Update: Dawn Sturgess passed away Sunday, June 8th. Police have opened a murder investigation.
Police have confirmed that two people found poisoned at a home in Amesbury, England were exposed to the military-grade chemical nerve agent Novichok. This is the same chemical that nearly killed a former Russian spy and his daughter back in March. Counterterrorism police are leading the investigation, which involves at least 12 agencies.
Here’s what you need to know.
1. The Victims Are Dawn Sturgess and Charlie Rowley
Investigators confirmed that the two people mysteriously poisoned on June 30th are Charlie Rowley and Dawn Sturgess. The pair reportedly collapsed at different parts of the day and were found unconscious at an address on Muggleton Road in the town of Amesbury, which is part of Wiltshire and is about 85 miles southwest of London. A friend of the pair told reporters that Sturgess and Rowley began feeling sick after a visit to the Queen Elizabeth Gardens in Salisbury.
A friend of the couple, Sam Hobson, told reporters that Sturgess and Rowley have been dating for several months and that both have had issues with drug use. A Salisbury City Council leader confirmed that the pair are known to local authorities. Investigators say they initially thought Sturgess and Rowley had overdosed on contaminated recreational drugs. But after witnessing their symptoms, which officials did not expand upon, further testing was ordered to determine what Sturgess and Rowley may have come into contact with or ingested. Police at this point do not believe that Sturgess and Rowley were specifically targeted. A spokesperson said at a press conference Wednesday, “We are keeping an open mind as to the circumstances regarding this incident.”
2. Novichok Is the Substance Used to Poison Ex-Spy
Former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia were nearly killed during a March 4 attack in the town of Salisbury, which is just a few miles away from Amesbury. Father and daughter were found slumped over on a park bench. Skripal was a former member of the FSB, the Russian intelligence agency. In 2006, he was convicted of treason and sentenced to 13 years in prison. He had been accused of flipping on Moscow in order to spy on behalf of Britain. But in 2010, he was brought to the UK as part of a prisoner swap.
British Prime Minister Theresa May had said it was likely that Russia was responsible for the poisoning. The British Foreign Ministry followed that up with a statement in April that read, “Let us be clear, this was attempted murder using an illegal chemical weapon that we know Russia possesses.” The Kremlin has repeatedly denied any involvement.
Both Sergei and Yulia spent more than two months in the hospital before they were released. Dawn Sturgess and Charlie Rowley are not believed to have any ties to Russia or the Skripals, but investigators are now looking for any potential connection.
3. Russia Denies Involvement in Amesbury Poisoning
A Kremlin spokesperson commented on the poisoning Thursday and denied that Russia had anything to do with it. The Britain government has not explicitly accused Russia of being directly involved in the Amesbury poisoning.
But British Home Secretary Sajid Javid directly addressed a possible Russia connection during a session of Parliament Thursday. He referred to the Skripal attack and whether it is connected to the Amesbury poisoning; Javid said “that is the main line of inquiry.”
Javid went on to say that while the British people and investigators should not jump to conclusions, Russia needs to respond more directly. “It is now time that the Russian state comes forward and explains exactly what has gone on. Let me be clear. We do not have a quarrel with the Russian people. Rather, it is the actions of the Russian government that continue to undermine our security and that of the international community. We will stand up to the actions that threaten our security and the security of our partners. It is completely unacceptable for our people to be either deliberate or accidental targets, or for our streets, our parks, our towns, to be dumping grounds for poison.”
4. Wiltshire Police Closed off Areas the Couple Were Seen Recently
Investigators chose to close off areas where Dawn Sturgess and Charlie Rowley were recently seen as a precaution. The department has been putting out frequent updates on the investigation on Twitter, including the fact that no one else appears to have been poisoned and that the Salisbury Hospital is operating as normal. Police say “it’s not believed that there’s a significant health risk to the wider public. It’s important to stress that this will be continually assessed as further info comes to light.”
Police reported that the cordoned off areas include:
• Queen Elizabeth Gardens in Salisbury
• A property at John Baker House, Rolleston Street, Salisbury
• A property on Muggleton Rd, Amesbury
• Boots the Chemist, Stonehenge Walk, Amesbury
• Amesbury Baptist Centre, Butterfield Drive, #Amesbury
The police twitter handle went on to explain: “The public can expect to see an increased police presence at these locations and in and around the Amesbury and Salisbury areas. We would like to take this opportunity to thank the public for respecting these cordons and for their ongoing patience and support.”
5. Scientists Are Running Tests on Novichok Near Amesbury
The BBC is reporting that officials have been running tests on the nerve agent at a government research facility called Porton Down. London News Now refers to Porton Down as a chemical weapons research laboratory; the building is located just 8 miles away from the town of Amesbury.
The name Novichok is a Russian name meaning “newcomer.” The advanced nerve agent was developed in the Soviet Union beginning in the 1970s. After the March attack on the Skripals, Russia denied possessing these types of chemical nerve agents. But in March, a Russian state news agency published an interview with a scientist who contradicted that claim. The agency RIA Novosti spoke with Leonid Rink, who they identified as “the creator of Novichok.”
Rink said he oversaw a team that worked on developing the nerve agents in a Soviet lab in the town of Shikhany for 27 years, until the early 1990s . He told the publication, “Novichok was worked on by a big group of specialists in Shikhani And Moscow. And the end results were very good.” The BBC reports that the program to create the chemical weapons was known under the codename Foliant.
During that interview Rink also insisted that Russia could not have been responsible for the attack on Sergei and Yulia Skripal. He was quoted as saying, “It’s hard to believe that the Russians were involved, given that all of those caught up in the incident are still alive.”