Princess Diana’s fatal injury was ‘tiny, just in the wrong place’

Diana’s fatal injury was tiny, just in the wrong place – and so rare I never saw another like it: UK’s top forensic pathologist DR RICHARD SHEPHERD’s memoir proves there are still things to learn about the princess’s death

Renowned pathologist Dr Richard Shepherd  (above) has been called to investigate the most notorious, emotionally charged killings of the past 30 years

From the murder of Stephen Lawrence and the Hungerford massacre to the tragic death of Princess Diana, Dr Richard Shepherd has been called to investigate the most notorious, emotionally charged killings of the past 30 years. Here, in compelling detail, the renowned pathologist recounts the true forensic detective stories behind some of Britain’s landmark cases – and the devastating conclusions he would eventually reach.

The detectives had instructed me to leave the M4 at Junction 14 and wait on the slip road for my police escort. A few moments later a car slid alongside mine and two grim faces turned to me. They offered no greetings. ‘Dr Shepherd?’ I nodded. ‘Follow us.’

We passed through a roadblock and I followed the police car very slowly along eerily empty streets.

The last long rays of the evening’s summer sun were passing across this ghost town, bathing it in a benign, warm light.

Anyone alive was inside their home but there was no sense of their presence at the windows. No car moved apart from our own. No dog barked. No cat prowled. Birds were silent.

As we drove through the suburbs we passed a red Renault askew at the side of the road. A woman’s body was slumped over the wheel.

Further on were the smouldering remains of mass killer Michael Ryan’s house on the left.

The road was blocked. A police officer’s body sat motionless in his squad car. The car was riddled with bullet holes. A blue Toyota had collided with it and inside was another dead driver.

Tragic scene: The smashed Mercedes, above, in which Princess Diana was fatally injured and Dodi Fayed died on August 31, 1997.  Questions continued to be asked and conspiracy theories to swirl around for years afterwards

An elderly man was lying by his garden gate in a pool of blood. On the road an elderly woman, dead. Face down.

I knew from news reports that this must be Ryan’s mother. She lay outside the burning house she had lived in with her son. Further on was a man on a path, dog lead in hand.

The juxtaposition on that almost-dark August evening in 1987 – of the ordinary streets and the extraordinary random acts of killing that had taken place there – was, frankly, surreal. Nothing like this had happened in the UK before.

At the police station we halted. My door slammed and then the officer’s door slammed and after that the heavy silence resumed to cover, no, smother, Hungerford.

It was a few years before I was to hear another such silence – the silence that follows horror.

Usually the scene of a homicide is accompanied by the bustle of the living – uniformed officers, detectives, crime-scene investigators, people rustling paperwork, taking pictures, making phone calls, guarding the door. But the enormity of that day’s events seemed to have frozen Hungerford in a state I can only compare to rigor mortis.

A CCTV image showing Diana in a lift at the Ritz hotel in Paris before the crash. She actually suffered just a few broken bones and a small chest injury – but this included a tiny tear in a vein in one of her lungs

It was soon completely dark and I was in a police vehicle, heading for the school where Michael Ryan had barricaded himself in and then shot himself, after killing 16 people in a rampage that lasted nearly seven hours.

We glided very slowly down the still street, the headlights picking up another crashed car, its driver clearly visible, motionless. Once again, I climbed out to look. The light from my torch slid over the feet, the torso, the head. Well, there was no doubt here about the cause of death. A gunshot wound to the face.

We stopped at the next car and then a couple more. The gunshot wounds were in different places each time. Some people had been shot once, some had been shot again and again and again.

Recovery vehicles were waiting unobtrusively to take away the crashed cars after the police had documented them and removed the bodies. I turned to the officer driving me. ‘There’s no need for me to see any more of the bodies in situ. There’s no doubt about how they died so I can deal with it all at post-mortem.’

‘We need you to take a look at Ryan, though,’ he said.

At the John O’Gaunt school there were many more police officers. I was briefed downstairs.

‘He told us he had a bomb. We haven’t searched him yet because we were worried that it would detonate if we moved him. But we need you to have a look at him now and certify death. Just in case he blows up when we do look. All right?’

‘Right.’

‘I suggest you don’t move him, sir.’

‘Right.’

‘Do you want a flak jacket?’

I declined. It was designed to stop bullets and so would have been of little use at such close range to a bomb. Anyway, I had no intention at all of moving Ryan. We went upstairs.

That rubbery smell of school. And when they opened the classroom door, there were desks. Some of the desks were scattered but most still stood in neat rows.

Pinned around the walls were pictures and scientific diagrams. All perfectly normal.

Apart from a body, propped up in a sitting position at the front of the class near the blackboard. He was wearing a green jacket, with a gunshot wound to his head.

His right hand lay in his lap. It held a Beretta pistol.

