May 10, 2013 4:13 pm

Singapore inquiry prepares to open into Shane Todd’s death

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Was it murder, or was it suicide? In June last year, a young US engineer, Shane Todd, was found dead in his apartment in Singapore.

What could have been a private tragedy has turned in the intervening months into a public spectacle, involving the highest levels of the governments of the US and this tiny southeast Asian nation, a place long known for its ultra-low crime rate and orderly streets.

A coroner’s inquiry opens in Singapore next week that aims to establish whether Mr Todd took his own life or if his death was the result of something more sinister, related to his sensitive job at a top technology institute. An autopsy report submitted by the Singapore police ruled the death to be “asphyxia by hanging”.

At the time of his death Mr Todd, 31, headed a team at the Institute of Microelectronics, a Singapore government research agency, working on the development of gallium nitride, a substance with both commercial and military uses. He was found hanging from the bathroom door in his apartment in June, two days after he had left his job at IME with plans to return to the US.

His parents are not convinced he took his own life, and have been unhappy with the Singapore police investigation. They believe the police too quickly considered their son’s death to be suicide.

The case took on a sensitive political dimension after a Financial Times investigation revealed that IME had discussed a research project with Huawei, the Chinese telecoms group, on gallium nitride. Huawei and IME have said the project did not go ahead.

The Singapore government says the police have handled the case properly and that Mr Todd’s death will be the subject of an open coronial inquiry in accordance with the city-state’s laws. That inquiry will now take place, and is expected to last over 10 days. It will be presided over by a judge, who will hear evidence from dozens of witnesses, including pathologists and people who the Todd family have asked to appear.

A verdict will not come for three to four weeks after the inquiry has finished. No appeal will be allowed once a ruling has been made.

Meanwhile, although the police are adhering to their initial determination that he committed suicide, they now have a different scenario for how he did so, according to a person who has spoken with the police.

Their latest version is that Mr Todd, 6ft tall and nearly 200 pounds in weight, fashioned a noose from a computer bag strap, hung it over his bathroom door, closed and locked the door. He put the noose around his neck, stood on a chair and jumped off.

This theory differs from what the police originally told Mr and Mrs Todd. In a meeting with the Todds in June, police said their son had drilled holes in the bathroom wall, affixed bolts, wrapped the strap through a pulley and over the door.

The Todds’ lawyers plan to stage a re-enactment of how they believe he was murdered, the Todds said in an interview.

Early last year, Shane told his parents in telephone conversations that he feared he had compromised American security in meetings with a Chinese company, which he did not name, and that he might be killed. Documents found on Mr Todd’s computer after his death contained references to a project between the institute and Huawei – a company which has been declared a security risk by several countries, including the US and Australia.

Among the evidence to be presented at the inquest is a tiny Post-it note found in Shane’s apartment. “Please don’t come in. Please call the police.” A police handwriting expert has said it was Shane’s handwriting. The Todds plan to challenge that at the inquest.

Several of Mr Todd’s work colleagues and friends have been called to testify, including a man who lived just down the hall from him in the second floor apartment. About a month before Mr Todd was found dead, the friend, Michael Goodwin, had had a beer with him in Mr Todd’s apartment, Mr Goodwin said in an interview. Mr Goodwin described Shane, who had a doctorate in electrical and computer engineering, as “absolutely brilliant”.

Mr Goodwin said Mr Todd told him he felt that he was not capable of what was being asked of him at IME, that he was put in charge of men who were older and more experienced. He said that he had recently dropped a wafer – used in gallium nitride research – worth $10,000.

Mr Goodwin said Shane also looked like he had recently lost weight. “He felt terrible. It was weighing on him,” he said.

The Singapore Police Force has sent a letter in response to this article.

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