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Death at the South Pole: The Mystery of Antarctica's Unsolved Poisoning Case

Mental Floss logo Mental Floss 26/06/2019 Michele Debczak
Death at the South Pole: The Mystery of Antarctica's Unsolved Poisoning Case © Chris Danals, National Science Foundation Death at the South Pole: The Mystery of Antarctica's Unsolved Poisoning Case

Rodney Marks was walking from a research building to the main base at the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station when he started to feel strange. This wasn't the normal weirdness people deal with when adjusting to the -80°F temperatures and 24-hour nights of Antarctic winters. The 32-year-old astrophysicist was struggling to breathe. Soon, his vision became weak. He was also very tired and went to bed early, hoping to sleep off whatever mysterious sickness was plaguing him.

But sleep didn't help. Instead, things just got worse—much worse. At 5:30 a.m. the morning of May 12, 2000, Marks woke up vomiting blood. He went to the station's doctor, Robert Thompson, three times over the course of the day, and with each visit, his symptoms appeared to grow more excruciating. Pain burned through his joints and stomach. His eyes were so sensitive that he had to wear sunglasses even though the sun hadn't risen over the base in several weeks. As his physical condition deteriorated, so did his mental state: He became so agitated that the doctor wondered if anxiety wasn't the cause of his symptoms.

When Marks visited the physician the third time that day, he was distressed to the point of hyperventilation. Thompson injected him with an antipsychotic to calm him down. Marks laid back and his breathing slowed. To the untrained observer, it may have looked as though he was getting better.

But that's not what was happening. Shortly after receiving the shot, Marks went into cardiac arrest, and after 45 minutes of unsuccessful resuscitation attempts, Thompson declared him dead at 6:45 p.m.

As soon as the fight to save his life ended, the 49 people living at the base were faced with a new problem: a dead body in one of the most remote places on earth, at a time of year when it was too cold for planes to land. It would be months before an aircraft was able to collect Marks's remains—and years before it was revealed that there was a chance he had been murdered.

Crime and Death in Antarctica

Death is rare in Antarctica, but not unheard of. Many explorers perished in the late 19th and early 20th centuries in their quests to reach the South Pole, and potentially hundreds of bodies remain frozen within the ice. In the modern era, more Antarctic fatalities are caused by freak accidents. Three scientists were riding a Muskeg tractor across the tundra in 1965 when the vehicle plunged into a crevasse, killing everyone on board. In 1980, Amundsen-Scott Station cook Casey Jones died while attempting to clear snow from a shaft in a fan room when the packed snow collapsed and crushed him.

There's also a history of violence on the continent. According to one unconfirmed story reported in Canadian Geographic, a scientist working at Russia's Vostok Station in 1959 snapped after losing a chess game and murdered his opponent with an axe. (Chess was supposedly banned from Russia's Antarctic bases after that.) More recently, in October 2018, a Russian scientist working in Antarctica allegedly stabbed his colleague following a possible nervous breakdown.

With some of these crimes, the Antarctic setting itself may have played a role. Scientists living in Antarctica are forced to share cramped quarters with the same group of people for months at a time. Contact with the outside world is limited, and depending on the weather, going for a walk to clear the mind isn't always an option.

"You're far away from home. You're far away from the people that form your normal social network. You're isolated with a group of people you didn't choose," Peter Suedfeld, a psychologist at the University of British Columbia who has studied the effects of Antarctic isolation on the mind, tells Mental Floss.

The extreme isolation there is rivaled only by what astronauts experience in space—in fact, space agencies conduct studies in Antarctica to simulate their long-term missions.

On top of dealing with boredom and claustrophobia, researchers in Antarctica are adjusting to either constant day or night. When someone's circadian rhythm—the biological system governed by the 24-hour day—is disrupted, the negative effects are felt in both the body and mind. According to one study, people on disrupted circadian cycles are more likely to exhibit aggressive behaviors.

"Because of the environment, people do get irritable, sensitive, maybe quicker to take offense at something that wasn't meant to be offensive," Suedfeld says. "I think it's fascinating that there hasn't been more violence in Antarctica."

