The murder that instigated the UK’s most dangerous autopsy

There is an ivy-covered grave in London’s Highgate Cemetery that looks no different than the other graves around it. This particular burial, however, holds the lead-lined coffin and radioactive corpse of Alexander Litvinenko, who was subject of the UK’s “most dangerous” post-mortem examination.1

Litvinenko, born in Russia in 1962, served in the KGB and was a lieutenant in Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB). In 2000, he and his family fled to England, were granted political asylum, and eventually became naturalized citizens.  Litvinenko turned into a vocal critic of Putin and the Kremlin and advised the UK’s Secret Intelligence Service.

The story of the UK’s most dangerous autopsy starts on November 1, 2006, when Alexander met with Andrei Lugovoi and Dmitry Kovtun (pictured here), two former KGB agents, at the Millennium Hotel in central London. It’s believed he was looking into Kremlin ties to a Russian gang based in Spain, and planned to fly to Spain with Lugovoi to research this suspected connection.1

Grosvenor Square entrance of the Millennium Hotel. Image credit: MayfairSales via Wikipedia.

Shortly after this meeting, Litvinenko experienced severe gastrointestinal problems and had to be admitted to Barnet General Hospital.

On November 17, 2006, he was transferred to University College Hospital after his white blood cell count crashed, his liver function declined, and his hair fell out.  Litvinenko’s doctors checked him for an array of poisons, even the radioactive ones they knew about, but all of the tests came back negative.

One of his doctors brought in an atomic weapons specialist to help identify the toxin that was slowly killing Litvinenko.  This expert suggested that they take blood and urine samples to test for a radioactive substance known as polonium-210.

Researchers at the UK’s Atomic Weapons Establishment tested the samples with alpha-particle spectroscopy see if polonium could be detected.1  Because polonium emits alpha particles, this radioactive substance would not have been revealed in earlier analyses because they only detected gamma radiation. The polonium test came back positive within hours of Litvinenko’s death on November 23, 2006.2 He was just 43-years-old.

Marie Curie discovered Polonium-210 (210Po) in 1898. Polonium poisoning occurs by eating, drinking, or inhaling a dosage as small as a nanogram or a microgram, which is smaller than a grain of sand. If ingested, it will cause physical symptoms such as nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, throat swelling, and hair loss.  A small amount of this isotope will eventually destroy the spleen, kidneys, liver, and bone marrow.3

Litvinenko’s body remained hooked up to life support machines for a few days after he died because of the risk of radioactive contamination.  It was forensic pathologist Nathaniel Cary who disconnected the hospital equipment then put his corpse in multiple body bags.4

The post-mortem examination was conducted on December 1, 2006 at London’s Royal Hospital.  The autopsy team included Dr. Cary, a second pathologist named Dr. Benjamin Swift, a detective constable, a photographer, and someone to wipe off any bodily fluids that spattered the protective gear.4 The forensic team had to confirm and document the cause of death, which is this case was radiation poisoning, for the subsequent murder investigation.

Everyone present had to take extraordinary precautions to prevent exposure to the polonium. According to The Guardian, each person had to wear two protective suits, two pairs of protective gloves that were taped at the wrists, and a large battery-operated hood that pumped filtered air.4

Since Litvinenko knew he had been poisoned during his meeting with Lugovoi and Kovtun, detectives went to find traces of polonium at the Millennium Hotel. The teapot that Litvinenko drank from and the chairs that the Russian assassins sat in had traces of polonium.5

Investigators went on to uncover the radioactive trail left by Lugovoi and Kovtun during their deadly mission. The BBC reports that investigators found radioactive contamination at a lap-dancing club, a football stadium, two planes at Heathrow, the British embassy in Moscow, and an apartment in Germany that was linked to Kovtun.5,6   In addition to this, hundreds of people were exposed and were tested, luckily no one else was harmed.

The circumstantial evidence against the Russian duo was so overwhelming that they were charged with murder. Both men denied any responsibility for the death of Alexander Litvinenko. The Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) requested that they be extradited back to England, but (surprise, surprise) Russia refused.7,8

CPS moved forward with a public inquiry anyway in January of 2015.  Her Majesty’s Assistant CoronerSir Robert Owen, presided over the probe and wrote the official report.

