Focus: The wives, the women and the Shaftesbury millions

Tussles over the Earl's fortune started before his disappearance last November, and are set to escalate with an expected murder trial. Tom Anderson reports
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The mysterious death of the 10th Earl of Shaftesbury is opening up not just a murder inquiry, but a tangled web of potential claimants to his multi-million-pound fortune.

The mysterious death of the 10th Earl of Shaftesbury is opening up not just a murder inquiry, but a tangled web of potential claimants to his multi-million-pound fortune.

The fate of the 67-year-old Lord Shaftesbury's estate - including three houses in England, two in France and a treasure trove of antique furniture and valuables - is now in doubt. The earl disappeared on the French Riviera four months ago, and has not been found - dead or alive; his third wife, Jamila M'Barek, and his brother-in-law are now being questioned about his murder.

Mme M'Barek's possible involvement throws into doubt the usual inheritance conventions. As well as the Shaftesbury family's 9,000-acre seat, St Giles House in Dorset, the earl owned a Georgian seafront flat in Brighton and an expensive London residence. In France he had a house in the affluent hillside area of Cannes and a renovated windmill near Toulouse, valued at £1m each. There was also £3m worth of furniture in his rented Versailles apartment.

Normally this wealth might be expected to pass quietly to his wife and children. But the circumstances of Anthony Ashley-Cooper's life were not normal. The playboy aristocrat had three wives, two children from his second marriage, a string of nightclub-hostess companions and an ex-girlfriend who once modelled for Penthouse. One of the nightclub hostesses, Nadia Orcha, 32, claims the Earl intended to divorce his estranged third wife and marry her.

The Earl's third wife, a Tunisian-born former nightclub hostess, is now formally under investigation after confessing to French police that her brother, Mohammed, beat Shaftesbury to death in a row about money. Detectives are reportedly pursuing a line of inquiry that Mohammed M'Barek may have hidden the Earl's body in his car boot before disposing of it on the way back to his home in Germany.

Even before there was any suggestion of 43-year-old Mme M'Barek's involvement in the murder, a tussle over his money had begun. The Earl's second wife, Christina Casella - with whom he had two sons, Lord Anthony, 27, and Nicholas, 25 - had been attempting to freeze Shaftesbury's assets. But Mme M'Barek quickly made moves to secure the multi-million-pound legacy for herself.

According to the Shaftesbury family, Mme M'Barek had emptied the Earl's Versailles flat of antique furniture worth £3m. She claimed it was for "safekeeping". She had also had the £1m flat in Cannes valued by an estate agent, as well as his country home near Toulouse. At the time Mme M'Barek said: "I am only doing it for Anthony. I want to safeguard our assets."

Yesterday Phillipe Soussi, the lawyer for the Earl's sister, Lady Frances Ashley-Cooper, refused to be drawn on the future of the estate, beyond confirming that Mme M'Barek owned the properties in Cannes and Toulouse, and was still receiving her monthly allowance of €7,000 (£4,800). Franck de Vita, a lawyer acting for Mme M'Barek, is reported as saying that her confession was the result of a nervous breakdown, and that she was not involved in the murder. He said: "The couple were on the point of an amicable divorce settlement, where she stood to gain £206,000. With his death she gets nothing."

But Lord Shaftesbury's lawyer, Thierry Bensaude, claimed that relations between the couple were far from amicable and that the Earl was contesting the ownership of the house in Cannes, attempting to halt her allowance and trying to recoup some of the money that he had lavished on her.

According to Thierry Bensaude, the Earl of Shaftesbury's fascination with the "different world" of seedy bars in the back streets of Cannes proved his undoing. As a similarly dissolute aristocrat, the Earl of Rochester, said: "Must we not pay a debt to pleasure too?"