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A Belated Autopsy

Rodney Marks was already familiar with the stressors of life in Antarctica when he signed up to work there from 1999 to 2000. The Australian native had previously wintered on the continent from 1997 to 1998 as part of the Center for Astrophysical Research in Antarctica (CARA)'s South Pole Infrared Explorer project. Dr. Chris Martin, one of the researchers who worked on the project with Marks, told the New Zealand Herald: "Rodney liked it so much he wanted to go back again."

For his second stay, he worked on the Antarctic Submillimeter Telescope and Remote Observatory project as a researcher for the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory. His job consisted of collecting data with a massive infrared telescope and using it to improve viewing conditions at the South Pole. Antarctica is considered one of the best places on Earth to study space, and his work enabled astronomers to make important observations.

Marks charmed his colleagues with his bohemian style and friendly personality. He joined the base band, Fannypack and the Big Nancy Boys, and was dating maintenance specialist Sonja Wolter. Darryn Schneider, the only other Australian at the base that winter and Marks's friend, described him in a blog post: "His dry wit was sometimes misinterpreted here by the people not used to it. This is where his considerate nature and his kindness would come out. I saw him numerous times make amends in a very nice way for these misunderstandings. He would also say or do something kind for someone having a hard time in general."

So when he died suddenly that May, roughly six months into his second journey at the pole, it shocked the researchers and technicians at Amundsen-Scott Station. The station doctor, Robert Thompson, told the young man's colleagues that Marks had died of unknown but natural causes, likely a massive heart attack or stroke. Because it was Thompson's job to treat live patients, not perform autopsies, they would have to wait to learn any more details.

With months of unbroken darkness and dangerous cold stretched out before them, October was the soonest it would be safe for aircraft to land at the South Pole. In the meantime, people living at the base used the excess hours in their days to gather oak scraps and cut and polish them into a casket. They loaded Marks's body into the makeshift coffin and laid him to temporary rest in the base's storage, where the frigid climate would preserve his remains until the end of winter.

On October 30, a plane transported the body from Amundsen-Scott Station to Christchurch, New Zealand, where forensic pathologist Dr. Martin Sage finally was able to perform an autopsy. The amount of time that had passed between the death and the examination didn't stop Sage from making a disturbing observation: Marks hadn't died of natural causes after all. According to the post-mortem, he had ingested approximately 150 milliliters of methanol—roughly the size of a glass of wine. Methanol is a type of alcohol used to clean scientific equipment in Antarctica: It's subtly sweet, colorless, and toxic even in small amounts—which means a fatal dose could easily be slipped into someone's drink without their knowledge.

That left a limited number of options on the table. To the people who lived and worked with Marks up until his final hours, the possibility that he had killed himself was hard to believe. He had thrived in the harsh beauty of Antarctica. He was doing important research at the observatory, and when he wasn't working, he had his friends and Wolter, whom he had planned to marry, to keep him company. But if Marks hadn't poisoned himself, that left his colleagues with the unsettling possibility that they had shared a home with a murderer for over half a year.

An Inconclusive Inquest

Because Antarctica is governed by a treaty signed by 54 nations, handling crimes there can be a headache. Marks was from Australia and had worked for an American station, but he died within the Ross Dependency—a territory of Antarctica claimed by New Zealand. By October, New Zealand had taken over the job of looking into the incident.

While the coroner of Christchurch began an initial inquest in 2000, the investigation took years to complete, and involved several hearings. Detective Senior Sergeant Grant Wormald looked at four possible causes of death: Marks drank the methanol accidentally; he drank it for recreation; he drank it to kill himself; or someone else had spiked his drink. In 2006, Wormald stated that suicide was the least likely explanation for the young scientist's death, citing his promising career and relationship.

It was more plausible that Marks had ingested the solvent to get high and accidentally overdosed. He was a heavy drinker, and had been known to use alcohol to cope with his Tourette's syndrome. But Wormald saw this as further evidence that he hadn't drunk the methanol on purpose: Marks had access to plenty of alcohol on the base if he was looking to self-medicate, and as an experienced binge-drinker, he would have known the risk of drinking unfamiliar substances. When he did get sick, he acted just as bewildered as the rest of the crew, suggesting he had no idea there was poison inside his body.

Wormald concluded: "In my view it is most likely Dr. Marks ingested the methanol unknowingly." But how exactly the methanol got into Marks's system—and if it wasn't an accident, who might have given it to him—remained a mystery.

