Next week, ‘the most famous woman in the world’ would have turned 60.
For a landmark series and podcast that re-examines Diana’s last days, the Mail has spoken to a host of crucial witnesses and members of her inner circle, many of whom have not spoken before.
Yesterday, we told the story of the shattering aftermath of Diana’s car crash and funeral. Today, we piece together the investigation into the mystery Fiat Uno said to have collided with Diana’s Mercedes seconds before it met disaster…
For many, it is the ‘final piece in the jigsaw’ that is the story of Diana’s death. If so, an until-now confidential letter written in 2017 by the former head of Scotland Yard to a Parisian bodybuilder is the last serious attempt to put that piece in place.
‘Now that you too have become a parent . . . I hope that you might reconsider your previous position,’ asked Lord Stevens (whose words were translated from English into French and are paraphrased here) of the Frenchman.
‘For the sakes of Princes William and Harry, who were children when they suffered the loss of their mother . . . with all the mental anguish and other consequences that loss has entailed . . . can you not help me draw a line under this matter, once and for all?’
Rebuttal: Bodybuilder Le Van Thanh has always refuted claims his Fiat collided with Diana’s car
The recipient should be assured, his letter went on, that he was not considered in any way to blame for the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, in the early hours of August 31, 1997. ‘It was not your fault,’ Stevens affirmed.
Diana died of injuries suffered when the Mercedes S280 limousine in which she was a rear-seat passenger struck the 13th pillar of the central reservation of the Pont de l’Alma underpass at an approximate speed of 65mph.
Henri Paul, acting head of security at the Ritz hotel, was at the wheel. He died at the scene. He would be vilified for his role in the tragedy — notably the manner of his driving and the amount of alcohol that he had consumed. Some, including Stevens, feel that Paul had been put in an invidious position by his employers.
But there was another car involved in those moments before the catastrophic impact. There was even another, albeit minor, collision, which probably precipitated the final chain of events.
But this second driver — perhaps the only independent witness to the very last moments of Diana’s journey — has never talked; or at least has never admitted being anywhere near the Alma tunnel that night, still less that he was at the wheel of a white Fiat Uno which the two-tonne Mercedes clipped before entering the underpass out of control and crashing.
We know the sequence of events because of the forensic evidence presented by debris left on the road and marks on the Mercedes. There are also compelling witness accounts of the Fiat emerging from the other end of the tunnel and driving erratically away.
Who, then, was the man seen at the Fiat’s wheel? Why was he motoring through central Paris at that time of night? And why did he not stop? Over the years, two names have been attached to the mystery driver’s identity.
One is that of James Andanson, a French freelance photographer and paparazzo who had followed Diana and Dodi’s yacht along the Mediterranean that fatal summer.
Andanson’s role in an alleged British Establishment plot to murder Diana warranted a whole 41-page chapter in the final report of Operation Paget, the three-year British investigation into such allegations, led by Lord Stevens.
The other name is that of Le Van Thanh, the French-born son of a Vietnamese immigrant, who was a 22-year-old security guard in Paris at the time of the crash. On the day that Diana died both Andanson and Van Thanh were owners of white Fiat Unos of the same vintage as the car which collided with her Mercedes. Almost a quarter of a century has passed. One of these ‘suspect’ drivers is now dead, in circumstances which only encouraged the conspiracy theorists.
The other is very much alive and, as we shall see, was tracked down by the Mail this week to his home on the north-western fringes of the French capital. We presented him with a number of key questions; another opportunity for that jigsaw to be made complete.
THE WITNESSES IN A ROLLS-ROYCE
At least seven named witnesses gave evidence that a small white car was perilously close to the Mercedes just before it crashed —or was spotted leaving the scene immediately afterwards.
The most persuasive were Georges and Sabine Dauzonne, a married couple returning home from a dinner out with friends in the 7th arrondissement. The Dauzonnes were in their Rolls-Royce and had joined the Seine embankment expressway where it becomes the Avenue de New York after the Alma underpass when they saw a white Fiat Uno being driven erratically out of the tunnel.
Monsieur Dauzonne, who was driving, noticed the Fiat zig-zagging from one lane to the other. It came so close to his Rolls that it almost touched the wing; so close indeed that he sounded his horn.
This caused the Fiat’s driver to slow down enough for Dauzonne to be able to overtake him.
