Death at the South Pole: The Mystery of Antarctica's Unsolved Poisoning Case

Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station in Antarctica
Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station in Antarctica
Chris Danals, National Science Foundation

Rodney Marks was walking from a research building to the main base at the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station when he started to feel strange. This wasn't the normal weirdness people deal with when adjusting to the -80°F temperatures and 24-hour nights of Antarctic winters. The 32-year-old astrophysicist was struggling to breathe. Soon, his vision became weak. He was also very tired and went to bed early, hoping to sleep off whatever mysterious sickness was plaguing him.

But sleep didn't help. Instead, things just got worse—much worse. At 5:30 a.m. the morning of May 12, 2000, Marks woke up vomiting blood. He went to the station's doctor, Robert Thompson, three times over the course of the day, and with each visit, his symptoms appeared to grow more excruciating. Pain burned through his joints and stomach. His eyes were so sensitive that he had to wear sunglasses even though the sun hadn't risen over the base in several weeks. As his physical condition deteriorated, so did his mental state: He became so agitated that the doctor wondered if anxiety wasn't the cause of his symptoms.

When Marks visited the physician the third time that day, he was distressed to the point of hyperventilation. Thompson injected him with an antipsychotic to calm him down. Marks laid back and his breathing slowed. To the untrained observer, it may have looked as though he was getting better.

But that's not what was happening. Shortly after receiving the shot, Marks went into cardiac arrest, and after 45 minutes of unsuccessful resuscitation attempts, Thompson declared him dead at 6:45 p.m.

As soon as the fight to save his life ended, the 49 people living at the base were faced with a new problem: a dead body in one of the most remote places on earth, at a time of year when it was too cold for planes to land. It would be months before an aircraft was able to collect Marks's remains—and years before it was revealed that there was a chance he had been murdered.

Crime and Death in Antarctica

Death is rare in Antarctica, but not unheard of. Many explorers perished in the late 19th and early 20th centuries in their quests to reach the South Pole, and potentially hundreds of bodies remain frozen within the ice. In the modern era, more Antarctic fatalities are caused by freak accidents. Three scientists were riding a Muskeg tractor across the tundra in 1965 when the vehicle plunged into a crevasse, killing everyone on board. In 1980, Amundsen-Scott Station cook Casey Jones died while attempting to clear snow from a shaft in a fan room when the packed snow collapsed and crushed him.

There's also a history of violence on the continent. According to one unconfirmed story reported in Canadian Geographic, a scientist working at Russia's Vostok Station in 1959 snapped after losing a chess game and murdered his opponent with an axe. (Chess was supposedly banned from Russia's Antarctic bases after that.) More recently, in October 2018, a Russian scientist working in Antarctica allegedly stabbed his colleague following a possible nervous breakdown.

With some of these crimes, the Antarctic setting itself may have played a role. Scientists living in Antarctica are forced to share cramped quarters with the same group of people for months at a time. Contact with the outside world is limited, and depending on the weather, going for a walk to clear the mind isn't always an option.

"You're far away from home. You're far away from the people that form your normal social network. You're isolated with a group of people you didn't choose," Peter Suedfeld, a psychologist at the University of British Columbia who has studied the effects of Antarctic isolation on the mind, tells Mental Floss.

The extreme isolation there is rivaled only by what astronauts experience in space—in fact, space agencies conduct studies in Antarctica to simulate their long-term missions.

On top of dealing with boredom and claustrophobia, researchers in Antarctica are adjusting to either constant day or night. When someone's circadian rhythm—the biological system governed by the 24-hour day—is disrupted, the negative effects are felt in both the body and mind. According to one study, people on disrupted circadian cycles are more likely to exhibit aggressive behaviors.

"Because of the environment, people do get irritable, sensitive, maybe quicker to take offense at something that wasn't meant to be offensive," Suedfeld says. "I think it's fascinating that there hasn't been more violence in Antarctica."

A Belated Autopsy

Rodney Marks was already familiar with the stressors of life in Antarctica when he signed up to work there from 1999 to 2000. The Australian native had previously wintered on the continent from 1997 to 1998 as part of the Center for Astrophysical Research in Antarctica (CARA)'s South Pole Infrared Explorer project. Dr. Chris Martin, one of the researchers who worked on the project with Marks, told the New Zealand Herald: "Rodney liked it so much he wanted to go back again."

