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Dec. 10, 2020

Ep. 13: The Death of Princess Diana, Pt. 1

Diana, Princess of Wales, was known as the “People’s Princess”, and her tragic death in a car accident in 1997 caused shockwaves to ripple throughout the world. In the first of this 2-part series, Carrie explores the sad life and death of Princess Di,...

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Diana, Princess of Wales, was known as the “People’s Princess”, and her tragic death in a car accident in 1997 caused shockwaves to ripple throughout the world.

In the first of this 2-part series, Carrie explores the sad life and death of Princess Di, and why there are those who think her death may not have been an accident after all…but, as many have claimed, murder. 

In Episode 13 we’ll piece together the night of the accident and what facts about the crash seem fishiest to theorists, including how it took the ambulance over an hour and a half to get Diana to a hospital, and how the driver of a car involved in the accident has never been “officially” identified. 
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Sean, as you know, I’ve always been really fascinated by Diana, Princess of Wales, the former queen-to-be of England. I actually really admire her - how she basically had to grow into adulthood in the public eye and deal with a publicly cheating husband and still acted as a loving mother to William and Harry while giving voice to important charitable causes around the world, like landmine awareness. She was by no means perfect, but was pretty open with her struggles with mental health and eating disorders as she got older, and I think was someone who genuinely tried to do some good with her fame and notoriety, because she was a good person at heart.

With the new season of The Crown on Netflix, a whole new group of people are getting to know Diana’s story for the first time. I would say many people around our age may not know a ton about her or may not have been interested until now, while our parents lived through the time where she was the biggest news in the world. Maybe some of us remember her tragic death in 1997 - I was about to go into 2nd grade at the time, but I do remember it - but not a lot of younger people remember her impact unless they’ve read biographies on her. Now, that’s changing. One of my best friends, Sarah, blew through all 4 seasons of The Crown in the span of a week and I was fielding messages from her like “Charles is SUCH a piece of shit” and so on, whereas I know she basically had no interest in the monarchy before this and certainly not their doings in the 80s and early 90s. Diana has become, for lack of a better word, a character now in the public consciousness, and with that renewed interest comes renewed conspiracies about her death. 

Diana, Princess of Wales - also known colloquially as Princess Diana or Princess Di - passed away from injuries sustained from a fatal car crash in Paris on the night of August 31st, 1997. Some think the crash was only the beginning of the story, though, and I want to go into why there are some similar conspiracy theories surrounding her death as with the death of JFK or Marilyn Monroe. I want to do this as respectfully as possible, because again, she’s someone I really admire even still. But I’m truly curious as to why these theories abound, and why they persist even to this day.

In this episode, which will be the first of 2 parts, I’m going to go into the backstory of Princess Diana and her history with the British royal family, and also discuss her death and the initial sketchy things about what happened that fateful night. Then, next episode, I’ll go into the main conspiracy theories of WHY people think Diana was assassinated and not killed in an accident - and WHO may have been the one, or ones, to order the hit, as well as the results of the official inquests into her death.

So for now, let’s start at the beginning, and recap her story up until that fateful night in Paris.

Diana was born Lady Diana Spencer in Sandringham, England on July 1st 1961 to her mother Frances and her father John Spencer, 8th Earl Spencer. As a child she led a privileged life, but a lonely one. She was the 3rd daughter born to the Earl Spencer and in a time when titles were still passed down father to son, she came into the world a disappointment, at least until her younger brother and father’s heir, Charles Spencer, was born. Earl Spencer and Frances didn’t even name Diana for a week after her birth, because they had been determined to have a boy and hadn’t even chosen a girl’s name. Her parents divorced in 1967 when Diana was just 6, and this violent breaking up of her family unit really traumatised her for the rest of her life. She met Prince Charles, son of Queen Elizabeth II and heir to the British throne, a few times throughout her life, as she was part of a noble family and both of her grandmothers had served as ladies-in-waiting to Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother, and remained close friends. Diana’s oldest sister, Sarah, actually dated Charles seriously for a time, but in 1980 he met the now 19 year old Diana again during a country weekend and took interest in her immediately. By the way, Charles was 32 at the time. So, following a whirlwind courtship, they married on July 29th, 1981. The wedding was one of the biggest TV events of all time, with an estimated 750 million people watching from around the globe. My Mom said she woke up that morning at 5:30am to watch the wedding, and noted how there were thousands and thousands of people in the streets of London wishing the bride and groom well, and that the barely 20-year-old Diana seemed so incredibly shy during the ceremony. 

