Martyn Gregory

Of course there was no ‘flash before the crash’

At the inquest into the deaths of Diana and Dodi

Of course there was no ‘flash before the crash’
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The heavyweight legal collision between the coroner Lord Justice Scott Baker’s evidence-driven inquests into Princess Diana and Dodi Fayed’s deaths, and Planet Fayed’s evidence-free legal and media circus, had always threatened to be messy. Last week was the first full week of witness evidence from Paris and London, and it produced ominous signs. Planet Fayed’s three QCs are his performing elephants — already dubbed ‘Hugefee QCs’ by Private Eye. Three heavyweight legal teams support the Hugefees — representing Fayed, his hotel and his dead driver’s parents. Planet Fayed’s objective is to secure an ‘open’ verdict from the inquest jury; any other outcome would see the eclipse of Mohamed’s fantasies.

Planet Fayed exists to exculpate the Fayed family from its responsibility for Diana’s death. The Hugefee QCs argue that Princess Diana and Dodi Fayed were murdered on the orders of the royal family. They spent the first half of the year at the inquest pre-hearings resisting the coroner’s entreaties to ‘tether allegations to evidence’. Last week the Hugefees discovered just how insubstantial Planet Fayed’s troupe of travelling charlatans really is.

Heralded by the Times as the ‘father of a thousand conspiracy theories’, the first Planet Fayed witness to appear was a petty criminal — the shaven-headed, bug-eyed François Levistre (né Levi). Levistre appeared by video link from Paris to augment his crowd-pleasing ‘flash before the crash’ performance. He starred in ITV’s never-repeated 1998 classic Diana: The Secrets Behind the Crash. Over 12 million British viewers watched the film, and it was responsible for sowing conspiracy seeds in the public imagination. The Hugefees have been hired to harvest the fruits at the inquests.

The coroner’s sceptical QC, Ian Burnett, threatened to blight the crop before it had a chance to flower. The inquest learnt that well before Diana died, Levistre had become particularly experienced with hostile police audiences when he first trod the boards. The gendarmes routinely awarded him nul points, and the French courts insisted on locking him up several times.

During his incarceration, however, Levistre acquired impeccable credentials to prosper on Planet Fayed. A prison visitor described him as a mythomane — French for a ‘pathological liar’ or ‘fantasist’. Reportedly at liberty when Diana died, the mythomane swiftly beetled off to the Sunday Times and the Ritz in 1997, to première his ‘flash before the crash’ fantasy. The paper was sceptical but published a spread, and the hotel welcomed him warmly before sending him to the French police. Last week Levistre testified that he had spent time limbering up with the Hugefee herd as he prepared to give ‘evidence’. No surprise to learn that.

Levistre had given French police three contradictory accounts of being in the Alma tunnel when Diana’s car crashed. All were discounted as they matched no other witnesses’ accounts. Levistre knew that he had to dig deep for the inquest, and resist Burnett, who appeared to be no more impressed by the ‘flash before the crash’ merchant than the French had been.

Before Scott Baker, Levistre now confessed that he had forgotten to tell ITV, or the French investigation, that shortly after they had blinded Henri Paul with a flashgun, two hitmen ‘dressed in black’ dismounted from a motorbike. Unrecalled by any other witnesses, including the paparazzi who had arrived immediately after the crash, Levistre apparently saw one of his ‘men in black’ approach the crashed Mercedes and make a sign like a boxing referee does to indicate the end of a bout. Job done, the man remounted the motorbike and disappeared to rejoin the omnipresent ‘forces of darkness’ on the front pages of Planet Fayed’s sister stars in the media galaxy. Yet another ‘diana sensation’ cried the Express: ‘i saw “hitmen” cause crash’, and in the Mirror, ‘i saw two diana hitmen — amazing claim at inquest’.

A fear on Planet Fayed is that Scott Baker’s inquest might come to the same conclusion as a Scottish court did in 2004. It dismissed Fayed’s bid for a public inquiry into the crash and was notable only for Mohamed’s celebrated performance as the laird of Balnagowan — he owns a castle there. Fans hailed him as ‘McFayed’ when he donned a rather fetching kilt. One of Fayed’s distinguished Hugefees, the saturnine QC Richard Keen, who is representing Henri Paul’s parents at the inquest, presented Fayed’s application for a judicial review of a Scottish court’s decision to deny him a public inquiry into the crash. A curmudgeonly Scottish judge, Lord Drummond-Young, had thrown out Fayed’s case, based on Levistre’s testimony, as ‘speculative’ and ‘irrelevant’. Keen’s application was thrown out, too.