The recollection of his wife was more detailed. Madame Dauzonne recalled: ‘As we got near the embankment we saw a white Fiat Uno just like my mother’s. [It] came towards our car because it was going along “crabwise”.
‘The driver was looking behind him in his two rear-view mirrors. He didn’t see us. The man overtook us . . . [he] nearly hit us at the front left, going to the right.
From white to red: Van Thanh, pictured with his dog Max in September 1999, resprayed his car
‘My husband tried to overtake him but the man swerved to the left again, as if he was sort of trying to stop us getting past and he nearly hit us again. The Fiat Uno was so close that I couldn’t see the number plate at that point. ‘My husband must have sounded the horn and overtook him on the left. He [the Fiat driver] was leaning so far to look behind him that I thought he must be waiting for someone a long way behind in the Alma tunnel.’
She described the driver thus: ‘[He] was European-looking, fair-skinned but a bit Mediterranean. I think his eyes must be dark, his hair was dark brown and short, he must be between 35 and 45.’
They also recalled the Fiat’s number plate. French plates carry a two-number code that indicates which administrative department the car was registered in. The couple said the Uno either bore a 78 — the department of Yvelines — or a 92, Hauts-de-Seine. Both lie in the west of Paris.
There was one other important detail. Both husband and wife saw a ‘large dog’ in the back of the Fiat. Madame Dauzonne said: ‘In the boot of the car, not on the back seat . . . there was a fairly big dog with a long nose. It might have been a German shepherd. I remember one colour detail, a muzzle going round its face but not down to its nose or just a bandana around its neck.’ Her husband described the dog as ‘an Alsatian or a black labrador’.
THE FORENSIC CLUES TO FINAL MOMENTS
In the aftermath of the crash, police accident investigators collected debris including the left-hand tail light unit from a late 1980s Fiat Uno. Traces of white paint were found on the bodywork of the wrecked Mercedes.
Analysis suggested this, too, had come from an Uno of the same era. Polymer similar to that used in the manufacture of Fiat bumpers was also discovered scuffed on the crash car. All factors suggested a glancing collision at speed.
The Paget team believed the Uno had turned on to the carriageway just before the Alma tunnel. It was probably ‘dawdling’ and the driver might not have seen the Mercedes before they came together.
PC Tony Read, the senior collision investigator in the Paget team, was later able to piece together those final seconds thanks to what was then ‘edge of science’ laser work by experts from the Transport Research Laboratory. This helped create a 3D reconstruction of the Mercedes’ journey to the underpass.
Read concluded that the point where Henri Paul first perceived the need to take the action which immediately preceded the loss of control, almost certainly to avoid a collision with the Fiat, took place where the carriageway was still at ground level, before it suddenly dipped at the tunnel entrance.
His report stated: ‘The driver of the Mercedes began to respond to the hazard of an obstruction at least 30 to 60 metres before entering the underpass, having identified that there was a problem probably around 60 to 105 metres from the entrance.
‘In other words, the chain of events that led to the fatal collision started some way back from the entrance to the underpass. By the time the Mercedes approached the 13th pillar, the result was inevitable i.e. that the Mercedes would collide with the pillar.
‘The motion of the car inside the underpass was as the result of the actions and reactions of the driver outside the underpass.’
THE PAPARAZZO AND A MYSTERIOUS DEATH
Jean-Paul ‘James’ Andanson spent most summers working as a paparazzo on the Cote d’Azur. He had been present briefly when Diana was in St Tropez in July 1997 and the following month was part of the paparazzi armada which followed her and Dodi aboard the Al Fayed superyacht Jonikal, to Portofino.
Andanson left the yacht on August 25 and was home three days later. He lived with his wife Elisabeth, children and golden retriever on a smallholding in Lignieres, 177 miles south of Paris. The family owned two cars at this time. One was a BMW — the other a Fiat Uno 60 Diesel, registration number 7704RC18.
The Fiat had been bought new in March 1988. He drove it for work for the next five years, covering more than 350,000kms. The original factory paintwork was a shade of white called Bianco 210/F. This was virtually indistinguishable from the shade of white — Bianco Corfu 224 — used on Uno production until September 1987.
In February 1998, it came to the notice of police that Andanson owned a white Fiat Uno, albeit one registered some distance from Paris. When interviewed he told investigators that he had used his car extensively until 1995 when he began driving the BMW.
