CORINNA AND THE KING
Episode 4: Killing Elephants – A hunt, the accident, and Juan Carlos’ apology
Previously on Corinna and the King…
PILAR EYRE (00:09):
She’s always been, and this is a bad word, but Doña Sofía has always been the national cuckquean.
He then confesses, he had a three year ongoing relationship with someone else. And I never really trusted him again. I was on my guard even as a friend.
It’s 2012, and it’s Alexander’s tenth birthday party. Corinna invites the entire family over to her home in Switzerland – one of her many homes. And, yes, the entire family.
Philip, her first husband. Casimir – her second husband and Alexander’s biological dad. And Juan Carlos, her ex-boyfriend and Alexander’s spiritual father. Corinna’s still heartbroken over his betrayal… but the bond between a boy and his father…figures… that’s precious.
I was actually challenging them. I said, “Would you be brave enough to put your ex-girlfriends or wives around the same table in an unscripted conversation?” And I don’t think many people would feel comfortable doing that.
Casimir is late. Typical Casimir, late for his own son’s birthday party. He should be here any moment, she says. The other two men just laugh.
Juan Carlos and Philip were making fun or being facetious about Casimir arriving. And I just told them, I said, “Listen, everyone is here because they have an importance in our lives. And as long as you’re sitting at my table, nobody gets to speak badly about anyone.”
The king’s watching Alexander with a big smile on his face. Suddenly, he makes a grand announcement. I have something special for you Alexander, for your birthday. A Surprise.
Unexpectedly, the present that the king gave to my son was a safari, his first safari in Africa.
Alexander jumps with excitement. He can already see the rhinos, the lions, and elephants… the Kalahari desert. It’s a world away from the snow-capped mountains he sees out the window.
But Corinna… was much less excited….
Nobody had passed it by me, and I wasn’t really sure of the logistics and how this would materialize. I also didn’t want to go on a trip with the king that could be misinterpreted or that he could misinterpret.
But Alexander nags and nags her for weeks. Philip is also on her case, calling her every day, and then insisting he go with them. He has a way of inviting himself to everything. It’s going to be fine, he says. Don’t be a spoil sport. The thought of disappointing Alexander is too much. Corinna finally caves.
What could possibly go wrong?
When they land in Botswana, helicopters fly them to a campsite with dozens of luxury tents. There’s a massive suite of tents just for Juan Carlos. A bathroom tent, a sleeping tent with a proper bed, a reception tent, a tent for his butler. Wherever he goes, his whole entourage goes with him.
You need security equipment to ensure that nobody breaks the security perimeter. That gets set up around tents, where you have the head of state, his immediate staff, his security, his butlers,
She knows the king likes to live large, but glamping…like this… for a ten year old? Something is way off.
I was under the impression that this was a trip organized for a 10 year old that was very much a family gathering. I realized very quickly that there was no such thing as a child-friendly safari.
And soon she sees why…
This was a safari that Eyad Kayali had organized for his close friend.
Organized and paid for by Mohammed Eyad Kayali, a Syrian businessman, a trusted advisor of the current king of Saudi Arabia, King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, and one of King Juan Carlos’ oldest friends on a lavish hunting holiday thanks to friends in Saudi. It’s the kind of thing the king would rather keep secret from the public.
And we were being slotted in, unbeknownst to us.
I’m Mishel Prada, and this is Corinna and the King, episode four – Killing Elephants.
Each day follows roughly the same routine. In the morning, Alexander leaves the camp on a helicopter for a rated-PG safari with either his mother or Philip – going on little picnics or exploring the wilderness of the Okavango Delta, its vast plains and marshes, and pods of hippos and giant crocodiles wading past.
And most of the adults on the trip would fly out separately… to hunt the largest mammals on land – elephants.
They are classified as an endangered species, but at the time the Botswana government was issuing hundreds of hunting licenses a year. It’s necessary, they say. Too many elephants can get dangerous. They trample on crops and water pumps and… people. But it’s also a lucrative business. And big hunters like King Juan Carlos will pay tens of thousands of dollars to shoot a single elephant. For that tusked trophy mounted on their walls – the ultimate achievement of strength.