Levistre’s wife, Roselyn, who had travelled with him from Rouen to the coroner’s Paris video-link facility, refused to give evidence after she had listened to her husband’s latest account. This saved Team Fayed from further potential embarrassment. The jury will now not discover if she shared her husband’s exciting new recollection of seeing the ‘men in black’.

As Levistre plunged to inquest earth there was no Planet Fayed safety net, as even the Hugefees were dumbstruck, and Planet Fayed’s circus ringmaster, Mohamed himself, was absent. Ian Croxford — QC for Fayed’s Ritz — did eventually rouse himself and helpfully sought to check details of Levistre’s substantial career as a petty criminal. Levistre had stated that his longest prison sentence had been two and a half years. However, he was pleased to reveal that he had not been charged in the 1980s with a notorious attempt to sell a child he had conceived with a German woman 20 years his junior. Levistre had been released after spending months in custody — Planet Fayed was keen to clear up any misunderstanding that yet another prison sentence might have followed the extraordinary behaviour which had first brought Levistre to public notice 20 years ago.

The coroner has already outlined how Michael Mansfield, Fayed’s personal QC, will argue that the late paparazzo James Andanson’s white Fiat was instrumental in executing Prince Phillip’s instruction to assassinate Diana and Dodi.

However, Levistre damaged this particular fantasy when he categorically insisted that he did not see a white Fiat in the tunnel — too busy watching his men in black, perhaps.

Planet Fayed can comfort itself in the knowledge that dead paparazzi are much easier to blame and legally abuse than the living French ones proved to be. Particularly if Andanson’s ‘controllers’ — the British royals are not sporting enough to turn up to Fayed’s circus.

To the coroner’s annoyance, the QC Ian Croxford spent a whole afternoon tackling the first British witness to appear: Gary Dean had been visiting Paris in August 1997, and he saw the Ritz hotel’s driver, Henri Paul, hurtling towards the Alma tunnel. Unsavoury irony prevailed as the Ritz hotel’s QC — whose client’s driver the French had found to be criminally drunk and speeding when he died seconds after Dean saw him — suggested to the jury that Dean had himself been drunk and was thus an unreliable witness.

Dean swiftly discovered that his offence against Planet Fayed was to have told police he had thought ‘it [the Mercedes] will never make it through the tunnel . . . it was going far too fast.’ The fact that he had spent hours with Lord Stevens’s Operation Paget detectives prepar ing his statement had alerted Planet Fayed to the danger of his testimony. (Operation Paget was the three-year probe into Fayed’s conspiracy theories.)

The inquest was treated to an early sighting of a Hugefee charge with the loquacious Croxford in vintage form. Had Dean repaired to a nearby bar after leaving the scene of the fatal crash? Should he have had wine with his dinner earlier in the evening? The exasperated Dean cried, ‘It’s not right for me to sit here and not tell the truth!’ Not a convincing argument on Planet Fayed, but Croxford’s trunk was threatening to squeeze the life out of him.

The coroner censured Croxford twice: ‘If you carry on like this, we will be here until next year.’ Croxford disguised any pleasure this prospect might have brought him, his firm’s bank balance, or his client. The Hugefee herd, already savouring the promise of a six-month inquest engagement, swung their trunks in appreciation, as the press gallery groaned.

The Hugefees’ message to future intruders on Planet Fayed could not have been clearer — do not come here unless you enjoy having your life and testimony trampled on by us. Future French witnesses have the option to decline, and they now can read the inquest transcripts in French on the coroner’s website. One of the only two eye witnesses to Henri Paul’s encounter with pillar 13 in the Alma tunnel, Souad Moufakkir, failed to show up as arranged the day after Gary Dean’s testimony. She would not have passed muster on Planet Fayed: Moufakkir failed to see a ‘flash before the crash’, or any paparazzi as she watched Henri Paul kill himself, Dodi Fayed and the Princess of Wales in a Fayed hire car.

Martyn Gregory is the author of Diana: The Last Days (Virgin Books) and is Sky News’s expert commentator on the inquests.