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A Mysterious Death at the Bottom of the World

Mysterious deaths are already infused with an innate sense of intrigue, and are often surrounded by perplexing clues, but this can be even more so when they occur in faraway, remote, and exotic locations. Perhaps nowhere else would fit that description more than the very edge of the world itself; Antarctica. It was here at an isolated research facility located in the middle of a vast frozen wasteland and deep within a 6-month long night, far from any help and the reach of civilization that a tight knit group of researchers operating in unimaginably harsh conditions were shaken by the mysterious death of one of their own. It is an enigmatic case from the far fringes of very bottom of the world that has managed to intrigue and baffle to this day, and which has become one of the biggest mysteries of the South Pole.

There are few places on this planet of ours that are as harsh, remote, and unforgiving as the bleak wastelands of Antarctica. Here roaring, withering winds of lethal, biting cold relentlessly prowl across the dry, frozen earth of a landscape that sees 6-month long days followed by the coming of 6-month long nights, during which this land of eternal cold is bathed in a perpetual night. During these long months of unremitting darkness the already freezing temperatures plunge even further to down to below an incredible −73 °C (−99 °F), and the brutally cold winds are joined by the inexorable coming of lumbering, ravenous blizzards that batter their domain. This is a barren and harsh place that seems fine-tuned to repel life; a place just as lifeless and inhospitable as the moon.

For many, the South Pole may seem a forsaken place in which we were never meant to be, and perhaps it is, but nestled within this alien realm sits perhaps the most isolated continuously inhabited place on earth. The Amundsen–Scott South Pole Station is located on a high plateau tucked away well-inland and practically right at the center of the continent, sitting just 100 meters (330 feet) of the Geographic South Pole. Erected by the United States in 1956 and named after the famous Antarctic explorers Roald Amundsen and Robert F. Scott, the station was originally meant to be a constantly manned project committed to the serious scientific study of the geophysics of the South Pole, which had until then been so treacherous that there had never before been a permanent settlement there, with even the very few temporary expeditions that had braved this harsh world located along the comparatively more inviting coast of Antarctica.

Amundsen–Scott South Pole Station, Antarctica

The Amundsen–Scott South Pole Station, now operated by the US National Science Foundation and US contractor Raytheon Polar Services, has since been constantly upgraded and expanded, its functions branching out into other areas of science, and although its population fluctuates it remains the most southern continuously occupied place on earth, as well as perhaps the most hostile and loneliest. It was in this moonscape of cold, stinging winds, in the middle of one of its relentless winters of never-ending bitter nights that in 2000 a group of 49 scientists, engineers, and other personnel were overwintering at the base. Here in the dark and the gnawing cold this team worked on their various endeavors in extreme isolation from the rest of the world, just about as far from civilization as one can get, and with no way to get in or out because the temperatures are so low that they will freeze a plane’s hydraulic fluid solid. One of these brave souls was 32-year-old Australian astrophysicist Rodney Marks, who was employed by the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory to work on the Antarctic Submillimeter Telescope and Remote Observatory, a research project for the University of Chicago, and for which the conditions of the Antarctic night were perfect.

Described as brilliant by his colleagues and having been involved with numerous fellowships and research positions in his home country, Marks specialized in radio astronomy, and spent most of his time at the station working on collecting data for how to improve viewing conditions for the giant infrared telescope located there. Marks was widely respected by others at the station, and was known for being friendly, witty, and approachable, as well as mingling with everyone including the laborers such as carpenters and plumbers, unusual amongst the mostly very cliquey team. Although the extreme weather, endless night, and claustrophobic, lonely conditions made the station a rather difficult and emotionally taxing place to be, Marks was considered mostly happy with his work, and had the added benefit of having his wife, maintenance specialist Sonja Wolter, with him. However, things were about to take a tragic and mysterious turn for the young scientist.

The telescope at Amundsen–Scott South Pole Station

On May 11, 2000, the normally very healthy and physically fit Marks was trudging through the biting cold from the observatory back to the base when he suddenly felt dizzy and had severe stomach pains. The medical staff at the station examined him, but could not ascertain just what could be wrong with him, and of course more well-equipped medical facilities were so far away and inaccessible that they might as well have been on another planet. Over the next 36 hours, Marks’ health would inexplicably and rapidly deteriorate, and he was besieged by dizzy spells, extreme sensitivity to light, headaches, chest pains, joint pains, disorientation, and shortness of breath. During the night we woke up and began vomiting blood, which deeply upset his wife. Despite several visits to the medical ward Robert Thompson, the station’s doctor, could not figure out what was wrong with him, and attempts to use the satellite phone to ask for advice from the outside world were thwarted by equipment malfunctions. Despite desperate efforts to try and control his symptoms. Marks’ condition continued to decline until, on May 12, he was dead. His mysterious condition remained undiagnosed and the cause of death completely unknown, although it was assumed at the time that he had died of a heart attack or aneurysm.

