The Man Who Investigated Princess Diana’s Death Tells All

·19 min read
Discovery+
Discovery+

John Stevens’ life was turned upside down on Jan. 6, 2004. That was the day the royal coroner tasked the then-Metropolitan Police commissioner with heading the inquiry into the death of Princess Diana—specifically, whether MI5 and MI6, under direct orders from Prince Philip and the British royal family, had caused the car crash in Paris’ Pont de l’Alma tunnel that claimed the lives of Princess Di and her partner Dodi Al-Fayed back in 1997.

“You know you’re going to be under fire,” says Lord Stevens, who was named to the House of Lords after retiring from Scotland Yard in 2005. “We were a target, and we still are a target for various people and strange allegations that came through over the years. You’ve just gotta face it head-on and take these people on in a way that sometimes surprises them.”

Known as Operation Paget, the investigation took 14 experienced officers nearly three years at a cost of £12.5 million. The result was a detailed 832-page report concluding that her death was “a tragic accident,” caused by a combination of the driver, Henri Paul, being intoxicated and on prescription drugs; paparazzi aggressively chasing the vehicle on motorbikes; and her not wearing a seatbelt. (A subsequent coroner’s inquest, which was argued in front of a jury, agreed.)

The Diana Investigations, a new docuseries premiering Aug. 18 on Discovery+, breaks down the evidence probed by Operation Paget and the Brigade criminelle in France, and features interviews with many of the key players in both investigations, including Lord Stevens and his righthand man David Douglas, Martine Monteil and Eric Gigou of the Brigade criminelle, as well as the paparazzi chasing Diana’s Mercedes through the tunnel, eyewitnesses, and first responders.

The Hidden Note of Princess Diana Predicting Her Own Car-Crash Death

One person who is not interviewed in the four-part docuseries is Mohamed Al-Fayed, the billionaire father of Dodi—and owner of Harrods—whose passionate campaign blaming the Crown for the deaths of his son and Diana turned public sentiment against the royals.

In a wide-ranging interview with The Daily Beast, Lord Stevens discussed the evidence he and his team examined in Operation Paget and much more.

For starters, what compelled you to take part in this docuseries? Is this your way of telling everyone to shut up and stop asking you questions about Princess Diana’s death?

The royal commissions didn’t allow people to look at documents and still doesn’t—it’s kept secret and so on and so forth—and I’ll be perfectly honest: I think the more that is actually disclosed, the more people will understand the inquiry, which was quite a complex business and has caused a lot of pain to people and a lot of puzzlement, when you’ve got the death of Princess Diana and the circumstances that she died [in].

What was the most difficult part of the investigation process for you?

The beginning of it. It had happened in August of 1997, and then I was asked to do it with my team in January of 2004. So there was a long period of time when it had not been investigated, and we had to go back into that. And we’re looking at things that happened in another jurisdiction, Paris, and we’re looking at exhibits that might not be in the same state as they were when the crash happened. Plus, it was the beginning of social media. This had an incredible amount of public interest throughout the world. Similar to when JFK got assassinated, everybody knew what they were doing when it was announced that Princess Diana had died in the l’Alma tunnel. All of that had made it a difficult situation, and it was exacerbated by the fact that Mr. Al-Fayed had asked me to do it because of what he said I’d achieved in Northern Ireland. He was determined to get me.

<div class="inline-image__caption"><p>Princess Diana, Prince William, and Prince Harry attend the Heads of State VE Remembrance Service in Hyde Park on May 7, 1995, in London.</p></div> <div class="inline-image__credit">Anwar Hussein/Getty</div>

Princess Diana, Prince William, and Prince Harry attend the Heads of State VE Remembrance Service in Hyde Park on May 7, 1995, in London.

Anwar Hussein/Getty

You also say in the documentary that part of your motivation to take on the case was that your family thought Princess Diana had been murdered. What was your theory going in?

Well, that’s quite simple. It’s a famous old phrase I used: “We’re going to go where the evidence takes us.” It’s absolutely essential in an inquiry like this, when there’s so many pressures coming from one side or the other, and the allegation was that the queen’s husband [Prince Philip] had connived with MI5 and MI6, which is the Secret Service in our country, to murder the most popular woman in the world. I mean, it was an incredibly severe allegation, and Mohamed Al-Fayed was saying it to anyone who would listen.

