A Cold Case: Antarctica’s Unsolved Murder Investigation

By Rachel Puryear, Semi-Retired Attorney, Legal Geek, Realtor with Berkshire Hathaway (DRE 02099554)

One of my bucket list items – on a long list of bucket list travel items – is to visit Antarctica. I want to see penguins and polar bears, and the glaciers (what’s left of them) against the glow of 18-hour+ sunlight. Few people are lucky enough to ever see the icy, subzero continent, capping the bottom of the Earth, in their lifetimes.

Antarctica ice arch, with cloudy mountain visible behind it, and a small boat sailing past.
Paradise Bay in Antarctica, with a snowy mountain reflecting in the water, and several ice chunks floating in the water.
Kneeling man face to face with a penguin on the snow, with several other penguins in the background.
Sky glowing red over Antarctic waters, with several ice chunks floating in the water, and the waters also reflecting red.
Image of Antarctica from space, with some mapping on the continent and surrounding oceans, as well as indications of latitude and longitude.

Around this time of year, I often think of travelling South, where their days are as long as our nights in the Northern part of the globe. So, Antarctica recently came to mind, and in googling it, I found a story about an unsolved suspected murder that happened there, and the jurisdictional challenges that arose for New Zealand officials in investigating it.

Jurisdiction is one of those things in law that for the most part gets taken for granted – until it becomes an issue. (Jurisdiction basically means, which court/municipality/region has the right to make and enforce laws over a place or an activity.)

In May 2000, Australian astrophysicist Dr. Rodney Marks mysteriously passed away at age 32 while working at Antarctica’s Amundsen-Scott South Pole Research Station, after he suddenly became violently ill. As it was winter at this time and location, several months passed before a plane could be brought in to collect Dr. Marks’ body. Eventually, his remains were flown to forensic pathologist Dr. Martin Sage in Christchurch, New Zealand, for an autopsy. Dr. Sage found that Dr. Marks had ingested a fatal dose of methanol, which had caused his death, and which Dr. Marks could have easily ingested unknowingly. No one close to Dr. Marks believed that he had taken his own life, or that he had experimented with methanol (which can be used in smaller doses to get high) and overdosed – his known relaxant of choice was alcohol, which he had easy access to. Therefore, the most likely possibilities appeared to be that either Dr. Marks had somehow unknowingly and accidentally ingested the methanol (perhaps a bad batch of alcohol); or more disturbingly, that someone had intentionally poisoned him.

The Christchurch coroner and New Zealand police launched an investigation into the matter, which lasted several years. According to the New Zealand police conducting the investigation; the National Science Foundation (NSF, which runs the Amundsen-Scott Station) and Dr. Marks’ colleagues were less than cooperative in the investigation. The NSF denied such, and claimed that they did everything they could to cooperate. Today, the matter still remains unresolved. The frustration of the investigation and the following lack of resolution may be at least partially because of difficulties for law enforcement officials posed by jurisdictional issues over Antarctica. More about the story from Mental Floss here.

Per the Antarctic Treaty, no nation has general jurisdiction over Antarctica. However, normally crimes would be investigated by the nation whose citizens were involved, or which occurred on their claimed territory, bases, or stations. (Note that even claimed territories are not officially recognized.) But where there is no clear suspect or perpetrator, no clear answer yet exists for the world in terms of how to handle such a situation. No one has ever been charged in Marks’ death.

Thank you for reading and following, and stay safe and healthy out there!