- Fifty-year-old Alistair Beckham was a successful British
aerospace- projects engineer. His specialty was designing computer software
for sophisticated naval defense systems. Like hundreds of other British
scientists, he was working on a pilot program for America's Strategic Defense
Initiative--better known as Star Wars. And like at least 21 of his colleagues,
he died a bizarre, violent death.
- It was a lazy, sunny Sunday afternoon in August 1988.
After driving his wife to work, Beckham walked through his garden to a
musty backyard toolshed and sat down on a box next to the door. He wrapped
bare wires around his chest, attached the to an electrical outlet and put
a handkerchief in his mouth. Then he pulled the switch.
- With his death, Beckham's name was added to a growing
list of British scientists who've died or disappeared under mysterious
circumstances since 1982. Each was a skilled expert in computers, and each
was working on a highly classified project for the American Star Wars
program. None had any apparent motive for killing himself.
- The British government contends that the deaths are all
a matter of coincidence. The British press blames stress. Others allude
to an ongoing fraud investigation involving the nation's leading defense
contractor. Relatives left behind don't know what to think.
- "There weren't any women involved. There weren't
any men involved. We had a very good relationship," says Mary Beckham,
Alistair's widow. "We don't know why he did it...if he did it. And
I don't believe that he did do it. He wouldn't go out to the shed. There
had to be something...."
- The string of unexplained deaths can be traced back to
March 1982, when Essex University computer scientist Dr. Keith Bowden
died in a car wreck on his ay home from a London social function. Authorities
claim Bowden was drunk. His wife and friends say otherwise.
- Bowden, 45, was a whiz with super-computers and computer-
controlled aircraft. He was cofounder of the Department of Computer Sciences
at Essex and had worked for one of the major Star Wars contractors in England.
- One night Bowden's immaculately maintained Rover careened
across a four lane highway and plunged off a bridge, down an embankment,
into an abandoned rail yard. Bowden was found dead at the scene.
- During the inquest, police testified that Bowden's blood
alcohol level had exceeded the legal limit and that he had been driving
too fast. His death was ruled accidental.
- Wife Hillary Bowden and her lawyer suspected a cover-up.
Friends he'd supposedly spent the evening with denied that Bowden had
been drinking. Then there was the condition of Bowden's car.
- "My solicitor instructed an accident specialist
to examine the automobile," Mrs. Bowden explains. "Somebody had
taken the wheels off and put others on that were old and worn. At the inquest
this was not allowed to be brought up. Someone asked if the car was in
a sound condition, and the answer was yes."
- Hillary, in a state of shock, never protested the published
verdict. Yet, she remains convinced that someone tampered with her husband's
car. "It certainly looked like foul play," Hillary maintains.
- Four years later the British press finally added Bowden's
case to its growing dossier. First, there appeared to be two interconnected
deaths, then six, then 12--suddenly there were 22.
- Take 37-year-old David Sands, a senior scientist at Easams
working on a highly sensitive computer-controlled satellite- radar system.
In March 1987 Sands made a U-turn on his way to work and rammed his car
into the brick wall of a vacant restaurant. His trunk was loaded with
full gasoline cans. The car exploded on impact.
- Given the incongruities of the accident and the lack
of a suicide motive, the coroner refused to rule out the possibility of
foul play. Meanwhile, information leaked to the press suggested that Sands
had been under a tremendous emotional strain.
- Margaret Worth, Sand's mother-in-law, claims these stories
are totally inaccurate. "When David died, it was a great mystery
to us," she admits. "He was very successful. He was very confident.
He had just pulled off a great coup for his company, and he was about to
be greatly rewarded. He had a very bright future ahead of him. He was
perfectly happy the week before this happened."
- Like many of the bereaved, Worth is still at a loss for
answers. "One week we think he must have been got at. The next week
we think it couldn't be anything like that," she says.
- This wave of suspicious fatalities in the ultrasecret
world of sophisticated weaponry has not gone unnoticed by the United States
government. Late last fall, the American embassy in London publicly requested
a full investigation by the British Ministry of Defense (MoD).
- Members of British Parliament, such a Labour MP Doug
Hoyle, copresident of the Manufacturing, Science & Finance Union,
had been making similar requests for more than two years. The Thatcher
government had refused to launch any sort of inquiry.
- "How many more deaths before we get the government
to give the answers?" Hoyle asks. "From a security point of
view, surely both ourselves and the Americans ought to be looking into
- The Pentagon refuses comment on the deaths. However,
according to Reagan Administration sources, "We cannot ignore it
- Actually, British and American intelligence agencies
are on the situation. When THE SUNDAY TIMES in London published the details
of 12 mysterious deaths last September, sources at the American embassy
admitted being aware of at least ten additional victims whose names had
already been sent to Washington. The sources added that the embassy had
been monitoring reports of "the mysterious deaths" for two years.
- English intelligence has suffered several damaging spy
scandals in the 20 century. The CIA may suspect the deaths are an indication
of security leaks, that Star Wars secrets are being sold to the Russians.
Perhaps these scientists had been blackmailed into supplying classified
data to Moscow and could no longer live with themselves. One or more may
have stumbled onto an espionage ring and been silenced.
- As NBC News London correspondent Henry Champ puts it,
"In the world of espionage, there is a saying: Twice is coincidence,
but three times is enemy action."
- Where SDI is concerned, a tremendous amount is at stake.
In return for the Thatcher government's early support of the Star Wars
program, the Reagan Administration promised a number of extremely lucrative
SDI contracts to the British defense industry--hundreds of millions of
U.S. dollars the struggling British economy can little afford to lose.
- Britain traditionally has one of the finest defense industries
in the world. Their annual overseas weapons sales amount to almost $250
billion. The publicity from a Star Wars spy scandal could seriously cut
into the profits.
- It would appear that only initial promises made to Prime
Minister Thatcher hold the U.S. from cutting its losses and pulling out.
A high-ranking American source was quoted in the SUNDAY TIMES saying,
"If this had happened in Greece, Brazil, Spain, or Argentina, we'd
be all over them like a glove!"
- The Thatcher government's PR problem is that the scandal
centers around Marconi Company Ltd., Britain's largest electronics-defense
contractor. Seven Marconi scientists are among the dead.
- Marconi, which employs 50,000 workers worldwide, is a
subsidiary of Britain's General Electric Company (GEC). GEC managing director
Lord Wienstock recently launched his own internal investigation.