When you announced the results of the inquiry, you said you knew “with 100 percent certainty” that there was no conspiracy by the Crown to murder Princess Diana. I’m curious how you could reach that conclusion without ever finding the owner of the white Fiat Uno that clipped the Mercedes prior to its crashing, and also never questioning the queen or Prince Philip.

We put certain questions in writing to Prince Philip and had our answers to those, and the Fiat owner, we do know by circumstantial evidence—and so do the French Brigade criminelle—who drove that car. He actually disappeared from the scene. He wasn’t the reason for the accident—the actual car smacked into him going down that ramp at 75 mph and it was a speed limit of 40 mph. This is all in the 832 pages of the report that we did that came out during the six months of the inquest, and that’s why I can be certain that we got it right. We looked into 104 allegations made by various people of conspiracy and murder. During the inquest, all our evidence was cross-examined, and I was in the inquest box, as was my team. Eleven ordinary people who listened to it for six months came to the same conclusion and verified what we had done. That is unprecedented.

Since you say you know who the Fiat owner was, did you include the identity of that person in the inquiry?

Yes, as I’ve said before we had circumstantial evidence. The problem with that was the French held the inquiry, and we weren’t allowed to re-investigate that part of the inquiry. They came to the same conclusion: He had left the scene because there isn’t a criminal offense in France if you leave a scene where someone is dying or badly injured. I think the thing is, he’s been a bit of a victim in this as well. He’s had to live with this. But there are certain aspects of the car: The car was changed in color the following day, he was a security officer, the description fits him, he has a big dog which someone saw in the back of the car, it goes on. But what I’m particularly careful about is we haven’t got the absolute evidence that he’s the person. I can say circumstantially that he’s the person, but I’m not going to say it was the person, because I only go—and the team only goes—where the evidence takes us.

And you did end up questioning this person?

Yeah, he was questioned by the Brigade criminelle.

How did you rule out that Dodi Al-Fayed was not going to propose to Princess Diana? Because he had purchased a $700,000 engagement ring that was later found in his safe, which the jeweler, Alberto Repossi, said they had picked out together.

We interviewed 300 new witnesses—we also spoke to Prince William—and all of these people, especially her close friends, said that if she was going to accept and get engaged to Dodi, they would have known about it. Diana spoke to Prince William on a daily basis, so I don’t think she would have done that without speaking to him. And I don’t think she would have done that without speaking to some of her particular personal friends—and we took witness statements from them. So he might have bought her a ring, and there’s been a bit of conflict on that.

But what I’m asking is how could you rule out Dodi’s intent—that he was planning to propose to Princess Diana with this ring? Then she may have not even known.

Ah, whether she would have accepted—sorry. She would not have accepted it, and she didn’t indicate in any way, shape, or form that she was ever going get married or engaged to him. And we know, according to her relationship with the people that I spoke of earlier, that she certainly would have indicated to them that she was going to do so.

So you can’t rule out that he intended to propose to her.

I don’t think we can. I think what we can say from what we know is that his father would have encouraged him to propose to her.

You mentioned speaking with Prince William as part of the inquiry and you also spoke with Harry, who was pretty young at the time. That must have been a difficult conversation to have. What was that like, and what did the children express to you? It’s mentioned in the docuseries that Harry seemed to just want the chaos surrounding it to end.

I offered to go to the royal household to see them, and they agreed to see me. I went with a woman detective, a constable inspector, to see them, and I thought she’d be coming in, but outside it was said that they were only prepared to see me. So I went into the room and it was only three of us. I won’t go into the details of what we discussed other than the fact that they wanted to know what had happened to their mother. It was quite emotional. I was in there between an hour and an hour and a half. And I set out for 10 minutes what the conclusions were and the reasons, and then most of the time I was answering their questions.

Were they satisfied with your conclusions?

Yes, they were.

I wanted to ask you about the two Diana letters. The first came to light via Paul Burrell, her butler, and was said to be written by Diana in 1996. In it, she writes that Prince Charles is “planning ‘an accident’ in my car, brake failure or serious head injury…”

It was just one of the issues that had to be looked at. Recently in the High Court, that letter has passed through the legal system and Tiggy Legge-Bourke has received substantial damages, so I don’t want to go into that in any way, shape, or form. But it was just one of those issues that had to be looked at. The Burrell letter… what can one say? It’s a bit like the [Martin] Bashir mess, where he hoodwinked Princess Diana into an interview, which obviously affected her mental state as well. So I don’t want to say much more about that other than that.

