Shadows of 1988 (Part III)

Most of the wreckage of the doomed Jumbo jet, and all which it had contained, lay scattered across the Scottish border town of Lockerbie. Strong winds that night had carried some pieces of debris of Pan Am 103 up to forty miles away easterly, and indeed over the Scottish English border into Northumberland.

As daylight broke the following morning over Lockerbie, teams were combing the fields while the mortally wounded cockpit of Pan Am 103, lying opposite Tundergarth Cemetery, became the enduring image of the disaster.

During the course of the recovery of the remnants of 103, a blast-damaged shirt collar was found in a field behind Blinkbonny Farm (on the Scotland/England border, nr. Newcastleton) on 13th January 1989, by DC Gilchrist.

This shirt collar, and what was discovered within the collar, became the most significant pieces of evidence presented during the trial of the Lockerbie suspects. In particular, a fragment of circuitboard, found embedded in the collar was subsequently determined to have originated from the bombs timing device.

However, DC Gilchrist’s evidence at the Zeist court during the trial of the two Libyans accused of the bombing was described as “at best confusing, at worst evasive”, and he gave the distinct impression he’d never seen the shirt collar before.

This aspect emerged because during the trial it was noticed that the label on the evidence bag containing the shirt collar had been altered, from ‘cloth’, then an attempt to erase this description to ‘debris’. This was quite contrary to proper procedure, and he had no explanation for how this alteration might have happened.

His team leader, who also signed the label, was a DC McColm, who was described by DC Crawford in his book on the Lockerbie investigation as a bit of a lazy sod who liked his cosy office job and was hardly ever out looking for stuff, and also had a very cavalier attitude to the recording of the provenance of the finds coming in.

The shirt collar was sent to British explosives experts at RARDE (Royal Armaments Research and Development Establishment) in Kent, England, and next surfaces on 12th May, when chief scientist Thomas Hayes examines it. He makes his notes on a loose-leaf page numbered 51, but pages following this, and indeed the sequence of dates on these pages, strongly suggest that this page 51 is a later interpolation. [para 13 Zeist Judgement (2001)]

Hayes teases a surprisingly large number of pieces of debris from the collar, including a “fragment of green circuit board”, and takes a photograph (above) of the collection. There is some reason to believe this photo may be a Polaroid. He then, according to his testimony at the trial, files the whole lot away and makes no further mention of any of these discoveries.

This is despite the fact that, at this precise time at RARDE, forensics teams assigned to investigate the Pan Am 103 disaster were going mad trying to find more pieces of circuit board from an already established radio the bomb had been hidden in, to try to get a better identification on it.

Much smaller and less distinctive circuit board fragments found at the same time are being hailed with cries of “Eureka!”.

The discovery and contents of the shirt collar remain unremarked, for nearly four months, until 15th September, when it suddenly becomes the subject of a memo from RARDES Allan Feraday, assistant to Hayes, sent to DI Williamson of the Scottish police asking if he can perhaps help trace the origin of the fragment of green circuit board found.

Then, very oddly, despite the thing having been at RARDE since May, and having been photographed then, Feraday apologises to Scottish Police for only sending Polaroid photos as “this is the best I can do in the time available”.

This is strange behaviour on Feraday’s part, considering that when the Air Accident Investigation’s Thomas Claiden’s circuit board chip was found earlier (the important piece of the radio said to have housed the bomb (para5, Zeist Judgement)) Feraday personally visited electronics manufacturers in Germany and Japan in an effort to identify it.

DI Williamson sets to and tried to find out where the green fragment came from, and trails around many electronics manufacturers in his turn, to no avail. Again, this is somewhat strange because there is evidence of contact between the Lockerbie investigation and MEBO (the eventual determined manufacturer) even before this time, but nobody seems to have suggested MEBO to Williamson.

Nothing then happens for another nine months, until a meeting in June 1990 in the USA between the Scottish investigators and the FBI. At this meeting Tom Thurman of the FBI gets hold of a photo of the fragment and runs off to a mate in the CIA with it.

Thurman has given different accounts of what happened next. One account has him spending “literally months” hunting through a gazillion files trying to find a match to the fragment. Except, we know from the head of the FBI investigation, Richard Marquise’s account, and this is corroborated by Thurman on a different occasion, that it took less than 48 hours.

In fact, Thurman and his pal Orkin (a pseudonym) seem to have known what the fragment of circuitboard was immediately, but they nevertheless contacted another handful of electronics manufacturers “just to be sure” before fetching up at MEBO’s door in September 1990.

Thomas Hayes of RARDE was severely criticised by the May Inquiry into the Birmingham Six debacle for sexing-up and misrepresenting evidence that got six men falsely convicted as IRA terrorists. He left RARDE in the middle of the Lockerbie investigation just as this was coming out and re-trained as a chiropodist. He gave evidence at Zeist which is quite baffling in its evasiveness.

Allan Feraday, assistant to Hayes at RARDE, kept his job, but was the subject of scathing criticism in court in relation to other cases, again in relation to over-stating the significance of evidence to get innocent defendants convicted, and for having no qualifications for the work he was doing.

Feraday was barred from giving evidence in explosives cases as an expert witness. He was not called to give evidence at Zeist.

At the US end, Tom Thurman was also the subject of severe criticism in relation to fabricating evidence to secure convictions, and left the FBI as part of a bit of a clear-out of bad apples, as far as can be ascertained. He went into teaching. His degree was in political science, not electronics. He was not called to give evidence at Zeist.

We have no conclusive evidence that the timer fragment was fabricated. The SCCRC say they looked into it, and don’t think it was fabricated, but don’t say what led them to that conclusion.

On the other hand, what a dubious crew of chancers were involved in this part of the investigation!

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