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The Princess and the Driver: How 2 Lives Converged in Death

By Anne Swardson
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, September 14, 1997; Page A22

PARIS, Sept. 13—As Princess Diana and her companion, Dodi Fayed, stood in a back hall of the Ritz Hotel in the early minutes of Sunday morning, Aug. 31, waiting for the car that would take them away, Fayed kept his arm around her, protectively.

But it was the other man clearly visible in a videotape of that moment who would determine Diana's fate that night: a stocky, balding 41-year-old Frenchman named Henri Paul.

The second week after Diana's death has ended with the investigation increasingly focused on Paul, who was driving the Mercedes S-280 whose crash killed all three of them. It seems clearer than ever that if Paul's path had not crossed that of the princess, they and Fayed would be alive today.

Many questions remain unresolved: Was there something in particular that caused the car to veer into a concrete pillar in the highway tunnel and spin around? How far behind was the closest of the photographers following the Mercedes? Why was the car heading in a direction not leading to its presumed destination?

But the answers to any of the questions are colored by the central fact that Paul's bloodstream contained more than three times the French legal limit for alcohol. Also in his blood: the anti-depressant Prozac and traces of Tiapridal, a drug prescribed for aggression and nervous tension. The car was apparently traveling at more than 100 mph.

"This is evidence that cannot be explained away: speed and alcohol," said Jean-Louis Pelletier, lawyer for two of the nine photographers, plus one motorcycle driver, who have been placed under investigation for their roles in the accident. "All the rest has been thrown out to put responsibility on the backs of the journalists."

Nearly every detail of Diana's life was common knowledge around the world by the time she and Fayed ended their Mediterranean vacation and stopped over in Paris on Diana's way home to London.

The world of Henri Paul, on the other hand, remains largely a mystery. Those who have stood up to defend him have offered only a few details of what kind of person he was, a bit more about his habits and hobbies.

He was a tennis player, for instance. That Saturday morning, he had played in the suburbs with old friend Claude Garrec. Afterward, they went to a bar in town, very near the Ritz Hotel, where Paul was assistant director of security. Paul drank a Coke, Garrec told Le Figaro newspaper, even though at times he could be a "bon vivant." At some point, Paul changed into a gray suit, blue shirt and yellow tie and headed for Le Bourget airport north of Paris.

When the private plane carrying Diana and Fayed from Sardinia landed at 3:20 p.m. Saturday, it is not known whether Paul was meeting Diana for the first time. Because the Ritz is owned by Dodi Fayed's father, Mohamed Fayed, Paul almost surely had met the younger Fayed before. In a picture in this week's L'Express magazine, Paul is shown at the airport conferring closely with him.

According to British press reports, Diana and Dodi Fayed had stayed at the Ritz previously, on July 26, though it is not known if Paul was charged with their security. This time around, they drove in separate cars from the airport -- Diana and Fayed in a Ritz Mercedes S-600 driven by the regular Fayed chauffeur, identified in the French press as a Mr. Dourneau, and Paul driving behind in a Range Rover with the couple's luggage.

The man in the Range Rover had worked for the Ritz since 1986, according to hotel officials. He was from Lorient, a city of some 100,000 people on France's rugged northwestern coast. He was single; people remembered that he had had a girlfriend some years before.

He visited home frequently, according to Lorient newspaper reporter Claude Lasbleiz, to pursue his hobbies of sailing, riding motorcycles, American-style bowling and flying light planes. It relieved the "stress" of Paul's job at the Ritz, Lasbleiz said. Another friend would later say Paul had passed a medical exam required for the renewal of his pilot's license three days before the crash. And the friend said that test included a long-term blood-alcohol examination.

The convoy from the airport made its way to the Ritz. Diana had her hair done at the hotel and made telephone calls. After several attempts at eluding the photographers outside, Fayed managed to slip across the Place Vendome to an exclusive jewelry store and pick up a diamond-encrusted ring, reportedly valued at more than $200,000, that the two had ordered at the store's Monte Carlo branch 10 days before. As is standard practice with such large purchases, he did not pay for it at the time; his family would settle the bill the Monday after the crash.

Paul was on the job during that late afternoon and early evening, though his exact movements are not known. He went off-duty at about 7 p.m., the time that Diana and Fayed were driven to Fayed's apartment off the Champs-Elysees very near the Place de l'Etoile. It is not known if Paul went home to the small apartment, four blocks from the hotel, that he had occupied for 10 years, nearly the entire time he had worked there.

He was unexpectedly summoned back to work shortly after 10 p.m., after Diana and Fayed decided to eat dinner at the Ritz because photographers hampered their efforts to eat at a bistro to the east. Various media have reported Paul was spotted at bars near the Ritz, but at least one of the bars he is said to have visited was closed that night.

