‘Homicide at Rough Point’: Doris Duke’s killing of longtime employee reinvestigated after half a century

<p>Doris Duke was the only child of James Buchanan Duke, the founder of the American Tobacco Company.&nbsp;</p>

Doris Duke was the only child of James Buchanan Duke, the founder of the American Tobacco Company. 

Editor’s note: This story contains graphic descriptions of a death. Reader discretion is advised.

On Oct. 7, 1966, billionaire tobacco heiress Doris Duke was driving away from her mansion in Newport, R.I., when she crushed her longtime employee Eduardo Tirella with a two-ton station wagon.

“I hear the roar of a motor, the scream of a man, the crash of steel, the deacceleration of the motor, the man stops screaming, the motor roared again, the scream turned to horror ‘Noooooo,’ and then there was a secondary crash,” said Bob Walker, who said he was at the scene.

Duke was the only child of James Buchanan Duke, the founder of the American Tobacco Company. Tirella was Doris Duke’s art curator and close confidant. 

After the incident, Duke claimed that her car had accidentally leaped forward when she released the parking brake, pinning Tirella at the iron gates and crushing him to death.

The local police stuck to that narrative: their report described Tirella’s death as an “unfortunate accident.” For decades, this official narrative remained untouched, despite rumors of murder. But new evidence now challenges that account. 

In February of this year, journalist Peter Lance published “Homicide at Rough Point,” which draws on newly uncovered evidence, from police reports to photos of the crime scene, to argue that Duke killed Tirella “with intent.”

Then, in July, Lance was in Newport doing a book signing for “Homicide at Rough Point” when a man approached him and claimed to have witnessed the crash. That man was Walker, a former Newport paperboy who said he had been delivering Duke a copy of The Newport Daily News when the crash happened. 

Walker had read Lance’s book and agreed with his account. In a Vanity Fair interview in August, Walker shared new details about the incident and corroborated Lance’s claim that Duke had murdered Tirella.

On Aug. 2, 27 years after Duke’s death, the Newport Police Department opened an active investigation into the incident, according to Vanity Fair

All this has raised new questions about the crash, and about Doris Duke, the elegant, eccentric heir of the Duke family fortune. 

“Richest girl in the world”

At age 12, Duke inherited $50 million from her father, James Buchanan Duke, according to Lance. She was described by newspapers as “the richest girl in the world.” 

Duke went on to live a colorful life full of parties, extramarital affairs and lawsuits. When she was 13, she sued her mother to gain control over the fortune her father left her, and she became involved in over 40 lawsuits throughout her life, according to Lance. 

“She would employ minions, that is to say, lawyers, private investigators, press, who would routinely go in, attempt and often succeed at sanitizing the record of her troubled legacy,” Lance said in an interview with The Chronicle. “She had the money, power and will to subvert the courts.”

In his book, Lance describes Doris as notoriously jealous and possessive. When she was 54, her husband sued her for stabbing him in a drunken rage. 

She was also known to be paranoid. Her father’s last words to her were “trust no one,” according to a 1997 book on Duke’s life by Ted Schwarz and Tom Rybak. 

Duke was involved in philanthropy, contributing vast amounts of money to AIDS research, medicine, education and child welfare. She established the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, which continues to fund grants for medical research, the environment and the performing arts. Upon her death, the majority of her fortune was left to charity. 

As Duke grew older, she became extremely reclusive and isolated, according to Schwarz and Rybak. She would often escape in the summers to the Rough Point estate, a Gilded Age mansion that her father had bought from the Vanderbilt family. There, she kept large dogs to deter unwelcome visitors.

“She destroyed his body, then eviscerated his memory” 

On the last day of Eduardo Tirella’s life, he arrived at the Rough Point estate to tell Duke that he planned to leave his job as her art curator to pursue his budding Hollywood career, according to Lance.

Tirella and Duke then got into a rented station wagon, Duke in the passenger seat and Tirella in the driver’s seat. They were on their way to view a piece of art Duke had been eyeing for a long time.

When they approached the large iron gates of the mansion, Tirella exited the car to unlock the gates. Duke slid into the driver's seat to drive the car through the gates. She released the parking brake and the car accidentally leaped forward, pinning Tirella at the iron gates and crushing him to death.

That’s what happened, according to Duke’s account of the incident.

The local police ruled Tirella’s death an “unfortunate accident.” Duke was found negligent in the death of Eduardo Tirella and escaped the trial without any criminal liability. She paid Tirella’s siblings $5,620 each for her role in his death at the same time she was making $1 million a week in interest on her fortune, according to Lance. 

