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Did the Butler Do It? Curious Britons Wait for Trial

Dirty linen may air in court as Diana's ex-servant fights charges of stealing her property.

October 14, 2002|William Wallace | Special to The Times

LONDON — In what threat- ens to turn into a sensational airing of British royal intrigue, relatives of the late Diana, Princess of Wales, will go to court today to try to recover possessions they claim were stolen by a former butler after her death five years ago.

Paul Burrell, 44, is charged with stealing 342 personal items -- from Diana's Michael Jackson "Bad" CD to a closetful of designer clothing to an authentic "Indiana Jones" bullwhip -- that her family insists rightfully belong to either her estate, Prince Charles or her elder son, Prince William.

Burrell was a butler and friend to the princess through the turbulent last 10 years of her life, a man she once famously referred to as her "rock." As Diana's marriage to Charles imploded in a venomous public display, Burrell remained her most trusted confidant, relied upon for discretion, advice and, he now claims, the safekeeping of many private letters, photographs and gifts.

It is those items that have landed him in the dock at London's Old Bailey. Officially, the prosecution is being brought by the crown -- in this case, Diana's former mother-in-law, Queen Elizabeth II. But the queen vs. Paul Burrell is very much a Spencer family action, a move led by Diana's relatives to recover what they see as theirs. Both Lady Sarah McCorquodale, Diana's sister, and Frances Shand Kydd, her mother, are expected to testify for the prosecution.

The family's implication is that Burrell took the items with the intent of cashing in on the enduring worldwide fascination with Diana. Estimates have put the value of the trove at epartment5 million, or about $7.6 million.

But Burrell, a married father of two who now runs a flower shop near the Welsh border, claims he was only doing what a trusted professional butler does: honoring the wishes of a client who wanted the items kept away from grasping hands. Diana's possessions were not on display in his house, his lawyer argued when Burrell was arraigned more than a year ago. They were stored safely in boxes in his attic -- just as Diana wanted.

Some of the fascination about the trial stems from the nature of the catalog.

It runs from crockery to crystal, from the sacred -- a letter to Diana from Mother Teresa -- to the mundane, like the "Baywatch" card autographed to William from star David Hasselhoff. There are hundreds of photographs and negatives, from family holiday snaps to pictures of early birthday parties for William and his brother, Harry.

Dozens of haute couture clothes and accessories are listed: from Versace ball gowns to Prada purses.

Charles also wants a white metal pepper grinder back. But by challenging the ownership of these items, the prince and his former in-laws have committed themselves to a potentially uncomfortable 5-week-long inquisition over their own conduct.

The court is likely to hear testimony about the royal family's behavior during the days after Diana's death in a Paris car accident, when the House of Windsor and the Spencer family reportedly warred in shabby ways. Burrell was present throughout those days and was so close to the Spencers that he was asked to help dress the princess' body for burial.

"He is a gentleman, and I wish him well," says Philip Gosling, the speakers' agent who has promoted Burrell as an authority on etiquette and entertaining. "He has never tried to make money selling his story, and he could have sold a book for whatever price, given who he is."

Just exactly what kind of man Burrell is remains a question. After a long delay, the trial is expected to determine whether he represents the epitome of the loyal butler or the opportunistic thief.

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