British Couple Poisoned

AP Photo/Matt Dunham

Police Probe Nerve Agent Poisoning Of British Couple

July 05, 2018 - 2:31 pm

AMESBURY, England (WCBS 880/AP) -- A British couple has been hospitalized after being exposed to the same nerve agent that nearly killed a Russian spy and his daughter earlier this year.

CBS News Correspondent Larry Miller said police say the couple in their 40s – identified as Dawn Sturgess, 44, and Charlie Rowley, 45 – were not targeted.

“This is just an average couple in their 40s living about seven miles away from Salisbury,” Miller said.

Salisbury is where former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter, Yulia, were attacked with the nerve-agent poison Novichok.

The Skripals spent weeks in critical condition after being attacked in the southwest England city of Salisbury in March. Sturgess and Rowley collapsed in Amesbury, a few miles away, on Saturday. They are in critical condition in Salisbury District Hospital.

The Metropolitan Police force said Thursday that "following further tests of samples from the patients, we now know that they were exposed to the nerve agent after handling a contaminated item."

Authorities had earlier said Sturgess and Rowley were not exposed to contaminants from the site where the Skripals were poisoned.

“Britain’s interior minister revealed that the couple did not come in contact with the territory that the former Russian spy and his daughter had anything to do with four months ago, so the suggestion is that this is a totally separate incident, not that they brushed by something that hadn’t been cleaned. They said everything had already been cleaned in that area, and they didn’t go into that area,” Miller said. “They went to a different area. And they’re warning people now not to pick up any objects like containers or syringes. They don’t know where this came from.”

But chemical weapons expert Hamish de Bretton-Gordon said the latest victims actually were likely collateral damage from the Skripal attack.

"The Novichok gel that was smeared on the handle of the Skripals' house was presumably transported in some device or syringe," he said. "I think the working assumption now is that device or that syringe is what has appeared and the residue caused these two people to become ill."

British officials say they believe the nerve agent was smeared on Skripal's door, but have not explained how that was done. They had a timeline of the Skripals' movements in Salisbury as they became ill, and spent millions of pounds cleaning those known sites. But they have not explained how they can, or cannot, track the nerve agent through an area.

Britain blames Russia for the Skripals' poisoning. Moscow denies involvement.

British Home Secretary Sajid Javid told Parliament on Thursday that it is now time for Russia to explain "exactly what has gone on."

"It is completely unacceptable for our people to be either deliberate or accidental targets, or for our streets, our parks, our towns to be dumping grounds for poison," Javid said.

The new case has surfaced days before a NATO summit that is expected to address the worsening relations between Russia and the West. It also comes as Russia hosts the World Cup — a monthlong global extravaganza in which both the English and Russian soccer teams have advanced so far.

The Kremlin's spokesman says Russia is concerned about the case but had nothing to do with either poisoning.

"Russia has categorically denied and continues to categorically deny the possibility of any kind of involvement to what was happening there," President Vladimir Putin's spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, told reporters Thursday.

Peskov noted that Britain rejected Russia's offer of a joint probe of the Skripal case, adding that the U.K. "has not presented any evidence of Russia's involvement in this, besides unfounded accusations."

Britain has said the type of nerve agent used in the Skripal attack was developed by the Soviet Union and could only have been produced by a state agency. British Prime Minister Theresa May gave Russia a deadline to explain how Novichok could have been used in Britain, and when the Kremlin failed to respond the government said it had no option but to believe the Russian state was involved in the attack.

Javid said Thursday the nerve agent involved in the current case was the same variety as that used against Skripal and his daughter, but it's not clear whether the two samples came from the same batch.

"What we are clear on ... is that this is the exact same nerve agent from the Novichok family," he said. "We cannot attribute this to the same batch at this point. Scientists will be looking into that. I am also told that may not even be possible."

Local police declared the recent poisoning a "major incident" Wednesday, four days after Sturgess and Rowley were found at a residential building in Amesbury. Authorities initially thought the two had taken a contaminated batch of heroin or crack cocaine.

Police cordoned off a home in Amesbury, believed to be Rowley's, and other places the pair visited, including a church, a pharmacy and a park in Salisbury near where the Skripals were found.

The Skripals' illness initially baffled doctors after they were found unconscious on a park bench in Salisbury in March. Scientists at Britain's Porton Down chemical weapons laboratory concluded they had been poisoned with Novichok.

Andrea Sella, professor of inorganic chemistry at University College London, said Novichok nerve agents "are designed to be quite persistent — they hang around in the environment, neither evaporating or decomposing quickly.

"That means that if a container or a surface was contaminated with this material, it would remain a danger for a long time. And it will be vital to trace the movements of this couple to identify where they might have come into contact with the source," he said. "So while the public at large are at very low risk from this material, until the source is found there is a remote chance that someone else might come into contact with it."

Sturgess and Rowley are in critical condition, Miller said. The Skripals were at the same hospital for three months and have been out for a month.

“The daughter apparently is in much better shape than her father, but they’re in a safe house somewhere,” Miller said. “They cannot go back to their home. Their home has been condemned. It’s been taken over by the British government. And they also don’t want the Russians to know where this couple might be staying now.”

Ben Wallace, Britain's security minister, said the Russians should come forward and tell British authorities what they know about the Novichok poisonings.

"I'm waiting for the phone call from the Russian state," he said. "The offer is there. They are the ones who could fill in all the clues to keep people safe."

(© 2018 WCBS 880. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)