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The umbrella murder mystery

Features | September 2015

Was the Bulgarian defector Georgi Markov killed on Waterloo Bridge in 1978 really jabbed by a brolly containing ricin? Peter Pringle thinks not.

After weeks of a public inquiry in London, we are still no closer to finding out who might have ordered the assassination of Alexander Litvinenko. In fact, the list of suspects gets longer. Meanwhile, everyone accepts what the experts have concluded about the poison used. It was polonium-210, the radioactive isotope of the rare element discovered in 1898 by Marie Curie and her husband, Pierre.

Expert opinion has also been accepted over decades on the poison in the other, apparently KGB-aided, assassination in London in 1978 – the so-called umbrella murder of the Bulgarian novelist and defector Georgi Markov. Ask any mystery buff what that poison was and you could safely bet a box of tsarist Fabergé eggs that the answer will be ricin, the lethal toxin concealed in the harmless-looking castor bean Ricinus communis.

To this day, stories about Markov state uncritically that he was waiting for a bus on Waterloo Bridge when a fatal dose of ricin in a tiny metal pellet was shot into his thigh from a James Bond-type modified umbrella by a person unknown.

This riveting ricin umbrella story, eagerly promoted by the Government, ensured that Markov’s murder quickly became the most famous assassination of the Cold War. ‘Solving’ the crime placed a feather in the cap of the investigators, starting with Scotland Yard and including the British secret services and the CIA. How much of the official story is true is another matter.

On 7th September 1978, so the story goes, Markov was on his way to work at the BBC World Service, where he regularly broadcast harsh and influential anti-communist essays. For these broadcasts he had become a personal bête noire of the Bulgarian dictator Todor Zhivkov, and had received numerous death threats. Waiting for the bus on Waterloo Bridge, he felt a sharp jab in the back of his right thigh. He turned round to see a man pick up an umbrella, hear him say ‘Sorry’ in a foreign accent, hail a cab and disappear. That night Markov developed a fever and four days later he was dead. The poison was ricin, officials said. During the autopsy, investigators found a tiny metallic pellet, the size of a pinhead, in the flesh of his right thigh. They say that they found an identical pellet in another Bulgarian defector, Vladimir Kostov, who, ten days earlier, had been ‘shot’ in the back by some device while coming out of the Paris Métro. Kostov said it felt like a bee sting. In each pellet, two holes had been drilled at right angles, creating a minuscule well for the poison. The poison was apparently kept in place with a waxy substance that melted at body temperature. Kostov developed a fever but survived. The investigators suggested that his thick sweater impeded the path of the pellet so that it never reached a layer of his flesh warm enough to thoroughly melt the waxy stopper and release all the poison. In both cases, it was assumed that the KGB had helped the less expert Bulgarians carry out the attacks.

Because the well inside the pellet was so small, British investigators knew the poison had to be deadly in tiny doses. There were several candidates, including plutonium (not polonium), snake venom and abrin, the toxin in the decorative red seeds of the jequirity plant that has been found to be 31 times more toxic than ricin. All these poisons could have produced the symptoms Markov experienced, but the investigators chose ricin – for a specific reason: both sides in the Cold War had long considered it as a weapon.

Scotland Yard rushed the pellet from Markov’s thigh to chemical warfare experts at the secret government labs at Porton Down in Wiltshire, but their technicians could find no trace of ricin, either in the pellet, or the surrounding flesh. The Porton people would eventually admit that at the time they did not possess suitable techniques for the analysis, so a negative finding didn’t mean much. The best they could do was to get a pig the same weight as Markov and inject it with roughly the same amount of ricin that could have been in the pellet. The pig died, and an autopsy showed changes in its organs identical to the ones in Markov. Willy-nilly, the investigators concluded, ‘Right, ricin.’ But there was never any proof.

Neither the man who allegedly stabbed Markov nor the brolly have been found, although speculative drawings of it appeared in the British press. And an American collector of KGB ‘spy gadgets’ in Florida has since constructed a model of how an umbrella might be turned into a gun.

Three Soviet defectors later backed up the ricin story. Oleg Kalugin and double agent Oleg Gordievsky claimed the KGB had been involved, and Ken Alibek stated specifically that the ricin came from Laboratory 12, home of the KGB’s dirty gadgets. But evidence from defectors is notoriously unreliable. Alibek, for example, claimed that the Markov coroner found remains of the tiny pellet with traces of ricin. Not true.

The brolly itself is also in doubt. The Bulgarian government reviewed the case for 35 years until 2013, the longest they could keep going without charges or an arrest order. Many of the files were missing, but they concluded that the poison, whatever it was, was fired into Markov’s thigh not by an umbrella, but by an ‘adapted pen’ of which the KGB and the Bulgarian secret service had many different types, apparently. The umbrella was dropped to cause a distraction.

The case for ricin is actually much more tenuous than the simple admission by the Porton people that they did not have the capability to confirm it. The LD50 for ricin – the amount that would kill half the number of people injected with it – is about 1.76 milligrams for an average adult human. Of course, the amount can vary, depending on the susceptibility and the weight of the person. Markov was six feet tall and weighed 89 kilograms.

The well of the pellet, according to Scotland Yard’s forensic department, could hold two-tenths or 0.20 of a milligram – not enough for the generally accepted fatal dose.

During the nearly 37 years since the Markov murder only one high-ranking Western official, as far as I know, has declared, and then not in public, that the pellet was simply not big enough for ricin. He was the late General Lothar Paul Neethling, a highly qualified chemist who was second in command of the South African Police in the apartheid era. He knew a thing or two about the use of poisons for assassination.

In 1984, when I was a correspondent for the Observer, I attended a conference in Ghent on the possible illegal use of chemical weapons by the Soviet Union in Afghanistan and Southeast Asia. General Neethling was there. In a conversation following dinner one night in the conference hotel, after he and I had nearly come to blows over apartheid, Neethling told me he had never believed the ricin story. The well of the pellet, he said, was too small to have contained both a lethal dose and the waxy plug to keep the poison in place until Markov’s body heat released it. At the time, his opinion was lost in more pressing Cold War events.

So, if it wasn’t ricin, what was it? Markov was murdered, apparently, in a Soviet-Bulgarian joint venture. Any bets on snake venom or abrin? Or should we look again at Markov’s symptoms and see if they match polonium-210? We learned during the Litvinenko inquiry that the fatal dose for an adult human is a mere microgram, or 0.001 of a milligram. The Markov pellet could have held a lethal dose, and more.

This story was from September 2015 issue. Subscribe Now