For his second stay, he worked on the Antarctic Submillimeter Telescope and Remote Observatory project as a researcher for the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory. His job consisted of collecting data with a massive infrared telescope and using it to improve viewing conditions at the South Pole. Antarctica is considered one of the best places on Earth to study space, and his work enabled astronomers to make important observations.

Marks charmed his colleagues with his bohemian style and friendly personality. He joined the base band, Fannypack and the Big Nancy Boys, and was dating maintenance specialist Sonja Wolter. Darryn Schneider, the only other Australian at the base that winter and Marks's friend, described him in a blog post: "His 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."

So when he died suddenly that May, roughly six months into his second journey at the pole, it shocked the researchers and technicians at Amundsen-Scott Station. The station doctor, Robert Thompson, told the young man's colleagues that Marks had died of unknown but natural causes, likely a massive heart attack or stroke. Because it was Thompson's job to treat live patients, not perform autopsies, they would have to wait to learn any more details.

With months of unbroken darkness and dangerous cold stretched out before them, October was the soonest it would be safe for aircraft to land at the South Pole. In the meantime, people living at the base used the excess hours in their days to gather oak scraps and cut and polish them into a casket. They loaded Marks's body into the makeshift coffin and laid him to temporary rest in the base's storage, where the frigid climate would preserve his remains until the end of winter.

On October 30, a plane transported the body from Amundsen-Scott Station to Christchurch, New Zealand, where forensic pathologist Dr. Martin Sage finally was able to perform an autopsy. The amount of time that had passed between the death and the examination didn't stop Sage from making a disturbing observation: Marks hadn't died of natural causes after all. According to the post-mortem, he had ingested approximately 150 milliliters of methanol—roughly the size of a glass of wine. Methanol is a type of alcohol used to clean scientific equipment in Antarctica: It's subtly sweet, colorless, and toxic even in small amounts—which means a fatal dose could easily be slipped into someone's drink without their knowledge.

That left a limited number of options on the table. To the people who lived and worked with Marks up until his final hours, the possibility that he had killed himself was hard to believe. He had thrived in the harsh beauty of Antarctica. He was doing important research at the observatory, and when he wasn't working, he had his friends and Wolter, whom he had planned to marry, to keep him company. But if Marks hadn't poisoned himself, that left his colleagues with the unsettling possibility that they had shared a home with a murderer for over half a year.

An Inconclusive Inquest

Because Antarctica is governed by a treaty signed by 54 nations, handling crimes there can be a headache. Marks was from Australia and had worked for an American station, but he died within the Ross Dependency—a territory of Antarctica claimed by New Zealand. By October, New Zealand had taken over the job of looking into the incident.

While the coroner of Christchurch began an initial inquest in 2000, the investigation took years to complete, and involved several hearings. Detective Senior Sergeant Grant Wormald looked at four possible causes of death: Marks drank the methanol accidentally; he drank it for recreation; he drank it to kill himself; or someone else had spiked his drink. In 2006, Wormald stated that suicide was the least likely explanation for the young scientist's death, citing his promising career and relationship.

It was more plausible that Marks had ingested the solvent to get high and accidentally overdosed. He was a heavy drinker, and had been known to use alcohol to cope with his Tourette's syndrome. But Wormald saw this as further evidence that he hadn't drunk the methanol on purpose: Marks had access to plenty of alcohol on the base if he was looking to self-medicate, and as an experienced binge-drinker, he would have known the risk of drinking unfamiliar substances. When he did get sick, he acted just as bewildered as the rest of the crew, suggesting he had no idea there was poison inside his body.

Wormald concluded: "In my view it is most likely Dr. Marks ingested the methanol unknowingly." But how exactly the methanol got into Marks's system—and if it wasn't an accident, who might have given it to him—remained a mystery.

According to The New Zealand Herald, some experts were critical of Robert Thompson's treatment of Marks in his final hours. William Silva, who had been a physician at a nearby Antarctic station, reviewed Thompson's medical notes from that day and questioned certain aspects of his care. Thompson had access to an Ektachem blood analyzer, a machine that would have detected the dangerous levels of methanol in his patient's system and likely prompted the doctor to take steps toward appropriate treatment. But the lithium-ion battery had died some time before, which meant that turning it off reset its electronic memory. It was shut off the day of Marks's death, and to power it back up, Thompson would have needed to recalibrate it—a process that takes 8 to 10 hours [PDF].

