Did mad excess or a sinister plot kill computer mogul?

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The Independent Online
IT WAS a life of wanton excess that displayed the classic signs of having too much but not knowing what to do with it. There were the jets, the helicopters, the pounds 650,000 McLaren Formula 1 car, Ferraris, Porsches and Aston Martins. There was the private yacht, the Ducati motorcycles and the homes in America, England, Amsterdam and Alderney in the Channel Isles.

But with Christopher Dawes's millions - hundreds of them - came also the fear, the enemies and the paranoia. Yesterday, an inquest was told how the 39-year-old computer tycoon died last March when his McLaren hurtled into a tree at up to 120mph, bursting into a ball of flames. And it was told his family believed dark forces may have been behind his death.

Six months before he crashed the car - also killing his personal assistant, Fiona Newman, 37, and an architect, Michael Lamb, 32 - he gave his father, Ernest, a list of eight people he believed wanted him dead. "He was not specific but he said it might have had something to do with insider dealing," his sister, Dr Belinda Dawes, said after the inquest in Saffron Walden, Essex. "His company, Micromuse, was floated last year but we don't know if his fears had anything to do with that."

The fears came with the money that Mr Dawes made after he sold most of his shares in San Francisco-based Micromuse in February 1998, netting pounds 100m immediately and much more later. The Australian-born computer genius had set up the company in his flat in Fulham, west London, in 1987, selling computers and then inventing user-friendly programs for huge corporations.

By 1998, the company was expanding but his lifestyle was troubling potential investors - he had developed a penchant for fast cars, fast women and recreational drugs. Almost inevitably, he was deposed in a boardroom coup. He sold his shares at a price that was to double within six months.

What followed was an illustration of what a young, handsome man can do when money is no object. He and his wife, Angela, had split up, and he embarked on a spending spree that took in mansions, aircraft and cars. He bought a home and a hotel on Alderney and had plans to develop the island as a playboy paradise. But then disaster struck.

On Sunday 21 March, he decided to take the F1 car out for a spin with Ms Newman and Mr Lamb. Less than half a mile from his house, Merks Hall, near Great Dunmow in Essex, they crashed. Yesterday, the coroner, Dr Malcolm Weir, recorded the deaths as accidental after hearing evidence from police, medical and forensic science experts suggesting that Mr Dawes simply lost control of the car at high speed.

Witnesses said the car was being driven sensibly at about 50-60mph within 150 yards of the tree. However, Constable Richard Gould, a traffic-accident investigator, said the distance would have been enough for the 600 brake horse power V12 engine to have propelled the car to ridiculous speeds. "It is beyond the comprehension of most drivers," he said. "It accelerates faster than most cars can stop."

His colleague, PC Charles Harris, told how the vehicle split into two on impact, rupturing its full 20-gallon fuel tank. Medical evidence showed the three died so quickly that they did not have time to inhale any fumes or smoke.

"I would be surprised if someone could prove to me the speed was less than 100mph," PC Harris said. "And if someone could prove it was 120mph, I would not be surprised."

Yet Mr Dawes's family were not satisfied. Their barrister, Lawrence Kershen QC, pointed out that one witness had passed the F1 car and seen a "fireball" in his rear-view mirror before it hit the tree. And Mr Kershen elicited an admission from the police that none of the eight people on Mr Dawes's list had been interviewed.

"If one of your relatives had given you a list of people he believed wanted to kill him, and then a few months later he dies in an accident, you would at least expect the people on that list to be interviewed," Dr Dawes said "Well, so do we."

Relatives are reluctant to be drawn on their suspicions, but a family friend suggested that there may have been a hidden reason for the fact that Mr Dawes sold his shares so low.

At the time of his death, Mr Dawes was on bail facing charges of possessing crack cocaine with intent to supply. Eight grams were found during a search of his home on Alderney last Boxing Day, but he always denied they were his. His sister said he certainly was not dealing. "If you had hundreds of millions of pounds, would you risk it by dealing a few grams of coke?" she asked. "I believe he probably took cocaine - what San Franciscan millionaire doesn't?"

Dr Dawes prefers instead to remember his wilder, reckless but harmless side. "He had to have whatever he wanted now, at the click of his fingers," she said. "He had two jets and two helicopters and he had crews on rotation 24 hours a day. Once, I got a call in Sussex at 6am saying he would like to see me - the helicopter would be in my back garden in a couple of hours And it was."

But her favourite memory is of him spending pounds 10m in one week. "I was with him for seven days during which he bought a helicopter, a jet and a house in Amsterdam," she said. "The house was going for pounds 3m but he turned to the owners and said he would give them pounds 3.5m if they would be out by the next morning. Hardly surprisingly, they were."