The trip, so far, is a success. And then…
Alexander and I went to bed on Thursday evening quite early because for the little guy, it was a really long day and very hot and a lot of walking.
As they try to get some sleep, loud noises come from outside their tent. Corinna shakes her head. She knows exactly what’s going on.
They were clearly settling in for a long evening of merry drinking.
Juan Carlos has brought with him boxes full of some of his favorite red wine from Vega Sicilia, one of Spain’s oldest wineries. That night, Corinna and Alexander fall asleep to the sound of Juan Carlos’s drunken laughter, filling the pitch-black night skies.
The next morning, there’s an eerie silence across the camp. Juan Carlos’ chief of security, Vicente García-Mochales Gutiérrez, tells Corinna that the king won’t be going out that day. So she and Alexander duck into his tent to see him. He’s having breakfast in bed – a spread of bacon, eggs, orange juice, coffee. Corinna calls it the king’s “post-late night, big wine drinking breakfast.”
When we asked him what happened, he said he didn’t remember what happened, but he was in pain, and he decided to spend the day in bed.
He’s in his 70s, and four days out in tough desert terrain is hard. She doesn’t think much of it but still… she and Alexander offer to stay behind and keep him company.
And he said, “Not at all, please go right ahead with your plans and I’ll see you later.” So we left the tent and the rotor blades of the helicopter taking us to the other location were literally going.
It happens so fast.
They’re strapped in – Corinna, Philip and Alexander, ready to fly out. But Corinna squints down through the window. Someone’s frantically waving at them. It’s Juan Carlos’ security chief, again. Philip’s annoyed. “What is it now?” he says. Corinna says, “Stay here, I’ll quickly jump out.”
With all the noise, I was running towards Vicente. And he said, “Oh, we need to evacuate the king immediately.” Barely 15 minutes had gone between us visiting him. I couldn’t understand what happened. And he said, “The medical team think he’s got internal bleeding and we need to get him into a hospital immediately.” So I was escorted back to the tent and now I was alone with the king. And I said to him, “What happened?” And he said, “I don’t remember, but I think I fell last night.”
All that alcohol is muddling his memory, but yes, Juan Carlos did fall.
Just before daybreak, when it was still dark. He tumbles out of his tent to use the bathroom. He’s only half awake, not looking down. And he trips over the root of a tree, or maybe a rock, falling with a loud thud – Juan Carlos is a tall guy…six foot one. His security team rushes over and carries him back to his tent. They didn’t worry, not at first. A small fall can’t bring down the king.
So my initial reaction was let’s get a medivac because clearly you have a head of state with internal bleedings. They were shaking their heads saying, “No, no, no, can we use your plane?”
Suddenly there’s a frenzied group of people, led by the chief of security, putting pressure on Corinna. Her private jet charter is sitting on the tarmac in Maun, the nearest international airport. But to get the crew in place – the plane fueled for long-haul flying – it takes time. But the king’s team insists this is the only way.
And they basically put me in a position where they said, if I didn’t say yes to this request, then he might die because the government plane won’t be there on time.
None of this makes sense. Why insist on using her plane?, she asks. Is it that they didn’t tell the government about the all-expenses paid trip? Or did they not tell his wife? But there’s no time for questions. It’s a medical emergency. It’s the king.
So I’m still in camouflage gap dressing outfit, my son in the same. We don’t even have time to pack or to organize ourselves. I just grab my bag with my passport, my credit card.
They make the transfer to Maun as soon as the plane is ready. The king is carried in on a plastic chair, covered in a pink blanket. And Corinna’s thinking, Oh my god, I hope no one’s taking photos of this.
There’s an IV line to pump fluids into his mottled arm. He’s already prepped for surgery. And there’s a Spanish doctor on the flight.
She can feel the panic setting in. She races through all the possible scenarios in her mind.
There’s no real plan for what happens on a nine or 10 hour flight. Say his condition deteriorates, internal bleeding, the pressure, he could suddenly feel really unwell. Where do we land between Botswana and Spain? We wouldn’t have a plan B on the entire way back.
Worst case scenario? What if he flatlines on her plane? What if his cold body arrives in Spain?
But then, a flight attendant sidles up to her. From the look on her face, Corinna can tell this is going to be bad news. The flight attendant leans over and says under her breath, “Ma’am, the king has asked for a glass of wine.”