<div class="inline-image__caption"><p>The wreckage of Princess Diana’s car lies in a Paris tunnel on Aug. 31, 1997.</p></div> <div class="inline-image__credit">Jack Guez/AFP/Getty</div>

The wreckage of Princess Diana’s car lies in a Paris tunnel on Aug. 31, 1997.

Jack Guez/AFP/Getty

And then there’s the Mishcon Note. It’s a big scene in the doc concerning a contemporaneous note Lord Mishcon made from a meeting with Diana in 1995 wherein she said she was informed by “reliable sources” that there was a plot to “get rid of her” via car accident. At a minimum, it was a quite eerie premonition.

It was—you’re exactly right. The letter was given by Lord Mishcon to my predecessor, Paul Condon, and he put it in his safe. I was only made aware of that when I was made commissioner myself. And I had been made aware Lord Mishcon said that he hadn’t actually attached much importance to it. However, when the coroner announced his inquest, I made sure that letter was immediately given to the royal coroner, who at that time was Michael Burgess and then subsequently became Lord Justice Scott Baker.

The Mishcon letter, we followed that up. I interviewed Lord Mishcon on three occasions and took further statements on that letter, because it’s something that caused me great concern. I saw Lord Mishcon about a month before he died, in about the spring of 2005, and he held course to the fact that he thought she was paranoid, and he hadn’t held much credence to it. He was her solicitor, and remember, a solicitor has legal obligations to their clients. He was kind enough to make no mistake about it.

Throughout the course of your investigation, what did you find was the level of Crown surveillance of Princess Diana?

Oh, I don’t… she actually asked, at one stage or another, for her official security to be withdrawn—which was a mistake, because if they had been there that night in Paris that crash absolutely would not have taken place. I forget when that happened. I became commissioner in January of 2000, and I think it was before then that she’d asked for it to be withdrawn, because she was worried about what they were learning about her movements—which actually wasn’t the case—because I think she’d had a very, very close relationship to an individual called Inspector Wharfe, and I remember being up in the northeast of England when the separation [from Charles] was announced, and she was really upset. I remember going in a room with her, along with Inspector Wharfe, to ensure that she wasn’t bothered by the press. So she had this idea that they were reporting on her. I don’t think that was the case at all.

You don’t think the Crown was surveilling Princess Diana at all?

Well, there was an allegation that your Secret Service in America was listening to her calls. We made inquiries of that and I think we can say that they didn’t. And on top of that, and this has never happened before, is that myself and two of my colleagues were given access to all of MI5 and MI6 records. We convinced ourselves, I think it was over seven days, that there was no mention of any kind of Diana document. We did see some other stuff that will have to go with me to my grave, which was highly interesting, but it didn’t relate to her. And there was no way they were going to actually lock anything away from us because they’d agreed “open book, open everything they got.”

If you ever want to share any of those MI5 and MI6 revelations, just let me know.

[Laughs] I’ve had a few offers, but I’ve turned them all down.

Throughout Operation Paget did you discover that any of the U.K. tabloids were hacking Diana’s phone? Because we obviously know now that News of the World had engaged in phone hacking, and Diana was the tabloids’ golden goose. You were also writing a column for News of the World around that time.

No, not at all. And when I found out in terms of News of the World, I’d had another nine months on my contract and immediately ceased my contract. I had nothing more to do with News of the World when it was disclosed to me that they were doing that.

One thing that gave me pause in the docuseries is you and David Douglas, the senior investigating officer in Paget, seemed to have been very charmed by Prince Charles during your questioning of him. There are recollections of him giving you compliments. How did you find the questioning of Charles?

Professional. I think we describe him as charming and cooperative. I think that’s as far as it went. I don’t think any of us—bearing in mind we had to see him and take a statement from him, which he agreed to do—were swayed by who he was. Again, we’re back to the question of: We go where the evidence takes us. We see who we have to see. And because of the letter in relation to Tiggy Legge-Bourke, we certainly had to see him, and Dave Douglas took the statement. I think we were in there about an hour.

