For the Defense

UPDATED 09/29/1997 at 01:00 AM EDT Originally published 09/29/1997 at 01:00 AM EDT

TWICE HIS FAMILY HAD TRIED TO have him buried, and twice the funeral had been postponed. Finally, two weeks after the fatal crash in Paris that killed Princess Diana and Dodi Al Fayed on Aug. 31, French authorities released the body of the driver, Henri Paul, 41, to his kin. This past week a service was scheduled to be held in his hometown of Lorient on the windswept northwest coast of France. To his mother, Gisele, the official delays only served to heap indignity on what was already a tragedy. "I wish for any mother to have a son like him," she told one newspaper. "Is this the way people should be treated?"

Unfortunately, the controversy and mystery surrounding the last hours of Paul's life may be even more difficult to lay to rest. As a result of three extensive blood tests, it is now beyond doubt that Paul was seriously drunk when he got behind the wheel of the leased Mercedes S-280 at the back entrance of the Ritz Hotel, where he was the deputy chief of security, and drove himself and his famous passengers to their deaths. Given that Paul's blood alcohol level was more than three times the French legal limit (and approximately twice the limit in much of the U.S.), the nine photographers and one motorcycle driver who are being investigated by French police after the accident are unlikely to be charged with contributing to the crash. Some crucial information is likely to be provided by the one surviving passenger, bodyguard Trevor Rees-Jones, who last week was reported to have fully regained consciousness and was able to talk.

Still, it remains unclear where Paul did his drinking in the roughly three hours between 7:05 p.m., when he got off duty at the hotel, and 10 p.m., when he was summoned back to chauffeur Diana and Dodi in their efforts to elude the photographers. There are conflicting reports as to whether he was drinking at the Ritz while he waited for Diana and Dodi to finish dinner upstairs. Officials at the Ritz, which is owned by Dodi's father, Mohamed Al Fayed, insisted they had no knowledge that their man was intoxicated. And Paul's mother vehemently denied he had a drinking problem. "My son was not an alcoholic," she told a French newspaper. "Henri had all the confidence of his boss."

Police sources suggest Paul may have been a heavy drinker at times of stress. There was no sign of liver damage, but tests showed that his blood contained traces of two prescription drugs: tiapride, which is not sold in the U.S. but is used in Europe to treat, among other things, symptoms of alcohol withdrawal, and fluoxetine, the generic name for Prozac, which is prescribed for depression. And among some friends, Paul was known as a tippler. "Everybody knew he had a few when he wasn't working," a colleague told the press.

A bachelor who earned about $40,000 a year in his job at the Ritz, where he had worked since 1985, he lived alone in a tidy but plain apartment several blocks from the hotel. Earlier this year he had been passed over for the post of head of security at the Ritz, for reasons the hotel has refused to disclose. He also may have been nursing the wounds from a broken romance. From 1990 to 1995 he was involved with a woman, Laurence (she requested that her full name not be used), who had a young daughter. In the two years since they split up, he had apparently not had a steady girlfriend. When tracked down by reporters, Laurence vigorously defended Paul. "I'll always guard the memory of a man who enjoyed life to the full," she told the Paris daily Le Figaro, "very intelligent, cultured, curious about everything and full of humor." Laurence also said she saw no signs of alcohol abuse. "I shared his life for five years," she said, "and I never saw him drink alone."

Her sentiments were echoed by many others. Paul's best friend, Claude Garrec, with whom he played tennis almost every week, described him as a "bon vivant." Among neighbors and acquaintances, Paul was known as a genial, low-key fellow who kept mostly to himself and who rarely if ever drank to excess in public. A creature of habit, Paul often visited Le Bourgogne, a cafe near his apartment, twice a day, for coffee and juice and sometimes a beer or two. Another of his favorite hangouts was a lesbian bar, down the block from his place, called La Champmeslé, where he would drop in a couple of times a week to chat with owner Josy Champmeslé. "He was friendly with us," recalls Champmeslé. "He sometimes offered us flowers, roses. He wasn't a big drinker." The night of the accident Paul stopped by just before his fatal crash to say hello. "He didn't have a drink," says Champmeslé. "Everything seemed fine."

In the week after the accident the Ritz released scenes picked up on a hotel security camera showing Paul looking steady and confident just before the fateful ride. But such visual evidence proves little. According to experts, heavy drinkers often develop a tolerance for alcohol, which may enable them to pass as sober yet still leaves them with dangerously impaired reflexes.

Back in his hometown of Lorient, Paul's mother and father, Jean, a retired municipal employee, who had reportedly lost another son some 20 years ago in a car crash, were forced to flee their house to escape reporters and cameramen. While growing up in Lorient, Henri, an accomplished student, won prizes for piano and violin. After graduating from a private Catholic school at 17, he got his pilot's license and, after further studies in aeronautics, moved at 21 to Paris, where he gave flying lessons. He did his military service in the air force and hoped to become a pilot but failed to meet the vision requirement. Paul ended up serving as a lieutenant, working as a security officer at an air base. Yet flying remained his passion, even after he left the service. Until his death, he often rented an airplane in Paris and flew home for the weekend to Lorient, where he visited his parents and relaxed by bowling.

According to his friend Garrec, Paul needed all the relaxation he could get. His job at the Ritz was demanding, often requiring long hours, which appeared to cause him some stress. "He was basically very tired," said Garrec. "The Ritz had been working him very hard. [This year] he had only one week of holiday in July." How much that contributed to his drinking and, by extension, to the horrific crash in the Place de l'Alma tunnel will never be known. "From time to time he would talk about the strain of work," said Garrec, "but as ever with Henri, he kept it bottled up."

BILL HEWITT
CATHY NOLAN and ELIZABETH MCNEIL in Paris and CLAIRE WILSON in Lorient

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