- 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 it."
- The Pentagon refuses comment on the deaths. However,
according to Reagan Administration sources, "We cannot ignore it anymore."
- 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.
- Yet, the GEC and the Ministry of Defense still contend
that the 22 deaths are coincidental. A Ministry of Defense spokesman claims
to have found "no evidence of any sinister links between them."
- However, an article in the British publication THE INDEPENDENT
claims the incidence of suicide among Marconi scientists is twice the national
average of mentally healthy individuals. Either Marconi is hiring abnormally
unstable scientists or something is very wrong.
- Two deaths brought the issue to light in the fall of
1986. Within weeks of each other, two London-based Marconi scientists were
found dead 100 miles away, in Bristol. Both were involved in creating the
software for a huge, computerized Star Wars simulator, the hub of Marconi's
SDI program. Both had been working on the simulator just hours before their
death. Like the others, neither had any apparent reason to kill himself.
- Vimal Dajibhai was a 24-year-old electronics graduate
who worked at Marconi Underwater Systems in Croxley Green. In August 1986
his crumpled body was found lying on the pavement 240 feet below the Clifton
Suspension Bridge in Bristol.
- An inquest was unable to determine whether Dajibhai had
been pushed off the bridge or whether he had jumped. There had been no
witnesses. The verdict was left open. Yet, authorities did their best to
pin his death on suicide.
- Police testified that Dajibhai had been suffering from
depression, something his family and friends flatly denied. Dajibhai had
absolutely no history of personal or emotional problems.
- Police also claimed that the deceased had been drinking
with a friend, Heyat Shah, shortly before his death, and that a bottle
of wine and two used paper cups had been found in his car. Yet, forensic
tests were never done on the auto, and those who knew Vimal, including
Shah, say that he had never taken a drink of alcohol in his life.
- Investigating journalists found discrepancies in other
evidence. "A police report noted a puncture mark on Dijabhai's left
buttock after his fall from the bridge," explains Tony Collins, who
covered the story for Britain's COMPUTER NEWS magazine. "Apparently,
this was the reason his funeral was halted seconds before the cremation
was to take place.
- "Members of the Family were told that the body was
to be taken away for a second postmortem, to be done by a top home- office
pathologist. That's not normal. Then, a few months later, police held a
press conference and announced that it hadn't been a puncture mark after
all, that it was a wound caused by a bone fragment.
- "I find it very difficult to reconcile the initial
coroner's report with what the police were saying a few months later,"
- Officials didn't fare any better with the second Bristol
fatality. Police virtually tripped over themselves to come up with a motive
for the apparent--and unusually violent--suicide of Ashaad Sharif.
- Sharif was a 26-year-old computer analyst who worked
at the Marconi Defense Systems headquarters in Stanmore, Middlesex. On
October 28, 1986, he allegedly drove to a public park not far from where
Dajibhai had died. He tied one end of a nylon cord around a tree and tied
the other end around his neck. Then he got back into his Audi 80 automatic,
stepped on the gas and sped off, decapitating himself.
- Marconi initially claimed Sharif was only a junior employee,
and that he had nothing to do with Star Wars. Co-workers stated otherwise.
At the time of his death, Sharif was apparently about to be promoted. Also,
Ashaad reportedly worked for a time in Vimal Dajibhai's section.
- The inquest determined that Sharif's death was a suicide.
Investigating officers maintained that the man had killed himself because
he'd been jilted by an alleged lover. Ashaad hadn't seen the woman in three
- "Sharif was said to have been depressed over a broken
romance," Tony Collins explains. "But the woman police unofficially
say was his lover contends that she was only his landlady when he was working
for British Aerospace in Bristol. She's married, has three children, and
she's deeply religious. The possibility of the two having an affair seems
highly unlikely--especially since Sharif had a fiancee in Pakistan. His
family told me that he was genuinely in love with her."
- Police suddenly switched stories. They began to say that
Sharif had been deeply in love with the woman he was engaged to, and that
he'd decapitated himself because another woman was pressuring him to call
off the marriage.
- Authorities claimed to have found a taped message in
Sharif's car "tantamount" to a suicide note. On it, officers
said, he'd admitted to having had an affair, thus bringing shame on his
family. Family members who've heard the tape say that it actually gave
no indication of why Sharif might want to kill himself.
- Sharif's family was told by the coroner that it was "not
in their best interest" to attend the inquest.
- "It's been almost impossible to get to information
about deaths that should be in the public domain," Tony Collins laments.
"I've been given false names or incorrect spellings, or I've not been
told where inquests have taken place. It's made it very difficult for me
to try to track down the details of these cases."
- In the Sharif case, two facts stand out: Ashaad had no
history of depression, and there was absolutely no reason for him to be
- A widely help theory among the establishment press is
that the mysterious deaths are stress-related accidents or suicides. Such
theories may not be far off the mark.
