Five years ago Russian assassins allegedly used a military grade nerve agent in an attempt to kill a Russian ex-spy living in the UK. They left behind a trail of toxic evidence — but where did it start, and where could it lead?
On 4 March 2018, the retired Russian double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia were apparently exposed to an extremely deadly and persistent nerve agent called Novichok in the English city of Salisbury, Wiltshire, where Skripal had been living under his own name for eight years. The UK government quickly suggested this was an assassination attempt by the Russian state which, despite the extraordinary lethality of the poison, failed to kill either of them. But their two would-be killers — who the UK claimed were Russian military assassins — left behind a toxic trail that required a multi-million pound clean-up effort. On the five-year anniversary of the event, this article reviews that evidence.
The Novichok trail begins not in Wiltshire but at a hotel in East London, where the two Russians were staying after arriving from Moscow on 2 March, and from which they travelled to Salisbury. Police found traces of the nerve agent at the hotel. However, they decided not to report their discovery to the hotel owner, who in ignorance of the presence of a military-grade neurotoxin in one his rooms continued to allow guests to stay in it for four months. None of the guests who subsequently stayed in the contaminated room were reported to have been injured. Police afterwards said that the process of testing the room for the deadly chemical had probably removed its only trace.
The two Russians used the London Underground and the railway to travel from the hotel to Salisbury to carry out their mission, and it is possible they contaminated the carriages they used in the same way as they had contaminated their room. There is no report that railway carriages were later tested. However, police did become concerned that a cemetery in Salisbury could have been contaminated at around 9.15am that morning, even though this would have been before the two Russians arrived in Wiltshire that Sunday. The cemetery was sealed off but no trace of Novichok was subsequently reported to have been found there.
Arriving at Salisbury at 11.48am, the two Russians seemingly raced to Sergei Skripal’s house in a cul-de-sac 0.7km away from the station, where they allegedly used a fake perfume bottle — later described by UK Police as “the perfect… delivery method for the attack against the Skripal’s front door” — to smear or spray a large amount of Novichok on the front door handle of the building. The would-be assassins then went shopping in Salisbury city centre, where they were pictured several times on CCTV.
At some point while they were still in Salisbury, the two Russians apparently disassembled the fake perfume bottle of Novichok after using it, boxed it and sealed it in plastic, and dumped it somewhere where it wasn’t discovered for four months. The would-be assassins did not injure themselves while doing so. They travelled back to Moscow that evening and six months later gave an interview to Russian state broadcaster RT where they claimed to have been visting Salisbury Cathedral.
It seems Sergei Skripal and his daughter were out of the house when their would-be killers walked up to his front door and poisoned it. On returning to the house, the Skripals touched the door handle and spread nerve agent around inside the building. Having been exposed to Novichok — contaminating themselves and the house — the Skripals went out again, driving to Salisbury city centre in a car that was later removed for testing, as was the recovery vehicle that was used to remove it. They parked in a supermarket car park where a parking payment machine was later cordoned off, but there was no subsequent report of supermarket shoppers being affected by deadly neurotoxin after using the same machine.
The Novichok trail leads next to the River Avon close to the supermarket, where the Skripals went to feed ducks with bread. Three local boys apparently joined them as they fed the ducks, and the Skripals gave the boys bread from their contaminated hands. One of the boys was said to have eaten some of the bread they were given. It was later reported in The New York Times that ducks died and boys were sickened and hospitalised, but this turned out to be a falsehood told to then-President Trump by the deputy chief of the CIA — apparently to persuade him to expel Russian diplomats from the USA. Wiltshire health authorities subsequently clarified that no ducks were killed and no children were injured as a result of Novichok contamination.
After feeding ducks on the River Avon the Skripals went to the Italian restaurant Zizzi, which they contaminated with Novichok to such an extent that it was closed down for eight months for decontamination to take place. None of the staff at the restaurant were reported to have been injured through contact with cutlery or plates that the Skripals must have touched with their poisoned hands after they had been served their food.
Sergei and Yulia also went for a drink at a pub called The Mill, which they contaminated with Novichok to the extent that it had to be shut down for more than a year for decontamination and refurbishment. None of the staff at the pub were reported to have been injured through contact with the glasses that the Skripals must have touched with their poisoned hands.
Shortly after 4pm the Skripals walked to a bench, where they sat down and were rapidly overcome together by the effects of the deadly neurotoxin they had touched at least three hours before. Sergei’s body became rigid, and he started making strange hand gestures, while Yulia passed out and slumped against him.
The first people to come to their aid were Colonel Alison McCourt, the British Army’s most senior nurse, and her 16-year-old daughter. There was some concern that Colonel McCourt’s daughter could have been injured through her contact with the contaminated Skripals, but she was not reported to have been harmed following tests at hospital.
Members of the public joined Colonel McCourt and her daughter as they gave the Skripals aid at the bench. A young man called Jamie Paine said he got some of Sergei’s saliva on his skin while trying to help him. An unnamed doctor was also reported to be quickly at the scene. This doctor — who apparently moved Yulia Skripal into the recovery position, cleared her airway and treated her for 30 minutes — was later said to be “worried she would be affected by the nerve agent”. But she also said she she felt “fine”, and there was no subsequent report that she or Paine had been contaminated and required treatment.
