As Netflix launches its final season of “The Crown,” focusing on Princess Diana, her boyfriend Dodi Fayed, and his billionaire father, Mohamed Al-Fayed, many viewers will be retold the story of Diana’s shocking death through TV news flashes. Personally, I remember getting the news in a phone call from the White House.
When Diana and Dodi were killed in Paris, I was working at the American Embassy there. A career FBI agent, I was assigned to Paris as the legal attaché, meaning I was the U.S. government’s official liaison with French law enforcement. Later, my private work as a consultant would draw me more deeply into the investigation of the tragedy.
The following account, adapted from my book The Fall of the FBI, includes many details about the tragedy and its aftermath that you are unlikely to see in “The Crown.”
White House Calling
A phone was ringing in our Paris apartment. An extension of the embassy switchboard, it had to be answered. It was after 1:00 a.m., on the last day of August 1997.
The operator — stress in his voice — told me the White House was on the line with a request from President Bill Clinton, who was vacationing on Martha’s Vineyard. The president wanted to know the details of Princess Diana’s auto accident, which he had just learned of from a brief CNN news flash.
Leaving that phone line open, I used my cell phone to call the command post of the Paris Police. I identified myself to the French police officer who answered. I heard him repeating my urgent request into what I could picture as a busy and crowded command post. I was told Diana had indeed been in an auto accident, and two of her companions had been killed. She was still alive and being taken to the Hôpital La Pitie Salpetriere, a major Paris hospital, after being treated at the scene.
I relayed this information to the White House operator and was told that was exactly what the president wanted to know: the princess’s location. The next morning, sadly, I learned Princess Diana had died after my call.
In France, for days preceding her death, the media were reporting in living color on the princess and Dodi’s frolicking on Al-Fayed’s yacht, just off the Riviera. This was surely a romance. Dodi’s father, Mohamed Al-Fayed, deeply invested in his oldest son’s future, would insist the couple was engaged and planning on marriage.
On Saturday, Aug. 30, 1997, Diana and Dodi arrived in Paris. They spent an hour that afternoon inspecting the Villa Windsor. (Near the Bois de Boulogne, a vast wooded park, the Villa Windsor was introduced in the previous season of “The Crown” as the former residence of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor.) The duke was formerly King Edward VIII, who abdicated in 1936 to marry the woman he loved — an unpleasant issue for the royal family. Mohamed Al-Fayed had secured a 50-year lease on the property and spent millions restoring it.
That evening the couple had dinner at the Ritz Hotel, also owned by Mohamed Al-Fayed. Earlier in the day Dodi had picked up a six-figure diamond ring at a jeweler steps from the Ritz on the Place Vendôme — an engagement ring in Al-Fayed’s telling. About 20 minutes after midnight the couple left the hotel, intending to return to yet another of Al-Fayed’s properties — an apartment on Rue Arsène Houssaye, a narrow street near the Arc de Triomphe, at the top of the Champs-Élysées. To evade the paparazzi, they left from the hotel’s rear entrance on Rue Cambon along with Diana’s bodyguard, Trevor Rees-Jones. Henri Paul, the hotel’s chief of security, drove the couple.
He took them along the embankment on the right side of the Seine. Some have questioned his choice of this route, rather than the more direct run, straight up the Avenue des Champs-Élysées. Anyone who has seen the Champs-Élysées at midnight on a Saturday knows why he chose that route. At midnight, this major boulevard is a crawl with bumper-to-bumper traffic and mobs of pedestrians.
His chosen route led them into the Pont de l’Alma underpass. Paul was clearly speeding, in an apparent effort to lose the pursuing paparazzi. Dodi and Paul were pronounced dead on the scene. Diana was treated in an ambulance for about half an hour.
Criticism from outside France was directed at this “delay” in getting Diana to a hospital. In the United States, standard operating procedure is to get the injured to a hospital as fast as possible. American medical personnel call these first minutes after an accident the golden hour, when lives can be saved by the personnel and equipment available in a hospital. The French approach is to bring the personnel and equipment to the injured. Hence, the French ambulance services carry sophisticated equipment and are staffed by nurses and doctors. One system is not necessarily better than the other.
