'Umbrella Man' may elude justice for ever

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The assassin of Georgi Markov is still at large 30 years after the notorious London killing, says Stephen McGinty

TIME, all 30 years' worth of days, weeks and months, is running out. Murder, in Bulgaria, has a statute of limitations of three decades and on Thursday, 11 September, the last grains of sand will pass through the hour glass and the file on the "Umbrella Man" will be closed.

Georgi Markov was a Bulgarian playwright and intellectual who would have preferred to be remembered for his literary works than the manner of his passing. Yet at around 6:45 pm on 7 September, 1978 after leaving the offices of the BBC World Service in London he passed a bus stop on Waterloo Bridge and there his fate was sealed by a pin-prick to his leg.

When Mr Markov looked around a heavily built man in the bus queue momentarily dropped an umbrella, mumbled a single word "sorry", then crossed the road to hail a taxi.

The writer had defected to the west in 1969 immediately after being told during a preview of his latest play, The Man Who Was I, before the cultural committee of the communist party, that he was "in trouble". Once a close friend of the nation's leader, Todor Zhivkov, Mr Markov did not wait to discover the exact nature of the "trouble" and, that night, packed a small suitcase and drove across the border into Yugoslavia before finally settling in London.

In 1975, he began anti-Zhivkov broadcasts on the Bulgarian service of the BBC and when he was refused permission to return to visit his dying father, the tone of his broadcasts became increasingly bitter.

The Communist authorities believed it was time that Mr Markov shut up, permanently. Hours after the incident at the bus stop the playwright developed a high fever and was vomiting constantly, four days later he was dead. The umbrella had injected a tiny capsule, smaller than the head of pin, which contained ricin, a slow-acting and lethal poison to which there is, even today, no antidote.

The device was almost never discovered. Within hours of entering hospital Mr Markov had difficulty speaking, and was hallucinating, but before his mind went he told his wife of the "Umbrella Man".

Professor Rufus Crompton, the home office pathologist who carried out his autopsy, at first believed he had been killed by an obscure illness. "Then I discovered a strange puncture mark on the back of his leg. It looked red and 'angry' and something was clearly wrong," he explained. The flesh surrounding the puncture mark was removed and sent for analysis to Porton Down, where Dr David Gall was examining it when a tiny pellet rolled off the table and almost disappeared down a drain.

Prof Crompton said: "Dr Gall was in two minds about bothering to retrieve it, for he initially assumed that it was a pin which I had used in my work. But, thank goodness, it was retrieved and sent to the Metropolitan Police where it proved a crucial clue."

THE question, now, was who was the apologetic "Umbrella Man"? The Bulgarian authorities were, of course, firmly in the frame. Ten days before Mr Markov's death, another Bulgarian defector, Vladimir Kostov, was attacked in a similar manner, except a small bag was used as a delivery mechanism instead of an umbrella and, fortunately for Mr Kostov, the ricin failed to be released. At time, in the midst of the Cold War, Bulgaria denied any knowledge of the incident.

Yet over the decades a few names have drifted to the surface. In 1990, Oleg Gordievski, the Russian-British double agent claimed that the KGB had supplied the poison as well as the delivery system to Bulgaria. It was a scenario that received further support two years later from Oleg Kalugin, a former Soviet spy, who said Todor Zhikov, the country's former dictator had personally sanctioned the assassination.

But who carried out the operation? Who was the man with the poisoned umbrella?

In 1992 General Vladimir Todorov, the former Bulgarian intelligence chief, received a 16-month jail sentence for destroying ten volumes of documents related to the assassination. General Stoyan Savov, the deputy interior minister who ordered the murder, killed himself before facing trial over the cover-up of the assassination. However, the dedication of an enterprising Bulgarian journalist, Hristo Hristov, who spent six years piecing together clues and has just published a book in Bulgaria on the case, believes that the man responsible was Francesco Guillino, an Italian-born Dane who was believed to be a renowned assassin.

In a tale that could conveniently have been folded into the pages of a novel by John Le Carre, Mr Guillino, was arrested by the Bulgarian authorities in 1970 for smuggling drugs and currency then recruited by the security services. He then travelled Europe in an Austrian-registered caravan and regularly visited Britain under the cover of an antique salesman using the codename "Agent Piccadilly".

According to the Bulgarian files examined by Mr Hristov, and authenticated by a senior government official, Mr Guillino was the only agent in Britain at the time of Markov's murder and left the following day, flying to Rome where he met up with his handler.

He then returned to Bulgaria where he received a medal and enjoyed a sinecure until 1990.

It is understood that Mr Guillino remains the prime suspect. On 5 February, 1993 he was detained briefly in Copenhagen where he was interviewed by British and Danish detectives and fingerprinted. While he admitted espionage, he insisted that he was not involved in the Markov murder and was later released as the Danish authorities had not case against him. He then promptly sold his home in Copenhagen and disappeared. Over the years detectives from Scotland Yard have continued to examine the files in an attempt to make the pieces fit into a solid constructive case against an individual.

A spokeswoman for Scotland Yard said: "This inquiry remains open and has been a particularly complex investigation. We continue to work with the appropriate international authorities to investigate any new information that is passed or made available to police."

The passing of the statue of limitations for murder may prevent any prosecution in Bulgaria in connection with the Markov case, but the state was certainly responsible.

After the collapse of the communist regime in 1989, the interior ministry was found to contain an unusual store of umbrellas.

How Balkan politics touched Fife

SCOTLAND was host to a sinister and secretive battle, thought then to be linked with the murder of Georgi Markov.

Kirkcaldy in Fife was the unlikely setting for a cold-blooded assassination attempt with overtones of murky Balkan politics.

At about 7:30am on 20 October, 1988, an exiled Croatian, Nikola Stedul, 51, who had lived in Scotland for 15 years, took his dog for a walk before leaving his home in the town's Glen Lyon Road for Dundee University, where he was studying.

He thought the driver of a car coming near wanted directions and bent down to the passenger window. He saw two flashes from a silencer and took the blast in the face and spun round. He was shot two or three more times as he fell.

Believing he had only seconds to live, Stedul tried to get to his house to see his wife and two daughters "just to tell them goodbye". He could only crawl a few yards – he should have died. One bullet had smashed his teeth, furrowed his tongue and missed his carotid artery by millimetres before coming out at the back of his throat. Another lodged in his chest and missed the aorta by a centimetre.

Stedul had no doubt the murder attempt was linked to his position of president of the Croatian Movement for Statehood and its struggle for an independent Croatia.

In court he identified, Vinko Sindicic, 45, as the gunman. He blamed the Yugoslav authorities for the shooting, and said Sindicic was a known infiltrator of Croatian groups. Sindicic had entered the UK on a passport stolen from a Swiss man in Zagreb. After the would-be assassination, Sindicic flew from Edinburgh to London but police linked him to a hire car been seen at the scene of the shooting and arrested him when the shuttle arrived at Heathrow.

Sindicic, also a Croatian by birth, claimed Stedul had wanted to recruit him to murder the exiled king of Yugoslavia in London and had incriminated him after he refused. The jury did not buy it, and Sindicic was convicted and jailed for 15 years.

Sindicic, believed to be a trained assassin, was questioned about the Markov case.