The nurse who alleged that billionaire tobacco heiress Doris Duke was murdered in her home above Beverly Hills has been arrested--for allegedly stealing from another wealthy patient.
In a development that could have major implications for the investigations into Duke's death, Tammy Payette, 27, was arrested by Los Angeles police Friday evening on suspicion of grand theft. She admitted Saturday--in a jailhouse interview with The Times--that she had stolen "ivory pieces and statuettes" from a patient she was treating at home.
"I was under a lot of stress," Payette said. "It was more of a nervous reaction. . . . I just took them."
In January, the nurse touched off investigations on both coasts when she alleged that the 80-year-old Duke "did not die of natural causes," but had succumbed in 1993 to a "massive sedation regime" initiated by her doctor and her butler--who was named executor of Duke's $1.2-billion estate.
Payette's admission that she stole from another patient not only may damage her credibility in the investigations into Duke's death, but also is likely to draw attention to another of the many allegations to surface from Duke's final days: that valuable jewelry, including a double strand of pearls with a diamond clasp, was missing from the heiress's Los Angeles home.
Payette on Saturday denied stealing anything while treating the reclusive heiress, but said the butler, Bernard Lafferty, gave her an "expensive gift" two weeks before Duke died, "in appreciation for taking care of Doris."
She said she sold the unspecified gift for "a good amount."
A lawyer for Lafferty said Saturday that the former butler "denies ever giving Tammy Payette an expensive gift."
"He indicated that this is another of Tammy's lies," said Century City attorney Howard Weitzman, calling for an investigation into whether Payette stole anything from Duke.
Weitzman said the nurse's arrest would seriously undermine a legal challenge to Duke's will, which gave Lafferty the central role in the charitable foundation created on her death.
"It corroborates what we thought--there's something weird going on here," Weitzman said. "I really think it's the beginning of the end of this bogus challenge."
"I think her credibility is lower than it was before," said Leonard Levine, the attorney for Duke's main physician, Dr. Charles Kivowitz. "What I'm hoping is she may at some point shed some new light on what made her make the allegations."
A Los Angeles police spokesman did not have details on Payette's arrest, but she was being held at the Van Nuys jail. Lawyers said she was freed Saturday after her bail was reduced from $128,000 to $20,000.
The two investigations into Duke's death are continuing. One is by the LAPD's Robbery Homicide Division, the other by an investigator appointed by the Manhattan Surrogate's Court, where her will was filed.
That court is the scene of the legal challenge to Duke's last will, which she signed in April, 1993, while a patient at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles. The suit was brought by a New York physician who was named Duke's executor in an earlier will.
The lead attorney challenging the will, Donald Howarth, said Saturday that he spoke to Payette shortly before her arrest and helped her get a criminal defense attorney. Authorities also searched her home, Howarth said.
While not elaborating on the charges, he said Payette had found it difficult to secure employment after unleashing her allegations against a prominent doctor, and "she was somewhat desperate about where she was going to get money. . . . She made a mistake."
He said Payette now wanted to "bare her soul . . . to come forward and get this cleared up . . . and make restitution."
Howarth and Payette said she was sticking by her allegations that large doses of morphine and other drugs caused Duke's death Oct. 28, 1993, not the stroke she suffered three months earlier.
"I haven't been paid a cent by anyone to come out and say what I said (about Duke's death)," Payette said from jail.
After Duke died, she said, she came to believe the "valuable gift" she got from Lafferty was intended as "a way to make me keep quiet," and "I couldn't allow that."
The disclosure that jewelry was missing from Duke's home is contained in the mountain of allegations in legal documents--many leveled against Lafferty by three former Duke employees, who are suing him and the estate attorneys, claiming wrongful termination.
A former Duke chef, Colin F. Shanley, said in an affidavit that Lafferty announced in September or October, 1993--during the period Duke was under 24-hour nursing care at home--that some of her favorite jewelry was unaccounted for. According to the chef, the butler claimed the missing items were worth about $2 million.
"We searched the house for several hours. . . . The jewelry could not be found," Shanley said.