So, happily ever after, right? Wrong. See, Charles had dated around for QUITE awhile before getting married, as it had initially been thought it would be best for him to “sow his wild oats” before settling down. But he kinda sowed too many oats, there, and there was concern he was waiting too long - 32 at the time was pretty old for a future king to get hitched. So he rushed into this marriage with Diana, who said that including weekend trips as a single date, they’d probably gone out on 12 dates before tying the knot. And Charles was still hung up on one of those wild oats he’d sown - Camilla Shand, by 1981 married and known as Camilla Parker-Bowles. Charles had really wanted to marry Camilla, but his family (notably the Queen) did not approve of her as a wife for Charles and future queen of England. It’s kind of foggy WHY this is, aside from people just generally thinking she was “unsuitable”, and the sense I get is basically the monarchy wanted Charles to marry someone innocent, virginal, with no “history” to create scandal, and Camilla...well, she’d been around. And good on her, who cares! Charles had publicly banged half the single women in Britain and some non-singles, too, so I’m not sure why it mattered too much about Camilla aside from, you know, good old fashioned misogyny. 

So Charles and Diana have two sons, Princes William and Harry, but throughout this time Charles is also banging around with Camilla still, and apparently Camilla had a sort of open relationship with her husband and they were both unfaithful to each other so cool, right? Well, not for Diana. She went into the marriage truly, naively in love with Charles, with a deep wish to create a stable and loving family around herself and for her children that she never really had in her own childhood. But all she received was coldness, first from the palace and eventually from Charles, who basically got sick of dealing with her battles with depression and bulimia and need for love and ran back to Camilla the second things got tough. Now, I do have some sympathy for Charles, because he was in a fucked up situation and it’s clear he truly loved Camilla and just wanted to be with her from the jump. But most of the time, Diana bore the brunt of his frustration about the situation, and all she wanted was warmth and a happy family. She was still basically growing up, remember- I certainly didn’t become sure of myself and my wants and goals until my mid to late 20s, and I didn’t have to do all that soul searching in front of the entire world. And Diana was a STAR. Though initially shy, as my Mom noted, she had an intrinsic charisma about her and quickly became the shining light of the royal family...much to Charles and their chagrins. Their jealousy only made things for Diana more difficult, and her more starved for the kind of affection from her family that she was receiving from total strangers. As the 80s bled into the 90s, the relationship was at a crisis point, with Charles pretty much unabashedly cheating with Camilla and Diana finally finding some fuckboys of her own, and the couple engaged in a trial separation starting in 1992 once the breakdown of their relationship became public knowledge. After Diana did an exclusive interview with BBC current affairs show Panorama in November 1995, the final nail went in the coffin. Diana blew up the palace’s spot on all sorts of things they tried to keep hush-hush, like her knowledge of the Camilla affair for basically her entire marriage and Charles’ unsuitability for kingship. She also admitted in the interview that she had depression and had engaged in rampant bulimia and self-harm. 

The Queen said OH NO YOU DON’T and, hilariously formally, sent letters to Charles and Diana advising them to divorce. Aka, basically giving a royal order to cut the shit. And they officially did so, with the divorce being finalized in August 1996. Diana lost her title of “Her Royal Highness” but still remained styled as Diana, Princess of Wales and was still regarded as a member of the royal family due to her son William being in line to be king one day. Diana initially still had her royal protection officers, but viewed them as spies that would report directly to the royal family, and procured her own independent bodyguards. But now, Diana was free...well, free-er, and so was Charles basically, because Camilla and Andrew Parker-Bowles had divorced in 1994, which probably had a little something to do with the public outing of Camilla’s affair with Charles. 

Now. That’s a LOT of backstory. But I think it’s all really important for what’s to come. 


