3 Jun 2024

Stephen Davis investigates a cold case whodunnit

From King's Birthday Morning with Paddy, 10:30 am on 3 June 2024
Investigative journalist Stephen Davis.

Investigative journalist Stephen Davis. Photo: SUPPLIED

It's been 24 years since Australian astrophysicist Rodney Marks died in mysterious circumstances in Antarctica. 

The death, during the cold, dark, winter months was treated as a suspected suicide - a theory disputed by those who knew him well. 

Despite years of painstaking work, every attempt by New Zealand Police to investigate what happened on the south pole base were blocked by American authorities. 

In his cold case deep-dive into what happened to the 32-year-old, journalist Stephen Davis told RNZ he believed he has identified people with the means, motive, and opportunity for murder.

"[Rodney Marks] was extremely bright ... he was one of these people who was always very interested in the South Pole.

"He was a hard drinker, he was very popular, he loved his music."

He had met the woman who he was going to marry and he was very happy, said Davis.

But in the space of 30 odd hours, he got seriously ill and died at the US-run Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station on 12 May, 2000.

Marks initially complained about nausea to the doctor, but his condition got progressively worse, said Davis.

"He deteriorated incredibly rapidly, tests that should have been done to find out what was wrong with him, were not done and eventually he simply died in stunning fashion.

"So from a happy, healthy scientist to dead in a day and a half."

'Somebody has to give a damn' - New Zealand authorities investigate

Seal sleeps on ice floe in front of the Ross Ice Shelf

(File image). Photo: Lana Young

Most people go to Antarctica in the summer, when the sun never fully sets. In winter, there was six months of complete darkness, cold and isolation.

"When you're at the South Pole for winter, you're stuck there, there's no way out," said Davis.

"Whatever happens, rescue missions are virtually impossible and you're there with a small group of people in an contained environment and strange things can happen."

Marks' cause of death was unknown and so his body remained frozen until he was shipped back to Christchurch.

There is a significant US presence at Christchurch as it is used as a base for missions to Antarctica.

The US authorities had no interest in investigating Marks' death, but New Zealand Coroner Richard McElrea and Detective Senior Sergeant Grant Wormald took an interest.

"[Wormald] said ... 'Somebody has to give a damn'," said Davis.

Upon further investigation by New Zealand authorities, it was found that Marks had died of methanol poisoning, a substance used to clean telescopes.

A number of theories circulated, but Davis said, after years of careful and meticulous research, he believed the most likely explanation was that there had been foul play.

"Our investigation clearly shows that there are two people who are still around, who have what the police call means, motive and opportunity," he said.

"In any normal investigation, those two people would have been in a detective's interview room in Christchurch being grilled. 

"But because of the unique circumstances and because of the efforts of the US authorities of covering this up, neither has ever been interviewed."

The land of no laws

Antarctica was unique in that no country technically owns any of the land, rather there was an Antarctic Treaty by nations who operated scientific research there.

Due to that, there was no police force, said Davis.

"The Antarctic authorities want your image of Antarctica to be this pristine image of pure science and people just doing amazing things, which of course they also do, and nothing bad happening."

There have been emerging allegations of sexual misconduct against women at the South Pole in recent years, but it was by no means a recent development, said Davis.

"Somebody had written twenty, thirty years ago about the predatory environment and she actually said, 'It was better to hook-up with one man at the start of winter, even if you didn't really fancy him, just to keep all the other blokes away'."

As for Marks though, Davis said he was not giving up trying to find out the truth.

"There are other avenues to be explored, there are other people to talk to. I spend years chasing stories and I'm pretty stubborn, I like to get to the end."