- According to a high-ranking British government official,
for the past year and a half the Ministry of Defense has been secretly
investigating Marconi on allegations of defense- contract fraud--overcharging
the government, bribing officials. The extensive probe has required most
of the MoD's investiga- tive resources, conceivably reaching as far as
Marconi's sub- contractors and into MoD research facilities such as the
Royal Military College of Science and the Royal Air Force Research Center.
- Almost all of the dead scientists were associated with
one or more of these establishments.
- If Marconi employees were being forced by management
to perform or to cover up illegal activities, it may be that the stress
did indeed get to them.
- "In America, there are considerable incentives for
people to blow the whistle if they're being asked to perform illegal acts
like ripping off the government," a confidential source in Parliament
explains. "However, in this country there have been perhaps 20 people
who've blown the whistle, and none of them have ever worked again. They
didn't receive any compensation. Here, you don't get any recognition. You
get threatened with prosecution under the Official Secrets Act. They can
fire you. Then they can take away your home and get you blacklisted.
- "It's an impossible position to be placed in,"
the source adds. "It's quite conceivable that these people could have
killed themselves because they felt terribly ashamed of what they'd done.
For that matter, some of the accidents or suicides could have been men
who'd taken bribes but who couldn't face the embarrassment of public disclosure."
- If Marconi was systematically defrauding the government
for millions of pounds each year, perhaps an employee stumbled upon incriminating
evidence and had to be done away with. It would be easy enough to make
it look like an accident.
- Consider the peculiar death of Peter Peapell, found dead
beneath his car in the garage of his Oxfordshire home. Peapell, 46, worked
for the Royal Military College of Science, a world authority on communications
technology, electronics surveillance and target detection. Peapell was
an expert at using computers to process signals emitted by metals. His
work reportedly included testing titanium for its resistance to explosives.
- On the night of February 22, 1987, Peapell spent an enjoyable
evening out with his wife, Maureen, and their friends. When they returned
home, Maureen went straight to bed, leaving Peter to put the car away.
- When Maureen woke up the next morning, she discovered
that Peter had not come to bed. She went looking for him. When she reached
the garage, she noticed that the door was closed. Yet she could hear the
car's engine running.
- She found her husband lying on his back beneath the car,
his mouth directly below the tail pipe. She pulled him into the open air,
but he was already dead.
- Initially, Maureen thought her husband's death an accident.
She presumed he'd gotten under the car to investigate a knocking he'd heard
driving home the night before, and that he'd gotten stuck. But the light
fixture in the garage was broken, and Peter hadn't been carrying a flashlight.
- Police had their own suspicions. A constable the same
height and wieght as Peter Peapell found it impossible to crawl under the
car when the garage door was closed. He also found it impossible to close
the door once he was under the car.
- Carbon deposits from the inside of the garage door showed
that the engine had been running only a short time. Yet, Mrs. Peapell had
found the body almost seven hours after she'd gone to bed.
- The coroner's inquest could not determine whether the
death was a homicide, a suicide or an accident. According to Maureen Peapell,
Peter had no reason to kill himself. They had no marital or financial problems.
Peter loved his job. He'd just received a sizable raise, and according
to colleagues, he'd exhibited "absolutely no signs of stress."
- We may never know what is killing these scientists. Everyone
has a theory.
- The National Forum Foundation, a conservative Washington
D.C., think tank, believes the deaths are the work of European- based,
left-wing terrorists, such as those who took credit for gunning down a
West German bureaucrat who'd negotiated Star Wars contracts. The group
also claims the July 1986 bombing death of a researcher director from the
Siemens Company--a high-tech, West German electronics firm. They have yet
to take credit for any of the scientists.
- A more outrageous theory suggests that the Russians have
developed an electromagnetic "death ray," with which they're
driving the British scientists to suicide. A supermarket tabloid contends
the ultrathin waves emitted by the device interfere with a person's brain
waves, causing violent mood shifts, including suicidal depres- sion.
- The genius of such a weapon is that the victim does all
the dirty work and takes all the blame. Yet, if the Soviets have actually
developed such a weapon, why waste it on 22 British defense workers?
- Are the scientists victims of a corrupt defense industry?
Have they been espionage pawns? Are the deaths nothing more than an extraordinary
- DOSSIER OF DEATH
- 1. AUTO ACCIDENT--Professor Keith Bowden, 45, computer
scientist, Essex University. In March 1982 Bowden's car plunged off a bridge,
into am abandoned rail yard. His death was listed as an accident.
- 2. MISSING PERSON--Lieutenant Colonel Anthony Godley,
49, defense expert, head of work-study unit at the Royal Military College
of Science. Godley disappeared in April 1983. His father bequeathes him
more than $60,000, with the proviso that he claim it be 1987. He never
showed up and is presumed dead.
- 3. SHOTGUN BLAST--Roger Hill, 49, radar designer and
draftsman, Marconi. In March 1985 Hill allegedly killed himself with a
shotgun at the family home.
