Monaco home where Lily Safra's billionaire husband died in a mystery blaze is sold for £200m - but who murdered him?
Even in a principality known for its conspicuous wealth, news that a two- storey Monaco apartment had exchanged hands for a European record price of £200 million last month left residents astonished.
Sold by property developers Nick and Christian Candy, the sale of the marina-side penthouse called Belle Epoque to a single buyer, believed to be an Arab sheikh, has earned the label of the world's most expensive flat, and become the talk of the champagne and caviar-fuelled soirees that are a regular feature of life in this sun-drenched tax haven.
One woman in particular, however, was especially taken aback, not to mention deeply upset by the worldwide publicity that the sale the penthouse has attracted.
Her name is Lily Safra, and for a time she and her multi-billionaire financier husband Edmond were the beating heart of Monaco's wealthy super-elite, able to gaze down on their empire from this very same penthouse with its 17,500 sq feet of marbled floors, galleries and terraces.
The daughter of a British railway engineer, Lily's ascent from humble origins to fabulous wealth had been little short of dazzling. By the late Nineties, her husband was presiding over a £3 billion fortune - all of which passed to Lily alone when, on the morning of December 3, 1999, Edmond died in a fire, apparently succumbing to fumes in the property's highly reinforced panic room.
That Mr Safra had died in the very room to which he had retreated to protect himself made it a particularly poignant tragedy, and one that was to take on an even more dramatic element in ensuing days.
Four days later, in a tearful confession, one of Edmond's full-time nursing staff, 41-year-old Ted Maher, admitted to lighting the fire in a doomed bid to stage a heroic rescue which would boost his status and pay.
Later convicted of death by arson, he was given a ten-year prison sentence. It was, it seemed, another sorry chapter in an area memorably described by author W. Somerset Maugham as a 'sunny place for shady people'. And undoubtedly the recent sale of the property - which the widowed 71- year-old Mrs Safra herself sold to the Candys only two years ago - has stirred up difficult memories for its former mistress, who, as sole benefactor of her husband's will became one of the wealthiest women in the world, five places above the Queen on Britain's rich list.
While Edmond was her fourth husband, he was also the second to die in complex circumstances. Thirty years earlier, in 1969, her second husband Freddy Monteverde was found bleeding to death in bed from a shot fired from a revolver by his side.
These two untimely deaths have caused Mrs Safra great personal pain, but more than that too. While Monteverde's death was ruled suicide, some reports suggested he had died from not one but two fatal shots, only one of which could be self-inflicted.
Now, decades later, Lily is keenly aware that despite her belief that Maher's confession draws a line under the terrible events of December 3, 1999, many feel there are a host of unanswered questions from that troubling night too - questions that, the Mail can reveal, have achieved a renewed urgency.
Released from prison in 2007 after serving just five years of his sentence, Mr Maher has now publicly renounced his confession, insisting he was the fall guy for a crime he did not commit.
Empty rhetoric, perhaps, from a man found guilty in a court of law? Yet his voice is not a lone one.
Mr Maher's bid to clear his name is being supported by an impressive roster of international lawyers, many of them working without a fee, among them Michael Griffith, who made his name representing Billy Hayes, an American whose escape from a Turkish jail inspired the motion picture Midnight Express, and who was one of five lawyers on Maher's defence team.
Meanwhile, Jean-Christophe Hullin, the French examining judge who conducted the original investigation into Maher, has latterly claimed that his trial was 'fixed in advance'.
Certainly Mr Griffith is convinced of his client's innocence, believing that whoever did kill Safra was assisted in a cover-up by the Monaco establishment, blaming 'dark forces' for the killing.
'Monaco is meant to be one of the most secure places in the world, and people aren't meant to be killed in penthouse flats,' he told the Mail.
'Maher was in the right position to take the rap, and this suited everybody. Ted's confession was anything but.'
They are words which are likely to hugely dismay Mrs Safra, known as 'the gilded Lily' for her dazzling ascent from humble origins to a world of spectacular wealth.
Born Lily Watkins in Brazil, her father had moved to the continent with his Uruguayan wife and her childhood was perfectly ordinary.
Yet she married well from the start, first at 17 to hosiery magnate Mario Cohen, with whom she had three children, then, at 27, to Freddie Monteverde, a wealthy businessman whose death left her with an estimated £160 million fortune.
A third marriage, to a businessman named Samuel Bendahan in the early Seventies, lasted little more than a year, and it was her union in 1976 with Safra, a Lebanese-born financier who founded the Republic National Bank of New York that was to elevate her to a key position at the centre of the international beau monde.
Together the couple became generous philanthropists and equally lavish hosts, entertaining guests from Frank Sinatra to Aristotle Onassis.
By the time of his death Safra still wielded considerable power, newlyminted as a multi-billionaire courtesy of the sale of the Republic Bank. He was also, rumour had it, assisting the FBI in a clampdown on Russian mafia money launderers in Monaco.
Yet wealth cannot insulate against all, and he was also in frail health. Diagnosed with Parkinson's disease, he required round-the-clock nursing.
The apartment in Monaco which became the Safras' main residence was equipped with a team of dedicated staff, among them Mr Maher, a 41-yearold U.S. Special Forces Veteran with an exemplary military and medical record who had served in the Gulf War and came personally recommended by American friends of the Safras.
Maher had been in the job only four months when, at 5am on December 3, 1999, he appeared in front of the Belle Epoque's concierge, hugely distressed and bleeding from knife wounds in the stomach and thigh.
Gasping for breath, he said he had struggled with two hooded attackers and that a fire was sweeping the Safras' apartment.
Meanwhile, believing himself under siege from assassins, Safra, together with another nurse, Viviane Torrente, locked himself in the apartment's bathroom - also a reinforced panic room - refusing to come out, even after pleading telephone calls from his wife, who had managed to escape to safety via a narrow window ledge which led onto a terrace and internal stairwell.
