'Reality is not available for sale': An investigator's mission to protect the truth

David Kerley, Jordyn Phelps, and Alexandra Dukakis
Power Players

Power Players

As a renowned investigator working on some of the biggest historical events of the last 50 years – spanning from the civil rights movement to the investigation into Princess Diana’s untimely death – Terry Lenzner built his career on uncovering and protecting the truth.

But in an interview with “Power Players,” Lenzner warned that the work of legal investigators is increasingly at risk of being corrupted by people looking to “buy reality.”

“This is a phenomenon now … in investigations, where people will spend a lot of money to buy reality, which in fact is not available for sale,” said Lenzner, who has recently published a memoir about his career, “The Investigator: 50 Years of Uncovering the Truth.”

Lenzner said that he came up against such a situation during his investigation into the 1997 death of Princess Diana and her companion Dodi Al Fayed. When the first investigation into their deaths found that Al Fayed’s limousine driver was drunk when he crashed in the Paris tunnel, Al Fayed’s father, prominent businessman Mohamed Al Fayed, hired Lenzner to uncover an alternative explanation for the crash.

Lenzner, however, wasn’t able to deliver Al Fayed a different conclusion.

“When I called him up to give my final report, I said ‘There's no way in the world I can tell you that we are solving this incident as being anybody's fault except the driver and the drinking,’ and Mohamed Fayed said to me ‘That's your conclusion?' [and] I said, 'Yes it is, sir,' and he said 'You’re fired,’” Lenzner recalled.

Lenzner got his start in investigations as an attorney in the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division in 1964. He was assigned to investigate the murders of three civil rights leaders, known as the “Mississippi Burning Case.”

“It was cold-blooded murder of these three civil rights workers,” Lenzner said. “The Klanspeople didn't have any idea who they were. They just took them out of the station wagon and shot them on the road.”

The case took Lenzner into the eye of the civil rights movement’s storm, where he saw firsthand just how deeply segregated and violent the South was during that era.

“It was scary, I didn't realize how scary it really was at the time,” Lenzner said. “I started to sleep on the floor in motels because when somebody said something to me like 'Ok, we're going to put you in a really nice room right on the highway,' [I] decided ‘Ok, I’m taking the mattress off the bed, and I’m going to lie on the mattress below the window.’ It became paranoia a little bit.”

Lenzner went on to work in the White House for the Nixon administration, but was later fired by the president. In an ironic twist, Lenzner then found himself on Nixon’s opposing team, joining the prosecution’s investigation into the Watergate scandal. “When I was hired by Senator Ervin to be a major player in the Watergate investigation, the White House actually got to Ervin and tried to convince [him] not to hire me,” he said.

As the assistant chief counsel to the Senate Watergate Committee, Lenzner helped lead the televised hearings investigating the break-in and subsequent cover-up, famously cross-examining the defendants. Lenzner was also responsible for serving Nixon his initial subpoena, the first subpoena of a U.S. president in American history.

“When I walked in with a subpoena, in the White House, I felt that I had to be neutral, that I shouldn't be gloating, [that] I should not be considering this payback,” Lenzner said. “And I just tried to wash my mind of any thoughts of vengeance or vindictiveness.”

For more of Terry Lenzner’s interview, including his theory about what the Watergate break-in was really all about, check out this episode of “Power Players.”

ABC News’ Richard Coolidge, Gary Westphalen, Tom D’Annibale, and Mary Quinn contributed to this episode.