Duke then made a number of philanthropic contributions to the city of Newport. She gave $25,000 to restore the Cliff Walk, a pedestrian walking path around her home, and $10,000 to the Newport Hospital.

In an interview with The Chronicle, Lance described several key pieces of evidence that support his theory that Duke murdered Tirella. 

First, Tirella’s autopsy reports weren’t consistent with Duke’s account of how he died. Duke claimed that Tirella was pinned against the gates and crushed, but his autopsy report stated that he had sustained no injuries to his lower body. Besides a fractured hip, all of his injuries were above his waist, including massive damage to his lungs, spinal cord and brain. 

Eduardo’s death certificate, which is separate from the autopsy report, stated that he had been “struck by auto while opening iron gates and then dragged under vehicle.” This also contradicts Duke’s account that she accidentally pinned Tirella against the gates. 

The initial police report from the crime scene disappeared from the Newport Police Department, and the negative of the photograph of the crashed car was removed from the archives of the Newport Daily News, according to Lance. However, later on, a print copy of the photo was found by Jane McGuire, who was related to a Daily News photographer who had been at the scene moments after the crash.  

This photograph, which was on the front page of the Newport Daily News the day after Tirella’s death, shows blood on the underside of the car, underneath the rear axle. The position of the blood under the car suggests that Tirella was crushed not against the front of the car but underneath it. 

Lance said that officers first on the crime scene found blood and skin on the road but not on the gates. 

By Ed Quigley/Courtesy of John Quigley

According to Lance, sergeant Fred Newton, who was at the crime scene moments after the incident, initially concluded that Duke murdered Tirella through a series of intentional acts. 

Newton concluded that Duke slid into the driver’s seat, disengaged the parking brake and roared forward at Tirella. He theorized that Tirella jumped on the hood in order to save himself. This is consistent with marking on the gates that suggest someone was forced up on the hood of the car.

Newton believed that when the car crashed through the gates, Duke hit the brakes and Tirella rolled off, still alive but with a fractured hip. This is consistent with the blood and skin Newton reported to be found in the road.

Finally, Duke accelerated towards Tirella again, dragging him and crushing him under the car. This is consistent with the blood found under the car. 

This theory is corroborated by the autopsy report, the death certificate, the missing negative and other pieces of forensic evidence and surviving officers of the Newport Police Department. 

According to Lance, Newton was ordered by Joseph Radice, the chief at the time, to stick to Duke’s account of the incident. 

The vast amount of money that Duke gave to Newport shortly after Tirella’s death was seen by some in Newport as “blood money” given to overshadow the record of her involvement with Tirella’s death, according to Lance. 

“She killed him twice,” Tirella’s niece, Donna Lohmeyer, told Lance. “She destroyed his body then she eviscerated his memory.”

“I didn’t think you would make it out alive if you told the story”

After reading Lance’s book, Walker, the former Newport paperboy, finally decided to come forward publicly with his story, sharing his account in an interview with Lance. 

On the day of the incident, 13-year-old Walker was biking to Rough Point to deliver a newspaper when he heard two people arguing. It was a man and a woman, he said in an interview with The Chronicle. 

As he continued up the road, Walker heard the screams of a man and the sounds of a car crashing twice. When he reached Rough Point’s gate, he saw a car had crashed on the opposite side of the road. A tall woman—Duke—got out of the car. Walker went up to her and asked if she needed any help.

“Get the hell out of here!” she screamed at him three times, Walker said. Walker said he mounted his bike and hurried away from the scene. 

When Walker returned home, he told his father about what he had witnessed. But Walker said his father made him swear to never tell anyone what he had seen.

Five years after the incident, Walker asked his father why he had told him to keep the account a secret. 

“Knowing the power of this woman, I didn’t think you would make it out alive if you told the story,” Walker remembers his father telling him. “The life of my son was far more important than going up against Doris Duke. I had visions of you doing your paper route and a truck running over you, and that would be the end of it.”

In the 1970s, Walker began telling close confidants his account of Duke’s murder, which was “etched into his brain.”

But when he read Lance’s “Homicide at Rough Point,” he realized Newton’s account of events matched what he had heard that evening biking up to Rough Point: there had been two crashes. This confirmed his belief that Duke had murdered Tirella. 

Walker said others in the Newport community are also convinced of Duke’s guilt. 

“There is not a single human being on this island, in the conversations I’ve heard, that doesn’t say ‘Yeah, Doris Duke murdered that guy.’ Not killed him. Murdered,” Walker said. 

Sana Pashankar profile
Sana Pashankar | Staff Reporter

Sana Pashankar is a Trinity senior and a staff reporter of The Chronicle's 118th volume.


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