According to The New Zealand Herald, some experts were critical of Robert Thompson's treatment of Marks in his final hours. William Silva, who had been a physician at a nearby Antarctic station, reviewed Thompson's medical notes from that day and questioned certain aspects of his care. Thompson had access to an Ektachem blood analyzer, a machine that would have detected the dangerous levels of methanol in his patient's system and likely prompted the doctor to take steps toward appropriate treatment. But the lithium-ion battery had died some time before, which meant that turning it off reset its electronic memory. It was shut off the day of Marks's death, and to power it back up, Thompson would have needed to recalibrate it—a process that takes 8 to 10 hours [PDF].

Thompson later testified that he had been too busy caring for Marks to use the Ektachem. He also said that the machine was difficult to use and maintain—a claim that Silva disputed. According to Silva, the Ektachem "is quite straightforward," and Thompson could have called the manufacturer's free technical support line if he was having issues with it (though telephone service was spotty at best).

Thompson never provided a response to Silva's testimony. He was impossible to get in touch with during the later stages of the inquest, having seemingly fallen off the grid. He was never charged with any wrongdoing. (Thompson could not be reached for comment.)

The National Science Foundation (NSF), the U.S. organization that runs the Amundsen-Scott Station, reportedly did little to make matters clearer. When Wormald asked for reports on Marks's death, the NSF reportedly wasn't forthcoming, saying it didn't have any reports that were relevant to his investigation. The foundation also reportedly ignored his requests when he asked for the results of lab tests conducted on the scant evidence gathered from Marks's room and work station before they were cleaned.

The NSF denies Wormald's characterization of how it handled the investigation. In a statement to Mental Floss, a representative said: "[The] NSF consistently cooperated with the Christchurch coroner's office and New Zealand Police to address this tragic situation. Dr. Marks was an important member of the Antarctic research community. NSF continues to extend its deepest condolences to his family, friends and colleagues."

But according to Wormald, any useful information he pried from the government agency was the product of his own persistence. Only after being pestered by the detective, he said, did the NSF agree to send out a questionnaire to the 49 crew members who had been at the station at the time of Marks's death. The foundation vetted the questions first, "to assure ourselves that appropriate discretion has been exercised," and when they were finally mailed out, they came with a note saying participation wasn't mandatory. Only 13 of Marks's 49 colleagues responded.

A Tragic Accident—Or The Perfect Crime?

Without much cooperation from the National Science Foundation and with no solid leads, the investigation failed to move forward. It fizzled out completely in 2008 when coroner Richard McElrea released a report saying that no conclusions could be drawn one way or the other about the circumstances surrounding Marks's poisoning. Referencing a 2000 report [PDF] based on the medical notes about the case that said there was no reason to suspect homicide or accidental poisoning, McElrea wrote, "I respectively [sic] disagree that accidental poisoning and even foul play can be adequately disregarded without a full and proper investigation." His main takeaway was that the disorganization of the case indicated "an urgent need to set comprehensive rules of investigation and accountability for deaths in Antarctica on a fair and open basis."

Outside of true crime internet forums, a clear idea of what happened to Marks has never emerged. He didn't have any known enemies at Amundsen-Scott Station, and there was no evidence implicating any of the workers at the base with a crime.

With the inquiry into his death producing more questions than answers, Rodney Marks's story occupies a strange place in the history of Antarctic tragedies. Driving on approved routes may reduce the risk of falling into a crevasse—and banning chess may stop game-related fights—but this particular incident left no obvious path toward preventing ones like it from happening in the future. It's not even clear whether Marks's death should be grouped with Antarctica's freak accidents or rare acts of violence.

As of 2019, there's still no system in place for handling homicides that happen on the continent. With so many territorial claims, and some that even overlap, the general rule is that jurisdiction falls to the home country of the person who committed the crime and the station where it took place. That means if a Russian researcher assaults someone at a Russian station, as was the case in October 2018, the case is handled by Russian authorities. But things get stickier if an American commits a crime on a Russian base, in which case both countries could have a claim to the investigation. Situations where an apparent crime produces a body and no obvious perpetrator are, of course, even more complicated.

Until Marks's death, that was an issue the nations working in Antarctica had never had to face. There still has never been a trial for a murder that happened on the continent—though the question of whether murder has been committed there remains unanswered.

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