The saga of the Salisbury nerve agent poisonings is long, twisty and dark, but when the book or film comes out, the story of the Russian lingerie model, the rat poison and the Italian restaurant may emerge as one of the more bizarre subplots.
At the centre is Anna Shapiro, a Russian-born model who has claimed that she and her husband, Alex King, were targeted by Moscow at the weekend a few metres from the bench where the former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter, Yulia, collapsed after being poisoned with the nerve agent novichok.
On the fringes of this is Edward Davenport, nicknamed “Fast Eddy”, a man famed for throwing risqué parties at a central London mansion frequented by rock gods and movie stars – and for being jailed for fraud.
Trying to get to the bottom of it all is the Wiltshire police force, a restaurant chain that stated it did not use the rat poison strychnine at its Salisbury branch, and the good people of the city who could really do without more talk of Russian spies and poisonings.
The tale began to unravel on Wednesday when police sources suggested that one line of inquiry could be that a hoax had taken place. The Sun, which published Shapiro’s claims, put out a statement distancing itself from her. Its original story about her claims is currently unavailable on the Sun’s website “for legal reasons”.
A Sun spokesperson said: “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.”
The spokesperson added: “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.”
Was she paid for her story? The spokesperson said such information would not be released.
Back to the verifiable facts. A major incident was declared on Sunday evening in Salisbury after two people apparently fell ill at the Prezzo restaurant on the High Street. Streets were sealed off and experts in protective clothing rushed in to help. Police quickly downgraded the incident and made it clear that novichok was not involved but two people, a 42-year-old man and 30-year-old woman, were taken to hospital.
The story may have faded – there have been other false alarms since the Skripal attack in March – but one witness revealed that she had been sitting next to the woman, whom she described as a “beautiful blonde girl”, a Russian. Reporters’ ears pricked up.
On Tuesday evening Wiltshire police put out a statement saying they did not believe a crime had been committed, while admitting they had not yet established exactly what had happened. But they made it clear they were not linking the Prezzo incident to the poisonings of the Skripals and the Salisbury couple Charlie Rowley and Dawn Sturgess, all of which have been blamed on Moscow.
And then the next day the Sun hit the newsstands with a front page story in which Shapiro claimed she and her husband were the couple who had fallen ill in Prezzo in Salisbury and had been targeted by the Russians. She claimed her father was a Russian general and she had angered Moscow by turning her back on her homeland. Besides which, they thought she was a spy.
The Sun suggested that King was fighting for his life and strychnine – rat poison – might have been to blame.
On Wednesday afternoon, however, Salisbury district hospital confirmed both patients had been discharged. A spokeswoman: “Both patients are now medically fit and there is no need for them to be in hospital.”
Whether it all turns out to be a hoax or not, one thing is clear: Shapiro (apparently also known as Anna Webb or Chana Shapiro) is not shy of publicity. On her Twitter account she describes herself as a “London model living life to the max. Passion for travel, culture and healthy living”. Her Instagram account features images of her posing on beaches and yachts. But there is also a more serious side. Her interests according to her LinkedIn profile include the UN and Chatham House, the international affairs thinktank.
She also has interesting friends. On Facebook there is a picture purporting to be her with “Fast Eddie” Davenport on a four-poster bed. She is in her underwear while Davenport and another man are in their pyjamas.
There is another link with Davenport. Shapiro and King are listed as directors at Gem Locations UK, which offers “a wide range of services such as hospitality, entertainment, event management, location scouting and concierge”. The correspondence address for the company is 32 Portland Place, a mansion house in central London.
Shapiro was not to be found on Wednesday but Davenport was at his London home – 32 Portland Place – working out in the basement gym. Like the police he seemed sceptical at Shapiro’s claims. “I’m not really convinced that she has got anything to do with [Vladimir] Putin, put it that way.” He said King was his friend but added: “I’ve never heard him talking about Putin before. I know Alex extremely well, but I haven’t seen a lot of him since he got together with the Russian girl.”
Davenport explained the pair used to live nearby but had moved out some years ago. He described King as a “fun guy” who in 2006 won a £100,000 bet to get into a royal premiere. King did win the bet for getting into a screening of The History Boys and reportedly shook hands with Prince Charles.
Clearly Davenport and King are skilful at garnering publicity. When the Independent newspaper was invited into Davenport’s mansion 10 years ago, King was Davenport’s press representative. King showed the Independent pictures of Davenport “cosying up” to well-known figures, including a government spin doctor and a rapper.
There is yet another twist. On Saturday morning, the day before the Prezzo incident, a man seeming to claim to be Shapiro’s father, Aleksandr Shapiro, posted on Facebook that he was searching for his daughter. “I want to ask … where and with whom is my daughter,” he wrote, adding that he believed Anna was being held against her will, and that he had gone to the police.
According to data that had previously been public on his profile, Aleksandr Shapiro is 47 and lives in Nizhny Novgorod, an industrial city on the Volga river 250 miles east of Moscow. Anna Shapiro told the Sun she was born in the city.
It may read like a stage farce but the story of Salisbury’s troubles is no laughing matter. Prezzo felt it had to put out a statement in response to the Sun’s mention of strychnine.
A Prezzo spokesman said: “We wish to confirm that the chemical strychnine is not used in Prezzo in Salisbury. This has been verified through independent technical support. We have been informed that Wiltshire police are not linking the event on Sunday evening to the recent nerve agent poisonings in Salisbury and Amesbury and have made no suggestion that the illness was a result of anything present in our restaurant.”
Prezzo announced that it would re-open from midday on Thursday. A spokesman said on Wednesday: “Wiltshire police have confirmed we can re-open. Our team have been readying the restaurant this evening and we will be open for business as usual from midday tomorrow.”