The death of Diana captured the world’s attention. Shortly after dawn, the French interior minister and the prime minister visited the hospital. Later in the day, Diana’s former husband, Prince Charles, arrived in Paris. He was accompanied to the hospital by Jacques Chirac, the French president. Within hours of the news of Diana’s death, Mother Teresa issued a statement from Calcutta honoring the princess. The two had formed a deep bond. Their last meeting was earlier that summer, on June 18, 1997, when they toured the streets of the Bronx together.
On Monday morning, Sept. 1, 1997, FBI headquarters called asking how many agents I needed in Paris to help work the case. Even those at their desks in Washington were taking this loss personally. But as much as we all wanted to “do something,” there was no case for us. This was a traffic accident in France, which killed a British princess. The FBI had no official role to play.
But I would eventually be given a role to play.
After retiring from the FBI, I was working as a consultant when asked to help on a “very sensitive” case by an FBI colleague. It was an investigation related to the princess’s death. He needed someone with a knowledge of both the French and British police systems. Mohamed Al-Fayed had suspicions about the death of his son and the princess, whom he had regarded as his future daughter-in-law. He was unsatisfied with the French judicial investigation. Their 6,000-page report had concluded that Princess Diana’s death was an accident.
A conference was arranged at the Washington, D.C., area law firm representing Al-Fayed to discuss the case. Sitting at a conference table with the firm’s attorneys, we were on speakerphone with John MacNamara calling from London. MacNamara was a retired detective chief superintendent from the London Metropolitan Police. He was then the chief of security at Harrods, the upscale London department store owned by Mohamed Al-Fayed.
MacNamara outlined Al-Fayed’s belief: The crash was orchestrated by MI-6 on orders from the royal family. Further, the CIA aided MI-6 in this murderous undertaking. I pushed back. There was no rational reason, nor national interest, for the CIA to want Diana dead. MacNamara did not like my pushback. I promised, even though I did not believe there was a conspiracy, we would “turn over every stone” to see if there was collusion with French, British, or American services.
Suddenly, a different voice came out of the speakerphone. “I like what Mr. Baker promises,” said Mohamed Al-Fayed. “Yes, turn over every stone.”
A few days later, I met my colleague at Washington’s Dulles Airport for an overnight flight on British Airways to Heathrow. The law firm, on Al-Fayed’s orders, had issued us a pair of round-trip business-class tickets to London. We arrived at Heathrow the following day and, as instructed, traveled to an address on London’s luxurious Park Lane. We were given Dodi Fayed’s apartment to use while in London. Al-Fayed kept his son’s London flat as a shrine. For years, he had refused to sell the Park Lane apartment, one of the sites where his son romanced Diana in the summer of 1997.
The next morning, we were scheduled to attend an early morning meeting at Harrods with MacNamara and his team. We planned to take a lunchtime train, for which I had gotten tickets, through the channel tunnel to Paris. We walked across Hyde Park to our scheduled meeting at Harrods department store, leaving our packed bags in the apartment.
The meeting took place in a green and beige conference room on the fifth floor of Harrods. Others in the room included MacNamara’s security team, former members of Britain’s fabled SAS. MacNamara slyly referred to them as his “killers.” We settled down around the large mahogany conference table and the usual “who do you know” banter began. I mentioned a current commander in the Met police, whom I knew. The name set MacNamara off.
Turns out, the commander had led an investigation of MacNamara — and Al-Fayed — for burglarizing a safe deposit box in Harrods’ basement. A truly bizarre episode. Al-Fayed and his former business partner Roland “Tiny” Rowland had a falling out. Finding his safe deposit box burgled, Tiny Rowland complained to the police. Scotland Yard’s ensuing investigation led to arrests of MacNamara and Al-Fayed, among others. The case never made it to trial, but it was an indication of the strange ways of Al-Fayed and his team.
Speaking for Al-Fayed, MacNamara told us, “We have absolutely no doubt Dodi and Princess Diana were murdered.” Nor were they satisfied with the French investigation; what happened in the Pont de l’Alma underpass was no auto accident. Henri Paul was an informant for one or another security or intelligence service. I somewhat surprised him by agreeing to that last assertion. A security manager at a large international hotel would likely be carried as an informant on the books of at least one law enforcement or intelligence agency.
