After Diana: A tragedy yes, a conspiracy never

The `secret' French investigation into Diana's death is riddled with leaks - and they all say it was an accident
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In the first hour of the last day of August, it will be exactly one year since a black Mercedes 280S, registration 688 LTV 75, collided with the thirteenth pillar of the most famous underpass in the world.

No road accident has ever been the subject of such minute and exhaustive investigation. No road accident has been the subject of so much journalistic curiosity. No road accident has been the subject of so much speculation, distortion and outright invention.

Almost 12 months after Diana, Princess of Wales, and her companions died, there is no absolute and definitive explanation of why their car left the road when and where it did. There are, however, some fairly clear indications, based on the virtually complete investigation of over 2,500 pages, which includes evidence from 300 witnesses and the work of over 1,000 police officers. It has comprehensively rejected all question of a conspiracy or assassination..

Three facts can now be taken as reasonably well-established:

o The driver, Henri Paul, had been drinking heavily and had taken four different kinds of mind-calming and anti-alcoholic drugs. Claims that Mr Paul had not been drinking are mistaken. Apart from three published blood tests, the examination of his urine (never officially published) confirms that he was three times over the French alcohol limit.

o The speeding Mercedes brushed a slow-moving, white Fiat Uno just before it span out of control (The physical evidence proves that the Mercedes struck the Fiat a glancing blow, not the other way round).

o The first of the pursuing pack of press photographers - on motorbikes and in cars - may have been closer to the Mercedes at the time of the crash than they have admitted. But they are not believed to have directly caused the accident (Their moral responsibility is another question).

There remain, also, three outstanding issues:

o There is the failure of the French police to trace the Fiat Uno. In spite of reports to the contrary, the search for the car continues. The principle investigating judge, Herve Stephan, has virtually abandoned hope of finding the vehicle or its driver before he delivers his report.

o There is some evidence of a brake fault on the Mercedes. A final, exhaustive examination of the re-constituted wreckage of the armoured limousine - and especially its brakes - is being undertaken. The report, twice delayed, is not due until late September or early October. This is the principal reason why the investigation was not completed in June, as planned.

o There are growing doubts about the role of senior officials at the Ritz Hotel (owner Mohammed Al Fayed) who are alleged by some witnesses to have obstructed the investigation in the days after the crash. Both the British bodyguards who travelled with Diana's party that day, Trevor Rees-Jones and Kes Wingfield, have contacted Judge Stephan in recent weeks and suggested that he should look more closely at the role of the Ritz, which employed Mr Paul and hired the crashed car. Both were employed by the Al Fayed family at the time of the accident; both have since resigned.

Why has it taken more than a year to investigate a simple road accident, if it was just that? Why are so many of the facts of the case still disputed or confused by the world's press (let alone the dottier theorists on the Internet)? Why could the Fiat Uno not be found?

Many of the problems arise from the collision between the French judicial system - exhaustive but secretive, and yet riddled with selective leaks - and the impatient Anglo-Saxon press, used to official co-operation and more reliable channels of information.

It should be remembered that this is not a public inquiry, but a criminal investigation. The investigating judge, Herve Stephan, is first and foremost trying to decide whether there are criminal cases to answer against nine photographers and a motorcyclist arrested at the scene or a couple of days later.

The "Pont de l'Alma Ten" have not yet been charged with any crime; they have been placed under "examination" on possible charges of manslaughter and failing to assist people in danger. Under the French system, in which criminal investigations are run by judges with the help of the police, Judge Stephan is not trying to prove the guilt of the 10. His job is to gather all the evidence and write a report recommending whether or not to bring formal charges.

Of course, the celebrity of the victims means that this is not just any investigation. The pains taken are a tribute to the global interest in the case. In other respects, however, the French judicial system has not made any allowance for the overpowering international obsession with Diana's death.

All evidence before the judge is supposedly secret. In truth, the secrecy of the investigation is a sham. Like almost every high-profile judicial investigation in France, there are persistent leaks. Some have proved reliable; others less so. Confusion, understandably, reigns.

Some clarity is beginning to emerge, however. A recent book, Enquete sur la Mort de Diana, by two French journalists, Jean-Marie Pontaut and Jerome Pontaut, quotes at length from official witness statements and forensic reports presented to Judge Stephan. Based on this book, and other reliable-seeming leaks and the off-the-record comments of defence lawyers, it is possible to piece together the approximate state of official information, 12 months later, on the accident.

Diana and Dodi fled their paparazzi-haunted idyll in the Mediterranean at short notice. The French and British governments were not officially informed until the Harrods' Gulfsteam jet arrived at Le Bourget airport at 3.20pm on Saturday, 30 August.

The governments may not have known, but the paparazzi did. Tip-offs from Italian air traffic control meant that - to Diana and Dodi's irritation - photographers were waiting for them at Le Bourget.

The couple went, briefly, to the Duke and Duchess of Windsor's old villa in the Bois du Boulogne, now leased by Mohammed Al Fayed. They went on to the Ritz Hotel, owned by Mr Al Fayed since 1979, and then a large apartment owned by Dodi just off the Champs Elysees. Outside, there was a nasty shoving match with some of the paparazzi, including one or two of those later arrested.

As they drove from there towards a trendy restaurant in the Marais area of Paris, the photographers swarmed around the car. Dodi, who had promised Diana he would shake them off, angrily changed plans and they took refuge at the Ritz. The mood of the couple that evening has been described by the bodyguards, and Ritz employees, as swinging between irritation and ebullience, and anger and happiness.

