Dawn Sturgess is believed to have been killed by a bottle of nerve agent that Russian assassins allegedly discarded in Salisbury, UK after a failed attempt to murder the former spy Sergei Skripal. But what really happened to her is far from clear.
On 8 July 2018 Dawn Sturgess, a 44-year-old mother of three, died at Salisbury District Hospital in the UK when the decision was taken to turn off her life support. She never regained consciousness after collapsing in a flat on Muggleton Road, Amesbury eight days before.
Sturgess’s death is believed to have been caused by a Soviet-era chemical weapon called Novichok — an extraordinarily deadly nerve agent. This poison was apparently contained in a fake perfume bottle that was used as part of an elaborate Kremlin plan to kill Sergei Skripal, a former Russian spy living in the UK.
Putin allegedly targeted Skripal because he sold secrets to the UK in the 1990s, even though he was arrested for this in 2004, convicted, and pardoned after six years in prison. Skripal arrived in Salisbury as part of an international spy swap and had been living there for eight years under his own name before Putin apparently decided to murder him shortly before Russia was due to host the World Cup.
The plan was to kill Skripal by using the fake perfume bottle to smear Novichok on the front door handle of his Salisbury home. He would touch it and die. His death would seem to be from natural causes because (according to Christo Grosev of the investigative group Bellingcat) the “insidiousness of Novichok” is that any trace of it disappears from the body “within hours”.
UK police later described the fake perfume bottle as the “perfect delivery method” for the deadly poison, but it seems Putin’s plan went wrong. Two Russian military assassins travelled from Moscow to Salisbury and poisoned Skripal’s front door with highly pure Novichok, but neither Sergei nor his daughter Yulia died after touching it.
Despite Grosev’s remarks about its insidiousness Novichok was identified in blood samples taken from the Skripals after they were taken to hospital, and this was confirmed when a second set of blood samples was taken two weeks later for analysis by the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons.
After carrying out their orders the Russian agents “recklessly discarded” their “weapons-grade nerve agent” in Salisbury before returning to Moscow. The bottle was apparently left in a charity shop bin for 84 days until it was found by Sturgess’s partner, Charlie Rowley, who gave it to her.
On the morning of 30 June, Dawn sprayed her wrists with the Novichok perfume bottle and began to feel unwell within 15 minutes. An ambulance was called to Muggleton Road and she was initially treated for what medics believed was a drugs overdose.
There are problems with the fake perfume bottle. They begin with the fact that Charlie Rowley can’t remember where he supposedly found it. He told police it was in a charity shop donation bin, but in a TV interview he said this was only a possibility and he had no memory of finding it at all.
But this is just the start. Although Rowley could not remember where the “unused” bottle came from, he was very clear about the condition it was in. He said the weapon of mass destruction was boxed and sealed in plastic, with the pump dispenser packaged separately from the bottle inside.
Rowley cut open the box and attached the pump dispenser. As he did so the expensive Russian spy technology broke apart in his hands, which became covered with Novichok. He said the military-grade nerve agent was oily and odourless, and he “washed it off under the tap”.
Rowley was not affected by his exposure to Novichok while assembling the bottle that he gave to Sturgess until eight hours after she was taken to hospital, during which time he went to a chemist and a barbecue at a church. He eventually collapsed and paramedics apparently gave him a novel nerve agent antidote that had never been used before.
The fake perfume bottle was discovered by police on the kitchen table in Rowley’s flat three days after Sturgess and Rowley were taken to hospital. Charlie recovered consciousness at Salisbury District Hospital two days after Dawn’s life support was switched off.
More than four years since Dawn died the Sturgess family are still waiting for answers. She has still not had a coroner’s inquest. The original coroner ruled that he would limit the scope of the investigation and that he was not prepared to consider wider Russian state responsibility for Dawn’s death.
Dawn’s daughter successfully challenged this decision in the High Court, where judges ruled that the evidence for Russian state involvement should be examined as part of the investigation into the circumstances leading to the death of her mother.
“There is acute and obvious public concern … at the prima facie evidence that an attempt was made on British soil by Russian agents to assassinate Mr Skripal and that it led to the death of Ms Sturgess,” Lord Justice Bean and Mr Justice Lewis said.
As a result of the judges’ decision, the UK government converted the coroner’s inquest into a public inquiry so that evidence could be heard in secret. The solicitor to the inquiry into the death of Dawn Sturgess was also the solicitor to the Hutton Inquiry that investigated the death of Dr David Kelly in 2003.
Although it is yet to begin substantive work, the inquiry has already changed chair. The retired judge Baroness Heather Hallett of Rye — who now chairs the inquiry into the UK’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic — has been replaced by the retired judge Lord Hughes of Ombersley.
Michael Mansfield KC, acting for the Sturgess family, has criticised the delays to the investigation. “If this inquiry is going to satisfy the objectives — the search for truth as well as the protection of the public in the future — any more lapse of time will compromise those objectives,” he said.
The same BBC report stated that “several individuals involved in the investigation are expected to seek anonymity for their own protection”. It later emerged that the UK Home Secretary at time, Priti Patel, had restricted documents without consulting the chair of the inquiry in order to prevent the Sturgess family from seeing them.
At the time of writing a date has still not been set for the inquiry to begin, although the BBC has reported it may not start until 2024 due to the “challenge” of handling “top secret intelligence”.