The Mystery Of The Dead Scientists
Coincidence Or Conspiracy?

By Ian Gurney

It is a story worthy of a major conspiracy theory, the script for a James Bond movie, or a blueprint for a contrived episode of "The X Files". Except the facts surrounding this story are just that. Facts. The Truth. At least twelve, and perhaps as many as twenty eminent scientists, leaders in their particular field of scientific research, dead in the last few months, and a bizarre connection between one of the scientists and the mystery surrounding the death by Anthrax inhalation of a sixty one year old female hospital worker in New York. Sounds far fetched? Read on.
Since November last year several world-acclaimed scientific researchers, specialising in infectious diseases and biological agents such as Smallpox and Anthrax, as well as DNA sequencing, environmental research and microbiology have died, many in unusual circumstances.
First, on November 12th, was Dr. Benito Que, a cell biologist working on infectious diseases like HIV, who was found comatose outside his laboratory at the Miami Medical School. He later died. Police say the attack was possibly the result of a mugging. The Miami Herald reported that:
"The incident, whatever it may have been, occurred on Monday afternoon as the scientist left his job at University of Miami's School of Medicine. He headed for his car, a white Ford Explorer parked on Northwest 10th Avenue. The word among his friends is that four men armed with a baseball bat attacked him at his car."
On November 16th, within of week of Dr. Que's assault, Dr. Don C Wiley, one of the United States foremost infectious disease researchers was declared missing. Associated Press wrote:
"His rental car was found with a full tank of petrol and the keys in the ignition. His disappearance looked like a suicide, but according to colleagues and Dr. Wiley's family, the Harvard Scientist associated with the Howard Hughes Medical Institute would never commit suicide. Associates who attended the St. Jude's Children Research Advisory Dinner with Dr. Wiley, just hours before he disappeared, said that he was in good spirits and not depressed. He was last seen at the banquet at the Peabody Hotel in downtown Memphis the night he vanished. Those who saw him last say he showed no signs of a man contemplating his own death."
Wiley left the hotel around midnight. The bridge where his car was found is only a five-minute drive away and in the wrong direction from where he was staying, leaving authorities with a four-hour, unexplained gap until his vehicle was found. Memphis police were exploring several theories involving suicide, robbery and murder.
On December 21st Reuters issued the following report:
"The body of a Harvard scientist missing for more than a month since his rental car was left parked on a bridge over the Mississippi River has been found downstream. Workers at a hydro-electric plant in Louisiana found the body of Dr. Don Wiley on Thursday, about 300 miles south of Memphis where the molecular biologist was last seen on Nov. 16. Authorities have yet to determine the cause of death, Memphis police said."
Dr. Wiley was an expert on how the human immune system fights off infections and had recently investigated such dangerous viruses as AIDS, Ebola, herpes and influenza.
From the United States, the story moves to England. On November 23rd, Dr. Vladimir Pasechnik, a former microbiologist for Biopreparat, the Soviet biological-weapons production facility was found dead. The Times provided an obituary for Dr. Pasechnik, and said:
"The defection to Britain in 1989 of Vladimir Pasechnik revealed to the West for the first time the colossal scale of the Soviet Union's clandestine biological warfare programme. His revelations about the scale of the Soviet Union's production of such biological agents as anthrax, plague, tularaemia and smallpox provided an inside account of one of the best kept secrets of the Cold War. After his defection he worked for ten years at the UK Department of Health's Centre for Applied Microbiology Research before forming his own company, Regma Biotechnics, to work on therapies for cancer, neurological diseases, tuberculosis and other infectious diseases. In the last few weeks of his life he had put his research on anthrax at the disposal of the Government, in the light of the threat from bioterrorism." Colleagues of Dr. Pasechnik say he died of a stroke.
Back to the United States, and on December 10th, Dr. Robert M. Schwartz was found murdered in Leesberg, Virginia. Dr. Schwartz was a well-known DNA sequencing researcher. He founded the Virginia Biotechnology Association where he worked on DNA sequencing for 15 years. On Wednesday, December 12th the Washington Post reported:
"A well-known biophysicist, who was one of the leading researchers on DNA sequencing analysis, was found slain in his rural Loudoun County home after co-workers became concerned when he didn't arrive at work as expected. Robert M. Schwartz, 57, a founding member of the Virginia Biotechnology Association, was found dead in the secluded fieldstone farmhouse southwest of Leesburg where he lived alone. Loudoun sheriff's officials said it appeared that Schwartz had been stabbed." An adult and two teen-agers have been arrested in the case. The three are said to have a fascination with both swords and Satanism.
