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Death of Australian astrophysicist an Antarctic whodunnit

dpa German Press Agency
Published: Thursday December 14, 2006

Wellington- An Antarctic whodunnit that could have been written by Agatha Christie was outlined in an inquest held in New Zealand, according to news reports on Thursday. The question posed to Christchurch coroner Richard McElrea was how did Australian Rodney David Marks, 32, die of acute methanol poisoning while working at an American research base near the South Pole in 2000?

McElrea formally adjourned the inquest on Wednesday to prepare a written finding which he will release later.

Three possibilities were put to him at Wednesday's inquest:

-- Known as a binge drinker of alcohol, Marks deliberately took the methanol, stored on the base as a fuel of cleaning solvent, to get a recreational high.

-- He took it in order to commit suicide, or

-- One of the 49 other people working at the base put it in his food or drink "as a prank or done with a more sinister intention," a detective told the inquest held in Christchurch because the victim died in New Zealand's Antarctic territory.

"In my view, it is most unlikely that Dr Marks ingested the methanol knowingly," said detective Grant Wormald.

"Police have not ruled out that this was as the direct result of the act of another person, although there is no evidence that this occurred," he said.

Because he died in May, at the start of the Antarctic winter when aircraft cannot land on the white continent, Marks's body had to be kept on the ice for six months before it could be flown out.

An autopsy in Christchurch then showed he had been poisoned, but the source of the methanol was never discovered and the Americans he worked for did little to help solve the mystery, according to reports of the inquest.

Marks was working at a research base operated by the United States National Science Foundation (NSF). He had been employed by the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory and was hired by contractor Raytheon Polar Services.

None of the organisations provided much information, even after New Zealand police asked the US Department of Justice for help. They had to find a list of people working at the base on the internet and received only nine replies to a questionnaire forwarded to them.

Wormald said New Zealand police believed a full investigation into the events leading to Marks's death had been carried out by the US organisations involved but had been unable to get access to it.

The inquest was told that Marks had visited the base's physician repeatedly before he died, complaining of being unwell.

Suicide was considered the least likely cause of his death, the detective said, adding that Marks had recently formed a close relationship with a woman at the base, was active in his work and socially at the base. He had no financial worries and was striving to complete a significant piece of academic work.

© 2006 dpa German Press Agency