Lovelorn, loaded, alone

When Countess Valentina Artsrunik's lover was convicted in America of murder and jewel theft, it seemed she had nowhere to turn. Except to her ex-husbands, of course. And Max Clifford. By Steve Crawshaw
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A Bulgarian-born Russian society beauty who travels on a French passport and lives in a Knightsbridge apartment with her ex-husband, a wealthy Nigerian-born Armenian count. A millionairess's bodyguard, who becomes the countess's lover after meeting her one night in the bar of a Palm Beach hotel. A jeweller is murdered in the American south: the bodyguard is convicted of murder and robbery; the countess is also jailed while facing related charges but is later acquitted. The countess hopes to sue the court for wrongful arrest, and seeks to mount an appeal against her lover's conviction, claiming that this is all a set-up and a terrible injustice.

The cast of characters and storyline might have been dreamed up by John Grisham, emperor of the outlandish thriller plot - and then discarded as an exoticism too far. It comes as no surprise to find that Hollywood agents are beating a path to Countess Valentina Artsrunik's door for her to tell her tale and that of her boyfriend, 48-year-old Dorian Lester, and of the mysterious death of George Moody in Charlottesville, Virginia.

Her door is up a few flights of stairs in Knightsbridge, just around the corner from Harrods and from all the designer shops that have been her habitat for many years. Admire the collection of hats in the hallway, and she is casually dismissive. "This is just for everyday use. I've got 300 upstairs." (At around pounds 800 a time, she later reveals.) That's along with the eight fur coats and the wardrobes full of couture dresses and...

Enough. All of this now means nothing to her, she says. "They're just things." She hopes to organise an auction of some of the hats and dresses and furs. This week, she opened a Defence of Dorian Lester Fund, to raise money for legal fees.

The 42-year-old countess has just returned from the United States, where she was acquitted on charges of larceny. The prosecution's case was that Lester killed George Moody and that Artsrunik was involved in the robbery of $40,000 (pounds 25,000) worth of gems. Artsrunik spent five months in custody before being released on bail.

Artsrunik and Lester were due to fly to London to start their new lives together, when they were arrested four days after the murder in September 1997. According to the prosecution, Lester ("fameless and wealthless") killed Moody to gain money to buy her presents.

She suggests that such money was chickenfeed, given her spending habits. "The limit on one of my credit cards alone was pounds 50,000. A month." The ruby and diamond earrings that she is wearing have alone, she says, been valued on Bond Street at pounds 20,000.

The way Artsrunik tells it, her spending habits - from the funds supplied to her by ex-husbands and the other men who have passed through her life - should have provided her and Lester with the perfect alibi. During the hours before, during and after the murder, her credit card was in non- stop use - buying antiques, paying for meals, buying clothes. In addition, "There was no material evidence - no blood, no DNA, nothing."

Four days after the murder, a Swat anti-terrorist team ambushed the couple. "They shouted: `Police! Down!' Dorian likes to play practical jokes, and I thought it was a joke he had set up. I started laughing. I stopped when they laid me down and handcuffed me."

Both Lester and Artsrunik were, in their different ways, part of an exceptionally beau monde. Lester worked for media billionaire John Kluge, who was described as "formerly the world's richest man", and later continued to work for his estranged wife, former belly-dancer Patricia Kluge. As for Countess Valentina, who still speaks with the soft remnants of a Russian accent - she had connections everywhere. "I don't deny I've had a magical life."

She chose her first husband, Maurice, a Frenchman three decades older than her, because he could give the teenage Valentina a passport out of Communist Bulgaria. Then came a retired English army officer, also 30 years older, who bought her a house in France. Then came Edward Artsrunik, Armenian count and international insurance broker. Then came David Conway, a shipping heir she came upon (as one does) in a St Moritz hotel. (She had gone on holiday to St Moritz with the nanny and her young son - to escape from money problems.) And finally, Lester.

Everything about her is larger than life. She says that she is fond of red. But you could guess that, without being told. She is elegantly dressed in shades of red from top to toe; the living-room walls are red; the dining- room walls are red. Even in difficult circumstances, she retains her loyalty to keeping some would-be glamour. In prison ("a cross between boarding school and an East European hospital"), she says she became famous for her home-made lipstick - Vaseline and red-coloured markers together. She says with a Diana-like, knowing innocence: "I have had a good life."

Nor does she seem to quarrel with her men definitively. Edward Artsrunik was scathing of her at the time of their break-up, describing her as "a terrible social climber"; but he now lives almost amiably with her in the same apartment, together with their elder son. She describes David Conway, father of her two younger children, as "my best friend - he doesn't like publicity, but he was ready to testify on Dorian's behalf".

Meanwhile, she worries that all the glamour obscures what she sees as the unjustified suffering that her lover is now going through. She fondly recounts his romantic gestures: the simple bracelet that she is wearing, which he made from the threads of regulation-blue prison sheets and smuggled out, with a lock of his hair attached. (Not all of his gifts to her were so simple: she wears the bracelet on the same hand as the sapphire-studded diamond and platinum ring that she also received from him.)

She has had meetings with the publicity supremo Max Clifford ("a very nice man") about the possibility of handling her case. She has been invited to Nassau for discussions about making a Hollywood movie. But she still seems slightly fazed by finding herself in the spotlight for all the wrong reasons. "It'll always be a shadow on my name."

She and her supporting cast of former partners have already spent around $1m on her own legal costs. Now, she is determined to get Lester free, too.

"Few people would sympathise with me, ensconced in a Knightsbridge flat. I don't project the image of a victim... I find it disgraceful to peddle my life. But it's something I have to do. Nobody cares about an obscure Virginian, after all." Her struggle seems set to go on. "I don't want to go into any psychobabble. I don't fall apart. But we were taught to fight back. If it takes the rest of my life, I'll be locked into a fight."