Diana's Butler Facing Trial for Theft

ByABC News

Oct. 4, 2002 -- A disgraced aide, a media melee — the latest royal scandal may have some familiar elements, but Paul Burrell is not your average servant. He is Princess Diana's longtime butler, and he is accused of stealing more than 300 of her personal items — including designer dresses, intimate family photos, even letters to Prince William from "Mummy."

Authorities say the items were found in Burrell's home in a predawn raid last year. (Click here for a full list of the items.) The discovery shocked even jaded royal-watchers — because Burrell was supposed to be beyond reproach.

The Princess of Wales trusted Paul Burrell. She called him her "rock," said Andrew Shaw, Burrell's attorney.

"We will fight this case. We will require the true witnesses to give direct evidence," Shaw said.

‘The Best Soap Opera in Town’

With the trial slated to begin this month, Burrell and his attorney seem ready to rock the foundations of the monarchy. It's those "true witnesses" — and their revelations — that could make this trial an international sensation. While it's no longer considered likely that Prince Charles and Prince William will be called as witnesses, Diana's mother and sister are expected to take the stand to testify against Burrell.

"This is actually like the best soap opera in town," said Majesty magazine editor Ingrid Seward, who is among the professional palace-watchers eagerly anticipating the royal fireworks.

"On one side you've got the royal family, the Spencers, and the police, and the people that really don't like Burrell — all out to get him. On the other side you've got Diana's friends, who see him as a very charming man who totally devoted his life to the princess," Seward said.

Unlike so many of Diana's aides, friends, even lovers, the 44-year-old Burrell has never sold his stories about the late princess. His silence makes this prosecution seem even more unusual.

There's a long history of servants taking from their masters. Usually, according to Seward, the royals turn "a blind eye" to this. She says she can't recall a single person going to trial for it.

So why has Burrell been singled out? Not just because he tried to hold on to Diana's treasures, but because he tried to hold on to her cachet, too.

Their relationship — princess and butler — was uncommonly close, beginning with the five years he served as butler to Charles and Diana. When the royal couple split, Diana took Burrell with her.

In a 1998 interview with the BBC, Burrell claimed that Diana wanted him with her because he offered her security.

Seward says Burrell adored Diana. "I think on one occasion he said he used to wash out her underclothes because he was worried that if they went to the laundry someone would steal them," Seward said.

"I was there for her at the end of the day … and at the beginning … and I kept her secrets … and still will," Burrell said in the BBC interview.

Such slavish devotion led Diana to keep Burrell at her side as she traveled the globe.

"He was privy to her innermost thoughts and secrets. He was there to listen to her problems," Seward said.

‘Taking Care of Secrets’

After Diana's death in a car crash in 1997, Burrell flew to Paris and dressed her body. He joined nine members of her family as she was laid to rest on a small island on the Spencer family's estate.

Later, it was Burrell's job to clean out all of the possessions in Diana's 10-room apartment at Kensington Palace. He told the BBC he needed six months to finish the job.

"It's a way of taking care of memories, a way of taking care of secrets. And keeping them safe, and that's what I intend to do," Burrell said.

Burrell seemed to revel in the access and excitement his connection with Diana had brought him. He gave speeches, wrote a couple of books, even hobnobbed in Hollywood — a royal servant turned mini-celebrity.

That may have been his undoing.

"Burrell's name became synonymous with Diana and that upset the Spencers. After all, it's their blood, not his," Seward said.

From ABBA to Versace — Royal Rubbish?

Then one day at a London antique gallery, a customer spotted an item that looked familiar: a gilded boat worth hundreds of thousands of dollars … a wedding gift to Charles and Diana from the Emir of Bahrain. What was it doing there?

It is Burrell's likely defense that has so many royals quaking beneath their tiaras.

Some believe Burrell will describe how royalty gets rid of some of the many gifts they receive — often disposing of unwanted items by handing them off to their grossly underpaid staff.

"Burrell will be fighting for his freedom, and he's going to pull out all the stops. … And he is going to offer the public a view on the royal world which they didn't know before," Seward said.

"Over the years they get rid of gold, silver, unwanted gifts. And this all has to come out. So I think the royal family are regretting that this case was ever started," Seward said.

Burrell is expected to claim in court that Diana entrusted items to him for safekeeping; Versace gowns, a Cartier clock, ABBA & Phil Collins CDs, scores of family photos, even handwritten notes to her son Prince William.

"She placed items with the man she trusted, instead of professional advisors, and instead of with her family," Shaw said.

But everyone knows that Burrell has even dishier tales to tell — especially about Diana's personal life. Burrell fetched Diana's lovers when they visited Kensington Palace; he also witnessed the comings and goings of Charles and Camilla Parker Bowles, according to Seward.

If Paul Burrell tells all he knows, few will remain unscathed — including those who resent him for presuming to be the keeper of Diana's spirit, instead of a mere servant.

So the question that has all of England holding its breath isn't "Did the butler do it?" — but, "What will the butler do next?"

In answering that question, there's little doubt of whom Burrell considers his guide. "I think whatever I do from now on, I am still answerable to my boss," Burrell told the BBC.

ABC News Live

ABC News Live

24/7 coverage of breaking news and live events