Discover more from Just the Facts with Gerald Posner
"Al Fayed's Rage" - An Investigation into the Death of Princess Di by Gerald Posner (TALK - September 1999)
Al Fayed's Rage
"The grieving father has some wild ideas about the deaths of Princess Di and Dodi. A bungled French probe will only fuel his fire."
TALK Magazine, September 1999
Mohammed Al Fayed is sitting in a beige and green conference room in the fifth-floor executive offices of Harrods, the fabled London department store he bought in 1985 for a cool $670 million. It is but one of his many assets. The 66-year-old Egyptian native counts among his treasures a 14th-century castle in the Scottish Highlands, stately apartment buildings lining London's Hyde Park, and a sprawling estate in St. Tropez. He owns the venerable satirical magazine Punch, the storied Fulham Football Club, and, along with his brother Ali, Turnbull & Asser, the elegant Jermyn Street shirtmaker. He commands a small fleet of private jets - the Executive Gulfstream IV is his favorite - boasts a sterling collection of vintage cars, and relaxes in the south of France on the Sakara, one of the world's most luxurious sailing yachts.
Al Fayed has not come to the conference room today to talk about what he has, but rather what he has lost, and why. "I have absolutely no doubt that my son and Diana were murdered," the tycoon declares, leaning across the large mahogany table, his surprisingly youthful face twisted with determination. Bedecked in a black tie "that I have worn every day since their death and will continue to wear until the murderers are caught," Al Fayed slams the polished top of the Queen Anne table with the palm of his hand. "I will not be stopped. They have picked on the wrong family! I know who they are."
It was two years ago this August that Dodi Fayed and Princess Diana were killed in a Paris car crash. The grieving father has grown impatient with the plodding pace of the French investigation piloted by Magistrate Hervé Stephan, who has largely stymied Al Fayed's own probe. Though Stephan's inquiry is expected to wrap up this summer with indictments of several paparazzi (for failing to aid the victims at the crash scene), Al Fayed is anxious to unleash a small investigative army to prove that what happened in the Pont de l'Alma underpass on the night of August 31, 1997, was anything but a simple auto accident.
"It has been absolutely frustrating," he says, thrusting his fist into the air. "To sit here when my body and soul want to do much more. If I lose the last penny I have, I will do everything I can. I won't let those responsible, those who are driven by cruelty, meanness, and racism, get away with the murders of two innocent people."
Suddenly Al Fayed leans back in his silk brocade chair and reaches for a framed drawing that rests under one of the room's arrangements of artificial flowers. He pushes the picture toward me. It is a child's drawing of Diana and Dodi, with an angel and a dove floating above their heads. "This was just one thing sent to me by someone who knows I am right," he says proudly. "This is one of 3 million pieces of mail I have received since their deaths." His voice rises, his excitement reflected in his machinegun delivery. "My website has had over 30 million visitors. A newspaper poll just showed that 25,000 people are with me, and only 1,500 voted against. The people are too smart; they know there is more to the death of Diana than they have been told."
Al Fayed does have plenty of company. In the two years since the crash, conspiracy theories about the deaths of Princess Di and Dodi have become a cottage industry. In the Middle East, books pinning the event on murderous anti-Arab sentiment began flooding the market soon after the bodies were buried; rumors there have Israel's Mossad carrying out a cold-blooded execution. Some 3,000 websites devoted to the princess have sprouted on the Internet, roughly half of which explore dark explanations for the couple's death. One site feverishly suggests that Di and Dodi were pawns in a struggle between the Rockefellers and the Rothschilds.
The tabloids have had a field day chronicling the exploits 0f an ex-British intelligence agent named Richard Tomlinson, who sees parallels between the crash and a plot he says M16 (the British international intelligence agency) hatched to assassinate Serbian ruler Slobodan Milosevic. Tomlinson, who this spring caused a panic in England by publishing a list of M16 agents on the Internet, has kept authorities on several continents hopping: He's been banned from Britain for violating the Official Secrets Act, booted out of France - and turned away last year in an attempted visit to the U.S.
Even the American court system has gotten in on the action. In 1998 Al Fayed was contacted by a Los Angeles entertainment lawyer representing supposed ex-CIA agents who had documents they claimed proved that Dodi and Di were murdered in a joint CIA-Mb operation. When the Americans demanded $15 million, the local police and the FBI set up a sting - which resulted in the conviction of one "agent," the flight of another, and an ongoing investigation by the U.S. Attorney's office in Washington.
