1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites

Who was the Cold War 'umbrella assassin?'

Christopher Nehring
March 21, 2023

A new Danish documentary sheds some light on the shadowy figure of Francesco Gullino, alias "Agent Piccadilly," the prime suspect in the 1978 murder of Bulgarian dissident Georgi Markov in London.

Two black-and-white photos of Georgi Markov (left) attached by paperclips to a faded color photograph of Francesco Gullino (right)
Francesco Gullino (right) is the prime suspect in the murder of the Bulgarian writer and dissident Georgi Markov (left)Image: Ulrik Skotte

Ever since Bulgarian journalist Hristo Hristov successfully sued for the release of the intelligence file on Francesco Gullino in 2007, the world has known that Gullino, an Italian-born Danish citizen, began working for the Bulgarian secret service in 1971.

To this day, Gullino is considered the main suspect in the so-called "umbrella assassination" case: the murder of the Bulgarian writer and dissident Georgi Markov in London in 1978.

Markov was poisoned, probably with ricin, after being injected with a poisoned pellet when stabbed in the leg with the tip of a specially adapted umbrella at a bus stop in London.

Francesco Gullino during an interview with Ulrik Skotte, Wels, Austria, summer 2021
Danish journalist Ulrik Skotte and his team interviewed Francesco Gullino, alias 'Agent Piccadilly' (pictured here) in the Austrian city of Wels in 2021Image: Ulrik Skotte

A new Danish TV documentary by journalist Ulrik Skotte has uncovered some incredible details about the life of Gullino, who appears to have been a multiple murder suspect, sexually deviant fascist and notorious swindler.

Recruited by the Bulgarian secret service

Gullino's career as an agent began in 1970 when he was arrested in Bulgaria for smuggling and illegally trading in used cars. A short time later, he was recruited by the Bulgarian secret service and given the codename "Piccadilly."

In 1978, a lavish dinner was laid on in his honor by senior members of the Bulgarian secret service, which dispatched him to London around the time of Markov's murder. All documents about the period that followed were removed from the Piccadilly file in 1990 and destroyed.

The spy chief at the time of the murder, Vladimir Todorov, was convicted in 1992 of destroying documents on the case. His superior and co-conspirator Deputy Interior Minister General Stoyan Savov committed suicide in order to avoid trial.

The communist spy with fascist sympathies

But what the Bulgarian secret service didn't know and what Skotte's documentary reveals is that Gullino was a fascist all his life. The Danish journalist has in his possession Gullino's copy of Hitler's "Mein Kampf" and a calendar with pictures of Mussolini.

Photo of a model wrapped in a Nazi flag, taken by Francesco Gullino in the 1980s (photo provided by Ulrik Skotte)
Ulrik Skotte and his team unearthed over 100 images taken by Francesco Gullino, such as this one showing a woman posing with a Nazi flagImage: Francesco Gullino

Gullino's unsavory political leanings also played a role in his sexual deviance. As a child, he spent several years living with an aunt in Italy who ran a brothel. Apparently shaped by this experience, he sought the company of prostitutes throughout his life.

Gullino's third life: pornographer

He paid some of these prostitutes to wrap themselves in Nazi flags during sex or to pose in fascist uniforms. For these and other pornographic images, Gullino rented a photo studio and hired a secretary. He posed as a photographer and model agent and demanded pornographic photos or sexual favors in return for modeling jobs.

The Danish documentary team unearthed over 100 of these images. Skotte told DW that in his eyes, Gullino's marked sexual preferences were his "third life" alongside his outwardly respectable existence and his work as a secret agent.

Was Gullino involved in another murder?

Skotte's documentary reveals for the first time that Gullino's predilection for prostitutes has made him a suspect in another murder case, namely that of prostitute Hanne With, who was murdered in Copenhagen on New Year's Eve 1989. With had a photo of herself on a horse on her bedside table. On the back she had written "Riding with Gullino."

Ulrik Skotte (left) showing Christopher Nehring documents in the archive of the Bulgarian secret service, June 2021
Danish journalist Ulrik Skotte (left) with author Christopher Nehring in the archive of the Bulgarian secret service in June 2021

When questioned by the police, Gullino said that he had been at a party at the time of her death, which according to Danish police files was confirmed by telephone by the party guests named by Gullino.

However, when asked on camera for the documentary, every one of these guests said that they neither spent the evening with Gullino nor had they ever been questioned by police. Even the Danish police cannot explain how Gullino's obviously faked alibi came about. 

Tricks, lies and evasive answers

In February 1993, Gullino was interrogated by the Danish secret service, PET, and Scotland Yard. The investigators had received the purged "Piccadilly" file from Bulgaria and were questioning Gullino about Markov's murder.

During the interrogation, Gullino twisted and turned and gave evasive answers; at times saying nothing or himself asking questions. He had learned how to behave during an interrogation from the Bulgarian secret service in the 1970s when he had received special training as an agent. The rest can be put down to his natural talent at putting up smoke screens.

Bulgarian writer and dissident Georgi Markov
In one of the most audacious killings of the Cold War, Georgi Markov was killed after being injected with a poison-filled pellet using an umbrella at a bus stop in London in 1978Image: picture-alliance/dpa/epa/Stringer

He claimed that the "Piccadilly" file was a fake and said he could not explain the counterfeit passports it contained. He admitted that he had been in London in 1978, but said he neither knew Markov nor had murdered him.

What does the Danish secret service know?

Due to a lack of evidence conclusively linking him to the umbrella murder, the investigators had to let him go. According to Skotte, however, this was only half the truth.

Skotte has seen information that indicates Gullino handed over important information to the PET. He is still trying to find out exactly what that information was. In return, Gullino was apparently allowed to leave Denmark for Austria, where he drew his Danish pension from the consulate.

New source of information

But where did this new information come from? The morning after Gullino had been interrogated about the Markov murder in 1993, he turned up on the doorstep of a friend in Copenhagen, journalist and director Franco Invernizzi. Gullino was agitated.

In the months that followed, his company went bankrupt and Gullino moved in with his friend. During that time, he told Invernizzi his life story and gave him documents, notebooks and photos, allegedly for a film that Invernizzi was to make about Gullino and the "true story of the Markov murder." Six months later, Gullino left Denmark.

The objects Gullino gave Invernizzi — whose wife appears in the documentary — were the basis for the new film. Skotte and his team interviewed Gullino in the Austrian city of Wels in 2021.

Gullino, the chameleon

So, who was Francesco Gullino? A sexually deviant fascist? An art dealer? A secret agent? A multiple murder suspect? A notorious swindler and liar? Gullino was capable of being everything and everyone, had friends everywhere, had an appropriate story for everyone and an answer to every question, no matter how probing.

As this recently unearthed material shows, it is not possible to find the real Francesco Gullino beneath the decades of stories, lies and half-truths. Maybe there never was one real Francesco Gullino.

As far as Ulrik Skotte is concerned, Gullino was above all a chameleon, which in turn made him the ideal secret agent.

Gullino died alone at home in the summer of 2021. His corpse was found a week after his death. He was cremated and given an anonymous burial. Skotte says that just before he died, Gullino called the Danish film crew one more time. All they could hear at the other end of the line was a wheezing, rasping sound.

This article was originally published in German.