Diana tragically had just one year to live her own life after her divorce before her death in 1997. In that time she seriously dated a British Pakistani heart surgeon, Hasnat Khan, who many of her close friends referred to as the love of her life. There are varying accounts as to why the relationship broke up, but she stated that he ended the relationship (though that’s been conflicted by Khan’s own testimony) mostly due to his not wanting to be in the public eye and his desire to marry someone within his own culture as a devout Muslim man. Within a month of the breakup, Diana had begun a relationship with Dodi Fayed, the son of multimillionaire Mohamed Al-Fayed, Egyptian businessman and owner of posh British department store Harrods, among other entities. It was with Dodi Fayed that Diana was traveling on that fateful August night in Paris when their car crashed, killing 3 of the 4 passengers.

So, the crash. And the many conspiracies to follow. Let’s start with the basics.

Dodi and Diana were dining at the Hotel Ritz in Paris, another Al-Fayed holding. The paparazzi had reached a fever pitch with Diana that summer as her fling with Dodi had become incredibly public, with photos of the pair fetching bonkers money, including the most expensive paparazzi photo of all time, one of Diana and Dodi kissing on the Al-Fayed yacht just a month before their deaths. This particular photo nabbed the paparazzo $6 million. So, with a SINGLE photo able to turn you into a millionaire, it’s easy to see why the paparazzi were so frenzied at this time. Dodi felt like he could trick the paparazzi waiting to pounce outside and leave through the back entrance with Diana, bodyguard Trevor Rees-Jones, who worked for Mohamed al-Fayed, and Henri Paul, the acting security manager of the Hotel Ritz and another al-Fayed employee, who would serve as their driver back to Dodi’s Paris apartment. The paparazzi weren’t fooled, though, and followed in close pursuit. Henri Paul attempted to elude the paparazzi by speeding to the apartment, reaching speeds of over 100 mph, but lost control of the 1994 Mercedes-Benz W140 at the entrance to the Pont de l’Alma tunnel. The car struck the right-hand wall, swerved to the left of the two-lane road, and collided head-on with the 13th pillar of the tunnel at an estimated speed of 65 miles per hour, more than twice the tunnel’s speed limit. This crash occurred at 12:23am. Paparazzi on motorcycles swarmed the sedan - some rushed to help, and some just took pictures. Police arrived on the scene 10 minutes after the crash with an ambulance arriving 5 minutes after police. Several photographers were taken into custody. Dodi and driver Henri Paul had died on impact, with bodyguard Trevor Rees-Jones unconscious in the front passenger seat and Diana, in the rear passenger seat, injured but conscious. An off-duty physician at the scene, Frederic Mailliez, tended to Diana and reported she had no visible injuries but was in shock. Diana was extracted from the wreck a half hour after police arrived and went into cardiac arrest and received external cardiopulmonary resuscitation, aka CPR. After this, her heart began beating again. She was moved into the ambulance 18 minutes later, and the ambulance left the scene a bit over 20 minutes after that. It arrived at the Pitie Salpetriere Hospital about a half hour later. So, for those trying to keep track, the ambulance arrived at about 12:35am and didn’t make it to the hospital until 2:06am. Upon closer examination it became clear Diana’s heart had been displaced to the right side of the chest, tearing her pulmonary vein and pericardium. Despite rigorous resuscitation attempts, she died in the hospital at approximately 4am. Her death was announced to the media at 6am. 

OK. So what’s fishy about this? Tragic, for sure, but the car was speeding in a claustrophobic tunnel that’s been called a “dangerous structure”. Well, there are a number of admittedly suspicious details to the accident. There is one traffic camera inside the tunnel, but it conveniently was not working on the night of the accident. She habitually wore a seatbelt but on this occasion had not put it on. However the rear right seatbelt was found to be defective. One fact that people bring up is how, despite 7 paparazzi being arrested at the scene, the French police basically treated it like a basic traffic accident. Evidence was deeply compromised - the crushed-up Mercedes, exhibit A in any case, was thrown onto a flatbed truck and bounced through the streets of Paris on the way to its destination. Then, within hours, the crime scene was swept up and hosed down. More evidence potentially lost. The police did, however, find smears of white paint along the right side of the car - showing that the Mercedes had contact with another car. A white car. It took days to figure out what car the white paint came from, but every kind of official brand car paint is traceable, so eventually they found that this kind of paint was only ever used for the Fiat Uno, between the years 1983 and 1987. Keep that in mind for a second.

