A quiet Sunday lunch with his daughter, then Skripal’s secrets caught up with him
Sources say retired Russian colonel had been in fear of his life after he avoided his usual haunts
The locals at Sergei Skripal’s social club hadn’t seen the Russian émigré for a couple of weeks. The silver-haired, slightly portly pensioner was a Sunday lunchtime regular at the Railway Social Club in Salisbury where he would order the roast and wash it down with beer and vodka.
But last Sunday, like the one before it, the Russian had not shown up. His fellow social club members didn’t think much of it, but then few knew that in a former life in Moscow the quiet drinker had been a high-flying colonel in the Russian military. Nor did they know that Col Skripal had been a double agent paid $100,000 to spy for Britain; and who had been caught by the Russians, found guilty of treason and sentenced to 13 years in a penal colony in 2006. Four years later, he pitched up in Salisbury after being released as part of a spy exchange.
He lived openly in the city and bought a house for £260,000 cash and lived comfortably on an MI6 pension.
But in recent weeks the 66-year-old had become fearful for his life, say sources. It’s unclear how the threat may have been made but he had grown cautious. Neighbours said he kept the lights off at home.
Col Skripal’s daughter Yulia, 33, was summoned from Moscow where she
‘To be honest, I thought they might be homeless but they were perhaps better dressed. I just thought this is weird’
worked for Pepsi. He was happy to see her but was concerned for their safety. Yulia was the only close family he had left. His wife Ludmila died of cancer in 2012 aged 59, (when Yulia recorded the death she noted her father’s occupation as a “retired local government planning officer”) while his son died of liver failure aged 44 last year. Reports suggested his son, also called Sergei, died while on holiday in St Petersburg. Given what was about to befall Col Skripal and his daughter, the death of Sergei junior now looks suspicious too.
Yulia worked in Southampton at the Holiday Inn hotel and made many friends. She returned to Moscow in 2014, a sign that the family did not feel threatened by the past. Yulia was a regular visitor in Salisbury, posting a photograph of the cathedral in 2012 shrouded in fog, reminding her of a pretty neighbourhood in Moscow.
On Sunday, Yulia was back in Salisbury with her father. Instead of taking her to his favourite social club for lunch, the colonel headed first for the Mill pub and then to Zizzi, an Italian restaurant chain, for a late lunch. Reports suggest it might have been a boozy one.
Shortly after 3.45pm, father and daughter turned right, out of the restaurant, walked along Castle Street and into Market Walk, a covered walkway lined with shops. As they passed Snap Fitness, a gym at the end of the precinct, at 3.47pm, they were captured briefly on CCTV. Both glanced toward the camera, Col Skripal wearing a green jacket and his daughter in blue jeans and carrying a large red bag.
As they emerged into the drizzle the pair crossed a small bridge into The Maltings shopping precinct before sitting down on a nearby bench.
Ten minutes later, at 4.03pm, Freya Church, 27, who works at Snap Fitness, was filmed on CCTV leaving the gym. She followed in their footsteps over the bridge and then saw the couple slumped on the bench. Col Skripal was gazing up at the sky, eyes glazed, making strange hand gestures. Yulia was slumped against him, apparently unconscious.
A crowd gathered, shielding them from the rain with umbrellas, and put the woman in the recovery position while someone called 999. Yulia was airlifted to hospital while her father was taken by ambulance. By 4.15pm, the area had been cordoned off. So too would be Zizzi and The Mill pub.
Police in full protective clothing and using special breathing apparatus combed the immediate vicinity. Cain Prince, the manager of Snap Fitness, said police examined the CCTV footage on Monday, paying particular interest to the couple with the red bag. “These people were the only ones police were interested in,” he told The Daily Telegraph. “They said he was wearing a green coat and took a picture of them and they asked for details of all staff who were in between 3pm and 4pm on Sunday.” Shown the CCTV footage of a couple walking past the gym towards the bench just 15 minutes earlier, Ms Church said it was “definitely them, 100 per cent.” She was particularly worried about the woman. “She was slumped over on the man’s shoulder,” she said.
“To be honest, I thought they might be homeless but they were perhaps better dressed. I just thought this is weird, especially as she was clearly quite a bit younger than him. She had a red bag at her feet. He was gesturing at the sky, doing some kind of movements with his hands. He was looking up and his eyes were glazed. There was no one else there near them at this point. No one was helping them.”
Destiny Reynolds, 20, who works at Ganesha handicrafts in the Maltings, witnessed the commotion.
“I saw them both on the bench,” she said. “There was a big crowd around them. It was raining and people were covering them with umbrellas. Then they put the woman on the floor in the recovery position.”
What happened on the park bench is now subject to the most pressured, high profile investigation led by the Metropolitan Police’s counter terrorism unit.
Col Skripal and Yulia remain in intensive care, unconscious.
CCTV footage from other cameras is likely to yield a great deal of information. There are two flights from Heathrow to Moscow on a Sunday night, both easily catchable. If this was an assassination attempt – and if it was organised by the Kremlin or close associates of it – then it is likely the perpetrators will have long made their escape.
Yulia Skripal was a regular visitor to Salisbury from her home in Moscow