Ushered into their late mother's apartment in Kensington Palace shortly before Christmas 1997, Princes William and Harry were greeted by the family butler, Paul Burrell, who had dutifully tidied Diana's home in the months since her death. As the boys solemnly looked around, Burrell comforted them while they selected items that had belonged to their mother to take with them. "They came in," Burrell later said, "and chose something special."
Nowadays, William and Harry have cause to wonder whether Burrell might have chosen a few special items for himself. On Oct. 14 the former butler—the man Diana once called "my rock"—will stand trial on charges of stealing 328 items worth an estimated $7.5 million from Diana and her family. In the time since Burrell's January 2001 arrest, Britain has buzzed with the prospect that Charles or William might be called to testify. (Lawyers for both sides now say that's unlikely.) But in trying to prove that Burrell, 44, was Diana's confidant, the defense case could lay bare much of what he witnessed during his 10-year tenure as her closest aide, a period that paralleled her imploding marriage to Charles and assorted romances. Even before the trial gets under way, interest in the case has stirred up sordid new tales, including an alleged rape at St. James's
Palace involving two male staffers. "There'll be dirt everywhere," predicts a royal observer. "Paul Burrell knows everything."
Burrell, through his lawyer, "denies absolutely" stealing anything from his late employer. The goods in question—ranging from a tea strainer to a Versace gown to dozens of Diana's personal letters and photos—were seized from the Cheshire home Burrell shares with his wife, Maria, 48, a former royal maid, and their sons Alex, 17, and Nick, 14. Allies claim most of the items were gifts from the princess or in some cases had been entrusted to him by Di for safekeeping. "They were not on display in Mr. Burrell's house, nor even looked at, but were kept safe," says defense lawyer Andrew Shaw.
Several of Diana's friends back Burrell's claim of the princess's generosity. "Diana was given so much on a daily basis," says a Di confidante, "that she couldn't possibly keep everything."
Others find that explanation implausible. "This is not a few trinkets," says a Spencer family friend. Diana's sister Lady Sarah McCorquodale, 47, and her mother, Frances Shand Kydd, 66, are both expected to testify for the prosecution. Burrell's star witnesses are expected to be Diana's close friends, socialite Lucia Flecha de Lima, handbag designer Lana Marks and Susie Kassem, an interior designer. Says a Burrell pal: "It has put some wind in his sails to think he has people on his side."
For a while it looked as though Burrell might even have a friend in Prince Charles. He invited the ex-butler to meet with him near his Highgrove estate for a private chat in August 2001—only to withdraw the invitation when a polo accident sent him to the hospital as Burrell was en route. Ultimately the case is being driven not by either family but by the police, who stumbled upon the cache of allegedly stolen goods when they went to Burrell's house while investigating items missing from Diana's estate. Says someone close to the case: "There would not be a court case over one or two letters, but this involves a large quantity." Even so, neither family is said to be eager for the glare of a trial. "Everybody feels that not much good can come from this," says a Spencer family friend.
It is Burrell—his reputation tarnishing faster than an overlooked tea service—who has most at stake. The theft charges have drawn out critics of the former butler, with British journalists suggesting that his days with Diana may have been numbered. The Spencer family, who rewarded his loyalty after Diana's 1997 death by creating a codicil to her will granting him $82,000, is said to have soured on him even before the arrest. "They became upset when he started taking on the mantle of Diana, saying 'I'm the rock' and that sort of thing," says a royal observer. Burrell, who drew on his Palace experience to write a '99 etiquette book, sticks by the moniker, noting that "it's [Diana's] word, and I hang onto that."
Diana was 19 and dating Prince Charles when she first met Burrell, a coal-truck driver's son who was just 22, when he was working as a footman at Balmoral Castle in Scotland. "I found her wandering down a dark corridor, lost," he told PEOPLE in 1999. "She asked if I could stay and have a chat because it was 'awfully lonely in here,' and our friendship began there and then." Over the years, working for "the Boss," as he called her, "was like a roller coaster. [She] was a perfectionist and expected the best from everyone around her."
Supporters point out that Burrell, who now runs a small flower shop in North Wales, has long refused seven-figure offers to pen a Diana tell-all. "He could have written the definitive Diana book," Louise Cosgrove, Burrell's niece, said after his arrest. "That says a lot about his character."
Under oath Burrell may feel compelled to speak out to prove just how much the princess confided in him. "Once it goes to court," says a source close to Burrell, "everything will be fair game." Which would hardly have pleased his former boss. "Diana told me in the last summer of her life that she wanted to do something special for Paul," says entrepreneur Roberto Devorik, a friend of Di's. "She said, 'He is with me because he really loves me. He is the only person I really trust.' "
Simon Perry and Nina Biddle in London and Esther Leach in Cheshire
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