The Cold War was an era unlike any other. For the first time in human history, mankind had developed the weapons necessary to destroy itself in one fell swoop, and as the world’s two nuclear powers engaged in a decades-long staring contest, it seemed entirely possible that the world could be headed for just such an end. For a time, America feared that it could be falling behind their Soviet competitors in not just the nuclear race, but in terms of force projection capabilities the globe over. As a result, a massive influx of funding into America’s defense apparatus would not only go on to spend the Soviets into submission but would eventually become the backbone of America’s defensive infrastructure to this day.
But before the Soviet collapse was a certainty, the threat of their nuclear weapons was so pressing that President Ronald Reagan proposed an unheard-of solution: he wanted to place a network of X-Ray laser armed satellites in orbit that could detect and deflect Soviet ICBM launches. The program, dubbed the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), would earn the nickname “Star Wars” thanks to a dismissive remark made by Massachusetts Senator Ed Kennedy — who thought the entire idea was “reckless.”
Despite its critics, the federal government invested a total of some $30 billion over the course of ten years to develop the concept and some of the new technologies that would be required to make such a lofty goal a reality. It would finally be formally canceled by President Bill Clinton in 1993.
“The Soviets had literally hundreds of ballistic missiles aimed at the U.S., and the idea was that SDI would render all of them obsolete,” explained Matt C. Pinsker, adjunct professor of Homeland Security & Criminal Justice at the L. Douglas Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs at Virginia Commonwealth University.
“The practical objection to SDI was that it was too expensive and not technologically feasible. The theoretical opposition to it was that it might ignite an arms race, though this does not make sense because there already was one.”
Some critics today continue to dismiss the SDI effort as a pie-in-the-sky concept that could never work in practice. The technology simply wasn’t mature enough to use orbital lasers for missile defense, and although much of the program that has been declassified shows that lasers were developed, they would have needed significantly more power to ever hope to serve in a defensive capacity. Nonetheless, some, like Pinkser, believe there was more to “Star Wars” than the naysayers give it credit for.
“To criticize SDI as being ‘Star Wars’ is like criticizing the Manhattan Project as being ‘Star Wars,’” Pinsker said. “The whole point of both projects was to take theoretical ideas and make them a reality, which eventually both did. It didn’t happen overnight with either, and both were incredibly expensive.”
While there remains a shroud of secrecy around large portions of the SDI effort, it was a different SDI related mystery that caught the attention of journalists and amateur investigators in the late 80s. In order to achieve the incredible technological breakthroughs required for the SDI program, the Pentagon secured contracts through a number of prominent defense contractors. One such contractor was the UK-based GEC-Marconi.
GEC-Marconi had begun as the defense applications arm of General Electric but had relocated to the UK in 1968 following its acquisition of English Electric. The Marconi brand was involved in a number of classified and advanced defense programs for the UK and United States, divided into subsets: Marconi Space & Defence Systems (MSDS), Marconi Underwater Systems Ltd (MUSL), and others. GEC-Marconi was directly involved in developing elements of the SDI program, which may be what prompted people to take notice when scientists and researchers working for the firm started turning up missing or dead in unusual numbers.
In April of 1987, the LA Times ran a piece with the headline, “Their Firm Linked to ‘Star Wars’: British Scientists’ Deaths–Suicides or Conspiracy?” At the time, the death toll as they knew it had reached three in six months with another scientist missing; the most recent at the time being a 38-year-old computer scientist named David Sands. Sands had apparently driven his car head-on into a restaurant and died on impact, thanks in large part to a trunk full of gasoline cans. He, like the other three that were already dead or missing, was employed by GEC-Marconi, working on classified programs.
“Two main features link these four cases,” John Cartwright, a Social Democratic member of Parliament, said in a letter to the Ministry of Defence at the time. “Each of the individuals was a computer scientist involved in defense research. And in each case there was no obvious motive to lead any of these men to commit suicide or to disappear.”
It’s worth noting, however, that statements made by the U.S. and Marconi at the time claimed that these scientists were not all involved in the SDI program. In fact, at least one of them — a 24-year-old computer programmer named Vimal Dajibhai — was actually working on a different program: The Tigerfish torpedo project. Dajibhai had reportedly decided to take a new job in the financial district. He had purchased a new suit and new shoes for the position, and then apparently jumped off the Clifton suspension bridge in Bristol, hours away from his home in London. His body was found with his pants around his ankles and a puncture wound in his left buttock.
