Diana's driver: Unsettling piece in a puzzle
By CRAIG R. WHITNEY with YOUSSEF M. IBRAHIMc.1997 N.Y. Times News Service, PARIS

Henri Paul, the man who died behind the wheel in the crash that killed Diana, Princess of Wales, and her escort three weeks ago, was buried Saturday morning, leaving his family and friends still perplexed by official findings that he drank heavily and took antidepressant drugs before the accident.

Paul's job that night, as the Ritz Hotel's acting security director, was to protect two of the most important charges ever entrusted to him: the princess and her escort, Dodi Fayed, the son of the hotel's owner, Mohamed Fayed, who also owns the Harrods department store in London.

Nothing in the life of Paul, a 41-year-old bachelor from Brittany, explains why he would ignore those responsibilities and take heavily to the bottle, say those who knew him.

A romantic relationship had broken up two years ago, but he had gotten over it, they say. His lifelong passion was flying, and he had passed a demanding physical for his pilot's license two days earlier. Playing tennis with his closest friend in Paris on that last morning, he declined their usual post-game beer, saying he had to go to the airport with another driver to pick up Diana and her escort.

The security cameras at the Ritz bar that he himself monitored to discourage other employees from tippling did not show him drinking during his last hours there, say officials of the London-based corporation that owns the Ritz, contradicting press reports.

Yet French prosecutors said that his body showed a blood alcohol level of between 0.173 and 0.187 percent after the accident at 12:25 a.m. Sunday, Aug. 31 -- more than three times the legal driving limit. Lawyers for the Fayed family were so surprised by the results of the first two tests that they insisted on a third, which also revealed traces of drugs used for treating depression.

The alcohol level in Paul's blood indicated that he had consumed about 10 drinks. The third set of tests was conducted in such a way to make certain that any possible contamination of earlier results was avoided.

"He was not an alcoholic," said Dominique Melo, a psychology teacher at the University of Rennes and a friend of Paul's for 25 years. Melo has been trying to shield Paul's family from publicity portraying him as a dissolute drinker.

"I never had any hesitancy about getting into his car with him at the end of a dinner," Melo said in a telephone interview. "What happened is just incomprehensible to all of us."

Lawyers who have heard this sort of thing before say that Paul's friends could be covering for him. And the Ritz management, which could be held responsible for criminal negligence for putting him behind the wheel while he was drunk and without a required limousine chauffeur's license, has every reason to deny knowledge that he was drinking on duty.

A report in the daily Le Monde this week quoted colleagues at the Ritz saying that Paul had taken to heavy drinking and tranquilizers after the breakup in 1995 of a long relationship with Laurence Pujol, said to be a former secretary at the hotel.

"They were never engaged, and he took the breakup the way anybody would," Melo said, denying that Paul seemed under any unusual stress. More recently, restaurateurs and bar owners in Paul's neighborhood saw him dining with another young woman. Attempts to further identify or reach either woman were unsuccessful.

Paul, it is clear, was a regular visitor to the many cafes and bars in his neighborhood between the Ritz and the Palais Royal in the heart of Paris. Still, for many of those who knew him, his death leaves a mystery.

He reportedly kept a motorcycle at his parents' house in Brittany, where his funeral was held today in the port city of Lorient. But his own car in Paris was a poky black Austin Mini with automatic transmission.

The Fayeds' lawyers still insist that without photographers in pursuit, there would have been no crash, and two French investigating judges are trying to determine whether photographers may have led Paul to lose control. The Mercedes S280 he was driving smashed head on into a support pillar in a tunnel under the Place de l'Alma at a speed that police have estimated at 90 miles an hour.

Only a British bodyguard, Trevor Rees-Jones, 29, survived, and the investigating judges interrogated him on Friday, but officials said he apparently had no memory of the crash. Some other witnesses have described a slow-moving black car in front of the limousine that disappeared after the accident.

Paul showed no obvious signs of inebriation, officials at the Ritz said, when he took the wheel at 12:20 a.m., a substitute for the regular driver in a maneuver to throw photographers off Diana's trail.

But the hotel, the Fayeds and friends like Melo eventually concluded that they had to accept the results of the blood tests.

"I don't think we can realistically dispute it," Melo said in a telephone interview. "Who knows how it came to be. Maybe he hadn't eaten anything that night, maybe the drugs complicated the effect of a few glasses of wine."

On that last day, Claude Garrec, perhaps Paul's closest friend in Paris, played tennis with him at a club in suburban Issy-les-Moulineaux. Paul told him that he was expecting Diana and Fayed to fly in from Sardinia to Le Bourget Airport, north of Paris, after 3 p.m., Garrec told the daily Le Parisien.