Nor is it clear how Paul passed the time waiting for his charges to finish their meal and return home. Liberation newspaper quoted anonymous Ritz employees saying that he sat in the bar with two of Fayed's bodyguards and drank Ricards, a popular and not terribly strong aperitif. Others were quoted as saying he no longer drank. In one scene of a security videotape released by the Ritz, Paul is shown talking to Fayed at close range. In another, he is walking down a hall in what seems in the short, blurry video to be a normal fashion.

There can be no question, however, that his bloodstream was filled with alcohol, a minimum of eight drinks -- or even more if he had eaten or if he had consumed the alcohol some time before. In addition, the Prozac and the Tiapridal were still in his system.

Experts have said those medications are consistent with a recovering alcoholic struggling with nervous tension, aggression and depression as a result of being deprived of drink. However, no one has come forward to allege that Paul was an alcoholic. On the contrary, those who have talked about him say he was not.

Toward the end of this week, Paul's family began offering their views of his behavior. "My son was not an alcoholic," his mother, Gisele, told Le Figaro. "Henri's boss had complete confidence in him. . . . I wish that any mother could have a son like him. . . . He was not depressive. He behaved perfectly."

A friend acting as an informal spokesman for the Paul family told the Reuter news agency that the family could not deny the evidence of the three official blood tests. Paul was wrong to have gotten behind the wheel in such a condition, spokesman Dominique Melo said. "But from what I know of him, he would have given his utmost to his responsibility," Melo said. "I think we all know of a situation where somebody . . . tries to do too much."

According to the Ritz, Paul had taken safe-driving courses on two occasions, in 1990 and 1991, at a Mercedes facility near Stuttgart, Germany, though being a chauffeur was not his chief occupation. Some press reports have indicated it was Dodi Fayed who wanted Paul to drive the car, but that cannot be confirmed.

If Paul had chosen to drive straight to the Fayed apartment, he would have turned onto the Champs-Elysees from the Place de la Concorde and gone straight up the street, turning right on the one-way Rue de Arsene Houssaye. Instead, he went a little farther around la Concorde and turned right on a road called Cours la Reine -- Queen's Course.

Lawyers for Fayed, making their case that the car was surrounded by aggressive paparazzi as it sped along, have talked of a photo, from a roll of film seized at the scene, showing the passengers of the car taken from outside before the crash. Pelletier, whose clients are Fabrice Chassery and David Ker of LS Productions, said he has seen that photo.

Taken from the left side of the car, it shows Paul in the driver's seat, bodyguard Trevor Rees-Jones -- the only person wearing a seat belt -- in the front passenger seat and Diana behind Rees-Jones, with her head lowered. Pelletier said it is clearly framed and sharply focused; it does not give the indication of having been taken at high speed.

In the photo, Pelletier said, Henri Paul is smiling -- "rigolard," a word that means he is laughing at a joke.

If he was trying to avoid photographers, it was by outrunning, not outmaneuvering. He had chosen a nearly straight, four-lane road that allows great speed, with no stops. It is not clear, however, why Paul would have tried to ditch the photographers since they knew where Fayed's apartment was and thus knew where Paul probably was heading. It also is not clear why he did not turn right at the Place de l'Alma onto the Avenue George V, which leads up to the section of the Champs-Elysees where the turnoff for Fayed's apartment is.

Police estimate that the Mercedes hit the third pillar of the tunnel under the Place de l'Alma at 12:35 a.m. on Sunday, then brutally slammed into the 13th.

Much has been said about Diana's condition immediately afterward. Frederic Mailliez, who by coincidence is an emergency-services physician, happened by just a few minutes afterward. He began to administer aid to Diana, who was reversed 180 degrees from her original position. Her back was against the back of the front passenger seat, her legs folded under her on the back seat. She did not appear to be trapped, according to a source who has seen some of the accident photos. The door on her side was open, her head was turned three-quarters toward it. Blood was coming from her forehead.

The first firetruck arrived at 12:41, the first ambulance eight minutes after that. By then, some of the photographers already were taking pictures. By his own account, photographer Romuald Rat had taken her pulse and assured her in English that help was on the way. There have been press reports that she spoke a few words, saying "Leave me alone" -- emergency medical teams had set up bright lights that she may have taken for camera lights -- and "Oh my God," perhaps on the stretcher after she was removed from the car.

She arrived at Pitie Salpetriere hospital at 2:05, after reportedly suffering one heart attack during the ambulance trip. Two hours later, she was pronounced dead of internal injuries.

Little has been reported about the death of Paul, except that he was killed instantly and his body lay on the horn, sounding it for about two minutes. One report said he was decapitated.

For two weeks, his body lay in the Medical-Legal Institute, the morgue. His funeral was postponed to allow for more blood-alcohol tests. Finally, on Friday, his body was released to his grieving parents, who lost another son to an auto accident 21 years ago. Henri Paul is free to go home.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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