Saturday, April 6, 2024

"Questions About a Fatal Fall Tear Apart a Storied British Family"

From the Wall Street Journal, March 30:

The death of Vice Admiral Robert Walmsley led to a 19-month saga that pitted his children, including the CEO of GlaxoSmithKline, against their stepmother

The night before he died, Robert Walmsley and his wife, Alexandra, enjoyed lobster and seared tuna at his favorite restaurant on Cape Cod, where they were spending the summer away from their London home.

Robert, a spry 81-year-old who was a vice admiral in the British navy and later helped reshape the country’s military after the Cold War, had played 18 holes of golf that day, and he planned to do the same the next day. He didn’t walk, he “bounded,” Alexandra later said of her husband, describing him as “fizzing with energy.” Three decades older than his second wife, he once promised her he would live to 100.

They were happy, she said. But friends of the couple said their relationship had never been embraced by his children from a previous marriage—one of whom is Emma Walmsley, CEO of pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline.

Back at their rental home in East Dennis, Mass., Robert poured himself a glass of red wine and sat on the floor, resting his head on his wife’s lap. He said he was sad to have to leave Cape Cod early that year, two weeks before Alexandra, to look after his new puppy. The two went to bed at 11 p.m., she said.

The next morning, Aug. 4, 2022, Alexandra Walmsley called 911 to report that she had found her husband’s body at the bottom of the basement staircase.
“My husband seems to have fallen down a flight of stairs,” Alexandra said, according to a recording of the call. “There’s blood everywhere.”

What began that morning as a seemingly straightforward case of an elderly man’s fatal fall in a summer town in Massachusetts has turned into something far stranger: a 19-month trans-Atlantic saga that has pitted his children against their stepmother.

The family fissures spilled into public view on March 4 at a coroner’s inquest in London. A lawyer who represented Robert’s youngest son, James Walmsley, at the hearing raised questions about the veracity of the account Alexandra gave the Massachusetts police. A British pathologist hired by James said in a report that he couldn’t rule out that what caused the fatal plunge was “a simple shove by a third party.”

By the time Alexandra was interrogated under oath, her relationship with the children had become so toxic that the coroner’s office erected screens to prevent eye contact between James and her.

The lawyer for James said he and his sisters wanted to ensure that all questions about his father’s death were explored and relevant facts established, but that he wasn’t making specific allegations.

Alexandra complained in a LinkedIn post after the inquest of “repeated and vexatious insinuations” that her husband’s death might be suspicious, culminating in “a cruel and unwarranted interrogation.”

Storied family
The family conflict marks a bitter chapter in the storied history of the Walmsleys. Robert’s father and uncle had been celebrated anatomists and academics, and his grandfather, an officer in the Royal Indian Navy. In 2020, his daughter Emma, the pharmaceutical executive, was appointed a dame commander by Queen Elizabeth II, joining her father on the list of Walmsleys with a bestowed title.

Robert Walmsley “dedicated his life to protecting all of us,” the coroner noted at the U.K. inquest. Walmsley, he said, left “an enormous legacy, of which all of his family can rightly feel extremely proud.”

Robert, born in Scotland, was a nuclear engineer who in the 1990s became a vice admiral of the Royal Navy. Later, he was Britain’s longest serving head of procurement for its armed forces. In 2004, he was appointed to the board of General Dynamics
When Robert first met Alexandra, in 2002, he was 61—30 years her senior—and still married to his first wife.
Alexandra worked at the time for a boutique consulting firm in the defense sector, where she advised companies on winning government contracts. She was a specialist on Eastern European warfare and was regularly quoted in news outlets including The Wall Street Journal.

In 2006, a gossip column in the tabloid Daily Mail reported that someone had festooned lampposts and trees near Robert’s home with pink fliers accusing him of being a philanderer. “Absolute madness,” Robert was quoted as saying at the time. “I’ve no idea who put them up. They certainly have nothing to do with me.” The culprit was never identified.

In 2009, Robert and his wife, Christina, ended their marriage after 42 years. He and Alexandra married a few months later in a small ceremony. By many accounts, his children weren’t happy about it.

Emma, 54, is his eldest. In 2017, she became the first female chief executive of a major pharmaceutical firm and one of the few female CEOs on the FTSE 100. His younger daughter, Victoria Walmsley, 52, works as a mental-health counselor in London. His youngest, James, 47, is a prominent U.K. barrister. 

Alexandra’s lawyer, Peter Skelton, said at the London inquest that James, aside from a few brief encounters, never directly engaged with his stepmother, hadn’t invited his father to his wedding or his daughters’ christenings, and hadn’t visited him in hospital after he had major surgery in 2015. Skelton said James’s “estrangement” from his father and “antipathy” toward his stepmother had been a “source of immense sadness” to Robert and Alexandra.

James’s lawyer dismissed Skelton’s comments as “highly contentious,” noting that he wasn’t given notice that “the wider contested family dynamics” would be raised during the hearing.

Death scene
On the morning of Robert’s death, Alexandra told authorities, she awoke at about 5:30 to find that her husband wasn’t in bed. She assumed he had moved to the second bedroom, as he often would do if her snoring was bothering him.
She had 30 minutes to get ready before a meeting with clients in London. She changed into a blouse, but because it was a Zoom call, she wore shorts.

She logged off the call at around 6:35 a.m., she said, and went looking for her husband. They were set to meet friends at 7 for coffee and doughnuts, a daily tradition. She started upstairs in the spare bedroom. The bed was untouched.

She checked the upstairs bathroom, then the outside shower, then the garbage area, the spare room on the ground floor and then the garage. She re-entered the house through the kitchen and noticed that the basement door, always kept closed, was open. She told police later that she hadn’t initially thought to look there.

Looking down the stairs, she saw her husband lying facedown on the basement floor, she said, his arms crossed under his body.

Her 911 call brought local and state police. A state toxicology report showed his blood-alcohol level was 0.04%, well under the legal limit for drivers in Massachusetts, and there were no illicit drugs in his system. There was no evidence of a stroke, heart attack, pulmonary embolism or anything else to suggest a medical problem led him to collapse....