Another Marconi employee, Ashad Sharif, had just been told he’d be getting a promotion thanks to his work on electronic testing equipment. He then tied a rope around a tree branch, tied the other end around his neck, got into his car and stomped on the accelerator. He was also found dead in Bristol, hours from his own home in London, and some relatives claim there was a metal shaft on the floor of the car — potentially used to press the gas on Sharif’s behalf. Avtar Singh-Gida, 26, disappeared during routine underwater acoustic experiments in a reservoir near Loughborough, and even Sands reportedly veered off a street police referred to as “straight as an arrow,” before accelerating directly into the restaurant that killed him.
At the time, many were happy to dismiss the deaths or unexplained disappearances as coincidence, but then the story popped up again a year later — this time in the Chicago Tribune. By that time, the death toll had more than doubled to nine.
“Some of these cases are very, very strange indeed,” said Douglas Hoyle, a Labor Party member of Parliament who was pressing for a government inquiry at the time. “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?”
By 1990, Tony Collins, the journalist that had first broke the story of the unusual GEC-Marconi deaths, had compiled a list of 25 unusual deaths that he believed were related. He explained his findings in the book, “Open Verdict,” which addressed only how suspicious these deaths were without offering any firm conclusions as to what may have caused them.
Some of these unusual deaths include Dr. Keith Bowden, who reportedly died in a drunk driving incident despite his wife and friends denying that he had been drinking that night. A private investigator hired by his family determined that Bowden’s tires had actually been replaced with bald ones, potentially making a crash more likely that rainy night. Roger Hill’s shotgun to the head was reported as a suicide. Jonathan Wash fell from a hotel window, with the coroner unable to determine if his death was suicide or homicide.
Richard Pugh was found in his apartment with his feet bound, a plastic bag around his head and a thick chord tied around his body. The coroner classified his death as an accident due to “sexual misadventure.” A few days later in 1987, Dr. John Brittan – notably not affiliated with Marconi, but also working on classified defense programs, was found dead of carbon monoxide poisoning in his garage. A month later, Marconi engineer, David Skeels was found dead in much the same way. That same month, Marconi scientist Peter Peapell spent the evening out with friends, returned home with his wife and was found the next morning stuck beneath his car with his mouth near the exhaust pipe. The police believed he couldn’t have positioned himself in such a manner, but the coroner could not determine if his death was a homicide or suicide either. Days later, yet another scientist, Victor Moore, died of a drug overdose.
John Whiteman died in a bathtub surrounded by pills and alcohol bottles, but the autopsy revealed no drugs or alcohol in his system. A few months later, Mark Wisner, 24, was also found dead with a plastic bag over his head and clingwrap around his face. The verdict was also death by sexual misadventure. At the start of 1988, a lab technician named Russel Smith, 23, jumped off a cliff in Cornwall. Then a senior computer engineer at Marconi named Trevor Knight was found dead — once again, via exhaust inhalation.
The two most suspicious deaths may have been of Alistair Beckham, 50, a computer engineer for Marconi and Marconi director John Ferry, 60. Beckham reportedly went out to his shed, attached wires to his chest, stuffed a handkerchief in his mouth and hit the power, electrocuting himself. That same month, John Ferry stripped electrical wires and, according to the official report, jammed them into the fillings in his own molars to electrocute himself to death.
In total, stories of more than thirty deaths of scientists and researchers associated with GEC-Marconi popped up throughout Europe, with some as far away as Germany. Officially, there has been no common thread connecting them, but in the minds of many, there’s a good reason for that. Working on classified defense projects, especially during the Cold War, was a particularly high-stress line of work, which may have prompted some of these men to kill themselves. And because GEC Marconi had something to the tune of 18,000 employees at the time, it stands to reason that a certain percentage of them may go missing or die in unusual circumstances without any need for an overarching conspiracy.
But the total number of deaths, their unusual circumstances, and apparent “bunching” over the course of nearly a decade does beg some hard questions about espionage during the Cold War. Were some these scientists killed by the KGB? Or were they potentially even killed by American or British intelligence agencies? If so, what motive could there possibly have been to kill such a variety of experts, if not perhaps as an attempt to disrupt the programs they were working on?
Unfortunately, it seems we’ll likely never know.