I immediately called Vicente and said, “Vicente we have a situation, he’s just ordered wine. I’m sure he’s on meds. He’s prepped for surgery. You’re not allowed to drink or eat. And Vicente just shrugged his shoulders and said, “You know, he doesn’t listen to anyone, and he does what he wants.”
Corinna tries to reason with Juan Carlos himself. But he’s in a mood. He’s acting spoiled.
He was like, “I am the king. I can do whatever I want.” And it was like a petulant child.
It’s late when they land in Madrid. Juan Carlos is rushed to the hospital in a swarm of ambulances, military and civilian security forces. He immediately undergoes surgery.
Corinna and Alexander check into a five-star hotel in Madrid’s fashionable Salamanca district. It’s past midnight. As soon as they get to their room, they fall fast asleep. They have no idea what’s already unfolding in Spain – what’s airing on the news.
The next morning… a call from her mother.
My mother was calling me like, “Oh my God, what happened? What did you do?” And I was asking myself, “What do you mean? What did I do?”
News Anchor (13:45):
Este fin de semana, hemos sabido de un viaje del rey de España a Botsuana, África un viaje en el que sufrió un accidente mientras se estaba cazando elefantes.
Corinna and the king don’t know it yet, but their lives will never be the same again.
Reporter (13:57): ¿Pero quien es Corinna zu Sayn-Wittgenstein?
They’re waking up, this Saturday morning, to a new Spain. Ana Romero, longtime royal correspondent at El Mundo, Spain’s second largest daily newspaper, is one of the many journalists racing to the king’s hospital. and she doesn’t leave for a week.
ANA ROMERO (14:19):
When this happened and the story came out, that he was in Botswana, from all places, shooting elephants with a lover, a foreign lover, it was enormous. It was an enormous story.
The royal household is holding off from saying anything yet, because there’s already another crisis underway.
A few days before, the king’s 13-year-old grandson Felipe Juan Froilán, son of Elena, had shot himself in his right foot. He was doing target practice at his family estate north of Madrid – a freakish reminder of the past, the day Juan Carlos played guns with his brother.
Froilán, as he is known, is rushed to hospital. Queen Sofia is there. The whole family is there, except for Juan Carlos. His presence is expected. It’s needed. And at the palace, in Madrid, the king’s new director of communications Javier Ayuso is pacing in his office…
JAVIER AYUSO (15:18):
He had to visit his grandson, and the journalists were every day saying, “Where’s the king? Where’s the king?”
It’s only Javier’s second month on the job. At eight o’clock, the king’s chief of staff calls for an emergency meeting in his office. They can’t hold off the reporters any longer.
JAVIER AYUSO (15:36):
I went to his office and there were two or three people there with him, and he told me that the night before, the King has had an accident in Botswana and has an injury and that they were arranging the trip back to Spain. I knew from the first minute that that was going to be a big crisis.
Javier keeps calm. They decide to go for maximum transparency. Attempting a cover-up would only inflame the public even more.
While the king’s recovering from surgery, Javier sends a Whatsapp message to the journalists covering the palace… with bare bones information – the king had an accident, he was operated on, and there will be a press conference at noon.
The press conference is small, just the director of the hospital and the king’s doctor for some medical authority.
Director of Hospital (16:29)
Esta mañana, ha llegado con facilidad y sin dolor a una flexión de 90 grados…
He says that the king is not feeling any pain and is walking with crutches.
JAVIER AYUSO (16:42):
Well, he explained the surgery, but of course, the journalists were not happy because they don’t have answers about what was King Juan Carlos doing in Botswana. So they wanted to know, what was he doing in Botswana?
Off-camera, Javier manages to explain that the king was hunting – it’s a well-known hobby of his. He leaves out the elephants, hoping no one will ever know.
JAVIER AYUSO (17:09):
Some newspaper found a picture of King Juan Carlos some years before with an elephant dead.
It’s a disaster. The photo is old, from another trip, in 2006. But right behind the king is an elephant, a dead elephant, with its long leathery trunk folded and pressed up against a sycamore tree.
JAVIER AYUSO (17:37):
It was like shooting Dumbo, no? It was horrible, no?
