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Did the Butler Kill Tobacco Heiress Doris Duke?

April 24, 1995

LOS ANGELES (AP) _ Doris Duke trusted no one. Not her friends, not her two husbands, not even her own mother. What kept her company is the very thing that made her so miserable: Money.

Doris Duke had a lot of money. Truckloads of it. To be precise, $1.2 billion. ``The richest girl in the world″ they called her in 1925, when at age 12 she inherited the cigarette empire of her father, James Buchanan Duke, founder of the American Tobacco Co.

``Trust no one,″ he told his only child as he lay dying. ``Buck″ Duke amassed an obscene fortune by introducing Lucky Strikes into pop culture. There seemed nothing he couldn’t buy. A North Carolina university renamed itself for him _ after receiving $40 million.

In Depression-era America, everyone was fascinated by the willowy and beautiful blond heiress. As a teen-ager, Doris sued her own mother for control of the Duke estate.

She married twice, both times briefly. She feared her husbands really wanted her checkbook. Capricious, vain and more than a little odd, she carried her father’s deathbed admonishment to her own.

She has been gone for more than a year now, leaving one of the largest charitable foundations in American history. Her money could be doing a lot of good, were it not for a large group of people pointing fingers at one another.

One accusation propels this tale into the realm of Agatha Christie. A nurse who tended Duke’s deathbed at Falcon Lair, the Beverly Hills estate once owned by Rudolph Valentino, now claims the 80-year-old recluse was murdered.

By the butler, no less.

He is Irish-born Bernard Lafferty, 50, who waited on Duke for the last seven years of her life.

A hearing in Manhattan Surrogate’s Court, where Duke’s estate is stuck in probate, is scheduled for Tuesday. At issue is whether to unseal a report by attorney Richard Kuh, assigned by the court to investigate nurse Tammy Payette’s murder allegations.

A separate probe is underway here, where Duke died, by Los Angeles police. It is expected to continue for at least two weeks.

People only wanted her for her money, Duke believed. And in the end, after a life filled with high living and fast friends including Imelda Marcos and Gloria Swanson, Duke died surrounded by the hired help.

In the two years before she died, Duke rewrote her will at least six times. Executors were named, then banished. According to the last revision, dated six months before her October 28, 1993 death, butler Lafferty is primary executor of Duke’s estate.

Neither Lafferty nor his attorney responded to interview requests.

But he has denied killing anybody.

``The `butler’ word they like,″ Lafferty recently told the Los Angeles Times. ``Because the butler always `did it.′ ″

Tammy Payette, 27, the nurse who accuses Lafferty of murder, recently suffered a serious credibility blow. She was arrested March 31 for allegedly stealing ivory statues from another wealthy client.

It was Payette who prompted both investigations of Duke’s death. In a January court declaration, she stated that Duke ``did not die of natural causes″ but from large doses of morphine prescribed by Dr. Charles Kivowitz, a new Duke physician.

Payette claimed the doctor conspired in the killing with Lafferty, who was left $5 million outright and $500,000 a year for life in the will.

Payette’s declaration bolsters a $30 million breach-of-contract and harassment suit brought by two other Duke employees against Lafferty. Payette has said she is not a plaintiff in any lawsuit.

Kivowitz attorney Leonard Levine claims it was Payette who administered Duke’s final and massive doses of morphine, exceeding Kivowitz’s prescribed dosage.

Cause of death for the elderly woman, bedridden following a series of strokes, was listed as heart failure. An autopsy is impossible because her body was cremated two days after her death.

Lafferty, who hobnobs in Beverly Hills, claims he wants nothing more than to get on with administering the Duke foundation.

Meanwhile, everyone waits.

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