As dawn broke over London on September 1, 1997, a dark-green helicopter rose from the Battersea heliport by the River Thames and turned sharp south, heading towards Paris.
The world was still numb with grief at the death the previous day of Princess Diana and Dodi Fayed.
On board the helicopter, which was owned by Dodi’s grieving father, were four men: a Scottish pathologist, Mohamed Fayed’s American lawyer, his head of security, and me.
And of these, by far the most intriguing was the security chief, John Macnamara, whose death at 83 was announced last week.
A former detective chief superintendent and head of Scotland Yard’s fraud squad, Macnamara had overseen countless dishonest operations around the world as he sought to protect his employer and destroy his enemies.
Pictured: Fayed’s head of security John Macnamara in 2000. A former detective chief superintendent and head of Scotland Yard’s fraud squad, Macnamara had overseen countless dishonest operations around the world as he sought to protect his employer and destroy his enemies
As the King of Digging and Dispensing Dirt, this diminutive, weasel-like Scot was a master in blackmail, falsification, intrusion and corruption, not to mention threats of violence.
Now, Macnamara was flying to Paris to spread the most outrageous lie of all – a wholly fabricated story that Prince Philip and MI6 had somehow conspired to murder Diana and Dodi in order to prevent them marrying.
Soon afterwards, Macnamara would claim that the crash had been caused by a mysterious white Fiat, another damaging fiction that went right around the world. His aim? To conceal the true cause of the accident in the Pont de l’Alma tunnel that killed the couple.
John Macnamara takes countless secrets to his grave, but I saw enough of him in person to know just how wicked a man he was. He had spent 28 years working for Scotland Yard – whose failure to bring this rotten apple to justice was nothing short of shameful.
Last moments: Diana and Dodi Fayed in the lift of the Ritz in Paris just hours before they died
There was little conversation during the 90-minute flight to Paris. Quite aside from the noise of the helicopter, Diana’s death had shocked us into silence.
I had a close relationship with Mohamed Fayed at the time, and he’d agreed I should interview all the staff at the Ritz hotel in Paris, which he owned and from where Diana and Dodi had been driven to their deaths just after midnight.
I’d first got to know Fayed when I wrote an excoriating biography of Tiny Rowland, a colourful – and criminal – international tycoon who controlled the Lonrho conglomerate, which owned mines and businesses across Africa, America and Europe, including The Observer newspaper in Britain.
Fayed and Rowland had become sworn enemies during the acrimonious battle to win control of the Harrods department store.
The world was still numb with grief at the death the previous day of Princess Diana and Dodi Fayed (pictured: Wreckage of the car at the Alma underpass)
Fayed emerged the victor, whereupon Rowland launched a relentless campaign to destroy his opponent. So how did Fayed respond? He turned to John Macnamara, who gave me critical – but entirely true – information about Rowland.
At that point I had no idea what sort of ‘investigative’ methods Macnamara habitually used.
My eyes were opened on that trip to Paris and, in particular, when I interviewed 14 members of the Ritz staff who had looked after Diana and Dodi while they hid from the paparazzi besieging the hotel.
From the testimony of the waiters, managers and security staff, it was clear that Fayed and his son Dodi had become overexcited about the romance that night.
Dodi and Diana had been staying in the Imperial Suite at the Ritz, but were anxious to return to a block of flats owned by Fayed and located near the Champs-Elysees.
Macnamara sought to establish a reason for the crash and started claiming that Diana had been pregnant and that this had been a motive to kill her
An eyewitness to frenzied telephone conversations between father and son confirmed that Mohamed had suggested Dodi leave the hotel by the rear door and drive to this new bolthole. But Macnamara had no intention of establishing the truth – or any version of the truth that did not reflect well upon his employer. Instead, he put it about that the two lovers had calmly decided for themselves that they should drive to Fayed’s flats.
At the same time, Macnamara encouraged two waiters to describe how Dodi had bought an engagement ring from a nearby jeweller to announce their impending marriage. It was another obvious falsehood.
At the end of my interviews with the Ritz staff, Macnamara entered the room – and he was irritated. It became clear that he had been secretly listening to my interviews.
He then demanded that I meet another witness who, under Macnamara’s supervision, insisted that the driver of the crashed car, Henri Paul, ‘only drank a non-alcoholic cordial’ in the bar beforehand. This was later proven to be untrue.
By nightfall, the tension in the hotel was crackling. Now, Macnamara declared that I could not spend the night at the Ritz after all, but that I should instead sleep at Fayed’s apartment. I was mortified to leave the scene of such drama.
Under cross-examination, Macnamara admitted there was no evidence Diana had been murdered; that there was no evidence Diana was pregnant; that he had no evidence against Prince Philip; and that he had lied when he claimed Henri Paul had not been drinking alcohol on the night in question at the Ritz (pictured: Floral tributes to Diana after her death)
One hour later, I was thrilled, however, because staying in the flat above was someone who would prove invaluable in building a true picture of what had gone on between Dodi and Diana.