Things are spinning out of control. A journalist, Jose Antonio Zarzalejos, is talking to people close to the Royal household, even some of the king’s family members. And they all point to one name.
JOSE ANTONIO ZARZELJOS (18:04):
It became abundantly clear that the king had an extramarital relationship with Corinna Larsen, who was going with him on private jets and elephant hunting trips,
At 6 am, following the king’s surgery, Jose Antonio Zarzalejos publishes the biggest story in Spain. A blow-by-blow of the king’s secret Botswana trip, the broken hip, the rush to Spain for surgery.
His article is published in El Confidencial with the headline “Story of how the Crown has gone into a tailspin.” Printed in the fifth paragraph is Corinna’s full name. It reads, “The king’s intimate friendship with Corinna zu Sayn-Wittgenstein-Sayn is no longer a rumor… but a certainty.”
By the end of the day, newspapers across the country are printing the name. Corinna, Corinna, Corinna. But what really angers the Spanish public isn’t Corinna or the elephants. It’s the timing. The cruel timing.
JOSE ANTONIO ZARZALEJOS (19:22):
Of course I was surprised. I was surprised that the king, in a moment of crisis in Spain would leave with a group of people from a different environment than his family’s and in, let’s say, a less-than-appropriate time, given the country’s circumstances.
The Spanish economy is in a free fall.
Bad news coming out of Spain at the moment. Two consecutive quarters of shrinking output, according to the national statistics institute…
One in four Spaniards is now out of work. And people are taking to the streets…
Only a month before, Juan Carlos was on national television talking about how youth unemployment – nearly at 50% – was keeping him up at night.
JUAN CARLOS I (20:08):
Hay noches que el paro juvenil me quita el sueño…
The insensitivity. The hypocrisy. The king talking about your country’s economic crisis and then jetting off on a luxury hunting trip… and a trip that cost nearly $60,000… all picked up by some Syrian businessman.
JOSE ANTONIO ZARZALEJOS (20:35):
Everything seemed unusual, unsightly, not at all exemplary. And finally, the trip to Botswana was the beginning of the end of the reign of Juan Carlos I.
Javier Ayuso is watching the media frenzy unfold from the hospital. The king’s chief-of-staff Rafael Spottorno and Prince Felipe are there with him.
JAVIER AYUSO (21:00):
The only way to respond to all these critics and to try to recuperate prestige was to say something when he left the hospital. So we talked to the king, the king of course said that he was in favor of doing that. After some ideas, he told us that he wanted to be very, very concise, but very clear that with very little words.
It would need to show remorse, and that the king’s learned his lesson.
JAVIER AYUSO (21:34):
And that’s why we prepared these 10 words
Down in the hospital lobby, there’s a crowd of ravenous journalists. Juan Carlos limps out before them on crutches. He’s wearing a carefully selected navy suit and red tie – nothing too flashy. He looks older, tired, and a little tanned from his recent trip. He smiles at the reporters and starts his speech.
JUAN CARLOS I (22:03):
Lo siento mucho, me he equivocado y no volverá a ocurrir.
“I’m very sorry, I made a mistake, and it won’t happen again”
JAVIER AYUSO (22:11):
He said what all Spaniards say when we do something wrong. We say, “Lo siento” That’s the magical word in Spain.
For some, the king’s 10-word apology is heartfelt enough. Others turn it into a joke. People make gifs out of his speech and autotune it into songs.
ANA ROMERO (22:42):
It was a roller coaster. Obviously for him, for the main protagonist in this story, but for all of us following the story, it was nonstop, every single day. A piece of bad news, every single day, a scandal, a story. And it was draining. It was draining.
Maybe this overreach, his downfall, was all inevitable, Ana Romero says.
ANA ROMERO (23:09):
We gave a man absolute power, and I quote, historically, power corrupts, absolute power corrupts, absolutely. I’m not discovering anything new. We gave him the power to do whatever he wanted, and that’s very dangerous and he did it. And it went wrong.
In Monaco, Corinna is holed up on the 17th floor of her apartment building. She’s reading everything the newspapers say about her. Elephant killer. The reason the king wasn’t at his injured grandson’s bedside. Evil witch.