Thompson later testified that he had been too busy caring for Marks to use the Ektachem. He also said that the machine was difficult to use and maintain—a claim that Silva disputed. According to Silva, the Ektachem "is quite straightforward," and Thompson could have called the manufacturer's free technical support line if he was having issues with it (though telephone service was spotty at best).

Thompson never provided a response to Silva's testimony. He was impossible to get in touch with during the later stages of the inquest, having seemingly fallen off the grid. He was never charged with any wrongdoing. (Thompson could not be reached for comment.)

The National Science Foundation (NSF), the U.S. organization that runs the Amundsen-Scott Station, reportedly did little to make matters clearer. When Wormald asked for reports on Marks's death, the NSF reportedly wasn't forthcoming, saying it didn't have any reports that were relevant to his investigation. The foundation also reportedly ignored his requests when he asked for the results of lab tests conducted on the scant evidence gathered from Marks's room and work station before they were cleaned.

The NSF denies Wormald's characterization of how it handled the investigation. In a statement to Mental Floss, a representative said: "[The] NSF consistently cooperated with the Christchurch coroner's office and New Zealand Police to address this tragic situation. Dr. Marks was an important member of the Antarctic research community. NSF continues to extend its deepest condolences to his family, friends and colleagues."

But according to Wormald, any useful information he pried from the government agency was the product of his own persistence. Only after being pestered by the detective, he said, did the NSF agree to send out a questionnaire to the 49 crew members who had been at the station at the time of Marks's death. The foundation vetted the questions first, "to assure ourselves that appropriate discretion has been exercised," and when they were finally mailed out, they came with a note saying participation wasn't mandatory. Only 13 of Marks's 49 colleagues responded.

A Tragic Accident—Or The Perfect Crime?

Without much cooperation from the National Science Foundation and with no solid leads, the investigation failed to move forward. It fizzled out completely in 2008 when coroner Richard McElrea released a report saying that no conclusions could be drawn one way or the other about the circumstances surrounding Marks's poisoning. Referencing a 2000 report [PDF] based on the medical notes about the case that said there was no reason to suspect homicide or accidental poisoning, McElrea wrote, "I respectively [sic] disagree that accidental poisoning and even foul play can be adequately disregarded without a full and proper investigation." His main takeaway was that the disorganization of the case indicated "an urgent need to set comprehensive rules of investigation and accountability for deaths in Antarctica on a fair and open basis."

Outside of true crime internet forums, a clear idea of what happened to Marks has never emerged. He didn't have any known enemies at Amundsen-Scott Station, and there was no evidence implicating any of the workers at the base with a crime.

With the inquiry into his death producing more questions than answers, Rodney Marks's story occupies a strange place in the history of Antarctic tragedies. Driving on approved routes may reduce the risk of falling into a crevasse—and banning chess may stop game-related fights—but this particular incident left no obvious path toward preventing ones like it from happening in the future. It's not even clear whether Marks's death should be grouped with Antarctica's freak accidents or rare acts of violence.

As of 2019, there's still no system in place for handling homicides that happen on the continent. With so many territorial claims, and some that even overlap, the general rule is that jurisdiction falls to the home country of the person who committed the crime and the station where it took place. That means if a Russian researcher assaults someone at a Russian station, as was the case in October 2018, the case is handled by Russian authorities. But things get stickier if an American commits a crime on a Russian base, in which case both countries could have a claim to the investigation. Situations where an apparent crime produces a body and no obvious perpetrator are, of course, even more complicated.

Until Marks's death, that was an issue the nations working in Antarctica had never had to face. There still has never been a trial for a murder that happened on the continent—though the question of whether murder has been committed there remains unanswered.

Up in the Air: When 'Balloon Boy' Took Flight

John Moore, Getty Images
John Moore, Getty Images

It was like a Weekly World News cover come to life. On October 15, 2009, most of the major network and cable broadcasters interrupted their daytime programming to cover what appeared to be a silver flying saucer streaking through the air. Out of context, it was as though the world was getting its first sight of a genuine UFO.

