Georgi Markov's tragic end came with a surreptitious stab in the thigh with the venomous tip of a poisoned umbrella.
Few assassinations are as audacious as the 1978 murder of the émigré Bulgarian writer who was attacked on London’s Waterloo Bridge. All Markov recalled was that a man knocked his leg, apologized, picked up his umbrella, and ran across the street into a taxi. Four days later, Markov - a Sofia-born critic of the communist regime - was dead.
The weapon? Ricin poisoning delivered via a tiny platinum pellet fired from the tip of the mysterious man's umbrella - at least, that’s the story making the rounds.
While Bulgaria finally wrapped up its investigation decades later without any arrests, the intriguing British inquiry remains open. Here are five maddeningly unresolved secrets involving the murder on the bridge.
1. Where is the Missing Murder Weapon?
Although the murder weapon has never been recovered, much has been made about the poisoned umbrella believed to have shot the fatal pellet on September 7, 1978. After the regime of Bulgarian dictator Todor Zhivkov collapsed in 1989, a stack of ‘special’ umbrellas was reportedly found in the Interior Ministry. Yet the Bulgarian government reviewed the case and - although many of the files were missing - concluded that poison was fired into Markov’s thigh by an “adapted pen” and that the assassin may have dropped the umbrella to cause a distraction.
2. Why Was the Prime Suspect Never Arrested?
A 2023 Danish TV documentary raised even more questions about the chief suspect: Bulgarian intelligence operative Francesco Gullino, known by his code name ‘Agent Piccadilly’. Scotland Yard fingered him as the main suspect, yet Gullino remained free until his 2021 death. “He was a master in infiltration, he could go into any kind of environment and become the person he wanted to,” Ulrik Skotte, director of The Umbrella Murder, told The Guardian. “People around him die and he’s like a shadow, he just moves on.” Gullino’s file in the Bulgarian archives details his training and missions but the pages relating to the months around the Markov killing are missing.
3. How many assassinations are linked to Markov?
Markov, a journalist for the BBC and other media outlets, received a call in mid-1978 saying he would be executed unless he stopped writing for US-funded Radio Free Europe. There had already been two other assassination attempts in Munich and Sardinia. The third attempt was successful but were there other casualties as well? Weeks after Markov's death, Vladimir Simeonov, 30, a journalist in the BBC’s Bulgarian Department, was found lying face down in pajamas at the bottom of his stairwell. Bulgarian spy Vasil Kotsev, thought to have been the operational commander of the Markov plot, died in a mysterious car accident. And General Stoyan Savov, Bulgaria’s Deputy Interior Minister, apparently killed himself before facing trial over the cover-up of the assassination.