Did The Butler Do It?

Tobacco heiress Doris Duke, a.k.a. "The Richest Girl in the World," was also one of the strangest. To look young, she underwent repeated plastic surgery, until her eyes seemed stretched to the sides of her face. A "magnetic rejuvenation machine" pelted her with enough electricity to make her limp blond hair stand on end. She belly-danced into old age. Her pet camels, Princess and Baby, had the run of her 30-room mansion in central New Jersey. In 1988 she put up $5 million bail to spring her friend Imelda Marcos when she was indicted for racketeering; in 1991 she offered Pee-wee Herman refuge when he had legal trouble. But the weirdest chapter in Doris Duke's 80 years was undoubtedly the last, with its multiple wills, disinheritances and belated allegations that Duke was murdered. And the most gossiped-about character is right out of Agatha Christie.

When Duke died at her Beverly Hills home on Oct. 28, 1993, the obituaries said she had suffered a heart attack. Duke's friends thought otherwise. Why was she cremated the next day -- without an autopsy -- when she had a fear of fire and had asked to be buried at sea? Some thought she committed suicide. Duke herself believed for years that someone was trying to harm her -- including her own adopted daughter -- and had even set up an account with ransom money, in case she was kidnapped. But it wasn't until last month that a witness stepped forward to make a charge. Tammy Payette, one of six nurses working for Duke when she died, alleged that the billionairess had been drugged to death. "Miss Duke did not die of natural causes and was not in danger of dying until the large doses of morphine were given to her," she said in a Manhattan Surrogate Court affidavit. The Los Angeles police quickly began to investigate.

Did the butler do it? Ponytailed, earringed Bernard Lafferty was not your run-of-the-mill major-domo. Six months before she died, Duke made him the coexecutor of her estimated $1.2 billion estate. The job comes with a $5 million fee and the potential for more supervising Duke's numerous charities (she also left Lafferty $500,000 a year for life). Lafferty, 49, was one of a procession of relatives, doctors and investment advisers named as executors by Duke, who rewrote her will more often than most people write a letter. A virtually illiterate native of Ireland, he came to work for Duke in 1987 after another employer reportedly fired him because he drank too much.He had worked for years as a maitre d' in Philadelphia, pampering celebrities such as Elizabeth Taylor, Sophia Loren and Peggy Lee. By all accounts, he charmed Duke as well. "Bernard was the only one who had her interests at heart," Stephanie Mansfield, a Duke biographer, told The New York Times. "Everyone else used Doris, but I think Bernard did not."

Since Payette's allegations, "everyone else" has been pointing the finger at Lafferty as well. Colin Shanley, Duke's former chef, said in an affidavit unsealed last month that on the day before Duke died a package arrived; when Lafferty saw it, he grabbed it and announced, "Miss Duke is going to die tonight." (Shanley's court papers say the package contained "a potentially lethal dose" of Demerol, a painkiller.) Harry Demopoulos, a former Duke doctor and another pre-Lafferty executor, alleges that Lafferty even removed all her hair from her brushes and combs. Payette also casts suspicion on Duke's physician, Dr. Charles Kivowitz, who administered morphine to her on the evening of Oct. 27. After the first dose, Payette says, Lafferty asked how long it would take her to die. Kivowitz allegedly said about an hour. When Duke continued to live hours later, Payette says Lafferty called the doctor, who returned to the estate to administer more morphine. She died at 5:30 a.m. the next day. Two hours later, her body had been removed.

Lafferty, through his PR firm, issued a statement describing the allegations as "bizarre and baseless." Kivowitz, in his own deposition, admits to administering the morphine, but says that Duke was already close to death and did not want to be kept alive artificially. "I increased the morphine so that she would not linger, that she would not suffer," he said, adding that he hastened Duke's death by at most 48 hours. Lafferty's busy publicist also released a statement from a second nurse, Pearl Rosenstein, who said that Kivowitz provided Duke with "superb" medical care.

Lafferty himself hasn't enhanced his image. Since Duke's death he has been forcibly admitted to two hospitals -- under pseudonyms -- for his drinking, claim former Duke servants. In the early evening last June 2, he drove his Cadillac through a red light in Hollywood, hitting a light pole and four cars before crashing into the famed Whisky a Go Go nightclub. Anda lawsuit filed by three former Duke servants alleges that Lafferty had discussed killing three rivals for Duke's estate, including her estranged daughter, Chandi Heffner. Many of the rivals have also sued to remove Lafferty as coexecutor. Whether or not these cases -- or the murder investigation -- result in charges against Lafferty, he certainly seems like a strange choice to run one of the world's largest charitable trusts. On second thought, maybe that makes him the perfect candidate to carry on Doris Duke's peculiar legacy.