I’m reading these complete fabrications and all of them are clearly very vicious. And I’m now thinking to myself, “Wow, this has the fingerprints of Queen Sofia all over it. This is only a very aggravated woman would go out to literally destroy the image of another woman she perceives as some sort of rival in the affections of her husband.
There’s no real evidence that the Queen had any hand in it. But Corinna couldn’t let go of her suspicions. Meanwhile, her phone is ringing off the hook, again.
My mother is crying on the phone. My brother is calling. My friends are calling. My team are calling. Everyone’s in a state of shock.
MISHEL (24:34): Journalists are bombarding not just her, but her office, her friends.
Suddenly the world is hunting down the mistress of the king. By the time she’s actually just a good friend. Nothing is going on. This was not some romantic trip. I’m not the kind of person who would go on a romantic trip and then kill elephants.
MISHEL (24:56): Vanity Fair Spain is planning its June edition. They know exactly who to put on the cover and they’ve assigned three of their best reporters to nail the story. David Lopez Canales is one of them.
DAVID LOPEZ CANALES (25:14):
There had been rumors for many years about the presence of a mysterious, blonde lady who accompanied the king a lot, who had a relationship with the king, but always situated in the sentimental realm. But as soon as we started to investigate Corinna zu Sayn-Wittgenstein, very interesting things started to come out. For example, I remember the case of a friend of hers from New York who immediately started to tell us that she introduced herself as a financial advisor to King Juan Carlos.
The king’s secret lover who takes him on an elephant hunting trip that ultimately leads to his downfall. What a story. But Lopez Canales finds another dimension to her.
DAVID LOPEZ CANALES (25:40):
But as soon as we started to investigate Corinna zu Sayn-Wittgenstein, very interesting things started to come out. For example, I remember the case of a friend of hers from New York who immediately started to tell us that she introduced herself as a financial advisor to King Juan Carlos.
Looking down from her apartment window, she can see a crowd of journalists and TV crews in front of her building. Corinna decides to hightail it out of Monaco. Her friend flies her out in a helicopter and puts her up for the weekend in what she calls “a high security compound” near Saint-Tropez. Come Monday, she flies to London to meet with her legal team.
It’s here where things get shady, hair-raisingly shady. Corinna receives a message out of nowhere, from a security firm that calls itself ALGIZ. They say they’d been hired by her, quote, “friends in Madrid.” They tell her security is now necessary for her.
I didn’t know who they were referring to with friends. So my immediate reaction was, get in touch with the king, ask him what’s going on.
But word from the palace is – don’t worry. The extra security has been put in place for her protection. To keep the paparazzi away. But that’s not exactly what happens.
I’m suddenly receiving news from my assistants and my housekeeper in Monaco that security have descended onto my flat and offices, demanding keys, and basically saying they’re occupying these premises.
She has no idea what’s happening, or why.
So these people now have full control over my home and over my office, therefore all the documents, any private information that you would have in your home or in your office was basically in their full control.
Corinna calls the king again. She tells him it’s illegal, they’ve commandeered the home of an individual in a foreign country. She’s not going to stand for it.
I was in a state of total anxiety. I’m a very private person. And the fact that I had been so discreet for all those years, when I had this relationship, you never saw any pictures of me anywhere. You never heard of me. And suddenly people recognize you. It completely terrified me and terrorized me that I was now this public person.
The king just brushes it off. They’re there to keep you safe, he says. Maybe he’s even a little blasé about it.
So now the next sort of evil party were the paparazzi that they themselves had unleashed on me.
Those reporters, can’t you do anything about them?, she asks. There’s one she mentions by name, one that emailed her assistant and is approaching her inner circle.
DAVID LOPEZ CANALES (28:42):
We at the magazine of Vanity Fair, we’ll receive also phone calls from the CNI saying that we should be careful with the information we were going to publish, saying that a very important man, as I say once, a very important man has received a phone call from a friend of hers that is a very important women saying that David Lopez Canales the journalist is attacking her, I don’t know the correct word in English.
The CNI is Spain’s spy agency, the Centro Nacional de Inteligencia. And that very important man? Obviously Juan Carlos. And the very important friend? Who else but Corinna?
