Markov (Georgi) Murder Investigation (World of Forensic Science)
The 1978 murder of Bulgarian dissident playwright and broadcaster Georgi Markov is one of the most unusual events of the Cold War. While walking on a busy London street, Markov was struck by a poison pellet fired from an umbrella. After his death, it took British authorities weeks to discover that Markov had been poisoned by ricin.
Born in 1929 to an army officer, Markov witnessed the Communist takeover of Bulgaria in 1944. Subsequently, as a student at Sofia's Polytechnic University, Markov was imprisoned for his anti-communist beliefs in 1950 and 1951. He became a chemical engineer and briefly ran a metallurgy factory. During his career as an engineer, Markov wrote newspaper articles and short stories. In 1962, he became a literary star with the publication of the novel Men, and he began to socialize with the Bulgarian elite.
Markov defected to the West in 1969. Within ten days of his defection, an article appeared in a Communist party newspaper criticizing Markov's works. Within two months, all of his plays had been taken off the stage. Within the year, the Bulgarian press was describing Markov as a traitor. In 1973, a special court in Sofia sentenced Markov in absentia to six and a half years imprisonment and the confiscation of his property.
In 1975, Markov began to share his stories of life in Bulgaria on Radio Free Europe and the British Broadcasting (BBC) radio. He was particularly known for his harsh criticism of the autocratic rule of the communist leader, Todor Zhivkov. Markov's shows were broadcast into Bulgaria and he was seen as providing inspiration to the Bulgarian dissident movement.
Markov had been warned that the Bulgarian government was planning to kill him, but he believed that his enemies would attempt to administer poison orally. On September 7, 1978, Markov left his BBC office at Bush House in London to take the train home to Clapham in southwest London. As he passed a bus stop on Waterloo Bridge in the middle of the day, Markov felt a sudden, stinging pain in the back of his right thigh. Turning sharply, he saw a man behind him bending down to retrieve an umbrella. The man murmured, "I'm sorry" and then immediately hailed a taxi. Though in pain, Markov continued home. Only in the early morning hours of September 8, when his temperature rose suddenly did Markov go to the hospital. He lingered for four days and then died on September 11.
Physicians were unsuccessful in diagnosing Markov's illness. However, the circumstances of the attack and Markov's political leanings prompted the British government to order an autopsy. A post mortem, conducted with the help of scientists from Britain's germ warfare center at Porton Down, established that he had been killed by a tiny pellet containing a 0.2 milligram dose of the poison ricin. The platinum and iridium pellet, smaller than a pinhead, was detected only because it had not dissolved as expected.
Ricin is derived from the castor oil plant. It is known as a masquerade poison because ricin-caused symptoms are easy to confuse with those from a viral or bacterial infection. Victims experience abdominal pain, nausea, cramps, seizures, and dehydration. Death usually ensues from cardiac arrest due to an electrolyte (key minerals such as sodium and potassium) imbalance.
Scotland Yard announced the medical examiner's findings and reported that a similar attack had failed in France. In Paris, another Bulgarian defector, Vladimir Kostov, was attacked with an umbrella in late August. Kostov was ill for a few days with stiffness and fever, but he recovered. By chance, the poison pellet that struck Kostov had lodged in muscle in his upper back, away from major blood vessels.
Markov's assassin has never been captured. In June 1992, General Vladimir Todorov, the former Bulgarian intelligence chief, was sentenced to sixteen months in jail for destroying ten volumes of material on the case. A second suspect, General Stoyan Savov, the deputy interior minister, committed suicide rather than face trial for destroying the files. Vasil Kotsev, widely believed to have been the commander of the assassination plot, died in an unexplained car accident. The Soviet KGB is also suspected of providing technical assistance.
Markov's spectacular death proved to be a public relations disaster for Bulgaria. In 1998, Bulgaria's democratically elected President Peter Stoyanov stated that the Markov assassination was one of the darkest moments in his country's communist era. Stoyanov said authorities would continue to investigate the case. Scotland Yard has also kept the case open.
SEE ALSO Assassination; Assassination weapons, biochemical; Death, cause of; Medical examiner; Ricin.