So, Garrec said, he and Paul did not have their usual after-tennis beer in Le Pelican, a bar near Paul's fifth-floor walkup apartment in a rundown building on the rue des Petits-Champs. "All he had was a couple of Cokes," Garrec said.

Melo said that Paul had passed his annual pilot's physical, with no evidence of a problem like alcoholism, on Aug. 28. "He has been flying planes since the 1970s," Melo said, and was qualified for flying in conditions of low visibility.

"Believe me," Garrec said, "these aren't the sort of things you can do if you're an alcoholic."

Paul met Diana and Fayed at Le Bourget and followed their limousine into town in a Land Rover with their baggage, with photographers dogging the convoy, ending up at the Ritz around 4 p.m.

Officials of the corporation that owns the Ritz say that the hotel's security cameras did not show Paul drinking at the hotel bar in the next three hours. Shortly after 7 p.m., by all accounts, Paul was told he could have the night off. By whom or why is not clear.

Another employee, named in French press reports as Philippe Dourneau, took the Princess and Fayed off for dinner at Benoit, a fashionable bistro. Paul left the premises. But Dourneau, unable to shake the paparazzi, took the couple back to dine at the Ritz.

Paul's whereabouts from 7 until 9:45 p.m., when the Ritz management called him on his portable telephone and asked him to return, are unknown.

He was not in Le Bourgogne, a cafe in his neighborhood where a waitress said he often came but never had more than a glass or two of pastis, a licorice-flavored liqueur served mixed with water.

He was not in his favorite restaurant, the Grand Colbert, where he and the blonde woman in her 20s often came for dinner.

"She would sometimes have a glass of champagne," a manager said, "but he would never have more than a beer and glass of Vittel mineral water."

He probably was not nearby in Harry's Bar, to the knowledge of any of the staff there, said the owner-manager, Duncan MacElhone, who said Paul was not a regular customer.

Perhaps Paul was at home, where newspaper reports said the police found a bottle of white vermouth, three-quarters empty, and an unopened bottle of champagne in the refrigerator after his death.

He was seen at 9:45 by the owner of a nightspot called La Champmesle on the rue Chabanais, a stone's throw from Paul's building, by a woman who would give her name only as Josy and who described the establishment as a lesbian bar.

"His car was parked on the street, just opposite the entrance," she said. "He had his keys in his hand, and he waved to us, `Good evening, girls, see you later,' as if he planned to drop in for a beer after he finished work. I've known him for several years, and I've been tending bar for 25, and I can tell when somebody's drunk. He wasn't."

He drove to the underground garage in front of the Ritz, parking about 10 p.m.

And he went back into the hotel, where nobody noticed his inebriated state and nobody, according to the hotel, saw him drinking.

`'I never saw the guy drink anything," said Kes Wingfield, a British bodyguard employed by the Fayed family who had accompanied the couple on their flight from Sardinia.

French newspaper accounts, quoting anonymous sources, say he had one or two pastis or whiskies in the Ritz between 10 p.m. and midnight.

At one point, said a lawyer for one of the photographers, Paul came out and bantered with them, saying something like "You won't catch us tonight."

The challenge led some of the paparazzi to stake out the back entrance, where they picked up the chase while Dourneau drove off in another sedan from the front.

A balding, stocky, taciturn man who wore glasses, Paul gave an impression of distance and seriousness, friends and acquaintances said.

He was born on July 3, 1956, in the Atlantic Coast city of Lorient, one of five sons of a municipal employee and a schoolteacher. He went to the Lycee Saint-Louis there through the baccalaureat level, the diploma required to pursue university studies, with a concentration in science.

But he did not go on to college, for, his friends say, his passion was flying. Paul got his first license at a flying club in Vannes in 1974, Melo said. In 1978, he chose to do his obligatory year of military service in the French air force -- but as an ordinary enlisted man doing security, not flying, at the air base in Rochefort, the army says.

He came to Paris in 1985 and made a living selling recreational watercraft, a business that often took him close to the Ritz, where in 1986 he learned there was an opening in the security department.

There, he was promoted to assistant director, in charge of 20 guards. Much of the job consisted of monitoring surveillance cameras, dealing with petty thieves and pickpockets and occasionally with deadbeats. The Ritz said it also put him through a training course for drivers offered by Mercedes-Benz. At the Ritz, his job also consisted of insuring the safety of the rich and famous and of their property.

One such guest, an acquaintance of the Fayed family who spoke on condition of anonymity, questioned Paul's handling of a complaint two days before the accident.

The guest asked for help to make a police report about the disappearance of a mobile phone but said, "A day later he said he couldn't do anything about it." The Fayed family continues to have doubts about the reliability of the blood tests, and his parents decided not to cremate his body in case yet another test needs to be done.

For Josy, at the bar down the street from Paul's home, the truth may never be known. "Some things I think will always be concealed from us," she said with a wave of her cigarette.




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