Rene Delorm had been Dodi’s valet earlier that summer and he’d spent a few days with the couple on the Jonikal, Fayed’s yacht, when it was moored off St Tropez.
That night Delorm told me enough about the romance to convince me that the version promoted by Macnamara was false.
There had been tense moments between them aboard the Jonikal, he recalled. Dodi’s unexpected decision that they should stay in Paris had further irritated Diana because she had been anxious to spend time with her sons in London before they returned to school.
Mohamed Al-Fayed on October 26, 2015
Dodi, his father later claimed, had wanted the two of them to stay in Paris so that he could buy an engagement ring – proof, as Mohamed would later say, of their engagement. But Delorm saw no sign that Diana was in any mood to receive a proposal of marriage, let alone accept one.
I returned to London and started to research an unauthorised biography of Fayed. And I watched in astonishment as in the months, and then the years, following Diana’s death, Macnamara scoured Europe for witnesses and so-called experts to prove his absurd claim that Prince Philip had orchestrated a conspiracy to commit murder.
Macnamara began by obtaining a statement from Scottish pathologist Professor Peter Vanezis, who said that the French authorities were ‘unreliable’ because they’d stated that the alcohol level in Henri Paul’s blood was three times more than the legal limit for driving. Vanezis – who had travelled with us on the helicopter to Paris – made this pronouncement even though he’d been unable to inspect Henri’s corpse or test any of the blood samples.
Next, Macnamara sought to establish a reason for the crash and started claiming that Diana had been pregnant and that this had been a motive to kill her.
He hired a retired French police officer to ‘prove’ that MI6 was behind the conspiracy and that the agency had been acting on Prince Philip’s orders.
Then he came up with the story that a white Fiat Uno had deliberately crashed into the Mercedes in the Pont de l’Alma tunnel. Presenting himself as a plain-speaking copper, Macnamara persuaded journalists to believe his fantasy.
Pictured: Princess Diana leaning on Prince Charles’ shoulder on honeymoon at Balmoral
And when – thanks to Macnamara’s sleuthing – a white Fiat Uno was ‘discovered’ and described as the murder vehicle, that claim was widely reported.
Never mind that the Fiat had already been inspected by the French police and completely discounted from the investigation. These disreputable falsehoods circulated until 2008, when at the coroner’s inquest into the tragedy in London, they were dealt a fatal blow.
Under cross-examination, Macnamara admitted there was no evidence Diana had been murdered; that there was no evidence Diana was pregnant; that he had no evidence against Prince Philip; and that he had lied when he claimed Henri Paul had not been drinking alcohol on the night in question at the Ritz.
Macnamara’s manipulations, falsehoods and deceit were wide-ranging and poisonous. Another of his priorities, for example, was to prove that the then Conservative Government had orchestrated a conspiracy against Fayed in order to prevent him getting a British passport.
Diana’s death had shocked us into silence
Fayed had been enraged by an investigation by the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) into his background which had resulted in a damning expose of Fayed’s lies about his origins – he was the son of a poor school inspector, not from a rich Pasha family as he claimed – and a lifetime of lies around the world. Tiny Rowland was, inevitably, another Macnamara target. The tycoon had been famous for bribing African dictators and facilitating the murder of their opponents, yet he naively chose to keep a safe deposit box at Harrods – which Fayed now owned.
The internal security cameras had picked up Rowland going down to visit his box in the basement, and Macnamara seized the moment. That very night he recruited a locksmith. The box contained not only emeralds and rubies, but a stash of letters which revealed the truth about Rowland’s huge wealth.
It had always been a puzzle that a failing farmer in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) had somehow become an international mogul.
Now it was clear: the letters showed that in 1953, Rowland had stolen about £500,000 from a Swiss bank in Basle. And with that money he had bought an emerald mine in Rhodesia.
Macnamara attempted to blackmail Rowland, telling him that he must admit to bribing Cabinet Minister Michael Howard to commission the DTI report about Fayed. Rowland refused to play ball. Instead, he complained to Scotland Yard that Macnamara had stolen the emeralds and rubies from his safe deposit box. But no charges were levied against the bent detective.
Mohamed Al Fayed’s chief of security John Macnamara (right) arrives at the High Court in London with the Harrods owner’s former spokesman Michael Cole to give evidence in the inquest into the death Diana
My last encounter with Macnamara was during a telephone call with the British head of security for the Maktoums, the rulers of Dubai.
During the 1960s, Fayed had earned a fortune building the infrastructure of the desert kingdom, including the first airport, hospital, school and harbour.
By 1998, however, the Maktoums were accusing Fayed of stealing millions of pounds from those contracts. Their security chief was collecting information about Fayed and had naturally come across Macnamara.
‘I’ve got bad news, good news and bad news for you,’ the Maktoums’ security chief told me.
‘The first bad news is that Macnamara is looking for someone in London to break your fingers so that you can’t write the biography.
‘The good news is that he can’t find anyone in London. The bad news is that he is now looking in Liverpool.’
I’m pleased to say that, for all his corrupt, malevolent know-how, Macnamara failed.