When Doris Duke, heiress to the Duke family tobacco fortune, was born in 1912, newspapers christened her “the richest little girl.”
The moniker held true: At the age of 12, she inherited $50 million dollars from her father, James Duke, who had been president of the American Tobacco Company, co-founder of Duke Energy, and was part of the family that Duke University is named after.
Duke lived an eventful life. Then, in 1966, she ran over Eduardo Tirella, a designer and longtime employee of hers, with a 2-ton station wagon.
The account accepted by the police—and later detailed in a police report—was that the death was an “unfortunate accident” caused while Tirella was attempting to wrest open the wrought-iron gates of Duke’s Newport, Rhode Island mansion on Millionaire Row, in order to let her drive through.
Tirella, a close confidante of Duke’s, had purportedly just told her that day of his plans to leave her employment and move to Hollywood.
A book published earlier this year, however, Homicide at Rough Point by the journalist Peter Lance, casts doubt on this narrative. Today, in a video released by Vanity Fair, Lance interviews Bob Walker, the 13-year-old paperboy and eyewitness of the so-called accident.
Walker approached Lance after reading the book. Per his account, as told to Lance, he was on his bike route when he heard the sound of two people arguing, followed by “the roar of a motor, the crash, and the screaming of a man.” According to that account, he then heard a second impact: a de-acceleration followed by an acceleration and more screaming. Walker approached the scene of the crash, but says Duke screamed at him to go away.
Walker says that he did not go to the police at the time because his father warned him that Doris Duke was a “rotten person who had done terrible things” and that she had “people on her payroll who were very unscrupulous.” Local police closed the case after 96 hours, and Duke went on to make significant donations to the town of Newport.
The death was not Duke’s first brush with controversy: years earlier, her common-in-law husband, the jazz leader Joseph Armand Castro, sued her for stabbing him in the arm with a butcher’s knife. She went on to legally adopt an adult daughter, Chandi Heffner, whom she claimed was a reincarnation of a daughter that died in infancy, before disinheriting Heffner when the two had a falling out.
According to Vanity Fair, as of August 2, the Newport Police Department confirmed that they had reopened the investigation into the death.
Doris Duke died in 1993 at the age of 80. Her papers are kept at Duke University.
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