And so to Victoria State, Australia, where, on December 14th. 2001 a skilled microbiologist was killed at the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation's animal diseases facility in Geelong, Australia. This is the same organisation that, as the journal Nature announced in January 2000:
"Australian scientists, Dr Ron Jackson and Dr Ian Ramshaw, accidentally created an astonishingly virulent strain of mousepox, a cousin of smallpox, among laboratory mice. They realised that if similar genetic manipulation was carried out on smallpox, an unstoppable killer could be unleashed."
The microbiologist who died was Set Van Nguyen, a Vietnamese immigrant who had worked at the facility for 15 years. Victoria Police said:
"Set Van Nguyen, 44, appeared to have died after entering an airlock into a storage laboratory filled with nitrogen. His body was found when his wife became worried after he failed to return from work. He was killed after entering a low temperature storage area where biological samples were kept. He did not know the room was full of deadly gas which had leaked from a liquid nitrogen cooling system. Unable to breathe, Mr. Nguyen collapsed and died."
Now for the intriguing part of this story. On Friday, November 2nd, the Washington Post reported:
"Officials are now scrambling to determine how a quiet, 61-year-old Vietnamese immigrant, riding the subway each day to and from her job in a hospital stockroom, was exposed to the deadly anthrax spores that killed her this week. They worry because there is no obvious connection to the factors common to earlier anthrax exposures and deaths: no clear link to the mail or to the media."
The name of this quiet 61 year old Vietnamese hospital worker was Kathy Nguyen.
And so to the New Year, and still the scientists keep dying. On February 9th. the Russian daily Pravda reported that:
"The head of the microbiology sub-faculty of the Russian State Medical University, Victor Korshunov has been killed. The body of the dead professor, who had head injuries, was found on Friday 8th. February, in the entrance of the house in Academician Bakulev Street, Moscow, where the 56-year-old scientist lived." Pravda went on to reveal that: "It was the third death of a scientist within a few weeks. In January, the Russian Academy of Science lost two scientists, both well known around the world. Academician Ivan Glebov died as a result of a bandit attack in St Petersburg and corresponding Member of the Academy of Science Alexi Brushlinski was killed in Moscow."
Exactly a week later, on February 16th. The Times ran the following article:
"Detectives were last night trying to unravel the circumstances in which a leading university research scientist was found dead at his blood-spattered and apparently ransacked home. The body of Ian Langford, 40, a senior Fellow at the University of East Anglia's Centre for Social and Economic Research on the Global Environment, was discovered on Monday night by police and ambulancemen. The body was naked from the waist down and partly wedged under a chair. It is understood that doors to the terraced house were locked. A post-mortem examination failed to establish how Dr Langford, who lived alone in the house in Norwich, died."
Back to the west coast of the United States, where, on February 28th. San Francisco's Mercury News reported that:
"Dr. Tanya Holzmayer, a pioneering scientist, was surprised Wednesday night to find a Domino's Pizza deliveryman at the front door of her Mountain View home. Moments later, a former colleague appeared out of the dark, shot her dead and ran off."
Dr. Holzmayer was a Russian born genomic scientist who had co-invented a tool that has helped find hundreds of molecular targets to combat cancer and HIV. Holzmayer and her family came to the United States in 1989. Until December, Holzmayer had served a four year tenure as senior vice president of genomics for PPD Discovery, a division of PPD Inc. of Wilmington, North Carolina. Her killer, said Mercury News, was Chinese immigrant Guyang Huang, a former colleague who began working as the director of molecular biology and bioinformatics with PPD Discovery in early 2000. Mercury News continued:
"Huang appeared from behind the deliveryman. He shot Holzmayer several times at close range in the chest and head. As Holzmayer fell in her doorway, Huang ran to a Ford Explorer and drove away. Less than an hour after the shooting, Huang called his wife, according to Foster City Police Capt. Craig Courtin. He told her about the shooting and that he was going to kill himself, then he hung up. Huang's wife called the emergency services and Foster City police used search dogs to comb the area.. They ran into a jogger who had seen Huang's body lying off the walkway that locals call "The Levee." He had fired a single bullet into his head, according to Robert Foucrault, San Mateo County's acting coroner. Police said that at this stage in their investigations there appeared to be no motive for the murder."