The Fiat passed to his mother-in-law, who insured it for a year. ‘Afterwards this vehicle remained parked opposite my Charolais shed,’ he stated. ‘[It was] on the scrapheap, no one used it.’
In October 1997 — more than a month after Diana’s death — the Andanson Uno was part-exchanged for £500 for a new Fiat Punto at a local dealership. The Uno was still at the dealership in February 1998 when found and examined by police.
And that would have been the end of its brief part in this story if it were not for an appalling twist.
On May 4, 2000, Andanson was found dead in his burning BMW in woodland in the Aveyron, 240 miles from his home. He had still been alive when the fire began. It was a horrible way to die.
Six weeks later an armed robbery took place at the offices of the SIPA photographic agency in Paris, where some of his archive was kept. The robbers stole a number of items, including photos in a safe, though none appeared to be connected to the dead man.
Friends and associates said he had been troubled and had spoken about committing suicide in such a manner. The examining magistrate concluded Andanson had taken his own life. The state prosecutor agreed.
‘Now that you too have become a parent . . . I hope that you might reconsider your previous position,’ asked Lord Stevens (pictured above)
But Mohamed Al Fayed, father of Dodi, was apparently convinced otherwise. Andanson, he alleged, had been in Paris when Diana and his son had died and was working for the security services.
It was his Fiat that was in deliberate collision with the Mercedes and he had either been assassinated to stop him talking or had been so filled with remorse that he had killed himself. The SIPA offices were raided to remove incriminating artefacts.
What then was the evidence that supported this sensational scenario? There were three claims from independent sources that Andanson was in Paris that night.
Two did not bear close examination. The third source was more credible, but still no more than an overheard conversation in which Andanson was supposed to have claimed he was at the Paris airport when Diana arrived that weekend, had followed her car to the Ritz on a motorcycle, and taken pictures at the crash scene which would ‘cause a real stir’ when published.
In any case, Andanson had already provided police with an apparently watertight alibi for the night of Diana’s death.
He told them that during the evening of August 30, 1997, he was at home. He left at around 3.45am — a few hours after the fatal crash — and drove to Paris Orly airport to catch a 7.30am flight to Corsica, where he was to do a photoshoot later that day with a famous singer. This was corroborated by toll road receipts, plane tickets, car hire invoices in Corsica, a hotel booking and by the singer himself.
His Fiat’s left rear wing and light cluster had been replaced and the bodywork repainted. But this had been done before August 30, 1997. The new paint did not match that found on the Mercedes.
Samples from Andanson’s car polymer bumper did match traces left on the Mercedes. However, the type of bumper composition was very common in all sorts of cars. It could not be used to definitively place his Uno at the scene.
Andanson never took his dog with him on jobs and in any case his pet was a different colour and breed from the one described by the Dauzonnes. The Uno’s registration plate did not include the numbers 78 or 92.
The French investigation had concluded that Andanson had nothing to do with Diana’s crash. Paget agreed, having devoted considerable resources towards testing the evidence.
THE BODYBUILDER IN THE FRAME
Between October 1997 and October 1998, the French crash investigators identified and checked 4,668 white Fiat Unos of the right age which had been registered in the two departments whose numbers had been recalled by the Dauzonnes. Only one would become a focus of interest to both the French and British inquiries into Diana’s death. This belonged to Le Van Thanh.
His Fiat was manufactured no later than August 1987. Its number plate read 957 BAN 92, meaning that it had been registered in the Hauts-de-Seine department, one of the two which were of interest to the investigators.
The car came to the attention of the authorities six weeks after Diana died when Van Thanh’s brother, a mechanic, took it to a police station for a routine administrative matter. Two details roused the interest of officers. One was that the Uno had a ‘92’ plate.
The second was that while the car was now red, it had clearly had a recent respray. Further examination showed the original colour was white — Bianco Corfu 224.
Van Thanh was called in for questioning. During several hours of interrogation he denied having been the driver of the Fiat which crashed with the Mercedes. He did however admit that he was working in Paris that night.
He said he had been on duty as a security guard dog handler at a car compound in the north of the city. He performed his duties in the company of Max, his large black and tan Rottweiler.
The car had been resprayed red on Saturday, August 30, he claimed. In other words, hours before Diana’s crash. He changed the colour because he thought ‘it would get him better kind of security jobs,’ a member of the Paget team recalls. Red is a lucky colour in Vietnamese culture.
