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The fascist who poisoned dissidents for the Eastern bloc

One of the most spectacular murders of the Cold War was the assassination of the Bulgarian dissident Georgy Markov in London in 1978.

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The fascist who poisoned dissidents for the Eastern bloc

One of the most spectacular murders of the Cold War was the assassination of the Bulgarian dissident Georgy Markov in London in 1978. He was killed with a poison capsule from an umbrella gun, a KGB invention. The main suspect: a Danish citizen of Italian origin named Francesco Gullino (1945-2021), allegedly the agent "Piccadilly".

The Danish journalist Ulrik Skotte is the biography of Gullino in the three-part TV documentary "Paraplymordet - Historien om Agent Piccadilly. Spies med de tusinde ansigter" (in English: "The Umbrella Murder - The Story of Agent Piccadilly. The Spy with a Thousand Faces") got to the bottom. The secret service expert Christopher Nehring, who teaches at the University of Sofia and in Potsdam with the support of the Konrad Adenauer Foundation, was involved. Most recently published by him: “Secret Service Murders. When states kill.”

WORLD: In 1993, Francesco Gullino was questioned about the Markov murder 15 years earlier. Legally, there was insufficient evidence to charge him. As a secret service historian, how do you assess the case?

Christopher Nehring: The Markov murder is certainly the most famous secret service murder of the Cold War, maybe even of all time. Unfortunately, the destruction of files in Bulgaria was very successful. There was a separate task force for the Markov case, which also cleaned up the "Piccadilly" file. The case can therefore no longer be completely clarified. But the evidence is strong: "Piccadilly" was sent to London, received the highest awards from the Bulgarian secret service and even met its boss personally. Why? According to the documents remaining in the file, he is said to have never done anything of importance... And: Gullino kept lying about verifiable details.

WORLD: A Dane of Italian origin who may be murdering with a KGB weapon in London on behalf of the Bulgarian secret service - pretty weird, isn't it?

Nehring: Everything about this case is just weird. The murder weapon, the destruction of files, the wall of silence from secret services in East and West. But the alleged perpetrator, Francesco Gullino alias agent "Piccadilly" really shoots the bird: As the new research shows, he was a fascist, a swindler and imposter, with quite perverse sexual tendencies, grew up in a brothel and maybe even an Italian double agent...

WORLD: Excuse me?

Nehring: Yes, it looks like the Bulgarian secret service didn't know his man at all. He pledged loyalty to socialism, but was a self-confessed fascist. Had a special edition of Mein Kampf, a Mussolini calendar, and paid women to wrap themselves in swastika flags during sex. And the new research has revealed a clue that he didn't just show up in Bulgaria by accident, but had connections to the Italian secret service. But that's not confirmed yet. The fact is, however, that the Bulgarian service was not aware of any of this! He told them something about criticism of capitalism and that they were his only friends.

WORLD: Any screenwriter who came up with such a biography would be considered over the top …

Nehring: ... sometimes reality is just a lot more abstruse than fiction. Gullino was obviously a bizarre personality. But - and this should never be forgotten - he was also a charming, extremely eloquent person with an extremely sharp mind and super quick wit. This is not only shown by the records of his interrogations, in which he almost masterfully talked his way out of everything. His friends and acquaintances also describe him as a lovable, nice guy.

WORLD: Isn't a personality like Gullino actually too great a risk for any professional secret service?

Nehring: As I said, there is nothing to indicate that the Bulgarian secret service knew of its abysses. And in many ways, Gullino was the perfect secret agent: he played many roles, had a story for each and explanations for everything. Our conclusion is: He was a chameleon. It went so far that among all the absurdities, shenanigans and different versions he created of himself, you can't find a "true" Francesco Gullino. Maybe because there has never been a "real version" of him.

WORLD: Is it true that he was also suspected of various crimes outside of the secret service environment?

Nehring: Gullino was always somewhere illegal. He was arrested in Bulgaria in 1970 for smuggling and petty fraud. He probably smuggled at least some of the antiques he dealt in in Denmark. And as the new research now shows, he is also a suspect in another murder case: on New Year's Eve 1989, the prostitute Hanne With was killed in Copenhagen. Gullino knew her from riding. When the police asked where he was at the time of the crime, he gave the names of some acquaintances with whom he was said to be at a party. According to police records, they confirmed this over the phone. But in front of Ulrik Skotte's camera, they all say that they had neither spent the evening with Gullino nor were they ever questioned by the police. The investigators themselves now have no idea how the false alibi came about and why no one investigated the matter.

WORLD: Francesco Gullino was found lifeless in his apartment in Wels, a town in Upper Austria, on August 15, 2021. Is there evidence that points to a non-natural death?

Nehring: At least oddities. He lay dead in his apartment for a week before his friend Ralf H. found him. He was then quickly cremated without an autopsy and buried anonymously. Shortly before his death, maybe even on the same day, he called the Danish TV team again. But at the other end they only heard a faint rattle before the conversation ended.

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