<div class="inline-image__caption"><p>A multi-colored sea of floral tributes to Diana, Princess of Wales, lies outside the gates of her London home.</p></div> <div class="inline-image__credit">Liba Taylor/Getty</div>

A multi-colored sea of floral tributes to Diana, Princess of Wales, lies outside the gates of her London home.

Liba Taylor/Getty

I also wanted to ask you about Mohamed Al-Fayed’s allegations that Diana was pregnant at the time of the crash. What I gleaned from watching the docuseries is that this was ruled out due to a combination of sophisticated blood analysis, analyzing her menstruation cycles, and inspecting her stomach.

That’s right. We did bring the car back and amazingly took her blood and analyzed it, which said that the probabilities were that she wasn’t pregnant. That was one of the most unpleasant parts of the inquiry, to be frank. It was necessary for us—and for me—to know everything about her relationships, who her lovers were, when those lovers knew her, when they stopped, and on top of that, we had to go through every aspect of her periods, what her friends came across on the boat. And that evidence was given in court, and that… was distasteful to me. But we had to do it. Again, we had to bottom out the allegation of whether she was pregnant or not because Mr. Al-Fayed had said that was one of the reasons she was killed by the Secret Service—that she was pregnant, and they didn’t want her to be married or with a child from someone who came from a Muslim background.

You almost had to moonlight as one of those rapacious U.K. tabloid journalists.

Well, there were so many things circulating, but remember: I was seeing Mr. Al-Fayed once a month, and we were working reasonably cooperatively with his legal team and his operational team. We worked very well and had a good relationship—I was very sympathetic because he had lost his son in the crash, and I always reminded myself of that—but the bottom line of it was, as soon as I said that there was no conspiracy involved, he completely cut me off, refused to see me, and made some nasty allegations about me and my team. I could take these allegations, but some of the team I think quite rightly resented it. So when I first got in the witness box to be cross-examined by Michael Mansfield, I turned around and wanted an apology from him for what he had said. I never got it.

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Did Mohamed Al-Fayed ask you for the bull testicles and Viagra that he’d gifted you back?

[Laughs] No, he didn’t. That’s the type of relationship we had, you know? Viagra and bull testicles. I have to say, I didn’t use them. I didn’t need to use them.

Were the bull testicles he gave you for display purposes—or to eat?

The Viagra was to go down the throat and the bull testicles—he said, although this was a long time ago, that they needed to be ground down and drunk down. I don’t know!

Do you think people are ever going to be satisfied with the results of this inquiry?

When we started the inquiry, 85 percent of the public believed there was a conspiracy. By the time we ended it, and the coroner’s inquest came to their conclusion, it went down to 24 percent, if I remember rightly. There will always, always, always be people who think there was a conspiracy involved. In fact, I was in a taxi the other day in Norwich and the driver said, “Oh, I’ve always thought there was something behind this, that, and the other.” All I said to him was, “Look, you’re a reasonable guy, you drive me around now and again, will you kindly look at the program and then make your mind up? Look at it, listen, take your opinions from that program, and if you still think there’s a conspiracy, so be it. There’s nothing more we can do.” I think there will always be a small number of people who think there was a conspiracy, and how to change their minds? I don’t know.

Do you regret taking the gig?

Ohhh… Uh… No, I don’t. I think it was a job that had to be done. When it first came out, I actually wondered whether I should do it or not. A lot of my friends and senior colleagues said, Don’t do it. I didn’t know whether the coroner could order me to do it. At the end of the day, I thought, it’s going to be done so it might as well be done by me—and more importantly, and this is really, really important, is that Mr. Al-Fayed had desperately wanted me to do it.

I was a 12-year-old kid when Diana died, and I remember my parents telling me that it was a big lesson to “always wear your seatbelt.” Operation Paget ultimately determined that this was a survivable crash had they been wearing their seatbelts, correct?

You’re absolutely right. There are a large number of issues to this kind of crash, and if you pulled away one aspect of this crash—one link in the chain—it would not happen. And it has been proven that if they’d worn their seatbelts they would have survived, even with the desperate condition of that car. That’s what the experts say.

Read more at The Daily Beast.

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