It took more than two hours, however, for firemen and police to arrive and smash their way into the apartment, where Safra and Torrente's bodies were finally recovered at 7.15am.
A terrible tragedy, certainly, but from the start some elements of Safra's death struck investigators as highly curious. Why, for instance, were Safra's usual team of Mossad-trained, round-theclock bodyguards nowhere to be seen?
Why, moreover, in an apartment equipped with state-of-the-art surveillance systems, were there no security videotapes or CCTV to record events as they unfolded?
Why had it taken police and the fire brigade so long to get into the building, when Mrs Safra herself had been able to get out?
These questions continued to puzzle even when, four days later, the 'truth' apparently emerged.
In a tearful confession to police, Maher said he had staged the fire himself, self-inflicting his wounds, as part of a bizarre scheme to 'rescue' his boss and win his favour.
In 2002, almost three years to the day since Safra's death, he was jailed for ten years for causing double death by arson.
If Mrs Safra had hoped that the clanging of the prison doors would mark an end to the matter however, she was to be sorely disappointed.
Conspiracy theories continued to rage, fuelled by the wider circumstances amid which Safra met his demise. Was Maher the fall guy for Russian contract killers, angered by Safra's co-operation with the FBI?
Had Monaco's ruler, Prince Rainier, a great friend of Safra's, intervened behind the scenes to help protect his principality's reputation? The fact that Safra had changed his will shortly before his death in favour of his wife, and at the expense of his two brothers, did not escape notice either.
Then there is Maher, now living at a secret location in New York State after being quietly released in 2007 after serving barely five years of his sentence.
He now hopes to have his conviction overturned, and claims that his original story - prior to his confession - was true all along.
He was, he insists, attacked by two masked assassins wielding guns and combat knives, who had broken into the top floor of the Belle Époque with the express intention of murdering Mr Safra.
'I went down - I was assaulted from behind so I went down,' Maher says. 'And at that point, I went unconscious.'
Coming to a few minutes later, disoriented and in considerable pain, he says he could not see his assailants, but became aware that Mr Safra and his colleague Mrs Torrente were by now making their way to the apartment's panic-room. Hard to understand in this case is how Mr Safra and his nurse had survived up to this point.
Desperate to raise the alarm, yet finding communication systems inside the flat cut, including emergency warning systems, Maher then resorted, he says, to lighting a small fire in a dustbin to set off the smoke alarm, hoping the siren would alert the emergency services outside.
'I gave Viviane my mobile phone and said, "Here, you can call help. I'm going to go down and get medical help for myself", otherwise I was going to die,' Maher recalls. 'I was convinced I stopped these people from killing Mr Safra.'
That, he says, is the only part he played in events that night.
'I already had everything that I could possibly want in life. And I want to kill my employer? Or show myself as a hero? What's the purpose?'
So why did he sign a full confession confirming he had killed Mr Safra and Mrs Torrence? Simple, says Maher.
'I was told "Don't worry, Ted. Go with this. " Because if you don't, in the end, they're going to condemn you. And you're going to go to jail for a very long period of time. And you'll never see your family again, '
Written in French, a language he did not understand, he had no way of knowing what he was putting his name to.
'I didn't know even know what I was signing - I didn't know what this document was until after it was translated.'
Moreover, he was fearful for his wife Heidi, who, he was told, had been seized and questioned.
'I was told "you will sign this or your wife will not leave the country".'
By the time the case came to trial, he says his lawyers advised him to co-operate with the judiciary in return for a lighter sentence.
Only Griffith urged him to retract his confession, but as a non-French lawyer, he was not allowed to speak for his client in court.
Nor is that all. As we have seen, no less a person than one of the original investigators has spoken out, also suggesting that a secret deal took place pretrial which guaranteed Maher a nominal sentence for acting as a 'patsy'.
Jean-Christophe Hullin, who originally investigated Maher's alleged crime on behalf of Monaco, now maintains that representatives of all sides of the case were involved in a carve-up, a claim he upholds despite what he calls 'threats, intimidation and insults'.
His views are echoed by another lawyer involved in the case, Pompeyo Realuyo, a New York lawyer who attended the Maher trial on behalf of the family of nurse Viviane Torrente and who has described the process as 'a badly scripted play'.
Certainly, evidence supporting Maher's renewed public testimony is compelling.
Friends and associates have pointed out that Mr Safra was careful to the point of paranoia about his personal security, filling his penthouse with state-of-the-art security devices, including fire sensors, yet on the night of his death none of them apparently worked, all 12 of his security team had been given the night off.
'It doesn't make sense,' says one legal source, who knew him well. 'Safra was not only suffering from his illness, but from deep paranoia. In short, he was convinced someone was trying to kill him, and would have taken all precautions to try and stop this happening.'
Equally sinister is the suggestion of a cover-up regarding the causes of death for both Safra and Mme Torrence.
'Mme Torrence had suffered a karate chop to the throat - hardly a wound consistent with someone dying from smoke inhalation in a simple house fire,' the legal source added.
What this does not tell us, of course, is who was responsible for this most intriguing of deaths. For her own part, Mrs Safra categorically refutes Mr Maher's recent assertions of innocence.
Impeccably groomed, whippet thin and described as 'charm itself ' by those who know her, she counts among her friends Prince Charles and Lord Rothschild, and continues to undertake philanthropic work, dividing her time between Villa Leopolda, a £350 million mansion on the French Riviera, and a £30 million home in Eaton Square.
In both, she is protected by a posse of bodyguards and sophisticated security systems - neither of which, as she knows painfully well, can insulate her from the ongoing fallout from her husband's extraordinary death.