Cannes: An Heiress Shooting Reveals the Sinister Side of Monaco

Helene Pastor

In stark contrast to the glitz of "Grace of Monaco," a 77-year-old heiress was shot in broad daylight as locals wonder whether the crime will ever be solved.

CANNES -- In a brazen Mafia-style assassination attempt, two unmasked gunmen, in full view of several bystanders, approached an heiress to one of Monaco’s richest family fortunes on the evening of May 6. One of them took aim with a sawed-off shotgun and fired at Helene Pastor, 77, and her chauffeur Mohammed Darwich, 64, as they were leaving a Nice hospital, where Pastor’s son, Gildo, 47, has been confined since suffering a recent stroke.

Even as the Cannes Film Festival’s opening-night film Grace of Monaco presented the tiny principality of Monaco as a glittery, fairy-tale kingdom, Pastor, heiress to the Pastor real estate fortune and a close friend to Monaco’s reigning monarch Prince Albert, was fighting for her life at the Saint Roch Hospital, after being shot in the head and the heart. Darwich already had died of his injuries. 

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During her lifetime, Princess Grace, portrayed in the movie by an elegant Nicole Kidman, used all her star power to burnish Monaco’s image. And that PR campaign continues in full force: On May 19, for example, filmmakers and press from Cannes will be bused to Monte Carlo’s Villa Nocturne for a gala dinner sponsored by the Monte Carlo-based International Emerging Film Talent Association, the Ethiopian Film Initiative and the Better World Film Festival.

But Monaco’s opulent surface has for decades hidden a darker side with sinister elements -- money laundering, an Italian (and now Russian) mafia presence and residents who include international arms dealers. Not surprisingly, given the silence that long has surrounded criminal activities in the South of France, nobody has been arrested yet for the Pastor shooting, no one even is talking, and residents have been left shaken.

Says one Monaco resident who lives in the fabled seafront principality for six months out of every year for tax purposes, “It’s a huge shock for everybody here, but at the same time people aren’t saying much. It’s like we don’t want to look at the reality that one of us almost got their face blown off.” Joel Stratte-McClure, who covered Monaco for People magazine in the late ’70s and early ’80s when Grace and her daughters, Caroline and Stephanie, were tabloid staples, adds, “As usual, the fantasy about Monaco has gotten all the press. It’s always the underside of paradise that’s hidden from view.”

Though one eyewitness tells THR he was “terrified” by the sight of the shooter and his “big gun,” details about the bloody ambush are sparse. Police and hospital sources conflict as to whether Russian or Italian mobsters were to blame. The police have even interviewed a number of Pastor relatives in their search for suspects. In true film noir fashion, a 43-year-old Nice man was arrested May 16 for trying to extort millions from Pastor’s family in exchange for telling them who tried to kill her. Sources connected to the investigation believe the shooters are not from France and left Nice immediately after the attack. One Nice official says he is confident the mystery will be solved “rapidement” because of surveillance tapes; others are not so sure.

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“It’s possible they might never really get to the bottom of this,” says Mark Dezzani, a documentary television producer who has lived on the Riviera for 30 years. Investigations often stall in Monaco because those who might be able to provide information “are often too afraid to have their own skeletons revealed. That’s how it works in Monaco.”

Some of Monaco’s residents are so paranoid about the principality’s longstanding tradition of video and audio surveillance that they refer to Albert and his wife, Princess Charlene, as “Number One” and “Number Two” when speaking on the phone or in public. “You can be deported within 24 hours without being told why and I’ve seen it happen,” says an American woman who moved to Monaco 15 years ago.

In keeping with Monaco’s aversion to bad publicity and criticism of Albert and his family, the Pastors are well-known inside the principality but otherwise have kept a low profile. Unlike the Grimaldi family (to which Albert belongs), who seized control of Monaco more than 700 years ago when the pirate Francois Grimaldi, disguised as a Franciscan monk, led a small army in what amounted to a palace coup, the Pastors did not arrive until 1880.

But the Pastors since have cornered the market on real estate and property, with the words “J.B. Pastor” emblazoned on many of the construction cranes that dot the Monaco skyline. If Helene Pastor, who lives a quiet life away from the day-to-day business dealings of her family, was targeted, it could be because her family has so much power. “The Pastor family have a lot of enemies; many people really dislike them,” says Pascal Fonquernie, owner of the Paris tourist website, who grew up with his aunt in Monaco. Critics complain they’ve torn down beautiful old properties, replacing them with undistinguished buildings. “They have almost a total monopoly on the place,” adds Fonquernie.

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Robert Eringer, who worked for Prince Albert as an intelligence adviser from 2002 to 2007, tells THR he believes the Pastor shooting stems from the growing influence of the Russian mafia in Monaco and may be related to the death of Helene Pastor’s brother Michel, the powerful head of the family business, who died in February at 70 after a long illness. He contends that Albert has been a weak ruler unable to stem the rise of the Russian mafia in the principality. “The police and investigative reporters in France aren’t doing their jobs properly when it comes to this case,” says Eringer, who unsuccessfully sued Prince Albert for back pay in 2010 and writes a blog critical of him. “There’s a tendency to ignore bad news, especially when it pertains to Russians because of France’s love affair with Russian money.”

Monaco prefers to cast a shroud of silence over its darker realities, and journalists asking hard questions long have found it an inhospitable environment. British writer Robert Lacey, whose 1994 biography, Grace, is about to be reissued, stayed in Monaco for only a week when trying to uncover information about Kelly for his book. “People were terrified when I started asking questions,” he says. “The fear was palpable. Monaco is not what you see in the movies.”

And so the mystery of who shot Helene Pastor, who remains in critical condition, has gone unsolved. A high-ranking police detective who spoke to THR in a somber office at the Police Judiciaire in Nice on May 14 would not allow his name to be used and made copies of this reporter’s passport and other identity cards in a tension-filled interview that focused more on interrogating the reporter than discussing the case. “All I can say, madame,” says the detective coldly, “is that the dossier on this case has been transferred to Marseille.”