits call it a holdall. And the bag was padlocked shut and the key was inside with Williams.
Police ruled that Williams' death was accidental, overruling an earlier coroner's judgment that indicated foul play. And joining us to talk about this case is Nigel West. That's actually a penname for Rupert Alason. He's been writing about spies for over 30 years and he attended the coroner's inquest and wrote about it for the British paper The Telegraph. Welcome to the program.
NIGEL WEST: Thank you.
SIEGEL: First, what do we know about Mr. Williams, the deceased here?
WEST: He was a geek. He was a technician with GCHQ, which was his employer.
SIEGEL: That's the British equivalent of the NSA, we should say.
WEST: Correct. He was extremely fit. He was very much a loner and had very few friends.
SIEGEL: So this loner is discovered under these bizarre circumstances, and you would say that the police got it right, that the coroner had been wrong, no foul play. You suspect it was an accidental death.
WEST: Anybody sensible listening to the evidence would have to come to that conclusion. The evidence was very distressing. What you didn't mention was that he was naked in the holdall and that the key to the padlock, which had been closed outside the bag, was underneath his body. And it is also the case, as we heard in the inquest evidence, that about 85 percent of his Internet browsing was to self-bondage sites, to claustrophilia sites.
SIEGEL: Claustrophilia. You...
WEST: A proclivity I had not heard about.
SIEGEL: Yes. You've said that as though you're familiar with it. I haven't met anyone who was familiar with claustrophilia until reading this story.
WEST: It is the pleasure gained from being confined in a very small space. It is not the same as autoerotic asphyxiation, which I'm sure many of your listeners will be very familiar with.
SIEGEL: Well, familiar, anyway. I don't know about very familiar. But, you know, a spy dies, even a loner, somebody who is not fitting in quite well, and there's a tendency to suspect, you know, something very, very unusual must be happening here. You say something was unusual but it was psychologically unusual, inside this man's life, is what you're saying.
WEST: Well, when the police searched his apartment, they discovered a very large and expensive collection of women's frocks that fitted him and his last purchase was of a red wig, a long-haired woman's wig, fitted to him.
SIEGEL: But there seem to be two questions here, though. First, was Gareth Williams inclined to, for whatever reason, lock himself into a bag in the bathtub? And second, is it possible to do that? Could he have done that alone?
WEST: Yes. I think you have to understand that the circumstances where somebody has been practicing this for a long period, then it is perfectly possible, as was demonstrated, for somebody to climb into the duffel bag, to close the zips. That's not the difficult part. The tricky part is to have the hasp of the padlock over the handles and then to use the fabric of the bag like a glove, if you like, to close the padlock.
SIEGEL: Well, you've spent a lifetime ferreting out fact from fiction about espionage in Britain and elsewhere. Wouldn't you say that fiction will have a lot of fun with this one over the years?
WEST: I think that any self-respecting novelist will completely reject this particular plot as being so bizarre that you really put at risk a suspended disbelief of the reader.
SIEGEL: Nigel West, thank you very much for talking with us about the case of Gareth Williams.
WEST: A pleasure.
SIEGEL: Author Nigel West, actually a penname for Rupert Alason. He is the author most recently of the "Historical Dictionary of Chinese Intelligence." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.