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Mystery of the Dead Scientists: Coincidence or Conspiracy?

February 6, 1988 GMT

LONDON (AP) _ When the body of a young nuclear lab technician was found halfway down a cliff in western England, it came as a jolting reminder to some Britons of a puzzle that has intrigued the nation for 16 months.

There has been a baffling string of deaths, suicides and disappearances of scientists working on defense-related projects.

Was it coincidence or a conspiracy?

Nothing has surfaced to suggest that it is more than just a bizarre chain of events. And there is no known information linking the latest death to the previous ones.

Police began searching for 23-year-old Russell Smith in mid-January after he vanished from his parents’ home, where he lived. He had previously asked for a day off from his job at the Atomic Energy Authority in Harwell, 50 miles west of London.

Last week, police found Smith’s car, containing a note, at a clifftop parking lot at Boscastle in Cornwall, 150 miles from Harwell. On Monday, they found Smith’s body down the cliff.

The cause of death and the content of the note have not been disclosed. The Atomic Energy Authority says it knows of nothing to link Smith to the previous deaths. Police refuse to speculate on whether his death was related to security, crime, or a personal matter.

The mystery of the dead scientists goes back to Aug. 5, 1986 when Vimal Dajibhai, 24, was found dead in the gorge below Clifton Bridge near Bristol. Suicide was suspected but the inquest left the verdict open.

Dajibhai was a junior software engineer checking torpedo guidance systems at Marconi Underwater Systems in Watford, near London. It is not known why he traveled to Bristol, 105 miles west of London.

On Oct. 28, 1986, Ashhad Sharif, a computer systems analyst working for another Marconi unit near London, was found strangled in a park near Bristol. The inquest ruled he killed himself by tying a rope to a tree, looping the other end around his neck and then driving off at speed.

Coroner Donald Hawkins wondered why it happened in Bristol. ″As James Bond would say - this is past coincidence,″ he said.

On Jan. 8, 1987 Avtar Singh Gida, an underwater electronics researcher, vanished from his university at Loughborough. Months later he turned up in France. He said he could not remember how he got there.

Computer design expert Richard Pugh was found dead in January 1987 at his home in Essex county in eastern England. Essex police said the circumstances of his death were never explained. A spokesman at the Ministry of Defense said at the time: ″We have heard about him but he had nothing to do with us.″

On Feb. 22, 1987, Peter Peapell was found asphyxiated lying under his car with the engine running and the garage doors shut.

The 46-year-old lecturer at the Royal Military College of Science at Shrivenham, 70 miles west of London, was happy and there was no reason why he should want to kill himself, his wife said.

The Defense Ministry said it did not employ Peapell but that he worked for the Cranfield Institute of Technology. A Defense Ministry statement said: ″He was working on an unclassified project studying recent trends in beryllium metallurgy in the USSR. He was using open (freely available) literature.″

Then, on March 30, 1987, David Sands drove his car, its trunk loaded with tanks of gasoline, into the front of a vacant restaurant and was incinerated. Sands was working on an air defense systems contract for Easams, a Marconi sister company.

Sands’ death prompted opposition member of Parliament John Cartwright to demand an investigation, saying the circumstances of the deaths ″stretch the possibility of mere coincidence too far.″

The government admitted that the spate of deaths was ″odd,″ but said an inquiry was not ″desirable or necessary at this time.″

Last April, the Sunday Today newspaper advanced the theory that the deaths were due to stress brought on by overwork.

Underwater defenses are vital to Britain, whose independent nuclear arsenal is submarine-based. Since at least some of the dead scientists were working on underwater systems, no one was surprised when Sunday Today reported that MI5, the domestic secret service, was investigating.

A Defense Ministry spokesman, bound to anonymity by civil service regulations, said Friday the ministry still sees no reason for an investigation.

He said all the deaths were investigated by police and coroners and satisfactorily explained, and attempts to link them into a conspiracy were ″newspaper hype.″