Police investigating the latest suspected poisoning incident in Salisbury are reportedly exploring the possibility it could be a bizarre hoax.
Panic returned briefly to the Wiltshire town, already on high alert, after a man appeared to fall ill in a branch of mid-market Italian restaurant Prezzo at 6.45pm on Sunday.
Alex King, 42, and his wife, Anna Shapiro, 30, were admitted to Salisbury distrcit hospital but discharged yesterday, having tested negative for poisons, including Novichok.
Shapiro, a model, appeared in The Sun newspaper claiming that Moscow was responsible for poisoning them. In true Sun style, the article featured a number of pictures of her posing – to use tabloid vernacular – “scantily clad”.
So far, so intriguing. But this morning when you click on The Sun article, you get a blank screen and an error message: “statusCode:451, error: Unavailable For Legal Reasons, message: Legally removed article”
Last night the tabloid released a statement distancing itself from the story.
“Like any newspaper, we were keen to talk to those at the centre of the incident and in this case chose to give Ms Shapiro the opportunity to share with the public her version of events,” a Sun spokesperson told the Guardian.
“Given recent tragic events in Salisbury, the reporting of an event requiring the evacuation of bars and restaurants … and that requires tests for the presence of novichok, is of obvious public interest,” they added.
So what do we actually know about what happened?
Wiltshire Police confirmed on Sunday that it had been alerted to the incident and appealed for witnesses.
“Anyone with information should call 101 and quote long number 271 of 16 September,” the force posted on Twitter.
The restaurant was cordoned off while investigations were carried out. The police have now removed the cordon.
Police sources have now reportedly told the BBC that a hoax is likely to be one line of inquiry, but added nothing could be ruled out until King had been spoken to.
Emergency services initially said the man and woman had symptoms “consistent with Novichok poisoning” but this has now been eliminated as the cause.
“The ambulance crew at the site took the decision that the symptoms seemed consistent with Novichok poisoning which is why they called their colleagues in the police,” a source briefed by the emergency services said.
It has subsequently emerged that Mr King was involved in a prank on the Prince of Wales at a film premiere in 2006, making his way into a line-up of celebrities greeting the royal.
At the time he said it was part of a £100,000 bet with his employer, Edward Davenport – a convicted fraudster.
In 2004, he pleaded guilty to three counts of distributing indecent photographs or pseudo-photographs of children at London’s Horseferry Road Magistrates’ Court.
And what of Shapiro, his wife? The Israeli citizen of Russian heritage claimed in the now-removed Sun article that Moscow is responsible for their ‘poisoning’.
Recalling how Sunday’s events unfolded, she claimed she went to look for her husband in the toilets of Prezzo restaurant and to then find him “foaming at the mouth”.
She later felt unwell, she claimed.
Wiltshire Police told HuffPost UK that they do not believe the incident is suspicious and enquiries are ongoing.
It seems this latest twist in the Salisbury story is mystery, but of a very different kind.