But the circus atmosphere and the con men have not fazed Al Fayed. "I am convinced these people were connected to the CIA," he says. "The documents they tried to sell me were fraudulent, but it is possible that they were based on real documents that do exist." And he has resolutely stood by Tomlinson, even after some of his own advisers counseled Al Fayed to keep his distance. "God sent me Richard Tomlinson," he says. "I didn't seek him out. His conscience made him come to me."
AL FAYED'S THEORY GOES like this: On the night of the accident, MI6 agents set Di and Dodi's course. Following their dinner at the Ritz Hotel, Henri Paul, acting chief of security, was ordered to persuade the couple to retire to Dodi's apartment nearby. MI6 infiltrated the pack of photographers that trailed the luxury sedan carrying the couple along a Paris expressway. As the Mercedes rocketed toward the Pont de l'Alma underpass, a slow-moving Fiat Uno driven by one conspirator moved into position, obstructing the right lane. Two other plotters drove by on a motorbike, using a laser device to blind the driver, Paul, causing him to lose control of the car. The conspirators later swapped Paul's blood sample with someone else's, ensuring that lab tests showed an extremely high blood-alcohol level - thereby offering a plausible explanation for the crash.
Al Fayed's rhetoric soars to fantastic heights when naming the names he thinks are behind the scheme. "Prince Philip [Queen Elizabeth's husband] is the one responsible for giving the order. He is very racist. He is of German blood, and I'm sure he is a Nazi sympathizer. Also, Robert Fellowes [the queen's private secretary and Diana's brother-in-law] was key. He is the Rasputin of the British monarchy."
I conducted my own investigation of the French probe this spring and found no credible evidence whatsoever confirming Al Fayed's beliefs. But what I did discover will not, regrettably, close the case for Al Fayed and his fellow conspiracy theorists. I found considerable proof of sloppy work by police who seemed disinclined from the start to vigorously pursue their own probe. I discovered a failure to exercise fundamental control over the crime scene, allowing witnesses and photographs to slip through the French dragnet; lab work so shoddy as to expose a key player's blood to possible contamination; and evidence that intelligence agents were talking to Dodi's driver barely three hours before the crash.
In short, the French investigation leaves leads dangling and mysteries unanswered - encouraging Al Fayed and the faceless army of Internet detectives in their ongoing efforts to find purchase for their lush theories on the barren fields of fact.
NUTS-AND-BOLTS PROBLEMS with the police work were evident from the start. The scene was not completely sealed until Paris police chief Philippe Massoni arrived, almost an hour after the wreck. Before that, tourists and local passersby swarmed the scene, milled around the car, and took photos; some even grabbed pieces of the wreckage for souvenirs. No one took their names or confiscated their film and videotape.
Frederic Mailliez, a 36-year-old doctor who was passing by the accident scene and who treated Diana until ambulances arrived, told me that he had simply returned to his car and left. No one questioned him, although if there had been a murder plot, he might have been the person sent to finish her off. The next day, after learning that his patient had been Diana and that she had died, Mailliez called the police. "Oh, we've been looking for you," a sheepish commissioner said.
Six paparazzi and one photo agency motorcycle driver were arrested that night, and three others soon turned themselves in. But the first police officers on the scene estimated that there had been 20 photographers, meaning half were never found. French authorities believe that they confiscated all the professional photos taken that night. Yet this past spring, surrounded by tight security in a clandestine location, I was shown low-resolution images of pictures taken of a dying Diana still trapped in the crumpled Mercedes. Those pictures show no firemen or police officers, so they were apparently snapped immediately after the accident. Diana, in tight close-ups, looks remarkably uninjured except for a gash over one eye. Her head is rolled back slightly to the left and her eyes are closed - probably to shut out the bright camera flashes popping only inches away. Those pictures were offered to me for $2 million.
In chasing down one of the crash's most enduring mysteries, the cops may have stopped running too soon.
Nearly a dozen eyewitnesses told the French police that a Fiat Uno had been involved in the crash. There was physical evidence to buttress their claims, including traces of white paint and black rubber found on the Mercedes that could have matched paint and rubber from a Fiat Uno manufactured between 1983 and August 1987. Taillight glass found at the crash scene, as well as remains of a Fiat wing mirror, belonged to an Uno from the same period.
Within a few months police located a 1986 Uno owned by a 23-year-old Vietnamese immigrant, Le Van Thanh, who lives three miles from the tunnel. The car was originally white but had been repainted with a thin coat of red primer. Le gave conflicting statements about when and how the car had been repainted before finally admitting it had been done the day after Diana died. A part-time security guard, Le said he was at work and that a coworker could vouch for him, though he could not remember the coworker's name.