Considering the brutal conditions outside and the fact that it would be impossible for anyone to fly to the base, there was not much that the remaining team could do with Marks’ body other than put it into cold storage, and there it would remain until October, when the weather was comparatively more amicable. The body was flown over to Christchurch, New Zealand, where findings would be made that would propel the death of Rodney Marks further into mystery. Coroners discovered that the cause of death had been the ingestion of lethal amounts of methanol, a wood-based alcohol chemical commonly used at the station to clean sensitive scientific equipment, but this did little to dispel the shadow of mystery hanging over the case, since it could not be figured out how he could have ingested so much methanol, about 150 milliliters or a small wine glass worth, in the first place.

The first theory was that Marks had committed suicide, but this was quickly shot down by other at the station and his wife, who were adamant that he was a well-adjusted individual happy with his work and looking forward to the future. Additionally, he had never shown suicidal intent and was in the midst of important research he had been determined to finish. There was also the fact he had immediately gone to the base doctor upon feeling ill, which would have been a strange thing to do if he was trying to kill himself. Investigators agreed that suicide was highly unlikely and dropped it as a possible reason.

Rodney Marks

Another idea was that he might have drunk the methanol in order to get high or as part of a sort of moonshine, but this would be strange as the base was well stocked with alcohol of all kinds. Indeed, one of the favorite pastimes at the station was drinking, and almost everyone there drank alcohol in their spare time in the absence of much else to do, making the station bar one of the most popular places there. On top of this, although Marks was a binge drinker as well, he was not known to use any other drugs, and although there were found to be three mysterious needles marks on his arm when he died, no signs of other drugs were found in his system at the time. In the end, it seemed out of character that he should drink methanol of all things in order to get wasted, especially since he knew very well how dangerous such a thing would be.

That led the idea he had ingested the methanol without knowing, but if that were the case, then how had this happened? It could have been a simple mistake, as by all accounts Marks’ workplace was usually disorganized and in disarray, so it was theorized that there could have been bottles of both methanol lying around along with bottles of booze, making it possible that he had been under the influence of alcohol and accidentally taken a swig from the wrong bottle, but this has been seen as unlikely, as Marks knew very well how dangerous methanol was and had typically kept it locked away and clearly marked. It is seen as improbable that such a careful scientist would have had such a potentially deadly chemical just lying around out in the open. It was also suggested that it might have been a bad batch of moonshine, which was known to be on base, but later analysis of the moonshine available showed no traces of methanol in it at all.

Amundsen–Scott South Pole Station

This left the sinister possibility that Marks had been intentionally poisoned by someone else on the base, perhaps by spiking his drink with the methanol, either to kill him or as a prank to make him ill. This would be the theory that the media would latch onto, and it did not take long before the case was being called “The South Pole’s First Murder” and other equally provocative headlines. The public ate this up, as it had the perfect balance of mystery, intrigue, and a remote, exotic location that few knew anything about. In the meantime, New Zealand authorities looked into this possibility, but there was no clear motive for anyone having wanted to kill Marks. He seemed to be well-liked by all and there was little to gain by killing him. Although murder was not ruled out, this led to investigators speculating that perhaps someone may have slipped it into his drink unknowingly, and one detective on the case said of this:

I’ve gone over it many times in my mind. He was too smart to drink it knowingly. If anything, maybe someone else didn’t know the difference between methanol and ethanol and put the wrong thing in his drink, saying, ‘Here, drink this. It’ll give you a good buzz.’ I always come back to the idea he was slipped it, and maybe the person didn’t even know it.

If someone had killed Marks, then it was very difficult to track down who it could have been. Not only were the National Science Foundation and Raytheon very uncooperative in releasing contact details for the staff of the base during the winter of 2000, but even when they were found and sent questionnaires very few responses actually came back. Out of the 49 sent out, only 13 replies came back, which is no where near enough to get an idea of if there are any possible suspects for murder. If Marks had been killed, then his murderer would likely never be found.

