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Murder at the South Pole
Antarctic scientist's death investigated
Robert Neff (neff)     Email Article  Print Article 
  Published 2006-12-21 08:03 (KST)   
"One hundred years ago, the Antarctic was a mysterious, treacherous and unforgiving land -- the last frontier, beyond the edge of the known world. It was a struggle for explorers just to survive This heroic age of exploration remains an inspiration to scientists working in Antarctica almost a century later." Thus began Rodney Marks' Ph.D. thesis, the beginning of the brilliant 32-year-old astrophysicist's career that ended tragically in Antarctica.

On the morning of May 12, 2000, Rodney Marks, who was spending his second winter at Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station, made his way to the medical center because he was vomiting blood and having difficulty breathing. Marks, who was "nervous, anxious and upset," was examined by Dr. Robert Thompson, who noted two needle marks on his arm but did not ask about them.

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Dr. Thompson released Marks back to his room when it appeared that he had recovered somewhat. Twice more that day Marks returned to Dr. Thompson, the final time complaining of hurting all over. "His condition did improve for a while, and he was conscious and was able to converse with the people attending him," wrote one colleague. But less than two hours later he was dead -- his heart had suddenly stopped and they were unable to resuscitate him.

It was a tragic event -- the second death in Antarctica in just four months. Earlier that year, on Jan. 8, John G. Biesiada, 43, a Canadian working at McMurdo Station, died of a massive pulmonary embolism from a large blood clot that had made its way into his lungs from his broken leg.

Because of bad weather conditions, Marks' body was placed upon a sled and allowed to freeze (he was later buried) until a transport could be sent six months later. Marks' death was attributed to natural causes. Interestingly, however, was the disclaimer:

Life at the station.
©2006 Cmdr. John Bortniak, NOAA Corps Collection
"There is nothing to suggest that his [Marks'] death was related to his work, to the environment at the South Pole, or to any toxic or infectious agent."

Six months later, when flights were able to resume to Antarctica, Marks' body was flown back to New Zealand and examined by the coroner. A large amount of methanol was found in his system, which has yet to be explained.

For the past several years, a New Zealand police officer, Grant Wormald, has been investigating what might be the first murder in Antarctica. According to him, his investigation has been hampered by the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF) and Raytheon Polar Services, which are reluctant to provide him with information.

"Despite numerous requests, I am not entirely satisfied that all relevant information and reports have been disclosed to the New Zealand police or the coroner," Detective Wormald said.

It has been suggested that Marks might have committed suicide, but this seems unreasonable. His career was doing well and he was engaged to Sonja Wolter, a young maintenance specialist, who had signed on for the winter session just so she could be with him.

"Sonja and Rodney were a great couple. It is so rare to see people that seem so perfectly matched. And they were extremely happy together."

Another suggestion is that Marks purposely drank the methanol, despite the knowledge that it was dangerous, to get a recreational high as a substitute for alcohol. Marks was known as a binge drinker -- some accounts claim that he drank to help control his mild Tourette's syndrome. According to one of his friends, Andrew Walsh:

"One thing that I remember he [Marks] always said was that the solution to any problem is to go down to the pub and have a few drinks."

Detective Wormald doesn't believe that Marks deliberately ingested methanol to get a recreational high.

Living conditions at the station.
©2006 Cmdr. John Bortniak, NOAA Corps Collection
"It seems unlikely, as there were ample supplies of genuine liquor at the base."

Many of the journals and homepages by members of the station's crews throughout the past decade speak often of alcohol, and there are many photographs with alcohol present.

How much alcohol?

According to a blog kept by Marks' fiance, Wolter (just prior to his death), she described the amount of alcohol flown into the station in preparation for the winter closing.

"There is an unbelievable amount of alcohol down here pallets of booze were flown in I can't tell you how many cases of beer, booze and wine I caught and passed on to the next person. Well, yes, I also shuttled sodas and fresh food, but there seemed to be mostly alcohol."

She insinuated that there were some people who had problems with alcohol, but as long as they were able to do their jobs and not become physical, they were generally not bothered.

"There's no drunk tank. I am not aware of any AA meetings taking place, though it wouldn't be a bad idea for quite a few people here. And apparently people do occasionally get sent home for drinking-related issues No one got sent home from South Pole this season for anything involving drinking."

The final possibility suggested by the detective is that Marks unintentionally digested the methanol, perhaps thinking it was something else, or another person intentionally placed the methanol into his drink or food.

"This could have been in the form of a prank, or done with a more sinister intention."

And though the suggestion that someone would have placed a poison in his drink as a prank seems far-fetched is it any more improbable than the suggestion that he was murdered? Why would someone want to kill Marks?

According to one of his colleagues, Katrina Sealey, "The one thing that I will never forget about Rodney was his unflappable, relaxed, serene personality. He took everything in his stride and enjoyed everything that came his way."

Although he was often described as quiet until you got to know him, he was friendly, sociable -- he played in a band, and was a little flamboyant with his long purple hair. Everyone seemed to like him -- or did they?

Last plane out before the winter sun sets.
©2006 Cmdr. John Bortniak, NOAA Corps Collection
Darryn Schneider wrote in his online diary, for week 30 (May 7-14, 2000):

"His [Marks'] 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."

Did Marks inadvertently offend someone during the long weeks and months of darkness that are characteristic of winter in the Antarctic?

According to Dr. Thompson, the "isolation and fulltime darkness" of the winter could lead to a form of depression known as Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), but because of their careful screening it was not a problem for the Antarctica workers.

Gary Steele, a psychologist, noted that those affected with the disorder went from "ecstatic to mellow," and that the station's employees had a "lower neuroticism, higher extroversion, higher openness to experience, higher agreeableness and higher conscientiousness than is the norm among the U.S. population."

Yet despite these assurances that the employees had all been screened for susceptibility and were deemed better than the normal person on the street, there were rumors of strife in at least one other station the following winter.

One blog dealing with Antarctica discussed in depth the sudden evacuation of eleven members of McMurdo Station in early 2001. Reports of black eyes, and strange injuries suggested that there were personality conflicts and, as one reader related:

"I wintered-over in McMurdo and we all knew the rules going in. If you fight, you can be terminated. I do agree that it is odd to have 11 people out."

Sunset at the Pole.
©2006 Cmdr. John Bortniak, NOAA Corps Collection
Was Marks' death an accident, suicide or murder? Evidence has been presented, including reports that bottles in Marks' lab were tested for their content, and some further information provided to the police as a result of the publicity of the inquest. But will it be enough to solve a death almost six years old?

New Zealand coroner Richard McElrea will deliver his findings into the death of Rodney Marks in the near future. Depending on the verdict, Marks may not only be remembered for his brilliant research while he lived, but also as Antarctica's first murder.

- Murder at the South Pole by Robert Neff (Read by Claire George) 

©2006 OhmyNews
Other articles by reporter Robert Neff

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