The police quietly detained Le in November 1997 and impounded his car. But they let him go after a mere six hours and soon released the car. Martine Monteil, commissioner of the Criminal Brigade, later told the London Sunday Times that Le had been released because "he had an alibi and the examination of the paint showed it wasn't the right car."
But that is incorrect, according to confidential police reports showing that the underlying white paint on the Uno matched Bianco-Corfu 224, the shade of the traces found on the Mercedes. The rubber from Le's bumper also matched the marks on the Mercedes. There is no indication that the police ever verified Le's alibi.
The reports also state that the police found no repairs in the area where the Mercedes would have damaged the Uno. Yet a photo of Le's Uno in the French file shows an off-white filler that evidently was used to repair the car. Le himself admitted that the bumpers had been changed. His brother, who works in a garage, helped out with the bumper and paint repair work.
Le did not return repeated phone calls; Monteil refused requests for an interview. (Al Fayed sought to have his own investigators examine Le's car, but Magistrate Stephan refused. Today Al Fayed thinks Le played no role - and believes the missing Fiat was built to order by the CIA for M16.)
It's not uncommon for a major crash investigation to leave a few loose ends. But in this case, police attitudes may have played a part. Many detectives in the elite Criminal Brigade thought Diana had died in an overblown traffic accident not worthy of their investigative time and effort. One photographer brought to headquarters for an interview witnessed firsthand the officers' disdain. "They hated the job they were doing," he told me. "`We aren't even being paid overtime,' one said. Another spit at a photo of a Union Jack on the wall."
THE MEDICS WEREN'T DOING much better than the cops. It took nearly two hours for French emergency crews to get Diana to Pitié-Salpêtrière hospital, 3.8 miles southeast of the tunnel. The French prefer to stabilize patients at the scene, whereas American emergency medical technicians rush accident victims to hospitals as quickly as possible. Even taking into account the different approaches, some American medical experts consider a two-hour delay indefensible.
Diana had no significant external injuries, but she was semiconscious. She was having difficulty breathing and her blood pressure was low. "The only thing you really have to be worried about at that point is the risk of internal injuries," says Dr. Michael Baden, who as former chief coroner for New York City has performed autopsies on thousands of accident victims.
Diana had a rupture of her left pulmonary vein that was not large enough to cause instant death but was slowly filling her chest cavity with blood. "With this type of injury," says Baden, "time is of the essence....In the United States the delay in getting her to the hospital could constitute gross malpractice. There's no excuse for it."
The French authorities bristle at the suggestion that Diana might have lived. But they have steadfastly refused to allow any of the physicians who treated her at the hospital to talk to the press, and have barred the release of any of Diana's medical records.
That is unfortunate, because doing so might clear up one of Al Fayed's most controversial theories. He strongly believes that Diana and his son were planning to marry - and that he might well have had a grandchild on the way. Al Fayed is not the only one who thinks Diana might have been pregnant. I have learned that someone from the British home secretary's office interrupted her autopsy with a phone call, ordering the pathologists to omit any mention of pregnancy in their final report. (British authorities adamantly deny this.)
Absent the French records - or better yet, the British autopsy; the results of which have also been withheld to date - it is impossible to know definitively whether Diana was pregnant. But one of her closest friends, who was in regular contact with the princess during her relationship with Dodi, denies that there is any truth to that notion.
This spring I spoke with Lucia Flecha de Lima, the wife of the former Brazilian ambassador to the United States, in the first interview she has given since Diana's death. "There is absolutely no truth to what Mr. Al Fayed thinks," de Lima said. "I spoke to Diana many times, and often about Dodi. She was enjoying herself. It was the first time she was ever able to date someone in public. It was a new experience for her. But I can assure you that she absolutely was not going to marry him. And she was definitely , no question about it, not pregnant." Al Fayed, who met de Lima at Diana's funeral, surprisingly never asked her directly about the circumstances he thinks set in motion a death plot.
The medical records of Henri Paul are also at issue. The morning after the accident an autopsy was performed on Paul, and blood samples were drawn. News of those test results leaked inside the police department - showing three times the legal alcohol limit and reinforcing the view that the crash had been an accident.
But a close examination of the still-confidential autopsy report reveals another explanation for some of the blood test problems. There is ample evidence of negligent handling, which could have opened the door to contamination. Paul's body was never identified to the pathologist, nor was a start or finish time recorded. Very few measurements were taken. Documentation showing where body samples were taken from is incomplete. Nor does the report say when the blood samples were drawn. Pathologist Dominique Lecomte did not perform histologic exams of the pancreas, liver, and other organs - tests that might have answered questions about whether Paul was a chronic drinker. In one section of the report, the cervical column is reported to be intact, yet elsewhere it is described as fractured.