The Dauzonnes picked out Van Thanh from photos which they were shown separately. Both said Van Thanh ‘might well have been’ the driver.
After examining the Uno, experts working for the French authorities reported that there was no conclusive evidence that it had been involved in a collision like the one in the Alma tunnel. The hunt for the elusive Uno was ended by the investigating magistrate in October 1998, without result.
Operation Paget later asked the French authorities to let them interview Van Thanh. This was denied on the grounds that he had already been questioned by and eliminated from the French inquiry. Nor was Paget allowed to examine the Fiat. Instead it had to rely on the existing French technical report.
This was frustrating, because Paget’s forensic experts came to a different view about the Fiat.
‘The French ruled out the Le Van Thanh Uno for scientific reasons,’ explains Stevens. ‘Our people said on the basis of scientific reasons you could not rule it out. That is a subtle but vital difference.’
Then came a bombshell. In 2006, Van Thanh’s father gave an interview in which he alleged that his son had resprayed his Fiat hours after the Diana crash. He claimed Van Thanh had called his mechanic brother in the middle of that night and asked for his urgent help in changing the colour.
Van Thanh denied the allegation and said it had only been made by his father as a result of a family rift. Van Thanh was invited to travel to the UK speak to Paget but, after consideration, declined.
Paget delivered its report at the end of 2006. It did not name Van Thanh but stated that investigators were aware of the driver’s identity. Van Thanh declined to give evidence to the subsequent London inquest, where a Paget detective read out his previous statement to French police in which he denied any part in the crash. Their official remit was fulfilled, but Stevens and his chief investigator Dave Douglas did not forget Van Thanh. ‘He was unfinished business,’ says the peer.
Diana with Dodi Fayed in the lift of the Ritz hotel in CCTV footage showing the pair’s final hours
As the 20th anniversary of Diana’s death approached in 2017, they heard Van Thanh had become a father. Stevens used this potential change of perspective to approach Van Thanh via his lawyer. In reply, Van Thanh denied once again having any part in the crash and declined to say more.
Stevens told the Mail this week: ‘The circumstantial evidence, I put it no higher than that, was that he was there. Not only was the car changed in colour but he owned a big dog that witnesses had seen at the back of the vehicle. He certainly was there, we think.
‘One of the reasons I think he never came forward . . . is he may be frightened of criminal charges. If you leave the scene of an accident in France, you can be charged with a criminal offence which has quite a substantial imprisonment sentence, if you’re found guilty.
‘Now imagine that you find out that one of the people who died in that crash was the most famous woman in the world. And you are just a young guy, working class from an ethnic minority background. Imagine how frightening it would be to be in his shoes. But getting his story was very, very important for us. If you read Paget, everything else is covered.
‘The one thing it does not answer definitively is, “Who was the driver of the Fiat Uno?”, although it’s clear in the report that we think it was him [Van Thanh].’
Stevens adds: ‘If he had come out with the truth about what happened that night, [our] inquiry wouldn’t have lasted for three years. It would have demonstrated from the start that this was simply a tragic road accident, rather than some MI6 plot. Whether he comes forward at some time in the future, we don’t know, but we’ve done our best to try to get him to cooperate. If his circumstances change, we might make a new approach. I would like to face him and say, “It wasn’t your fault.” Any such admissions would be reported to the Metropolitan Police.’
As part of the Mail’s own investigation, we set out to find Van Thanh, who has kept a very low profile with minimal presence on social media, save for a number of bodybuilding pictures on his Instagram account.
Today, he is living in a two-storey property in a street of detached houses with neat gardens in a Paris suburb. He drives a dark grey Mercedes C-Class saloon.
When a Mail reporter rang his doorbell, the muscular and partly shaven-headed Van Thanh, now 46, emerged in grey tracksuit bottoms and sweatshirt. He and a boy believed to be his teenage son, walked down the driveway. Once our man identified himself, Van Thanh said he did not want to talk and returned to the house.
Our reporter left a number of questions over the crash and his reluctance to engage with Paget. At the time of going to press, Van Thanh had not responded.
The jigsaw remains incomplete.
Special research: SIMON TRUMP and RORY MULHOLLAND in Paris. Picture research: SUE CONNOLLY