- 4. DEATH LEAP--Jonathan Walsh, 29, digital-communications
expert assigned to British Telecom's secret Martlesham Health research
facility (and to GEC, Marconi's parent firm). In November 1985 Walsh allegedly
fell from his hotel room while working on a British Telecom project in
Abidjan, Ivory Coast (Africa). He had expressed a fear for his life. Verdict:
Still in question.
- 5. DEATH LEAP--Vimal Dajibhai, 24, computer-software
engineer (worked on guidance system for Tigerfish torpedo), Marconi Underwater
Systems. In August 1986 Dajibhai's crumpled remains were found 240 feet
below the Clifton suspension bridge in Bristol. The death has not been
listed as a suicide.
- 6. DECAPITATION--Ashaad Sharif, 26, computer analyst,
Marconi Defense Systems. In October 1986, in Bristol, Sharif allegedly
tied one end of a rope around a tree and the other end around his neck,
then drove off in his car at high speed. Verdict: Suicide.
- 7. SUFFOCATION--Richard Pugh, computer consultant for
the Ministry of Defense. In January 1987 Pugh was found dead, wrapped head-to-
toe in rope that was tied four times around his neck. The coroner listed
his death as an accident due to a sexual experiment gone awry.
- 8. ASPHYXIATION--John Brittan, Ministry of Defense tank
batteries expert, Royal Military College of Science. In January 1987 Brittan
was found dead in a parked car in his garage. The engine was still running.
Verdict: Accidental death.
- 9. DRUG OVERDOSE--Victor Moore, 46, design engineer,
Marconi Space Systems. In February 1987 Moore was found dead of a drug
overdose. His death is listed as a suicide.
- 10. ASPHYXIATION--Peter Peapell, 46, scientist, Royal
Military College of Science. In February 1987 Peapell was found dead beneath
his car, his face near the tail pipe, in the garage of his Oxfordshire
home. Death was due to carbon-monoxide poisoning, although test showed
that the engine had been running only a short time. Foul play has not been
- 11. ASPHYXIATION--Edwin Skeels, 43, engineer, Marconi.
In February 1987 Skeels was found dead in his car, a victim of carbon-monoxide
poisoning. A hose led from the exhaust pipe. His death is listed as a suicide.
- 12. AUTO ACCIDENT--David Sands, satellite projects manager,
Eassams (a Marconi sister company). Although up for a promotion, in March
1987 Sands drove a car filled with gasoline cans into the brick wall of
an abandoned cafe. He was killed instantly. Foul play has not been ruled
- 13. AUTO ACCIDENT--Stuart Gooding, 23, postgraduate research
student, Royal Military College of Science. In April 1987 Gooding died
in a mysterious car wreck in Cyprus while the College was holding military
exercises on the island. Verdict: Accidental death.
- 14. AUTO ACCIDENT--George Kountis, experienced systems
analyst at British Polytechnic. In April 1987 Kountis drowned after his
BMW plunged into the Mersey River in Liverpool. His death is listed as
- 15. SUFFOCATION--Mark Wisner, 24, software engineer at
Ministry of Defense experimental station for combat aircraft. In April
1987 Wisner was found dead in his home with a plastic bag over his head.
At the inqust, his death was rules an accident due to a sexual experiment
- 16. AUTO ACCIDENT--Michael Baker, 22, digital-communications
expert, Plessey Defense Systems. In May 1987 Baker's BMW crashed through
a road barrier, killing the driver. Verdict: Misadventure.
- 17. HEART ATTACK--Frank Jennings, 60, electronic-weapons
engineer for Plessey. In June 1987 Jennings allegedly dropped dead of a
heart attack. No inquest was held.
- 18. DEATH LEAP--Russel Smith, 23, lab technician at the
Atomic Energy Research Establishment. In January 1988 Smith's mangled body
was found halfway down a cliff in Cornwall. Verdict: Suicide.
- 19. ASPHYXIATION--Trevor Knight, 52, computer engineer,
Marconi Space and Defense Systems. In March 1988 Knight was found dead
in his car, asphyxiated by fume from a hose attached to the tail pipe.
The death was ruled a suicide.
- 20. ELECTROCUTION--John Ferry, 60, assistant marketing
director for Marconi. In August 1988 Ferry was found dead in a company-owned
apartment, the stripped leads of an electrical cord in his mouth. Foul
play has not been ruled out.
- 21. ELECTROCUTION--Alistair Beckham, 50, software engineer,
Plessey. In August 1988 Beckham's lifeless body was found in the garden
shed behind his house. Bare wires, which ran to a live main, were wrapped
around his chest. Now suicide note was found, and police habe not ruled
out foul play.
- 22. ASPHYXIATION--Andrew Hall, 33, engineering manager,
British Aero- space. In September 1988 Hall was found dead in his car,
asphyxiated by fumes from a hose that was attached to the tail pipe. Friends
said he was well liked, had everything to live for. Verdict: Suicide.