FBI investigates deaths of mining executives in UK corruption probe

James Bethel and Gerrit Strydom were seen as wit­ness­es in SFO inquiry into ENRC

The FBI is inves­ti­gat­ing the deaths of two for­mer min­ing exec­u­tives who British pros­e­cu­tors saw as poten­tial wit­ness­es in one of the UK’s biggest cor­rup­tion probes. James Bethel, 44, and Gerrit Strydom, 45, were found dead at a motel in Springfield, Missouri, in May 2015, when the two were on a road trip across the US. Until short­ly before their deaths, the men had held senior posi­tions in the African divi­sion of Eurasian Natural Resources Corporation, a min­ing group that is at the cen­tre of a sev­en-year bribery and fraud inves­ti­ga­tion by the UK’s Serious Fraud Office. Springfield police announced at the time that the cause of death was cere­bral malar­ia, cit­ing tests by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the nation­al agency that han­dles such cases. 

But as revealed in the forth­com­ing book Kleptopia: How Dirty Money is Conquering the World, autop­sy reports and CDC records show that the chances the two men died of malar­ia were “almost cer­tain­ly nil”, accord­ing to a lead­ing expert who analysed them. For rea­sons a spokesper­son refused to reveal, the Springfield police nev­er for­mal­ly closed the case. In May this year a police spokesper­son referred fur­ther inquiries to the FBI, “as they have tak­en over the inves­ti­ga­tion of this case”. 

FBI agents had already been look­ing into the case, accord­ing to two peo­ple briefed on it, includ­ing tak­ing away some of the men’s per­son­al effects.

Before their death SFO inves­ti­ga­tors were keen to learn what James Bethel, left, and Gerrit Strydom knew 

ENRC was found­ed by three Central Asian oli­garchs who took con­trol of valu­able mines in Kazakhstan dur­ing the rush of pri­vati­sa­tions that fol­lowed the col­lapse of the Soviet Union. It float­ed on the London Stock Exchange in 2007. 

The min­er joined the FTSE 100 index of blue-chip com­pa­nies, mak­ing it one of the most valu­able in the UK, at one stage worth almost £20bn. After the list­ing, ENRC bought mines in Congo, Zimbabwe and else­where in Africa — acqui­si­tions that would become the focus of bribery allegations. 

The SFO launched a crim­i­nal cor­rup­tion inves­ti­ga­tion in 2013. Later that year, the oli­garchs — Alexander Mashkevitch, Patokh Chodiev and Alijan Ibragimov — took the com­pa­ny pri­vate again and shift­ed its base to Luxembourg. 

Bethel and Strydom, South African cit­i­zens with long expe­ri­ence in the min­ing indus­try, were among the most senior ENRC offi­cials run­ning the African oper­a­tion. In 2015, they decid­ed to leave the com­pa­ny. The SFO’s inves­ti­ga­tors were keen to learn what they knew. They had made con­tact with Bethel by the time the men depart­ed for a hol­i­day in the US, accord­ing to three peo­ple with knowl­edge of the mat­ter. One of those peo­ple said the SFO was also inter­est­ed in Strydom, though it does not appear to have con­tact­ed him before his death. The men began to feel unwell dur­ing the flight from Johannesburg via Amsterdam to Chicago but set off along Route 66 on hired Harley-Davidsons, accord­ing to mes­sages they sent that were lat­er passed to the coroner. 

On Saturday May 9 2015, staff at La Quinta Inn in Springfield opened the doors to their rooms to find both men dead, with noth­ing to show what had killed them. The local med­ical exam­in­er sent sam­ples for tox­i­col­o­gy tests to a lab­o­ra­to­ry but received only par­tial results. Lacking the equip­ment to make a full assess­ment him­self, he sent blood and tis­sue sam­ples to the CDC, which detect­ed malar­ia, CDC records show. 

According to emails released in response to a free­dom of infor­ma­tion request, ana­lysts at the CDC sug­gest­ed the pair might have become infect­ed on a fish­ing trip they had tak­en togeth­er in malar­i­al Zambia two weeks before they start­ed to feel sick.  But when the cause of death was announced, col­leagues of the dead men were imme­di­ate­ly scep­ti­cal that two peo­ple could die of malar­ia on the same night in the same motel. Five years on, their doubts are rein­forced. Sam Wassmer, a malar­ia expert at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine who has reviewed the doc­u­ments obtained by the Financial Times, said that because of the mul­ti­tude of fac­tors that deter­mine the speed at which the dis­ease devel­ops over many days, “the like­li­hood of two sep­a­rate peo­ple devel­op­ing the dis­ease at the exact same time and dying the same night is almost cer­tain­ly nil”. 

The only remote­ly plau­si­ble sce­nario would be if both men had been bit­ten by the same mos­qui­to, Mr Wassmer said, but the CDC’s genet­ic analy­sis of the sam­ples it received ruled that out. Investigators at the SFO fear the sam­ples may not have been reli­able, accord­ing to a per­son famil­iar with the inves­ti­ga­tion. Neither the local med­ical exam­in­er nor a pri­vate coro­ner whom ENRC sent to attend the autop­sy could say whether any chain of cus­tody pro­ce­dure designed to safe­guard evi­dence had been followed. 

The CDC did not respond to ques­tions from the FT. 

The FBI did not com­ment. The SFO declined to comment. 

ENRC denies any wrongdoing. 

In 2019 it sued the SFO, accus­ing it of cook­ing up a scan­dal with the cor­rup­tion inves­ti­ga­tion in league with the company’s for­mer lawyers, a Kazakh dis­si­dent and pri­vate inves­ti­ga­tors. All those accused deny the allegations.

Original source: Financial Times

Author: Tom Burgis in London