Dodi, anxious to redeem his promise to Diana, personally devised a plan to "escape" from the Ritz by the back door in a hastily-hired Mercedes. The couple's earlier car and a Range Rover were to be decoys. Henri Paul, acting head of security at the Ritz and not a professional chauffeur, was asked by Dodi to come back to drive the getaway car. Mr Paul had been away from the hotel for three hours. It seems likely - but there is no direct evidence - that he had been drinking alone at home.

He had been prescribed four different kinds of drugs, including Prozac, intended to combat depression or alcoholism. None of these drugs are supposed to be taken in conjunction with alcohol.

At the hotel, knowing he was to drive Diana and Dodi, he drank at least two Ricards. Several Ritz and Al Fayed employees (including Mr Wingfield) denied this originally to the judge, but the bar bill is in the official file.

At 20 minutes past midnight on 31 August, the hunted couple, and the bodyguard, Trevor Rees-Jones, got into the Mercedes at the rear (Rue Cambon) entrance of the Ritz.

On the previous journey, taking a Japanese guest to Charles de Gaulle airport, a chauffeur noticed that the Mercedes'red brake alarm light was blinking on and off. This had previously been reported, but dismissed as unimportant. An earlier chauffeur had also reported that the car tended to skid from the rear if the brakes were applied hard.

Dodi's ruse, predictably, failed. The paparazzi pursued the Mercedes through the Place de la Concorde and on to the fast dual carriageway alongside the Seine, heading towards the Eiffel Tower. This was not the way to Dodi's flat on the Champs Elysees, where the couple were to stay that night. The diversionary route was chosen at the last moment, apparently by Mr Paul, to allow him to speed along the Seine banks and throw off the pursuing pack.

Why bother, one might ask? There were already photographers waiting outside the flat, as everyone - paparazzi, Dodi, Mr Paul - must have known. This was, in effect, a game, played by both sides, with varying degrees of good or bad humour; a game played a hundred times before.

Five minutes later, the Mercedes - travelling at an estimated 80-100mph - entered the sloping, turning road towards the tunnel under the Place de l'Alma.

No-one alive can remember what happened next, except, perhaps, the driver of a Fiat Uno. Forensic evidence - long, white grazes on the right front wing of the Mercedes and pieces of debris which could only come from a Fiat Uno - have convinced the investigators that the limousine ran into another car as it entered the tunnel approach. There was also evidence on the roadway that the Mercedes braked violently for 20 metres.

In any event, the heavy, armoured limousine (which Mr Paul was not qualified to drive) skidded out of control and struck the parapet between the two carriageways. As it rebounded into the road, Mr Paul appears to have fought for control of the car, even pressing the accelerator to increase grip on the carriageway. But the Mercedes smashed into the thirteenth pillar of the underpass and span around to face the way it had come.

Dodi and Mr Paul were killed instantly; Diana died in hopital five hours later; Trevor Rees-Jones - the only member of the party to wear a seatbelt - survived, but gravely injured. He still remembers nothing of the crash itself.

Two reliable witnesses - a banker, George D, and his wife - saw a white Fiat Uno with a dog in the boot as it emerged, zig-zagging crazily, from the tunnel at about this time. In their deposition to the judge, they said the driver, a man in his 30s, appeared shocked and haggard, and was "looking behind him, in his rear mirrors, as if he was waiting for something far behind in the Tunnel de l'Alma."

All efforts to find the car have failed. Scores of the 112,000 cars broadly answering this description could not be found. Is this not odd or suspicious? "Not so odd," says one defence lawye. "If the person had been drunk, or in a place they should not have been, they would have the choice between owning up and having the world's media in their garden, or pushing the Fiat into a lake and saying they had left it abroad."

There are conflicting accounts of how near the paparazzi were to the Mercedes when it crashed. Some witnesses say that the bikes were close to the car as it approached the tunnel; others - and the photographers themselves - say that they were trailing far behind. Some of the arrested paparazzi, not all, behaved appallingly in the minutes that followed, taking pictures of the dead Dodi and dying Diana, fighting among themselves. Only one tried to phone the emergency services, but dialled the wrong number.

To believe that these facts can be twisted into a shape which reads "plot", you have to believe the following: That the British security services (or whomever) arranged for a flying Mercedes to be attacked by a small Italian car - a Fiat Uno! - on an unlikely route, chosen by Mr Paul only three or four minutes before. Alternatively, you have to believe - Al Fayed's latest theory - that the car was tampered with, even though it was not the car Diana and Dodi were supposed to use.

To believe it was an accident, you have to suppose that Henri Paul, approaching the tunnel at high speed, found a Fiat Uno lumbering in his path. He braked and clipped the car, and span out of control; or he braked, clipped the car and the defective brakes sent him into a spin. You do have to explain away the fact that Fiat Uno driver has never been found.

Judge Stephan, by all accounts, has settled confidently for the second option; Diana died in a road accident. He must still decide however whether the paparazzi contributed to the deaths of three people and should be tried for manslaughter (thought to be unlikely) or whether some of the paparazzi, probably not all, should be tried for failing to assist the victims.

There is also an outside chance that he might recommend charges of negligence against the Ritz. Even if he does not do so, civil suits against the hotel from Diana's family and Trevor Rees-Jones seem increasingly likely.

What is less likely is that the full truth of what happened in the approach to the Tunnel de l'Alma will ever be known.