Reading the scroll at the bottom, or listening to the somewhat frantic newscasters, provided an explanation: It was not alien craft but a homemade balloon that had inadvertently taken off from the backyard of a family home in Fort Collins, Colorado. That, of course, was not inherently newsworthy. What made this story must-see television was the fact that authorities believed a 6-year-old boy was somehow trapped inside.

As the helium-filled balloon careened through the air and toward Denver International Airport, millions of people watched and wondered if its passenger could survive the perilous trip. When the craft finally touched down after floating for some 60 miles, responders surrounded it, expecting the worst. The boy was nowhere to be seen. Had he already fallen out?

The brief saga that became known as the Balloon Boy incident was one of the biggest indictments of the burgeoning worlds of reality television and breathless 24/7 news coverage. It seemed to check off every box that observers associated with societal decline. There was the morbidity of a child speeding through the air without control; the unwavering gaze of news networks who cut away from reports on world affairs and even ignored their commercial breaks to obtain footage of an aircraft that measure around 20 feet wide and 5 feet high and resembled a bag of Jiffy Pop.

 

The boy in question was Falcon Heene, one of Richard and Mayumi Heene's three children. The couple had met in California and bonded over their mutual desire to get into the entertainment business. Richard dreamed of becoming a comedian; Mayumi played guitar. The couple married in 1997 and eventually relocated to Colorado; they got their first taste of Hollywood in 2008, when they made their first of two appearances on the reality series Wife Swap.

But Richard Heene wanted more. The avid tinkerer envisioned a show that followed his family around, while at the same time working on his new inventions—one of which was sitting in his backyard. It was essentially a Mylar balloon staked to the ground, which he would later describe as a very early prototype for a low-altitude commuter vehicle.

 sheriff's deputies seach a field for Falcon Heene before learning he had been found October 15, 2009 southeast of Ft. Collins, Colorado
Sheriff's deputies search a Colorado field for Falcon Heene before learning he had been found safe at home.
John Moore, Getty Images

It was this balloon, Bradford Heene told police in 2009, that his brother Falcon had climbed into just before it had taken flight. Earlier, Richard said, Falcon had been playing near the contraption and was scolded for potentially creating a dangerous situation. Now, Falcon was gone, the balloon was in the air, and Falcon's parents feared the worst. Mayumi called the authorities.

“My other son said that Falcon was at the bottom of the flying saucer,” Mayumi told the 911 dispatcher. “I can’t find him anywhere!”

As news cameras watched and the National Guard and U.S. Forest Service followed, the balloon reached an altitude of 7000 feet. Police made a painstaking search of the Heene household, looking for any sign of Falcon. After three passes, they determined it was possible he was inside the balloon.

Approximately one hour later, the balloon seemed to deflate. Authorities cleared the air space near Denver International Airport and greeted the craft as it landed, tethering it to the ground so no air current could hoist it back up and out of reach.

No one was inside the small cabin under the balloon, which left three possibilities: Falcon was hiding somewhere, he had run away ... or he had fallen out.

 

Not long after the craft had landed, a police officer at the Heene house decided to investigate an attic space above the garage. It had gone ignored because it didn’t seem possible Falcon could have reached the entrance on his own.

Yet there he was, hiding.

Elated, authorities explained to the media that they thought Falcon had untethered the balloon by accident and then hid because he knew his father would be upset with him.

Jim Alderden, the sheriff of Colorado's Larimer County, assured reporters that the Heenes had not done anything suspect. They demonstrated all the concern for their missing child that one would expect. Alderden stuck to that even after the Heenes were interviewed on CNN and Falcon appeared to slip up. When asked by Wolf Blitzer if he had heard his parents calling for him, the boy admitted that he had but was ignoring them “for a show.”

Though the Heenes seemed to scramble to cover up for their son's gaffe, Blitzer didn’t appear to register the comment at first. He came back around to it, though, insisting on clarification. Richard would later state that Falcon was referring to the news cameras who wanted to see where he had been hiding. That was the "show" he meant.

Alderden reiterated that he didn’t think the boy could remain still and quiet for five hours in an attic if he had been instructed to. But he admitted the CNN interview raised questions. After initially clearing the family of any wrongdoing, Alderden said he would sit down and speak to them again.

Within the week, Alderden was holding a press conference with an entirely different mood. He solemnly explained that the Heenes had perpetuated a hoax and speculated that they could be charged with up to three felonies, including conspiracy and contributing to the delinquency of a minor. Outlets had already tracked down an associate of Richard’s who detailed his reality series idea, with one episode devoted to the balloon.