Diana with Dodi Fayed at the Ritz shortly before the fatal crash. In the ambulance, she gradually lost consciousness. When she suffered a cardiac arrest, every effort was made to resuscitate her and in hospital she went into surgery, where they did identify the problem and attempted to repair the vein. But, sadly, by then it was too late

As I approached him, the policemen were quietly leaving. I heard the door close behind me.

From beyond it there came a radio message: ‘Going in.’

I was on my own in a classroom with the UK’s biggest mass murderer. And perhaps a bomb. I was acutely aware of everything around me. The arc lights outside throwing overlapping, dark shadows on the ceiling. That classroom smell of chalk and sweat, mixed strangely with the smell of blood.

I crossed the room, focusing on the body in the corner. On arrival, I knelt down to look at him. The gun, which had already killed so many people that day, was pointing straight at me.

Michael Ryan had shot himself in the right temple. The bullet had passed through his head and out of the other temple. I saw it later as I left the room, embedded in a noticeboard across the classroom.

I debriefed the officers. There were no hidden wires. The cause of death was the gunshot wound to the right side of the head, which was typical of suicide.

Then, relieved to be leaving that sad grave of a place, I gathered speed on the motorway. But suddenly I was overwhelmed by all I had seen that day. I pulled over to the hard shoulder and sat in the dark car while the lights of other vehicles swept by, unseeing, unknowing.

I only became aware of the police car which had pulled up behind me when there was a tap at the window. ‘Excuse me, sir. Are you all right?’

I explained who I was and where I’d been. ‘I just need a minute.’

Police officers know all about transitions between work and home. He nodded again and returned to his own car.

A few quiet minutes later and I knew I had left Hungerford behind and home was ahead. I indicated, waved goodbye and rejoined the great river of motorway traffic. The police car pulled out behind me, following me protectively for a short distance before dropping back then turning off.

Diana’s was a very small injury – but in the wrong place. Diana’s death is a classic example of the way we say, after almost every death: if only. If only she had hit the seat in front at a slightly different angle. If only she had been thrown forward 10mph more slowly

I continued my journey alone.

At home, the children were in bed and my wife Jen was downstairs, watching TV.

‘Was it awful?’ she said.

I only allowed myself to shrug. I turned my back to her so she could not see my face. I felt I had to extinguish the television news with its reporters discussing Hungerford so excitedly and so urgently. The Hungerford dead had no excitement or urgency any more. Here were men and women simply slaughtered as they went about life’s business.

Tomorrow I would conduct multiple post-mortems, to help the police reconstruct every death.

Reconstruction is important. It matters a lot to anyone involved. As humans, we have a need to know. About specific deaths. About death in general.

From an early age I have had a relationship with death that is both intimate and distant. I come from a comfortable home near London. My father was an accountant, and we were relatively well off. My sister is ten years older than me and my brother, five.

I was the loved baby of the family and we were unusual in only one respect. Our mother had a heart complaint.

She had once been the life and soul of the party: as a young woman she had set off with my father on a bicycle-built-for-two on a tour of Europe just when war was about to break out. Now she was gradually fading away, though she tried to hide it from us.

And then one morning, my father came into my bedroom. Horrifically, shockingly, he was crying. My mother was dead.

Perhaps, when I became a forensic pathologist, I wanted to view that horrifying thing called death through detached, clinical, analytical eyes.

Sometimes I found the cases I was working on as intellectually exciting as a detective story.

Recalling the Hungerford massacre of 1987 (aftermath, above), Dr Shepherd said: ‘… It was soon completely dark and I was in a police vehicle, heading for the school where Michael Ryan had barricaded himself in and then shot himself, after killing 16 people in a rampage that lasted nearly seven hours’

One Sunday morning I was called out to the mortuary by the police to look at a body.

‘A young bloke,’ said the detective inspector. ‘Saturday night, a lot of booze, a bit of cannabis…’

So, it was a typical Sunday morning job. My heart sank. I’d rather be at home with the kids.

And then he added casually that the deceased’s girlfriend had strangled him.

I stared at him. That wasn’t what I’d expected. Female stranglers are extremely rare, almost non-existent. In the police interview, she said she had acted in self-defence.

The detective inspector nodded. ‘Seems such a good kid, it’s hard to believe she could have… but he was trying to kill her and she had to save her own skin.’

I know how the living send out signals which are designed to appeal to our hearts. But the dead can only tell the unadorned truth. I listen to their stories.

Strangulation leaves a line called a ligature around the neck, often surrounded by scratches and bruises as victims try to save themselves. But Anthony Pearson’s body had no such marks.

‘She said she used his tie,’ the detective sergeant told me.

The inspector shook his head. ‘She’s only a little slip of a thing.’

‘Tiny little girl,’ agreed the detective sergeant. ‘I suppose if your life’s in danger you somehow find the strength.’

It wasn’t until the trial itself, and I was shown the photos of the girlfriend Theresa’s supposed injuries, that I was able to express my doubts.