Still the deaths continue. On March 25th. 2002 - part of K*USA TV in Denver, reported that:
"Denver car dealer Kent Rickenbaugh, his wife, Caroline, and their son Bart were killed Sunday in a plane crash near Centennial Airport. Pilot Dr. Steven Mostow also died. Dr. Mostow, 63, was one of the country's leading infectious disease experts and was Associate Dean at the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center. Mostow was a crusader for better health, an early advocate for widespread flu vaccinations and more recently an expert on the threat of bioterrorism. The plane was headed for Centennial Airport from Gunnison Airport when Dr. Mostow reported engine trouble around 4:30 p.m., Federal Aviation Administration spokesman Jerry Snyder said. National Transportation Safety Board investigators said "Weather did not appear to be a factor in the crash",
Back to England, and on March 27th. The Times carried an obituary for yet another leading microbiologist, stating that:
"David Wynn-Williams, an award-winning microbiologist died when he was struck by a vehicle while out jogging. In 2000 he was appointed leader of the Antarctic Astrobiology Project, which explores the effects of environmental stress at the limits of life on Earth. Wynn-Williams had assessed the capability of microbes to adapt to environmental extremes, including the bombardment of ultraviolet rays and global warming. This drew Wynn-Williams into collaboration with the Nasa Ames Research Centre, the Johnson Space Centre and Lunar & Planetary Institute, Houston, and Montana State University. A man of boundless physical as well as intellectual energy, Wynn-Williams generated a constant flow of ideas, which entranced both his contemporaries and the young. He was killed in a road accident while out jogging near his Cambridge home."
So far then, twelve dead scientists, at least eight or nine of whom appear to have died in "unusual" circumstances. Prior to these deaths, on October 4th, a commercial jetliner travelling from Israel to Novosibirsk, Siberia was shot down over the Black Sea by an "errant" Ukrainian surface-to-air missile, killing all on board. The missile was over 100 miles off-course. According to several press reports, the plane is believed by many in Israel to have had as many as five passengers on board who were microbiologists. Both Israel and Novosibirsk are homes for cutting-edge microbiological research. Novosibirsk is known as the scientific capital of Siberia, and home to over 50 research facilities and 13 full universities for a population of only 2.5 million people.
At the time of the Black Sea crash, Israeli journalists reported that three Israeli microbiologists had, on November 24th, been on board a Swissair flight from Berlin to Zurich that crashed on its landing approach. Of the 33 persons on board, 24 were killed, including the head of the haematology department at Israel's Ichilov Hospital, and the directors of the Tel Aviv Public Health Department and the Hebrew University School of Medicine. They were the only Israelis on the flight. The names of those killed, as reported in a subsequent Israeli news story, were Avishai Berkman, Amiramp Eldor and Yaacov Matzner.
In light of the deaths of these microbiologists, it is interesting to take a look at a similar set of circumstances that occurred fourteen years ago in the United Kingdom. Once again it involves the deaths of a number of scientists, some in "unusual" circumstances. The report below was taken from The Independent newspaper of August 26, 1988.
"The police said it was suicide, and no doubt they were right. Ex-Brigadier Peter Ferry, a marketing manager at Marconi's Command and Control Systems centre at Frimley, Surrey, had apparently killed himself by inserting power main electric wires into his mouth and then turning on the power.
The method chosen was perhaps marginally more grisly than in the case of several other Marconi employees. In 1986, for example, Ashad Sharif, a computer analyst who worked for Marconi Defence Systems in Stanmore, Middlesex, tied one end of a rope around his neck, another to a tree, and put his car into gear. Two months earlier, the body of Vimal Dajibhai, a software engineer responsible for checking the guidance systems of Tigerfish torpedos for Marconi Underwater Systems, was found under Clifton suspension bridge at Bristol.
In March 1987, David Sands, a project manager working on secret satellite radar at Marconi's sister company Easams, in Camberley, drove up a slip road on his way to work and into a cafe at an estimated 80mph. A year later, Trevor Knight, a computer engineer at Marconi's space and defence base in Stanmore, died in his fume-filled car at his home in Hertfordshire. Earlier, two other Marconi employees, Victor Moore, a design engineer, and Roger Hill, a draughtsman, had killed themselves, both seemingly as a result of work pressures.
There have been at least half a dozen more untoward deaths among defence scientists and others working in the defence field. Marconi is not alone, but it is well in the lead. The best efforts of investigative journalists have failed to establish a link either between the various deaths or between the deaths of the Marconi staff and the Ministry of Defence inquiry, now two years old, into some £3billion worth of defence contracts awarded to GEC-Marconi. "
--The Independent August 26, 1988.
Interestingly, Marconi was recently declared virtually bankrupt after it's shares fell below "junk" status on the UK stock exchange. Both the chairman and C.E.O. resigned and a great many employees have lost their jobs and pensions as the share price fell from a twelve month high of £4:45 to only 5 pence. Marconi, once a major player in the defence industry had, over the last few years, moved into the Telecoms sector and suffered when the downturn in technology and telecom stocks came along last year. A company once worth billions is now worthless, a situation that is somewhat similar to Enron.
Whether these recent deaths are purely coincidence or part of some sinister plot, the reasons for which can only be guessed at, remains unclear. What is clear though, is that being a scientist these days can be a dangerous occupation.
Copyright Ian Gurney. 2002.



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