PUBLISHED: 16:58 EST, 21 April 2012 | UPDATED: 17:45 EST, 21 April 2012
A weapons expert who worked with Dr David Kelly at the Government’s secret chemical warfare laboratory has been found dead in an apparent suicide.
In circumstances strongly reminiscent of Dr Kelly’s own mysterious death nine years ago, the body of Dr Richard Holmes was discovered in a field four miles from the Porton Down defence establishment in Wiltshire. It is not yet known how he died.
Mr Holmes, 48, had gone missing two days earlier after telling his wife he was going out for a walk – just as Dr Kelly did before he was found dead at an Oxfordshire beauty spot in July 2003.
Police said there were no suspicious circumstances in the latest case but revealed that Dr Holmes had ‘recently been under a great deal of stress’.
He resigned from Porton Down last month, although the centre yesterday refused to explain why.
Inevitably, the parallels between the two cases will arouse the suspicions of conspiracy theorists.
Despite Lord Hutton’s ruling eight years ago that Dr Kelly committed suicide, many people – among them a group of doctors – believe his inquiry was insufficient and have demanded a full inquest.
Some believe Dr Kelly, who kept an office at Porton Down right up until his death, was murdered. He was outed as being the source of a BBC report that Downing Street ‘sexed up’ evidence of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction to justify going to war.
Although it is not clear if the two scientists were close, one source told The Mail on Sunday that they were friendly when they worked at Porton Down in the Nineties.
At the time, Dr Holmes ran a project organising the installation of chemical protection equipment in RAF Sentinel spy planes, while Dr Kelly was head of microbiology and frequently toured the former Soviet Union as a weapons inspector.
After the first Gulf War, Dr Holmes is also thought to have worked on the production of chemical protection suits for troops. In 1991 he was the joint author of a scientific paper about an RAF chemical and biological protection system.
Yesterday, a Porton Down spokesman confirmed Dr Holmes had quit his job but declined to comment further. ‘It is not our policy to speak openly about any individual who works for us,’ she said.
Before finding his body, Wiltshire Police made a public appeal for information but warned people not to approach Dr Holmes for their own safety because they believed he had been ‘looking at information on the internet regarding self-harm and the use of toxic substances’.
Friends of Dr Holmes say this disclosure irritated his family, who questioned why a scientist engaged in chemical warfare research would ‘need to Google toxic substances’.
Dr Holmes’s widow, Susan, is a chemist who also works at Porton Down as head of business administration.
One of the Government’s most sensitive and secretive military facilities, the site has long been the focus of controversy.
Three years ago hundreds of ex-servicemen who were used as chemical warfare guinea pigs there between 1939 and 1989 were given compensation and an apology from the Ministry of Defence.
They were tested with the nerve agent sarin, but some of those involved claimed they had been told they were taking part in cold-remedy trials.
Many suffered serious illnesses after exposure to the gas, which was developed by the Nazis during the Second World War.
An inquest into Dr Holmes’s death was opened and adjourned by Wiltshire Coroner David Ridley last week. Coroner’s officer Paul Tranter said Dr Holmes’s family had grown concerned for his wellbeing after he failed to return from a walk on April 11.
A search party involving police and members of the other emergency services began combing waste ground close to his home in the Bishopsdown area of Salisbury.
Police discovered his body half a mile away in a field used regularly by dog-walkers and joggers in the village of Laverstock.
Mr Tranter said the results of tests carried out to establish the cause of death would not be known for several weeks.
He added: ‘Police do not consider this death to be suspicious in any way, nor do they believe there was any third-party involvement.’