Santa Barbara author Peter Lance investigates tycoon Doris Duke
Eduardo “Eddie” Tirella went to open the mansion driveway’s iron gates when America’s richest woman, Doris Duke, slid into the driver’s seat and slammed on the gas. She was angry that the interior designer, known for his work on movie sets, was leaving her.
Ms. Duke drove a two-ton Dodge Polara station wagon right at him. He bounced off the hood.
And after hesitating for a moment, Ms. Duke struck him again on Bellevue Avenue.
Then she dragged him to his death as she plowed into a tree.
That’s how Santa Barbara investigative journalist Peter Lance describes the Oct. 7, 1966 murder at Rough Point mansion in a new book that explores the death, subsequent police cover-up and Ms. Duke’s private confession.
Ms. Duke, whose mansion was in Newport, R.I., was never charged with a crime and ended up paying only $75,000 in the Tirella family’s wrongful-death suit.
Mr. Lance discusses the murder and cover-up in “Homicide at Rough Point: The Untold Story of How Doris Duke, The Richest Woman in America, Got Away with Murder” (Tenacity Media Books, $31.99). It will be released Tuesday at local stores and amazon.com.
Mr. Lance also will discuss the book today on KZSB, AM 1290, the News-Press radio station, with Dr. Elizabeth Stewart, a Santa Barbara appraiser and a News-Press columnist. She helped him with some of the book’s research. Dr. Stewart’s show, “The Artists’ Impact Upon the Pandemic,” will air at 10 a.m. today and repeat at 8 tonight and 11 a.m. Sunday.
Mr. Lance’s new book looks in detail about the 1966 murder in Newport, R.I., where the author started his journalism career in 1967 as a reporter for the Newport Daily News.
“Since I was a cub reporter, the town was buzzing with rumors that she had gotten away with murder,” Mr. Lance told the News-Press. “It has been the stone in my shoe ever since.”
Mr. Lance said Ms. Duke was angry with Mr. Tirella, a set designer for movies, after he told her she was leaving her. Mr. Tirella was gay, but Mr. Lance wrote in his book that Ms. Duke could have had feelings for him and may have been jealous of feelings she imagined Mr. Tirella had for Kaffe Fassett, another gay man who spent a weekend with Mr. Tirella and Ms. Duke at Rough Point.
The murder happened after Mr. Tirella drove Ms. Duke in the station wagon up to the iron gates at the end of her mansion’s driveway, Mr. Lance said.
“He goes to open the gate. No. 1, she slides over behind the wheel,” Mr. Lance said. “No. 2, she releases the parking brake. She puts the car in gear, guns the engine. She lunges forward with the car.”
No. 3: She hit Mr. Tirella.
“He’s up on the hood. He may have broken his hip. She blows through the gate,” Mr. Lance said. “He’s still alive and is probably looking at her through the windshield, terrified. If she had (just) kept going, he would have bounced off. He may have broken a hip, but he would have been alive.
“But she hesitated for a moment outside the gate and tapped the brake, maybe temporarily for remorse. When he rolled off the hood, maybe he was screaming at her. We don’t know,” Mr. Lance said.
The author said Ms. Duke then became committed and struck Mr. Tirella a second time. “She dragged him to his death.”
Mr. Lance said tourists passing by saw the damaged car and an emotional Ms. Duke, who went into the house screaming for “Eduardo!” even though she knew she had just hit him. She later admitted she hit him.
Newport Police Chief Joseph Radice quickly ruled the death to be an unfortunate accident and tried to close the case, but the Rhode Island attorney general questioned the hasty decision in a New York Daily News story. So Chief Radice decided to do a quick investigation.
But not an honest one, Mr. Lance said.
“He (Chief Radice) decides to go to Doris’ lawyer and says, ‘You’ve got to give me something to close this case,’ ” Mr. Lance said.
“The lawyer, Aram Arabian, said, ‘You write up the transcript. If she likes it, she’ll sign it,’ ” Mr. Lance said. “When have you heard anything like that?”
Mr. Lance discusses the investigation in his book’s seventh chapter, titled “The Fabricated Transcript.”
The author obtained a copy of the typed transcript, complete with Ms. Duke’s handwritten notes, and published it in the chapter. The transcript shows Ms. Duke’s handwriting, in which she corrects the typed birthdate. That seemed suspicious to the author, who told the News-Press that if Ms. Duke were actually questioned, she would have corrected her birthdate before the transcript was typed.
And Mr. Lance said he found it suspicious that Chief Radice, who was making just $7,000 a year at the time, retired eight months after the case was closed and was able to buy two Hollywood, Fla. condominiums. He said he doesn’t know for certain if Ms. Duke made a deal with the police chief, but noted the chief was seen walking arm in arm with Ms. Duke into her mansion. He said the two could have met privately to make a deal.
Mr. Lance also noted that Ms. Duke kept the city of Newport on her side. When the city was on the verge of bankruptcy, it benefited from a restoration project financed by Ms. Duke.
But he said Ms. Duke confessed to one of her lovers that she intentionally killed Mr. Tilerra.
The lover was Peter Byrne, whom Mr. Lance interviewed for the book.
Mr. Byrne, who’s now in his 90s, told Mr. Lance that he and Ms. Duke were inseparable when they lived at Falcon Lair in Los Angeles, near the home where actress Sharon Tate, Mr. Tirella’s friend, and others were killed by Charles Manson and his followers.
Mr. Byrne said Ms. Duke told him that Mr. Tirella got what he deserved when she drove her car into him.
Mr. Lance’s research for his book included a look at an art piece that could be related to the murder and Ms. Duke’s ego. It was the Reliquary of St. Ursula.
Believed to contain the bones of saints, reliquaries were revered among the robber barons of the Gilded Age such as J.P. Morgan.
Dr. Stewart, the appraiser who helped Mr. Lance with his research on the reliquary, explained its importance in the book.
She told the News-Press that owning a reliquary meant a lot to rich people such as Ms. Duke. “It said, ‘Not only am I extremely wealthy, but I own something that is divine’ … It speaks of money and power and co-opted spirituality.”