Antarctic murder mystery: A 20-year investigation into the ultimate cold case

Antarctic murder mystery: A 20-year investigation into the ultimate cold case
Antarctic murder mystery: A 20-year investigation into the ultimate cold case

A dormitory at the US Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station. “People are basically locked up in a base and they can do what they want.” Right: Rodney Marks was meticulous about lab safety, according to his supervisor. Photos / Supplied

Kiwi investigative journalist Stephen Davis has spent 21 years trying to get to the bottom of what many believe is the suspicious death of an Australian scientist in Antarctica.

Journalist Stephen Davis has gone deep
into investigating several modern mysteries. His digging into British Airways flight 149 that landed in Kuwait just hours after the Iraqi invasion in 1990, causing its passengers to be held hostage, has resulted in new court action on behalf of the passengers and is being made into a Sky UK feature film. Under his The Secret History of… banner, he has also investigated the disaster of the sinking of the Estonia, a ferry crossing the Baltic Sea.

In his latest investigation, Davis, a former Listener columnist, has released a six-part podcast on the death of Australian astrophysicist Rodney Marks in May 2000 at the American-run Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station. He paints a picture of Antarctica as the Wild West, where a wall of silence prevented a proper police investigation into what is widely considered to be a young scientist’s suspicious death. He’s still not done on finding out exactly what happened.

Rodney Marks died from methanol poisoning but how it happened has not been formally established. What have you found out about his death?

We’ve identified prime suspects. There were two people who, in police terminology, had the means, motivation and opportunity to murder Marks. But so far, they’ve refused to speak. Likewise, the police will no longer comment.

Are you hopeful Marks’ killers will be brought to justice?

I’m not giving up. Some days I’m hopeful, some days, not. But if you’d asked me about my investigation into BA149, after many years of pursuing, I thought there was no chance of justice. And now, suddenly, we seem to be getting some justice.

What else have you uncovered about Rodney Marks’ death?

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The other huge part of it, which I’m still investigating and gathering information about, is the cover-up. And on that, I have been working for years to obtain documentation on how the US government interfered with the investigation by protesting to the New Zealand government.

It became clear there was a prolonged cover-up by US authorities. New Zealand police investigating the death were obstructed at every turn, potentially crucial evidence was destroyed and key witnesses weren’t interviewed, even when they suggested the possibility of foul play.

There was behind-closed-doors pressure on the NZ government over the police investigation, details of which Wellington still refuses to release, despite multiple OIA requests. A February 2001 memo I got 18 months ago relates to US Embassy [staff] going to see people in the government in Wellington, clearly to protest. But it’s written on national security grounds. I have appealed to the Ombudsman but this stuff takes forever.

Many of those at the South Pole US base at the time of Marks’ death, including his fiancée, have refused to speak. Who has come forward since to talk about what happened?

We got people like Dave Zybowski, who was down there. And we also got Rodney’s supervisor, Dr Antony Stark at Harvard, to talk about it and finally break the omerta on it. Stark says Marks was meticulous about lab safety and wouldn’t have made such a mistake. The amount of methanol swallowed was about a large glassful. He believes Marks was deliberately poisoned but the poisoner may not have intended to kill him. Zybowski, who was there at the time, recalled his suspicion of him when he first learned of Marks’ death that someone had “done something.” I have completely rejected the suggestion of suicide.

Zybowski also talks about the culture of violence at that time. Has it improved at all?

Zybowski told us the very first day he was down there, he was sitting in a canteen and he saw someone approaching someone else and tried to kill him with a hammer. But no, the heavy drinking, violent culture and bad behavior have not improved in the 24 years since. In individual cases people try to do something about it, but people who have contacted me since the podcast make it very clear that none of the issues that we raised in the podcast have been resolved.

And the sexual assaults and rape of female staff that were well publicized a couple of years ago – has that changed at all?

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Jennifer Sorensen was working as a food steward at the US McMurdo Station in 2015 when a sexual relationship turned violent. She was raped, but when she reported it, her bosses decided after a brief investigation that she was the victim of sexual harassment and not sexual assault. Jennifer, who we interviewed on the podcast, and others will tell you it’s not really changed at all. It’s still awful.