DAVID LOPEZ CANALES (29:30):
And that harassment that she was talking about is that I was investigating the trying to find other businesses that she was doing, especially trying to contact other partners that she had already had or that she had at that time that she had had in the past in other businesses that she was involved in. Well, we took it with a sense of humor, we said, but this very important man, we already know who he is.
The warning doesn’t stop Lopez Canales.
DAVID LOPEZ CANALES (30:03):
If Corinna is complaining to King Juan Carlos that I am investigating her, we are on the right track.
Corinna tries to take her mind off it all by burying herself in work, in back-to-back meetings. She has an important overseas business trip coming up, so she’s getting ready in her favorite hotel in London, the Connaught.
So everybody knew me. It’s a very, almost like family run hotel where you feel at home.
Nestled in the center of London’s most exclusive district of Mayfair, the Connaught has everything you could need – a spa, Michelin-star restaurant, a cigar merchant.
After another day of non-stop meetings, she’s unwinding in the bar with her ex-husband Philip. They’re sitting in a corner.
He tells me, I think that his car has been broken into mysteriously a few days prior.
Philip is worried about the car break-in, but he doesn’t take it too seriously. He’s almost delighted that his ex-wife is now famous – well, infamous. He seems to be enjoying the strange turn of events.
By the way, Philip Adkins, who hasn’t spoken to Corinna in years, refused to be interviewed, but he said her statements related to him “almost in their entirety untrue.” The only fact he agreed on was the year they were married. He denied leaving her behind during the hunting trip; he even denied having this drink at the Connaught, along with many other anecdotes we’ll get into later. He referred to Juan Carlos as “HM,” or his majesty, and defended his character while attempting to tarnish Corinna as “dangerous and unstable.”
Back to that night. Corinna says she was exhausted and turns in early. She wants to catch up on sleep before her big business trip.
I ask them to put in a wake up call reasonably early. Everything is geared up for departure the next day.
Up in her room, Corinna tosses and turns. She’s a light sleeper by nature, but the stress of the past week has left her frazzled. Eventually, she pops a sleeping pill – nothing too heavy. And slowly, she drifts off.
She’s only asleep for an hour or so when something drags her back into consciousness. The room is pitch-black. Corinna feels like she’s not alone. Like someone is in the room with her…
You always think that when that happens, you’ll start screaming.
I wake up in the early hours of the morning and someone’s standing over my bed, in my hotel room.
In our next episode of Corinna and the King…
It’s like, “Spain, oh it’s such a nice country, we go on holiday there we have some tapas, it’s so fun.” It’s almost more dangerous because people are completely unaware.
PILAR EYRE (33:23):
The king was crazy about her. It wasn’t that he was in love with her – he was obsessed.
ANA ROMERO (33:30):
People in this story are always playing with hidden cards. What you see is not what is happening. What you hear is not 100% true.
Juan Carlos has always asked, wealthy monarchs, particularly in the Middle East for help.
Corinna and the King is a production of Project Brazen in partnership with PRX.
It’s hosted by me, Mishel Prada. Bradley Hope and Tom Wright are executive producers. Sandy Smallens is the executive producer for Audiation. Núria Net and Alex García Amat are executive producers for La Coctelera Music. Mark Lotto and Jimena Marcos are the story editors for the series. Alex García Amat is the sound design supervisor and composer. Mariángel Gonzales is senior producer. Farah Halime Hope is lead scriptwriter. Megan Dean and Soobin Kim are scriptwriters and associate producers. Ana González is a reporter for the project. Ireland Meacham is producer and Selena Seay-Reynolds is production coordinator. Francesca Gilardi Quadrio Curzio is associate producer. Lucy Woods is associate producer and head of research. Daniel Durán is editor for the English and Spanish versions, as well as sound designer. Matt Noble is editor for the English version. Matt Bentley-Viney is recordist. Joan Alonso is assistant editor. Ryan Ho is the creative director for the project. Andrija Klaric is video editor and designer. Laura Gómez is the host of the Spanish version. Translations by Paloma García Cruz. The voice actors are Eva Magaña, Ana Clements, Francine Belanger, Alex Marrero, Luis Alberto Casado, Antonio Soto Patiño and José María del Río. Additional music arranged and performed by José de Lucía with vocals by Adriana López “La Pimienta.”
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