 

Richard and Mayumi voluntarily turned themselves into authorities. They each pled guilty: Richard for attempting to influence a public servant and Mayumi for making a false report. In addition to paying $36,016 in restitution, Richard wound up with a 90-day jail sentence, 60 days of which was served on supervised work release. Mayumi got 20 days. Though they pled guilty, Richard maintained that he and his family had not perpetuated any kind of a hoax. In a 2010 video posted to YouTube, Richard said he only pled guilty because authorities were threatening to deport his wife.

Mayumi, meanwhile, reportedly told police it had all been an act (though critics of the prosecution argued that Mayumi's imperfect English made that confession open to interpretation). Mayumi later stated she had no firm understanding of the word "hoax."

Richard Heene and his wife, Mayumi Heene (R) are flanked by members of the media after they both plead guilty to charges related to the alleged hoax of the couple claiming that their son, Falcon Heene was last month onboard a helium balloon, at the Larime
Richard and Mayumi Heene surrounded by the media after they both plead guilty to charges related to the "Balloon Boy Hoax" on November 13, 2009.
Matt McClain, Getty Images

In addition to the fine and jail sentences, the judge also mandated that the family not seek to profit from the incident for a period of four years, which meant any potential for Richard to grab a reality show opportunity would be put on hold until long after the public had lost interest in the "Balloon Boy."

The Heenes moved to Florida in 2010, and soon after their three boys formed a heavy metal band—reputed to be the world’s youngest—dubbed the Heene Boyz. They’ve self-released several albums, and in 2014 even released a song called "Balloon Boy No Hoax."

Richard also peddles some of his inventions, including a wall-mounted back scratcher that allows users to alleviate itching by rubbing up against it. It’s called the Bear Scratch.

In October 2019, Robert Sanchez, a writer for 5280 magazine in Denver, profiled the Heenes and produced a smoking gun of sorts. Sanchez, who was allowed access to the Heene case file by Mayumi's defense attorney, discovered copies of Mayumi's notes about the events leading up to the flight. In one entry, she disclosed Richard had asked her about the possibility of letting the craft go off while Falcon remained in the basement, stirring up attention for the news networks. Later, when the saucer flew away, Richard was confused when Falcon wasn't downstairs. (He chose instead to hide in the attic.) That made the Heenes believe he might really be inside.

When confronted with the document, Mayumi told Sanchez she had made that story up in an attempt to "save" herself and her children, presumably from being separated in the ensuing legal struggle. In the Balloon Boy story, the saucer may have come crashing back to Earth, but the truth remains up in the air.

Ohio Bill Aims to Make Animal Cruelty a Felony

RalchevDesign/iStock via Getty Images
RalchevDesign/iStock via Getty Images

In Ohio, animal cruelty may soon be punishable by a minimum of nine months in prison.

As ABC 6 reports, a new bill introduced in the Ohio Senate would increase penalties for individuals found guilty of inflicting “unnecessary or unjustifiable” harm to a companion animal (the bill defines a “companion animal” as any animal kept inside a home and any dog or cat, regardless of where it’s kept).

The bill comes three years after Ohio lawmakers passed a law making animal cruelty a fifth-degree felony for first-time offenders. Prior to 2016, a first offense of animal cruelty was classified as a first-degree misdemeanor, a charge punishable by up to 180 days in jail and a $1000 fine.

This new bill would make animal cruelty a third-degree felony, meaning jail time and a fine of up to $10,000. It’s a critical change, according to Cleveland.com; reporter Andrew J. Tobias, who says fifth-degree felony convictions in Ohio rarely result in any jail time.

“There are just some atrocious acts of violence against pets, companion animals, that are literally receiving slaps on the wrist,” Senator Jay Hottinger, one of the bill’s sponsors, told Cleveland.com.

In January, two Florida congressmen introduced the PACT (Preventing Animal Cruelty and Torture) bill to classify animal cruelty as a felony under federal law. All 50 states have a “felony animal cruelty law on the books,” according to the Animal Legal Defense Fund, but each state is responsible for defining animal cruelty. The proposed PACT law would identify and ban specific behaviors in all states.

[h/t ABC 6]

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