‘I think all Theresa’s injuries are self-inflicted.’

Counsel for the prosecution gaped at me. ‘What?’

‘She did all these things to herself.’

‘Those cuts on her arm. You’re saying she made them?’

‘I believe so. I do not believe that she killed Anthony Pearson in self-defence because he was attacking her with glass, razors, what have you.’

In fact, the injuries in the pictures bore all the classic hallmarks of self-infliction.

The wounds were only in the most common sites for self-inflicted injuries (the sites are common because they’re easily accessible) and the force used was only moderate. It’s not hard to be forceful when you’re in a fury and cutting someone else. It’s very difficult if you’re injuring yourself.

The bite marks to her arm, too, were obviously made by a small mouth: her own.

‘Are you telling us there was no fight in the flat? That she made it all up to justify the fact that she just…?’

‘I believe that she must have strangled him when he was unconscious or barely conscious. Then self-inflicted her injuries.’

Everyone looked at everyone else.

‘No way do we take manslaughter for this one,’ said senior counsel. ‘This is murder.’

Yet in the end, Theresa walked free. I felt that her youth and beauty had swayed the jury, and they found her not guilty.

I could do no more: my job was to tell the truth, and I had done so. If the jury would not listen, there was nothing more I could do.

In the early hours of August 31, 1997, the Princess of Wales and Dodi Fayed died in a road traffic accident in a Paris tunnel, he at the scene and she in hospital after an operation. But questions continued to be asked and conspiracy theories to swirl around for years afterwards. 

In 2004, Sir John Stevens led a police inquiry to establish if there was any reason to doubt that they were victims of a road traffic accident, pure and simple, and I was asked to review the evidence.

In the Mercedes that night was driver Henri Paul, Diana and Dodi in the back seats, and Fayed’s bodyguard, Trevor Rees-Jones, who was sitting on the right of the driver, in front of Diana.

No one except Rees-Jones was wearing a seat belt.

Driver Henri Paul hit the steering wheel and his injuries reflected that but, microseconds later, he was also hit from behind by Dodi, who was a big man and who was still travelling at more than 60mph.

Henri Paul effectively acted as Dodi’s airbag and he died instantly. So did Dodi.

Diana was slightly more fortunate because their bodyguard, Trevor Rees-Jones, was sitting in front of her and he was strapped in.

Bodyguards don’t usually wear seat belts as they restrict movement, but evidently Rees-Jones, maybe because he was alarmed by Henri Paul’s driving, or maybe because he realised an impact was likely, put on his belt at the last minute.

Belts are designed to give gradually while they restrain. So he was held by the belt and partially padded by the car’s airbag, which by now had inflated, as Diana’s body catapulted forward from the back seat. She was much lighter than Dodi and Rees-Jones’s belt would have absorbed some of the extra force. This slightly lessened the energy of the impact for her.

She actually suffered just a few broken bones and a small chest injury – but this included a tiny tear in a vein in one of her lungs.

To the ambulance services, she initially seemed injured but stable, particularly as she was able to communicate. While everyone focused on Rees-Jones, however, the vein was slowly bleeding into her chest.

In the ambulance, she gradually lost consciousness. When she suffered a cardiac arrest, every effort was made to resuscitate her and in hospital she went into surgery, where they did identify the problem and attempted to repair the vein. But, sadly, by then it was too late.

Her initial period of consciousness and initial survival after the accident is characteristic of a tear to a vital vein. Anatomically, it’s hidden away, deep in the centre of the chest.

Veins, of course, are not subject to the same high-pressure pumping as arteries. They bleed much more slowly. In fact, they bleed so slowly that identifying the problem is hard enough. And, if it is identified, repairing it is even harder.

Her specific injury is so rare that in my entire career I don’t believe I’ve seen another.

Diana’s was a very small injury – but in the wrong place. Diana’s death is a classic example of the way we say, after almost every death: if only. If only she had hit the seat in front at a slightly different angle. If only she had been thrown forward 10mph more slowly.

If only she had been put in an ambulance immediately. But the biggest if only, in Diana’s case, was within her own control.

If only she had been wearing a seat belt. Had she been restrained, she would probably have appeared in public two days later with a black eye, perhaps a bit breathless from the fractured ribs and with a broken arm in a sling.

The pathology of her death is, I believe, indisputable. But around that tiny, fatal tear in a pulmonary vein are woven many other facts, some of which are sufficiently opaque to allow a multitude of theories to blossom.

But I entirely concurred with the findings of the inquiry. It was a tragic accident.

© Dr Richard Shepherd, 2019

Extracted by Christopher Hart from Unnatural Causes, by Dr Richard Shepherd, which is published by Penguin on April 18, priced £8.99. Offer price £7.19 (20 per cent discount) until April 14. Pre-order at mailshop.co.uk/books or call 0844 571 0640; p&p is free on orders over £15. Spend £30 on books and get free premium delivery.

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