How journalism prompted a closer look at 14 deaths in the U.K. with Russian connections

In the wake of the poisoning of a former Russian spy and his daughter in the U.K. earlier this month — an incident that the governments of the U.K., U.S., France, Germany and Canada now say it is "highly likely" were ordered by the Kremlin — the deaths of more than a dozen others in the U.K., all of them with connections to Russia, are getting a second look from British investigators.

U.K. Home Secretary Amber Rudd looking for assurance the cases didn't involve foul play.

Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia, seen in a composite photo, were found slumped on a park bench in Salisbury, U.K., on March 4. (Misha Japaridze/AP; Yulia Skripal/Facebook via AP)

In the wake of the poisoning of a former Russian spy and his daughter in the U.K. earlier this month — an incident that the governments of the U.K., U.S., France, Germany and Canada now say it is "highly likely" were ordered by the Kremlin — the deaths of more than a dozen others in the U.K., all of them with connections to Russia, are getting a second look from British investigators.

The cases were documented in an investigative report last June by several journalists working for Buzzfeed News, which pointed out they had all been dismissed by police as having no criminal involvement in spite of many curious details. This week, U.K. Home Secretary Amber Rudd said she wants to be assured the cases didn't involve foul play.

"There was evidence in all of those cases that those individuals had angered either the Kremlin or powerful individuals within Russia," said Heidi Blake, Buzzfeed U.K.'s investigations editor. "In many cases, they received death threats before they ultimately died."

Blake spoke to CBC News for this week's edition of The Investigators with Diana Swain.

  • Watch the full interview with Diana Swain, Saturday at 9:30 p.m. ET and Sunday at 5:30 p.m. ET on CBC News Network.

The cases span 15 years and include some high-profile examples, such as Boris Berezovsky, an exiled oligarch who was an outspoken critic of Russian President Vladimir Putin. He was found dead in his home in 2013; his death was ruled a suicide. Nikolai Glushkov, Berezovsky's close business associate, who had long argued Berezovsky was in fact murdered, was himself found dead in his home on Monday, only days after the recent poisoning incident in Salisbury, U.K. Ligature marks were found around his neck. On Friday, British police launched a murder investigation into his death.

Russian tycoon Boris Berezovsky, was found dead in his home in the U.K. in 2013. Although his death was ruled a suicide, that remains in dispute. (Sang Tan/Associated Press)

Another case involves a British citizen who is believed to have run afoul of the Kremlin. Matthew Puncher, a U.K. radiation scientist, played a key role in the investigation of the 2006 poisoning death of former Russian spy Alexander Litvinenko.

Puncher was found dead in his home of what investigators concluded was suicide, even though the crime scene was large and there was evidence that two knives had been used in his death.

All the cases were determined by various local police services to be not suspicious, even though the journalists uncovered that U.S. intelligence agencies had raised alarms with Scotland Yard, suggesting the cases needed closer scrutiny because of the Russia connections.

"And, that evidence had been passed to the British government, who had done nothing with it, and allowed police to shut down every single investigation without looking further into the Russian connection," Blake said.

A police officer became seriously ill after working on the Skripal case. Some analysts believe that the public exposure in the case has prompted a change in tone within the British government on the issue. ( Chris J Ratcliffe/Getty Images)

Blake contends the U.K. government has previously been loathe to antagonize the Kremlin by ascribing the deaths to Russian operatives.

"And that's in common with the stance taken by many Western governments, who've wanted to reset relations and try to engage the Kremlin positively to build business links and engage in healthy diplomatic relations," she says.

But Blake believes the brazen nature of the poisoning attack that has left Russian Sergei Skripal, his daughter Yulia, and a British police officer in grave condition in hospital, has changed things.

"I think the use of a deadly nerve agent ... exposing hundreds of members of the public to this deadly toxin really is seen as a threshold being crossed and the government has really now wakened up to the need to stand up to Russia," Blake says.

Also this week on The Investigators: Connie Walker talks about why the success of Missing and Murdered: Finding Cleo could make podcasting the future for investigative journalism.  And, Amy Padnani of the New York Times explains why #metoo has prompted the newspaper to play catch up on its obituary pages.