Let’s discuss the pursuing vehicles, because that will come up again later. So, paparazzi were following the Mercedes mostly on motorbikes. Though they’d caught up to the Mercedes at the red light before the tunnel, according to Detective Colin McLaren, investigator for the documentary Princess Diana’s Death: Mystery Solved, the Mercedes approached the tunnel at a speed upward of 100 miles per hour. This would’ve left any regular motorbikes far behind. However, in the media at least, the blame for the crash fell heavily on the shoulders of the paparazzi chasing the car. According to witnesses there was the screeching of tires just before the crash, as if the car was braking, as well as 3 motorcycles surrounding the Mercedes ALONG WITH a mysterious white car seen leaving the crime scene. Which was said to be a...white Fiat Uno.

Police wanted to find this Fiat because it at worst very likely had a hand in causing the crash, and at best was part of a hit and run. Colin McLaren found that it was likely the Mercedes skidded to avoid the Fiat near the entrance to the tunnel where an on-ramp merged onto the road, and scraped down the side of it, literally becoming airborne over a bump in the road before the side tires hitting the wall in front of the tunnel opening. This is corroborated by skid marks found at the scene and a large tear found in the right front tire of the Mercedes. It hurtled into the tunnel and, well, we know the rest. Kind of. Because we also know the Fiat was seen fleeing the scene - so, who was driving it? Were they part of a plot to cause the accident?

One possible ID for the driver is Le Van Thanh. He owned a white Fiat Uno that, mere weeks after the accident, had been hastily painted red. Thanh insists that he was working that night. Le also fits the description of the driver given by an eyewitness, and even had a black and tan dog that used a muzzle, which the witness said she saw in the backseat of the Fiat that night. His own father said years later “I do not want to believe he was in the tunnel that night, but I know he has said things that just do not add up. He behaved very strangely at the time and has behaved strangely since. What I do know is that the Fiat was painted only hours after the crash that killed Princess Diana.” Thanh later admitted that he in fact was driving in Paris that night but was not near the accident scene--though he could not remember what he was doing, where he went or who he saw. But the police never analyzed the left side of the Fiat, which would’ve been the part of the car to scrape against the Mercedes, and Thanh is eliminated from the investigation. And French authorities just...stop searching for the driver anymore. Which is weird.

But maybe it really wasn’t Thanh. What about paparazzo James Andensen? Andensen was a well-known photographer that had been following Diana that summer taking photos. He flew from Sardinia to Paris on the same day Diana and Dodi did, but could not prove his whereabouts the night of the crash. Why does that matter? Well, because Andensen owned a white Fiat Uno and lived in France. Pretty big coincidence for someone who had been stalking two of the victims of the crash all summer. This car was also repainted shortly after the crash and sold by Andensen in October of that year. Cased closed, right? Let’s ask Andensen. ….Welllll, we can’t. Because on May 5th, 2000, police found a badly burned body in the wrecked of a car, deep in the woods in the south of France. The body was Andensen. His death was officially ruled a suicide. Christophe Pelat, the first fireman on the scene, insisted that “I saw him at close range and I’m absolutely convinced he had been shot in the head, twice.” So...he shot himself in the head, twice, then set his car on fire??

A week after Andenson’s body was finally identified and his death was made public, 3 masked men broke into the office of the Sipa Agency, where Andensen worked. They made off with several cameras, laptops, and hard drives. One hostage of the three the men took was convinced these men were part of the French Secret Service. Some think this break-in and robbery was related to his death. 

Back to the crash. Eyewitness Francois Levistre testified that in his rearview mirror “One of the motorbikes cut across the front of the Mercedes. There was a big, white flash, and the car started to zigzag. Then it crashed. I thought it could be an assassination, or a gangland hit.” Another driver behind the Mercedes saw something similar, including the bright flash of light, so there are multiple eyewitnesses on this one. Maybe the flash was the flash of a camera, disorienting driver Henri Paul?

Or, maybe it was something else. Former MI-6 agent Richard Tomlinson gave a sworn statement to the French inquiry in May 1999 that MI-6 had been involved with the crash. He also stated Henri Paul was an MI-6 agent, and that Diana’s eath mirrored plans he saw in 1992 for the assassination of then President of Serbia Slobodan Milošević, by using a strobe light to blind his chauffeur and cause an accident. He walked back these claims years later, claiming a faulty memory, but did recall the use of strobe lighting for this purpose being part of his MI-6 training. 