John MacNamara did not like that we were not “buying into” his theory of the case. But what was agreed on was the key focus of our investigation in France: Who was Henri Paul involved with, and was Henri Paul an informant for any agency? We let them know — we could not finesse it — we did not believe there was a conspiracy. Again, I gave my “but we will turn over every stone” speech.
Mohamed Al-Fayed stepped into the room. Again, he said, “I like what Mr. Baker says,” gesturing with two cupped hands, turning one palm up as he spoke, “Turn over every stone.” He then declared, “Prince Philip is the one who gave the orders.” We just listened. Then the grieving father, who has a surprisingly pleasant face, explained why it was his strong belief the princess and his son were planning to marry. He was sympathetic and, on this last point only, believable.
We all — except for Al-Fayed — started to make our way out. MacNamara declared, “You’re coming with us.” But our luggage was back at the Park Lane apartment. “We’ve taken care of that,” he said. Along with MacNamara and his SAS “killers,” we got into a couple of black Daimler limousines. In minutes, we were at a heliport alongside the Thames. There was a magnificently large helicopter gleaming in the green and beige livery of Harrods, the name stylized on the aircraft’s side, its rotors revving up. We got in and quickly took off. It was surprisingly spacious and luxurious inside.
MacNamara and one of his men sat facing us across a table, and at least four others were in the passenger cabin. There were two pilots up front. As comfortable as it was, it had the disadvantage of all helicopters: One could not talk above the roar of the engines. It didn’t matter. Since we left the conference room at Harrods, MacNamara hardly said a word, his men nothing. Hostility was palpable.
We were soon at a high altitude. It was a crystal-clear day. I could make out the battlefield at Hastings just before we left the English countryside behind and started to cross over water. Bright dark blue water shimmering in the sunlight far below. The tickets for the channel train, which we had planned to be on about now, were still in my breast pocket. Sitting there in this uncommunicative atmosphere I began to experience a sense of dread. Nobody knew we were over the English Channel. They could toss us out over the water, and no one would be any the wiser. None of these guys had made eye contact with us — a worrisome “tell.” I started to make defensive plans in my head but quickly came to the realization we were no match for these guys. My colleague later said he had the same fear.
The Sweetest Revenge
In Paris, we would be staying at an apartment on Rue Arsène Houssaye, the very place Dodi and Diana had been bound for when they were killed. It was a truly grand apartment, which occupied the top floors of the building. There were phones throughout for us to use. We suspected the phones, likely the entire apartment, were bugged. Our suspicions would be confirmed.
Each day we got out and about in Paris. We ultimately got to see everyone as we intended, turning over every stone, as promised. These meetings included a variety of police, diplomatic, and intelligence contacts. Almost every person we spoke with acknowledged that Henri Paul — because of his position — was likely a source for one or more agencies. We were assured, however, that Henri Paul was not acting in collusion with anyone on the night of the accident.
After five days of “turning over every stone,” we went to the Ritz Hotel for a scheduled meeting with Al-Fayed’s team. The following day we were to return to London. They were unhappy with us for not believing the “truth” of what happened. They said enough to let us know the apartment was bugged. We were not surprised. We were told to leave France. We were not to return to London. We were handed two one-way business-class tickets for the first Air France flight to Dulles Airport the next morning.
A British police investigation — Operation Paget — and a follow-on U.K. inquest would reexamine the crash. The 2006 police report ruled Diana’s death a “tragic accident.” The inquest ruled in 2008 that the couple were victims of an “unlawful killing” by Paul and the paparazzi. Sad findings, but no conspiracy.
The inquest discredited John MacNamara. On Feb. 14, 2008, he admitted under oath he had no evidence of the involvement of the British or French security services, nor the Duke of Edinburgh, in a plot to kill the couple.
It is likely, as Mohamed Al-Fayed maintained until his death this summer, that Dodi Fayed and Princess Diana were planning to marry. There is more than the engagement ring. Diana’s divorce had become final; she was now free to marry. She was high-maintenance, and Dodi certainly could maintain her in the style to which she was accustomed. Then there was the 50-year lease on Villa Windsor. What an opportunity to “poke a finger in the eye” of the royal family: To take up residence in the former home of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor would be Diana’s sweetest revenge on the royal family.
But it all ended in a traffic accident — just as I was told in an early morning phone call with the French Police on the last day of August 1997.