The poison umbrella: film sheds new light on infamous cold war killing
It was one of the most audacious murders of the cold war: the émigré Bulgarian writer Georgi Markov was waiting for a bus by London’s Waterloo Bridge when a man bumped into him with the tip of his umbrella, pushing a tiny poisoned pellet into his leg. Four days later he was dead.
A Danish TV documentary out this week sheds new light on the prime suspect in the 1978 killing, the Italian-born Bulgarian agent Francesco Gullino, known as Agent Piccadilly. It also raises a whole range of new questions about why Gullino was never arrested for the killing.
A unique cold war character, Gullino was a manipulative, chameleonic figure who worked for Bulgarian intelligence for years. He remained a free man until his death in 2021, despite evidence against him and Scotland Yard homing in on him as the main suspect in the case.
“He was a master in infiltration, he could go into any kind of environment and become the person he wanted to,” said Ulrik Skotte, the director of The Umbrella Murder, who has been tracking Gullino’s story for three decades. “People around him die and he’s like a shadow, he just moves on.”
Gullino was born in the Italian town of Bra in 1945 and orphaned at a young age. He was arrested for smuggling in Bulgaria in 1970 and appears to have been turned by the country’s intelligence service, who offered him a choice of prison or a life of glamorous international espionage work.
His file in the Bulgarian archives contains detailed information about his training and missions and the originals of numerous false passports issued to Gullino by the Bulgarians.
But the pages relating to the months around the Markov killing are missing from Gullino’s file, apparently after the country’s intelligence services purged the archives of incriminating evidence during the collapse of communism. This has made it impossible to prove definitively that Gullino was the man with the umbrella.
There is, however, a lot of circumstantial evidence linking him to the crime. Stamps in one of his fake passports show he was in London for several weeks before the murder. Shortly before travelling to London he was in Bulgaria for what is described as “special training”, and a note on his file shows he met the head of the intelligence service for dinner, an extremely rare occurrence for a foreign agent.
The next surviving entry on his file is Gullino arriving in Rome, where he “established visual contact” with a Bulgarian agent by walking on St Peter’s Square with a copy of Newsweek under his arm. This, it seems, was the signal that the operation had gone successfully. Soon after the killing, Gullino received a top award.
Markov, a writer who defected from communist Bulgaria and took a job at the BBC World Service in London, fell ill the evening of the attack and died in hospital four days later, aged 49. British authorities were initially sceptical of Markov’s claims he had been poisoned, but the disbelief dissipated when a tiny pellet containing ricin was found in his leg. The Guardian, reporting on the murder at the time, wrote that it “brought the fantasy world of James Bond to reality”. But Scotland Yard drew a blank on identifying the killer.
In 1993, British authorities finally homed in on Gullino as the prime suspect based on information from Bulgaria, and a team from Scotland Yard interviewed him together with Danish authorities in Copenhagen. Despite the evidence, no arrest was made.
Skotte first became involved in the Gullino story around this time, through his friend Gianfranco Invernizzi, an Italian-Danish film director who knew Gullino well and wanted to make a film about him. That film never happened, and Skotte forgot about the case for years. The novichok poisoning of the Russian defector Sergei Skripal in Salisbury in 2018 made him want to revisit it, but when he tried to contact Invernizzi, he discovered he had died in 2005.
“It turned out he had appeared in a documentary about the Markov murder and talked about Gullino. The film-makers promised to anonymise him, but they didn’t do it properly, and Gullino was furious. Later, the pair went for dinner, and the day after that, [Invernizzi] died,” Skotte said, recounting the memories of Invernizzi’s family.
Invernizzi’s widow gave Skotte several boxes of materials that the late film-maker had collected relating to Gullino, which only deepened the mystery. They contained hundreds of photographs of naked women, many of them in pornographic poses, apparently part of a scam Gullino had set up by persuading women that he ran a modelling agency and manipulating them into doing photoshoots and sex acts. It was sharply at odds with the view of most of Gullino’s friends in Copenhagen that he was asexual.
Skotte was also amazed to discover that for years Invernizzi had secretly taped his conversations with Gullino and many other people with whom he discussed the case. The boxes contained tapes with hours of recordings of conversations with Gullino. In some of them, Gullino talked of his admiration for fascism. There was also a box of Gullino’s possessions, including two copies of Mein Kampf and a Mussolini calendar.
Skotte’s information brings a very different picture of Gullino to light than was previously known, says Christopher Nehring, a fellow of the Konrad Adenauer Foundation at Sofia University and a specialist on the communist-era Bulgarian intelligence service. “There was so much stuff that Gullino had hidden even from his Bulgarian handlers … the man was a world-class liar,” he said.
For Skotte, the reason that Gullino was not arrested in 1993, either by Scotland Yard or Danish authorities, is a mystery. “They had all the evidence he was a spy. He’s by far the biggest spy case we ever had and he was left untouched,” said Skotte, who obtained a transcript of the 1993 interrogation. He is following up leads suggesting Gullino may have cooperated with western services, giving evidence on other major cases in exchange for remaining free, although as yet there is no hard evidence.
A team from the Metropolitan police visited Bulgaria in 2007 to investigate the case once more, and Skotte said he had been contacted by Scotland Yard asking to see his research files for the documentary.
Yet the entire time, Gullino remained at liberty. Skotte interviewed him in 2021 at his small, dirty apartment in Austria, when he again denied any link to the murder. He died soon after, apparently alone and friendless.
“Even though he was never in a courtroom, he was punished by being the most lonely man in the world,” said Skotte.