Another strange factor in this accident is the driver, Henri Paul, who along with the paparazzi commonly receives most of the blame for the deaths. It was said that Paul was drunk driving that night - in fact, one headline soon after the accident stated he was “DRUNK AS A PIG”. In fact, the media started spreading the notion that Paul’s drunk driving had cause the accident even before the blood test results came back from the pathologist or were announced to the public. A little suspect, no? But when they did come back, his blood alcohol level was over 3 times France’s legal limit. However, the blood was a little...odd. Paul’s doctor testified that he suffered from depression and, yes, was concerned about his drinking. So the doctor prescribed him Prozac and a drug to combat alcohol addiction - and he was taking both on the night of the crash. But in Paul’s first blood sample, there are no prescription drugs found there at all. So...could the samples have been switched? Well, the pathologist was admittedly haphazard in their investigation. They didn’t even bother to label the samples, and left them like that in the fridge to be labeled by someone else the next day. 
Friends and family of Paul swear he was not an alcoholic, while what his doctor said would seem to contradict that. But Paul was off-duty before being called back to the Ritz for Dodi and Diana, and he was seen that night at his local pub having a few drinks. At the Ritz he only had 2 drinks, Ricards, which wouldn’t have put him 3x the legal limit at the time of the crash...but if he’d consumed a lot more liquor previously, not having known he would be working unexpectedly that evening, perhaps he did make his way up to that amount. I have to admit he looks perfectly normal on security footage of that night, but many with drinking problems are able to appear perfectly normal to the average eye. That night he was also continuously smoking cigars, and that could’ve masked the smell of alcohol on his breath, further clouding the obviousness of his inebriation. 

Here’s another little bugaboo with the blood tests. In the two French TOXLAB tests, Paul was found to have 12.8% carbon haemoglobin saturation, a combination of blood's iron-carrying pigment and carbon monoxide. A smoker normally has about 10%, so the result was not unusual - remember the cigars he’d been smoking. Another test, backed by the opponents of the official findings, showed Paul had 20.7% in his blood at the time of death; if accurate, this would have meant that Paul's blood had 40% saturation of carbon monoxide a few hours earlier, and he would scarcely have been able to function at all. These findings have led some to question if Paul’s blood was switched with that of a suicide victim sharing the same morgue, someone that had killed themselves by carbon monoxide inhalation.

Another frequently-cited bit of evidence toward conspiracy is the incredible amount of time between the initial crash and Diana making it to the hospital, about an hour and a half total. Now, to us in America, this sounds completely insane. We’re used to ambulances throwing on those sirens and speeding through traffic from point A to point B. In France, however, they do things a little differently. Instead of rushing someone in a medical emergency to the hospital as quickly as possible, they try to administer as much medical care as possible on the scene. They tried to do so, and very slowly extracted Diana from the car, but once removed she went into her first cardiac arrest. Then, the ambulance carrying Diana passed the Hôtel-Dieu Hospital on the Ile de la Cité en route to the Pitié-Salpêtrière Hospital. Why didn’t they stop at the first hospital? Well, the second was more equipped for cardiac emergencies like Diana’s. And the ambulance traveled so slowly to the hospital because they didn’t want to put Diana’s body into further shock with intense movement or speed...which didn’t help much, because she had a second cardiac arrest anyway during the transport. 

Finally, the couple typically traveled with a professional driver, while two bodyguards traveled close behind in a separate car, so that if anything were to happen, there was backup. However at the last minute Dodi changed this plan, and insisted that Henri Paul - not a professional driver, just a security director at the hotel - would drive them and one bodyguard, in order to evade the paparazzi, with them leaving secretly at the back of the hotel. It’s surprising this plan was agreed to by all parties, and no one is quite sure what caused the change aside from, perhaps, Dodi trying to impress his princess by evading the hordes of photographers. 

That’s it on the night of the crash for now - next week, we’ll discuss the main reasons behind why people think Diana may have been assassinated, who would have ordered the hit, the official inquests into her death, and even some fringe theories involving...Jesus Christ?