In a few weeks coroner Richard McElrea, based in Christchurch, New Zealand, will produce a report that may resolve one of the strangest, and most baffling, deaths in the southern hemisphere -- the poisoning of astrophysicist Rodney Marks at the South Pole.
The Australian scientist died, after 36 hours of severe illness, on May 11, 2000, and was found to have been the victim of methanol poisoning. Since then New Zealand police have struggled to discover how the poison, a solvent used as a cleaning agent, was administered.
The case remains shrouded in mystery and controversy -- for only 13 of the 49 staff, most of them Americans, at the Scott-Amundsen research station have cooperated in the inquiry. And at the inquest into Marks' death, finally held last month, chief investigator Detective Senior Sergeant Grant Wormald revealed it was "most unlikely" that the scientist had "knowingly" ingested the methanol that killed him.
The remarks suggested that Marks, who had been working at the Antarctic Submillimeter Telescope, had been deliberately poisoned or was the victim of a prank or act of criminal negligence. The Scott-Amundsen research station, the world's loneliest human outpost -- in darkness for half the year and swept by howling gales -- may have been the setting for an Antarctic whodunit.
That prospect was shocking enough. However, the case has also revealed the precarious nature of international agreements that govern outposts in the Antarctic, the Arctic and other remote areas. The territory in which the station lies is claimed by New Zealand, which is something the US has never questioned or indeed acknowledged. This arrangement's woolly nature is straining US-New Zealand relationships and has posed headaches for Wormald's investigations.
When Marks, 32, died, it was assumed it was from natural causes. His body was kept on the station for six months until flights resumed as spring began in the Antarctic in November. So when significant levels of methanol were found in his body during the postmortem in Christchurch, the discovery came as a shock.
However, the case was confused. Marks had needle marks on his arms but no illegal drugs in his body. He was also known to be a binge drinker who drank to mask the symptoms of Tourette's syndrome. Perhaps he had distilled his own booze and then accidentally poisoned himself, it was suggested. Yet alcohol was readily available on the base and, as Wormald pointed out, Marks was an experienced drinker who would have known the dangers of homemade spirits. As one colleague described him, Marks was "a brilliant, witty and steady sort of bloke who drank to excess on occasion."
Indeed, the investigator was clear that suicide was the least likely explanation. Marks had recently formed a close relationship with a woman at the base, he was active in his work and socially at the base. He had no financial worries and he was striving towards the completion of a significant piece of academic work.'
So how did Marks die?
The inquest last month was adjourned by the coroner, who is now scheduled to produce a detailed report. It will make intriguing reading.