World

The mystery deepens

Still no answers, as a memorial summer begins

BARRY CAME July 1 1998
World

The mystery deepens

Still no answers, as a memorial summer begins

BARRY CAME July 1 1998

The mystery deepens

World

Still no answers, as a memorial summer begins

If she had lived, Diana, Princess of Wales, might well have approved of the manner in which her oldest son moved a step closer to manhood last weekend. Prince William celebrated his 16th birthday on June 21 as a quiet affair, attended only by family and a few close friends from Eton, the exclusive English private school he attends near Windsor Castle. There was not a television camera in sight, no trace of the intrusive media that, royal sources allege, William has come to both fear and loathe since the death of his mother. Not surprisingly, the future king continues to find fault with the media for the role they played in the sequence of events that ended in tragedy early last Aug. 31 in the Tunnel de l’Alma in Paris.

The absence of a verdict has done little to soothe Prince William’s anxieties. Ten months later, Hervé Stéphan, the French magistrate in charge of the inquiry into Diana’s death, still appears to be months away from concluding his task. In the meantime, rumors continue to abound, some of them quite breathtaking—such as the claims that the princess was assassinated by the British secret services to prevent the mother of the heir to the throne from marrying a Muslim. There are likely to be many more tall tales as the world prepares to commemorate the first anniversary of Diana’s death with new books and television documentaries. There was even a rock concert planned to coincide with the opening on July 1 of the princess’s memorial site at Althorpe, her family’s ancestral home north of London.

Seemingly immune to the hubbub, Judge Stéphan is betraying no signs of haste. While in the past he has hinted that his inquiry was likely to wind up in June, he is now pointing to September, perhaps beyond, as a more likely target. Stéphan, a cool, methodical jurist who is viewed as a rarity among his more publicity-conscious col-

leagues, harbors a known aversion to the media. Many French judicial experts argue, in fact, that it was precisely because of these qualities that he was chosen to handle the supersensitive Diana investigation. Whatever the accuracy of that assessment, Stéphan seems prepared to let a politically and emotionally charged case run its course, leaving no stone unturned.

For the French police, however, the question is already academic. Almost from the start, they have maintained that the Sunday crash just after midnight in the Tunnel de l’Alma was the result of nothing more mysterious than drunk driving. Diana died in La Pitié Salpétrière hospital nearly four hours later, as the body of Dodi Fayed, her Egyptian companion and the son of Mohamed Al Fayed, owner of the famous London store Harrods, lay in the nearby Paris morgue. Dodi and the Mercedes driver Henri Paul died instantly in the crash. Only a British bodyguard, Trevor ReesJones, survived. The next day French police said Paul, the deputy head of security at the Paris Ritz Hotel, owned by AÍ Fayed, had consumed more than three times the legal limit of alcohol and had been taking the antidepressant drug Prozac as well as a tranquilizer.

Since the accident, gossip magazines and tabloids have been at least as fascinated by Diana in death as when she was alive. Some publications have even said that blood tests taken in France after her death revealed she was pregnant by Dodi when she died, an allegation angrily denied by French Health Minister Bernard Kouchner. The only official postmortem on Diana was conducted in Britain after her body was flown there 12 hours after the official announcement of her death. Some observers believe AÍ Fayed—who could face potential insurance suits if the Paris Ritz is ever held responsible for providing a drunken chauffeur—is circulating some of the rumors.

The speculation seems to thrive in the absence of hard answers from Judge Stéphan’s probe. The French jurist’s most recent move in the Diana investigation came in early June when he staged a confrontation, a formal judicial encounter behind a courtroom’s closed doors. He brought together the nine paparazzi and a photo agency motorcyclist who were charged with manslaughter and failure to assist the victims of an accident, with nine witnesses who were the first on the spot. The aim of the confrontation—a normal procedure in a French criminal inquiry—was to iron out contradictions in the versions of different witnesses. At the hearing, AÍ Fayed stole the show by declaring Diana’s mother, Frances Shand Kydd, to be “an English snob” because she did not talk to him or even glance at him during the hearing. Lawyers for the paparazzi now say other, smaller confrontations are planned between their clients and witnesses—but not for some weeks.

Meanwhile, the detailed investigation continues. Authorities have staged various tests on a racetrack outside Paris with a Mercedes 230 identical to the one that carried Diana’s party. And they are still combing through the wreckage of the original car. Investigators have dismissed a theory that a white Fiat Uno—possibly driven by paparazzi—brushed against the Mercedes in the tunnel, causing it to spin out of control. Despite discovering traces of white paint on the Mercedes of a type used by the compact Italian car, authorities have not found an actual vehicle that they can place at the accident scene. Still, some mystery persists surrounding the phantom Fiat. Two witnesses who drove past the underpass at the time of the crash say they saw a white Uno career out of the tunnel, zigzagging wildly. Fragments of a Fiat Uno brake light were also found at the crash scene. And police sources say that, of the thousands of cars exam-

ined, three white Fiat Unos are still empounded.

As the inquiry has unfolded, Stéphan has let his anger over the speculation show on only two occasions. Last March, he summoned both Rees-Jones and AÍ Fayed to Paris and ordered them to stop giving potentially explosive details to the British tabloids. Rees-Jones had given an interview to the London newspaper The Mirror in which he said his memory of the events on the fatal night was beginning to return. After the session with Judge Stéphan, Rees-Jones’s French lawyer said his client had promised to make no further statements to the media and to keep any recollections he had of the crash for the investigating team. Six days later, AÍ Fayed appeared before the magistrate. He, too, had spoken to The Mirror, saying that he was sure his son and Diana had been assassinated. But after a two-hour conversation with the judge, AÍ Fayed told the press he had “total trust” in the French investigation team.

Earlier in June, Georges Kiejman, a former French Socialist government minister and the AÍ Fayed lawyer, was asked if Dodi’s father still believed it was an assassination. He replied: “No theory is ignored. But, at the moment, we remain within the framework of a ride that was too fast, provoked by a chase by journalists and a tragic accident for which the responsibilities will have to be established by the judge.” At the confrontation in June, Kiejman made a similar statement, adding that the paparazzi’s behavior had prompted a change of plans that meant a chauffeur who should not have taken the wheel drove the couple away. Small solace for Prince William, perhaps, but certainly far less disturbing than rumors of dark plots and assassination.

BARRY CAME in London with JULIAN NUNDY in Paris

BARRY CAME

JULIAN NUNDY