Police officers responded to the Skripals at the bench, followed by paramedics. The Skripals were taken to hospital where the medical staff took no special precautions to protect themselves against nerve agent contamination, as the diagnosis of the medics at the hospital as well as the first responders was that the Skripals were suffering from an opiate overdose. It was at least 24 hours before any kind of nerve agent poisoning began to be suspected by the hospital. There was no report that the paramedics who treated the Skripals at the bench or the medics who treated them in hospital had been affected by Novichok, but a number of emergency vehicles were buried in landfill.
Later that evening police went to Skripal’s home, where two officers were exposed to Novichok. The nerve agent had dripped from the door handle onto the threshold of the house and was picked up on the feet of the police as they walked into the already-contaminated building. The police were apparently unaware of the danger for days and used the door freely. Detective Sergeant Nick Bailey became unwell two days after the Skripals and was hospitalised for 17 days, although he never lost consciousness as the Skripals did. A second officer was also exposed. Neither of them suffered permanent physical injury and Bailey ran a marathon a year-and-a-half later to raise money for the hospital. No other police officers were reported to have been hurt although all Bailey’s possessions — and those of his wife and children — were destroyed.
On 14 March 2018, Stephen Davies, a consultant in emergency medicine at Salisbury NHS Foundation Trust, wrote a letter to The Times newspaper to allay growing public fears that people in Salisbury or elsewhere were at risk from Novichok contamination, after it was reported by police that 35 people had been seen by doctors after the attack. “Several people have attended the emergency department concerned that they may have been exposed,” Davies wrote. “None had symptoms of poisoning and none has needed treatment. Any blood tests performed have shown no abnormality. No member of the public has been contaminated by the agent involved.”
Four months after the Skripals were poisoned, the fake perfume bottle of Novichok that the Russians discarded in Salisbury was discovered by police in a flat eight miles away in the town of Amesbury. It is not clear how it got there, but it had apparently been found by the flat’s resident, Charlie Rowley. Believing it contained perfume, Rowley had unsealed and reassembled the bottle, spilling a quantity of Novichok on himself as he did so. He then gave the bottle to his partner, Dawn Sturgess, who sprayed herself with the liquid and within 15 minutes began to display symptoms that medics initially believed were consistent with a drugs overdose.
Sturgess was taken to hospital where she died eight days later after the decision was taken to turn off her life support. An air ambulance that was not used to transport her to hospital was nevertheless grounded for two weeks as a precaution on the basis that some of the first responders who went to the flat in Amesbury may have afterwards travelled in the helicopter to respond to other emergencies. However, as with the Skripals, none of the first responders were reported to have been injured.
Since Dawn’s death, the Sturgess family have been fighting for an inquest to investigate the circumstances that led to her being killed. Although almost five years have passed, no inquest has yet been held.
When Sturgess was taken to hospital, Rowley remained in Amesbury where he went to a chemist to pick up a prescription and then to an event at a Baptist church. His flat, the chemist and the Baptist church were eventually sealed off, but there is no report of anyone he came into contact with during this time suffering from from ill effects due to contamination. Returning to his flat about eight hours after spilling Novichok on himself, Rowley collapsed and was taken to hospital. He received a nerve agent antidote that had never been used before and apparently made a full recovery, but the Amesbury flat where he and Dawn were contaminated was demolished — unlike Skripal’s house, which only had its roof replaced before finally being sold.
Police said the amount of liquid found in the bottle was capable of killing thousands of people — even though the Russian assassins had used it to smear a large amount of Novichok onto Skripal’s door, Rowley had spilled nerve agent from the bottle onto his hands, and Sturgess had sprayed it onto herself and rubbed it into her wrists. The UN has said Novichok is a weapon of mass destruction — even more deadly than the UK-developed nerve agent VX, which until the appearance of Novichok was thought to be the most lethal neurotoxin known to man.
Porton Down, the UK military laboratory eight miles from Salisbury that developed VX in the 1950s, was in the middle of a major chemical weapons exercise at the time the Skripals were poisoned. The laboratory’s chief executive denied that Porton Down could have been the source of the Novichok that contaminated Salisbury. However the UK foreign minister at the time, Boris Johnson, confirmed that Porton Down possessed samples of the neurotoxin — while also claiming that the scientists at Porton Down had positively identified the Novichok in Salisbury as having been made in Russia.
Johnson’s assertion that the nerve agent had been shown to be of Russian provenance was also denied by the laboratory’s chief executive.
Almost two-and-a-half years after the events in Salisbury, Russian opposition figure Alexei Navalny was also apparently exposed to Novichok after the nerve agent was allegedly used to poison his underpants by different Russian would-be assassins. This is another story — but like Sergei and Yulia Skripal, Navalny ultimately survived his exposure to the lethal neurotoxin. Navalny is currently in prison in Russia after being convicted of fraud and receiving a nine-year jail sentence, while the Skripals have disappeared.
Yulia made a single appearance in May 2018 to read out a pre-prepared speech for TV cameras, but her father has not released any kind of public statement in the five years since he was allegedly attacked. Without testimony from Skripal himself, the Novichok trail has gone cold.
(Featured Image: River Avon in Salisbury — geograph.org.uk — 1856260” by Chris Heaton is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.)