A source connected to the investigation reveals a potentially far more serious error - the failure to place Paul's body in a cooler for several hours. That mistake was compounded when samples taken from Paul were not initially refrigerated. When Lecomte learned of these errors, she was reportedly "enraged." The delay in proper refrigeration was brief, and it is not clear whether there was enough time - even in warm summer weather - to allow bacteria and yeast to multiply in the blood, thereby contaminating the results. The French paperwork does not indicate whether the bottles used to store the samples contained standard preservatives necessary to combat fermentation. The presence of decomposition byproducts in the blood could settle this question, but those test results are not available; it is unclear whether such tests have even been performed. Lecomte refused repeated requests for an interview.
THE CORNERSTONE OF Al Fayed's theory is that intelligence agents are responsible for the death of his son and Princess Diana. My investigation yielded no evidence of such Activity - but that doesn't mean there weren't some spooks sniffing around.
This spring in Washington I listened to an innocuous portion of an undated conversation between Diana and de Lima. The recording was made available by an active U.S. intelligence asset, who says it was one of several collected by the National Security Agency. The NSA never directly targeted Diana, but picked up her conversations as an incidental part of a separate monitoring operation. The NSA will not officially acknowledge the tapes' existence, but does admit to holding 39 classified documents about Diana totaling 124 pages. (Al Fayed has sought access to the NSA's materials through a series of lawsuits filed in U.S. District Court.)
Paul was in regular contact with the Direction Général de la Sécurité Extérieure (DGSE), the French equivalent of the CIA - an arrangement not unheard of among security staffers at premier international hotels. (Paul also had less formal relations with the Direction de la Surveillance du Territoire and the Renseignements Généraux, both intelligence-gathering divisions of the French national police.)
In fact, according to an American law enforcement official and an American intelligence agent, Paul spent the last several hours before the crash with a security officer from the DGSE. That may come as news to the French police; in an internal report a French police commandant named Jean Paul Copetti concluded that it was "not possible" to determine Paul's whereabouts during that time.
Evidently the August 31 meeting between Paul and his Contact was part business, part social. Alcohol was consumed, and Paul was paid - he had 12,560 francs, or roughly $2300, in his pocket when he died later that night. Diana and Dodi were discussed, but they were not an official topic; the intelligence officer had not inquired about them, nor had he reported the conversation to the DGSE, the two American sources say.
AL FAYED'S MOTIVES FOR pursuing his theories have come under attack. Some dismiss his notions as a crass attempt to doge civil liability; the driver, after all, was an employee of of Al Fayed's hotel. In fact, under French law Al Fayed cannot be held personally responsible, and wrongful death suits tend to draw paltry judgments in France. Moreover, the Ritz has ample insurance to cover any potential verdict.
I believe Al Fayed is sincere in his convictions. He grew up in a culture where cataclysmic events are often seen as the result of Byzantine intrigues. And he has spent much of his adult life battling the British establishment, having waged a nasty public campaign for citizenship -unsuccessful to date - and having bedeviled a Tory government with his disclosures about secret political payoffs. He has enemies, and he is convinced that he has been the victim of dirty tricks played by government and business rivals before.
In other words, he has all the trademark symptoms of the conspiratorial mind-set - which I've studied before, while investigating the assassinations of John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr.
That mind-set "involves a deeper assumption that there are no coincidences," says Daniel Pipes, author of a 1997 book titled Conspiracy: How the Paranoid Style Flourishes and Where It Comes From. "Everything has a cause and a purpose. A will and volition stands behind every important event."
Al Fayed has the will - and will find a way, in the days and weeks to come, to explain away hard facts and evidence, as he pursues his theories with the zeal of a grieving father and a true believer.
"Maybe God has chosen me to teach these people they are not above the law," he tells me during our meeting in the conservatively appointed Harrods conference room. `Maybe I am God's messenger. You can't take my dignity and my honor and kill my son. I cannot recover until I find out who did it. My pursuit of these people - to punish them, to see my revenge - is part of my tribute to Dodi. I will not "I will not rest until it is done."
Then Al Fayed suddenly falls silent and glances away, his eyes glistening with tears. "Dodi..." he says softly, his words trailing off. He shakes himself from his reverie; when he speaks again, it is as though he were alone in the room. "If they wanted to kill Diana, why did they also have to kill my son?"