My VF piece proving Doris Duke, the richest woman in America, got away with the murder of Eduardo Tirella in 1966, prompts Wikipedia to update Duke’s bio to include his death

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vanityfair.com By Peter Lance August 6th, 2020 For the last two years I’ve been investigating an infamous homicide that took place on the late afternoon of October 7th, 1966 in my hometown of Newport, RI., the historic summer colony of America’s robber barons. It happened just eight months before I started my journalism career as a cub reporter for The Newport Daily News. As it turned out, Doris Duke, the fabulously wealthy heir to the American Tobacco Company, Alcoa Aluminum and Duke Power (now Duke Energy) had killed her longtime designer and art curator Eduardo Tirella, in an automobile crash outside the gates of Rough Point, her 10-acre estate on Bellevue Avenue, known to Newporters as “Millionaire’s Row.”

My story on that probe broke July 26th in a 14 page 8,000 word piece in Vanity Fair. These are links to the coverage from:
The U.K. Daily Mail OUT Magazine Passport Magazine and my alma mater, The Newport Daily News.

LISTEN TO the audio narration of “Homicide At Rough Point”

But more significant, for the first time in 3 years Doris Duke’s Wikipedia Bio, has been updated with a completely new section on Eduardo homicide, citing my investigation: See below:

Death of Eduardo Tirella

In 1966, Eduardo Tirella, curator of Duke’s art holdings for the past decade, decided to leave for a career in Hollywood as a production designer. He flew to Newport, where she was staying at Rough Point, on October 6, to collect his belongings and let Duke know that he was leaving her employ. His friends who also knew her had warned him she would not take it well, and the following afternoon the estate’s staff overheard the two having a loud and lengthy argument before they got into a rented Dodge Polara to leave.[33]

Tirella, who had been driving, got out at the gate to open it, leaving the engine running but with the parking brake engaged and the transmission in park. Duke moved from the passenger seat to the driver’s seat in order, she said later, to drive the car forward and pick up Tirella once the gate was open. In order to do so she released the parking brake and shifted into drive, but instead of putting her foot on the brake pedal she hit the gas. The vehicle, she told police later, pinned Tirella against the still-opening gates, knocked them over and then struck a tree across Bellevue Avenue. Tirella was found trapped under the car and was pronounced dead of serious injuries soon after.[33]

After a brief investigation, the Newport police ruled the death was accidental. Tirella’s family sued and won $75,000 ($473,000 in today’s dollars[34]), divided among his eight siblings, when Duke was found negligent[35][36] after a trial five years later. Later biographies and her obituaries repeated the official finding.[33]

In 2020, Peter Lance, a Newport native who had begun his journalism career at Newport Daily News shortly after the incident, reinvestigated the case in a Vanity Fair article. He found initially that the police file on the case and the transcripts of the wrongful death suit brought by Tirella’s family were missing from archives where they would normally be kept, but was able to find some of those documents later. They showed that the investigation into Duke had been cursory and compromised by conflicts of interest (shortly before the medical examiner arrived at the hospital, for instance, Duke had hired him as her personal physician, meaning anything she told him was protected by doctor-patient privilege).[33]

What Lance was able to find showed that Duke’s account of the incident had changed and was inconsistent with the evidence. The parking brake could not have been released the way she said she had, and all Tirella’s injuries were above his waist, which suggests he was not trapped between the car and the gates when it broke through. The deep grooves left by the Polara’s rear tires in the gravel suggested considerably more acceleration than what might have resulted from an accidental depression of the gas pedal. Lance, and several other experts who reviewed the evidence, concluded that it was far more likely that Duke had deliberately run Tirella over out of rage at his decision to leave her for Hollywood.[33]

Shortly after the case was closed, Duke began making considerable philanthropic contributions to the city, including the repair of Cliff Walk around her estate, previously a source of friction between her and the city when her dogs had attacked tourists, and $10,000 to the hospital she had been taken to the night of the accident. Within months she established the Newport Restoration Foundation, which has since renovated 84 of the city’s colonial era buildings. The police chief retired to Florida within a year and bought two condominiums for himself; he was succeeded as chief by the detective who had investigated the incident, instead of his boss who was seen as next in line. Belief persists today in Newport that there was a coverup facilitated by Duke “blood money”.[33]

PROVING A POLICE COVER UP

At the time, many  locals suspected that it was murder, but the Newport cops quickly ruled it an “unfortunate accident.” After that, Miss Duke began giving money to The City-By-The-Sea, leading some to believe that she’d bought her way out of criminal charges. As I report in the 8,000 word piece published online and in VF’s print editions:

The truth of what happened at Rough Point gnawed at me. Then, in 2016, when candidate Donald Trump declared, “I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose any voters,” it took me back to that incident. Somehow, the notion of a billionaire openly bragging that he could get away with murder sent me home to the story I should have covered in the summer of ’67. I had to know: Was Eduardo Tirella’s death really an accident? Or did the heir to one of America’s great fortunes turn a vehicle into a murder weapon—then conspire with the local authorities to cover it up? 

Now, after a two-year investigation I’ve proven that the answer was “Yes.”

I’m now hard at work on HOMICIDE AT ROUGH POINT, the book to be published on January 12th, 2021. It encompasses the murder story but expands on the incredible relationship between Dee Dee, as her friends called her, and Eduardo, an amazing Renaissance man and war hero, who happened to be gay.

Minutes before she ran him down with a two-ton Dodge Polara station wagon, Tirella had just told Doris that he was leaving her to return to the West coast where his career as a Hollywood set designer was just catching fire. Thus, as one of his surviving friends told me, he was literally killed “on the night before the rest of his life.” That’s what makes this study in class privilege a tragedy of Shakespearean dimensions.

As noted, you can read the VF print edition, beautifully laid out across 14 pages, wherever Vanity Fair is sold and online at vanityfair.com

Then, if the piece grabs you, you can pre-order a 386 page illustrated hardcover edition of the book at amazon and a half dozen other online booksellers. For now, here’s the book’s Introduction which is sure to draw you in to this film-noir mystery.

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