Owen heard testimony from 62 witnesses during six months of public hearings and private, top secret briefings.9,10  It was during the inquiry that both Dr. Swift and Dr. Cary characterized the autospy “the most dangerous postmortem undertaken.”4,11  Owen concluded Putin likely sanctioned Litvinenko’s murder. He even called the use of polonium in Litvinenko’s murder “a miniature nuclear attack on the streets of London.”9,10  

Owen concluded that Litvinenko’s murder was likely “state-sponsored” because the dosage used to kill him would have cost tens of millions of dollars, which made it unattainable to a run-of-the-mill murderer.12  But investigators were not able to trace the polonium back to Russia because the polonium used in this case was pure, and impurities are needed to pinpoint the origin.  The murderers were able to travel undetected across international borders and evade airport security because polonium’s alpha particles can be contained by glass and do not set off radiation detectors.3,12

The New York Times reported on January 9, 2017 that the Obama administration levied sanctions against five Russians, including Lugovoi and Kovtun. These sanctions included a ban on travel into the United States and a freezing of any assets held in any American financial institutions.

Its possible Litvinenko wasn’t the last person murdered by ingesting polonium.  In 2013, Swiss researchers claimed they had evidence that deceased Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat died from polonium poisoning.3  Even though Arafat’s official cause of death was a stroke, some Palestinian officials suspected he had been poisoned.   Arafat’s body was exhumed in 2012 and samples were taken from his corpse and soil in his grave.  The samples from Arafat’s body showed unusually high levels of polonium-210, but the samples were too small and degraded to conclusively say that Arafat died from radiation poisoning.3,13

Works Cited

1.    Tweedie, N. (2015, January 31). “The assassination of Alexander Litvinenko: 20 things about his death we have learned this week.” Retrieved from: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/law-and-order/11381789/The-assassination-of-Alexander-Litvinenko-20-things-about-his-death-we-have-learned-this-week.html

2.    “Timeline: Alexander Litvinenko death case.” (2015, January 27). Retrieved from: http://www.bbc.com/news/uk-30929940

3.    Lawless, J; Cheng, M. (2013, November 7). “What is polonium, and how deadly is it?” Retrieved from: http://www.nbcnews.com/news/other/what-polonium-how-deadly-it-f8C11551753

4.    Harding, L; Addley, E. (2015, January 28). “Litvinenko postmortem ‘most dangerous ever in western world.” Retrieved from: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/jan/28/litvinenko-postmortem-dangerous-inquiry-death

5.    Harding, L. (2016, March 6). “Alexander Litvinenko and the most radioactive towel in history.” Retrieved from: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/mar/06/alexander-litvinenko-and-the-most-radioactive-towel-in-history

6.    “Alexander Litvinenko: Profile of murdered Russian spy.” (2016, January 21). Retrieved from: http://www.bbc.com/news/uk-19647226

7.    “CPS statement on Alexander Litvinenko.” (2007, May 20). Retrieved from: https://www.theguardian.com/uk/2007/may/22/politics.russia

8.    Parfitt, T. (2012, February 29). “CPS names second suspect in Alexander Litvinenko poisoning.” Retrieved from: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/europe/russia/9113991/CPS-names-second-suspect-in-Alexander-Litvinenko-poisoning.html

9.    Jamieson, A; Eremenko, A. (2016, January 21). “Vladimir Putin Likely Approved Murder of Alexander Litvinenko: Inquiry.” Retrieved from: http://www.nbcnews.com/news/world/vladimir-putin-likely-approved-murder-alexander-litvinenko-inquiry-n500996

10. Addley, E; Harding, L; and Walker, S. (2016, January 21). “Litvinenko ‘probably murdered on personal orders of Putin’.” Retrieved from: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/jan/21/alexander-litvinenko-was-probably-murdered-on-personal-orders-of-putin

11. “Litvinenko Post-Mortem ‘Most Dangerous Ever'” (2015, January 28).  Retrieved from: http://news.sky.com/story/litvinenko-post-mortem-most-dangerous-ever-10373601

12. Tweedie, N. (2015, January 31). “The assassination of Alexander Litvinenko: 20 things about his death we have learned this week.” Retrieved from: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/law-and-order/11381789/The-assassination-of-Alexander-Litvinenko-20-things-about-his-death-we-have-learned-this-week.html

13. Chrisafis, A.; Sherwood, H. (2013, November 6). “Yasser Arafat may have been poisoned with polonium, tests show.” Retrieved from: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/nov/06/yasser-arafat-poisoned-polonium-tests-scientists



Categories: Forensic Science

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4 replies

  1. I was enjoying the read until you added your personal (what a surprize) after Russia refusing to return the two to London. I stopped there. Personal opinions undermine the integrity of articles whether writers want to admit that or not. .

    • I understand your concerns. I spend a lot of time on this blog to make the articles informational and fun to read. However, since this is a personal blog and a creative outlet, some of the posts will have my personal opinion in them.

  2. Does the coffin have a lead lining to stop the radiation from escaping?

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