Bottom of the World: The Dome at the Amundsen-Scott base, where Aussie scientist Rodney Marks died in 2000.
Credit: Brien Barnett / National Science Foundation

"Murder at the South Pole" is the kind of headline that newspapers can't resist. Shortly after the pathology report was released, Wormald made a short, simple statement about what he and the coroner knew so far. Like any good detective, he wasn't prepared to rule anything out so early in the investigation, including homicide, and the media pounced.

"Common sense told us there were only four possibilities as to how Rodney came to ingest the methanol," Wormald explains. "One, that he drank it willingly and knowingly with the intention of getting a high; two, that he took it to end his life; three, that he took it accidentally; and finally, that someone had spiked his drink, possibly as a prank or even knowing that it would either make him very ill or kill him."

Considering what Marks had going for him when he died – a fiancée, a sterling reputation among his colleagues, and a bright future – suicide was ruled out almost immediately. And for those who knew Marks, it was equally inconceivable that one of his fellow Polies would intentionally do him any harm. "I never noticed anyone acting differently afterward," says telescope mechanic Davidson. "And I can't think of anyone who would have disliked Rodney that much or had anything against him, or even had anything to gain by it." It was looking more and more likely that someone had simply made a tragic mistake, but who, and how?

Wormald would eventually learn that Marks's work space was notoriously messy; bottles of lab agents like methanol and ethanol were often strewn about alongside a dozen or so empty bottles of alcohol. The methanol used at the South Pole is similar to a car's windshield-wiper fluid, while the less toxic ethanol, a common ingredient in the base's homemade moonshine, is more like rubbing alcohol. Both are colorless and nearly as odorless as vodka and almost indistinguishable from one another in taste. Mistaking the two was certainly a possibility, especially by someone under the influence of alcohol.

But it's unlikely that person would have been Marks. He certainly knew how lethal it was and that ingesting even a small amount could be fatal.

"I've gone over it many times in my mind," says Davidson. "He was too smart to drink it knowingly. If anything, maybe someone else didn't know the difference between methanol and ethanol and put the wrong thing in his drink, saying, 'Here, drink this. It'll give you a good buzz.' I always come back to the idea he was slipped it, and maybe the person didn't even know it." Wormald agrees: "Rodney was lucid for 36 hours before he died. If he had known what was ailing him, he would have told somebody."

Given the contained nature of the incident and the fact that he had a finite list of witnesses, Wormald was feeling optimistic about his investigation. But then he hit a brick wall with the NSF.

In 2002, Wormald made a formal request for the contact information of the 2000 winter crew along with any other facts the NSF had gathered during its own investigation. He got no immediate response. (Eventually, the NSF declined, citing privacy concerns.) He requested the results of lab tests done on what little evidence was collected in Marks's room and work area. Nothing.

He was puzzled by the lack of cooperation but had no authority to compel the NSF to comply. "Had there been evidence of a criminal act, things would have been very different," he says. "The FBI would have been flown in, maybe even the Australian police." But although Wormald hadn't ruled out manslaughter or even homicide, he simply didn't have enough evidence of foul play to justify classifying the case as such. Wormald's investigation came to a near standstill as almost every request he made was met with silence.

Even before Marks's death, the NSF was under pressure to update its outmoded base. It knew it had issues with drinking among its Polies. Now, with news of an inoperable Ektachem machine and the fact that a wood-alcohol-based chemical killed Marks, it had a potential PR crisis on its hands. The organization seemed to be in lockdown.

Over the next four years, Wormald persisted with his own investigation as the NSF and Raytheon drip-fed him information, including the fact that the moonshine tested negative for methanol. But little else shed new light on the case. The NSF also never announced the results of its own investigation, effectively absolving itself of any culpability in the matter. The agency appeared ready to move on.

But Wormald wasn't. "I'd like to think that if my children went to work down there and something went wrong, someone would be responsible for finding out what happened," he says. "I know Rodney's family wants to know why the machinery that would have diagnosed his illness wasn't working and whether anyone will actually be held accountable – whether anyone even gives a shit. Someone should be required to give a damn."

Finally, in 2005, the NSF agreed to forward questionnaires to the remaining 49 members of the 2000 winter crew on Wormald's behalf. He got just 13 back and remains convinced that the pressure of losing future employment was simply too great for the rest of the crew. But Polies are also notoriously transient and hard to track down. Also, they were as eager as the NSF to put the incident behind them, accepting it as a freak, tragic mistake. Even those closest to Marks, including his fiancée, Sonja, decided early on that to keep chasing answers was to degrade the memory of their friend.

In September of last year the official findings from the coroner, based largely on Wormald's investigation, were finally released. The 50-page report is little more than a neatly packaged catalog of theories and speculation, concluding that "Rodney David Marks died as a result of acute methanol poisoning, probably occurring one or two days earlier, he being either unaware of the overdose or not understanding the possible complications of it."

But buried in that report is a detail that has gone largely overlooked throughout the investigation – a detail that points to what may be the most compelling theory yet as to how Rodney Marks was poisoned.

The revelation is made in a section of testimony by Harry Mahar, South Pole health and safety officer at the time. Mahar mentioned to investigators "an unusual-shaped bottle of liquor" he'd heard that Marks had brought back to base from an R&R trip to New Zealand just before the start of winter.

Schneider remembers the bottle too, and says it was among several empty ones found behind Marks's computer after his death. He recalls it had an exotic-looking black-and-white label with writing in Portuguese or a similar language and a picture of a shrimp. He believes it was thrown away with the other bottles.

One Polie who remembers the bottle but wishes to remain anonymous says that as soon as he learned Marks had been poisoned, it hit him that this bottle could have played a role. He had a theory, and he shared it at the time with a fellow crew member and investigators, but it was roundly dismissed as wild speculation. The Polie explained it in an e-mail to 'Men's Journal':

In certain parts of the world, he wrote, "people are aware of the dangers of tainted alcohol from places like Southeast Asia. There are regular warnings for travelers." He included a link to a Lonely Planet travel forum from this June: "Deadly Brew Kills Foreigners in Bali" was the headline. That, in turn, linked to a report of 23 people dying after drinking a local palm liquor that had been spiked with methanol to increase its potency.

Turns out, every year there are hundreds of similar cases, everywhere from Southeast Asia to Africa to the Himalayas. Just last May, an almost identical story made its way out of Everest base camp when a popular Sherpa died after drinking methanol-tainted whiskey. The World Health Organization reports as many as 300 deaths per year relating to the "lack of quality controls, especially in the preparation of illicit liquor." All of these deaths are the result of acute methanol poisoning.

Detective Wormald says the bottle was "not ruled out as a possible source." He even asked about it on the questionnaire he sent out to crew members – a handful of Polies acknowledged its existence in their responses – but he says "no identification of source [of the bottle] was made."

The anonymous Polie is quick to admit that even he feels that his theory is "out there," but that it was essentially the only wild card he could think of. He still doesn't understand why it wasn't pursued more vigorously, even if just to rule it out. He went as far as forwarding to investigators the names and contact information of some of Marks's friends back home who he thought might be able to help pinpoint the bottle's origin. "I felt like I was being accused of making stuff up," he explains. "I don't think they followed up with any of the individuals I suggested. I was essentially told to forget about it."

And so he did. But if he's right about his theory, it points to a great potential irony: that not one drop of the methanol that killed Marks came from the gallons of it that surrounded him at Amundsen-Scott.

Had that one bottle made it off the ice in one piece and been tested, or even if investigators were able to determine where it had come from, we might know for sure how Rodney Marks died.