And this relates to the lack of overall governance of Antarctica?

Forks. The point is that it’s in nobody’s interest at the moment under the Antarctic Treaty to have an overall resolution of the problem of bad behaviour. I mean, there’s no continent-wide police force, no established procedures for dealing with bad incidents, because of jurisdictional issues.

It’s an area where countries, including New Zealand, have staked a claim but no one is allowed to own territories, according to the 1950s treaty. It’s a continent of no laws, really, because you can’t introduce a law.

If a Kiwi died at McMurdo tomorrow, it still wouldn’t be properly investigated.

You also talk about the effect on mood and behavior of spending six winter months at the South Pole.

What people don’t realize is, down by the South Pole, it’s a desert. And, ironically enough, with all that ice about, there’s no water, you can’t chip into the ice, and it’s close to being like living on another planet. In fact, because of the environmental issues, the stress and stuff, NASA studies what happens to people there, preparatory to, eventually, a long-term mission to Mars.

People in those environments feel the need to drink alcohol. Some of them drink heavily. And especially in the winters, you can’t control what goes on there. People are basically locked up in a base and they can do what they want.

About 50 people stayed over winter at Amundsen-Scott Station at the South Pole, many of them likely affected by a condition known as “winter-over syndrome,” which has symptoms like sleep deprivation or insomnia, depression, sadness, irritability and a decline. in cognitive functioning.

This is your third podcast series: the first was The Secret History of Flight 149in 2021, and The Secret History of Estoniain 2023. How do you judge their success?

The number of downloads for all three podcasts has just passed the two million mark so I’m chuffed about that.

But to judge success, first of all, as the result of the flight 149 story, the British government is now being sued. After my 149 book came out, and then the podcast, a lot of lawyers came forward to offer to work for the former hostages and they picked a very good, brave law firm, McCue Jury and Partners, which is now seeking an average of £ 170,000 ($355,000) per passenger.

For the Estonian story, we got the investigation reopened. New information was established. And again, the feedback from the people who suffered, the relatives of the victims, the survivors, many of whom I’ve met, was tremendously positive.

There have been comments, though, that a lot of your claims are conspiracy theories.

The world that we live in now, the world of social media, is completely washed out with conspiracy theories. And the fact that there are so many conspiracy theorists out there makes the life of an investigative reporter even more difficult, because genuine reporting can just be immediately characterized as just another conspiracy.

And that brings me to my next question: your thoughts on the state of journalism in New Zealand?

I’ve been a journalist for 51 of my 67 years, and I’m so glad that I had my journalistic career in the 50-year period just gone, rather than starting now, because it’s a different job. I feel very sorry for young reporters going into a world where they will hardly have time to do anything. They’ll have to write stories for the paper, they’ll have to tweet, they have to put stuff online…

We’re a great country, but we’re very careless and we kind of think, “Oh, it won’t happen here.” For TV news and current affairs, the broadcasting solution has been clear for years, which was to make TVNZ a public broadcaster with a mandate like the BBC, and then to have the commercial channel, which is Three. We could have done this any time over the past 20 years, and that would have been a satisfactory solution.

Instead, we’ve gone along, thought about it occasionally, and the end result is the kind of destruction of most of our current affairs journalism, and I don’t think it’s ever coming back.

And that carelessness – the number of people who told me there wouldn’t ever be the Maga madness here in NZ, but we’re being overwhelmed with falsehoods and conspiracy theories.

What’s kept you working on the Antarctica story for two decades?

I’ve been investigating this story for 21 years. After I went down to Antarctica in 2003, we weren’t getting anywhere. But I don’t like to forget about these things. I don’t like being lied to. And I don’t like situations where the authorities and governments use their power to basically suppress the truth, and that’s what keeps me going. I know it sounds terribly idealistic, but I’ve been a reporter since I was 16 and I still believe in it as much as the day I started.

The Secret History of Antarctica: Death on the Ice, by Stephen Davis and produced by Anna Staufenberg, is available to download from podcast platforms including Apple and Spotify.

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