The whole mystery was further confounded by a series of hurdles standing in the way of trying to figure out just what had happened. First of all, by the time the body was examined the crime scene itself was contaminated beyond all hope of gleaning any clues. Marks’ body had been sitting on ice in the frigid night for 6 months, and in that time there had been no efforts made to cordon off his living quarters or office, despite an apparent request by Raytheon to do so, mostly because it was believed by the station crew that Marks had died of a heart attack or other natural causes, and also because it was simply  not practical to close these areas down in a place where space was at a premium. Since there had been no reason to suspect murder at the time of death, these spaces were cleaned out and continued to be used normally, erasing any possible useful evidence. There were also incomplete medical records kept on Mark’s condition at the time, and indeed it was very hard to conduct a proper investigation in the first place considering the remote location where the death had occurred.

Amundsen–Scott South Pole Station from the air

Adding to all of this frustration was the clash of jurisdiction claims made by the U.S. and New Zealand governments, as the issue in Antarctica is complicated to say the least. Possibly as a result of this, there was little cooperation from the United States National Science Foundation and Raytheon during the investigation. Detective Senior Sergeant (DSS) Grant Wormald, of the New Zealand Police, who was in charge of the investigation, made several formal requests for contact information on the crew of the station as well as any potentially useful information concerning the base and any lab test data, but responses were frustratingly slow, if they came at all. In the end, Wormald was far from convinced that he was being told everything that was known about the case, or that the National Science Foundation and Raytheon were sharing all pertinent information, saying of this general uncooperativeness:

We wanted the results of [the National Science Foundation] internal investigation and to get in contact with people who were there to ask them some questions. They weren’t prepared to tell us who was there. They have advised that no report exists. To be frank, I think there is more there; there must be. 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. I suspect that there have been people who have thought twice about making contact with us on the basis of their future employment position

Indeed, the National Science Foundation has never released the results of its own investigation into the matter. This persistent lack of cooperation, as well as myriad legal, diplomatic, and jurisdictional hurdles are all factors contributing to the fact that the coroners investigation took a full 6 years before it was officially made, which is seen as an oddly long time. Considering how tight lipped the organizations that run the base have been, the whole investigation has hit dead end after dead end, and this has certainly stirred up whispers of conspiracy and a cover-up, with rumors that Marks had possibly found something out there on the ice that he was not supposed to see and had been silenced. This idea has been further supported by the fact that when Marks died there had been a machine to test blood chemistry called an Ektachem present at the medical facility, but had not been used, supposedly because it had not been working for reasons that remain murky, possibly because it was not properly calibrated due to a battery failure according to Raytheon. However, when attempts were then made to contact the one who could answer this question, the doctor at the time, Robert Thompson, he could not be located. The machine, had it been used, would have likely saved Marks’ life.

An elevated dorm at Amundsen–Scott South Pole Station

So what happened to Rodney Marks? How did that methanol get into his system and why have the relevant organizations been so tight-lipped and unwilling to talk about the whole incident? Was this merely an accident and if so how did that happen? Did this intelligent scientist who knew how dangerous methanol was drink it intentionally for some reason? Or was he killed? If this was murder, then why was it carried out and was it perpetrated by a base employee or the company itself? Is there some sort of cover-up or conspiracy going on? As things are, the death of Rodney Marks has remained unsolved, and probably never will be. The personnel that were there at the time cannot all be found, any potential evidence is long gone, and very little information has been shared by those who run the station. There seems to be little interest by those who run the station to uncover any more answers, and no one has been investigated for any culpability in the case, leading DSS Wormald to lament:

I’d like to think that if my children went to work down there and something went wrong, someone would be responsible for finding out what happened. I know Rodney’s family wants to know why the machinery that would have diagnosed his illness wasn’t working and whether anyone will actually be held accountable – whether anyone even gives a shit. Someone should be required to give a damn. After so long, it’s probably impossible to ever know what happened and if he died by sinister means or by accident. That’s something we have to live with.

The answers might forever remain buried out there in the cold wasteland of Antarctica, the truth just as cast into darkness as that station was in the midst of its long winter night. Whatever happened to Marks has become one of the most enduring and elusive mysteries of the South Pole, and it looks as if this case will forever be just as impenetrable and little understood as Antarctica itself. It is said that the unique people who work here on the edge of the world at the Amundsen–Scott South Pole Station have the saying, “What happens on the ice stays on the ice.” It seems that in the case of Rodney Marks’ mysterious death this holds true, and perhaps always will.

 

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  • HaywoodZarathustra

    Another mystery from that continent happened also in early May, but in 1965 when Carl Disch vanished during a mile walk between two buildings.