In early August, Spain’s former King Juan Carlos left the country following allegations of financial wrongdoing. But the country’s affection for its monarch began to unravel as far back as 2012, following an ill-fated elephant hunt. With the king on that safari was his former lover Corinna zu Sayn-Wittgenstein. She talks exclusively to the BBC about a multi-million euro gift from Juan Carlos, her claims of harassment by Spain’s secret service – and that elephant.
Except Corinna zu Sayn-Wittgenstein does not really want to talk about the elephant – the one King Juan Carlos shot dead on 11 April 2012. The media reported the animal was 50 years old and weighed five tonnes, with tusks more than a metre long.
Not that she is able to verify the creature’s vital statistics when asked about the incident. “I have no idea,” says the Danish-born business consultant, who was brought up in Germany. Yes, she was on the safari with the king, but she says she was at a distance when the shooting took place.
“I saw it afterwards because everybody goes to see it,” she says. “But I walked away after two minutes. I’m a hunter, but I’ve never killed an elephant in my life and never would. For me, the whole hunting experience was traumatic in that sense.”
The safari in Botswana was a present from the king to her son on his 10th birthday. Juan Carlos had become close to zu Sayn-Wittgenstein’s children during his romantic relationship with her from 2004 to 2009 – a relationship which the Spanish public knew nothing about at the time. Since 1962 he has been married to Queen Sofia.
“I wasn’t keen on going on this trip,” zu Sayn-Wittgenstein says. “I felt that King Juan Carlos was trying to get me to come back to him, and I didn’t want to give a false impression. I almost had premonitions about this trip.”
With good reason, as it would turn out. Before dawn on 13 April 2012, the king fell in his luxury safari tent, fracturing his hip.
On his return to Madrid, the media fell on the safari story like a voracious lion on a fragile gazelle. The revelation of the elephant hunt came very soon after a corruption investigation began into the king’s son-in-law, Iñaki Urdangarin – he is still in prison.
This was a time of real hardship in Spain, with unemployment running at 23%. After undergoing an operation, King Juan Carlos made his first tentative public appearance in hospital using a walking stick. He was asked how he was.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “I made a mistake, and it won’t happen again.”
King Juan Carlos had been largely untouchable because of his place in Spain’s tortured, bloody history. As head of state after Francisco Franco’s death in 1975, the king had overseen Spain’s transition from dictatorship to democracy and faced down a coup attempt in 1981. Now the damage to the popular monarch was immense.
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“The crisis blew up because the Botswana trip put several things on the table,” says Jose Antonio Zarzalejos, a former editor of Spain’s right-wing, monarchy-supporting newspaper ABC.
“Firstly, that the king was openly unfaithful to Queen Sofia. Secondly, that in the midst of an economic crisis, Juan Carlos visited a country where Spain had no diplomatic representation. So the king – as head of state – was off the radar of the Spanish government. And thirdly, this was a very expensive trip – we didn’t know who paid for it. It created a lousy image of the king.”
King Juan Carlos and zu Sayn Wittgenstein met at a shooting party in February 2004.
She says the king was having trouble with his shotgun. “And I’m quite knowledgeable about all that, so I could explain what was wrong,” she says. “I think he was quite surprised.”
The relationship moved slowly.
“We ended up speaking on the phone for a few months,” she says. “The first date was in early summer. We always laughed a lot. We immediately clicked on many things, and we had many common interests – politics, history, fantastic food, wines…
“I was living in London at the time, having just started my own consultancy business. And I was a single mother of two. So we would meet in Madrid in a small cottage on the larger estate, and we travelled together.
“In the first year it was more difficult because I was very busy and he had a full agenda, but he would phone me up to 10 times a day. I mean, it was an immediately very strong, deep and meaningful relationship.”
At one point, zu Sayn-Wittgenstein says she asked the king how all this would sit with his wife, Queen Sofia.
“He said they had an arrangement to represent the crown, but they led totally different, separate lives. And the king had just come out of a nearly 20-year relationship with another lady who also had a very important place in his heart and in his life.”
The king and zu Sayn-Wittgenstein became close. She spent time with the king’s friends and she met his children.
In 2009, her father received a visit from Juan Carlos.
“He called me up and said the king had come see him and told him he was very much in love with me, and intended to marry me,” she says. “He also told my father he couldn’t do it straight away, it might take some time. He wanted my father to know he was very serious about me.”
It was earlier during the same year that zu Sayn-Wittgenstein says King Juan Carlos had proposed.
“Obviously, it’s a very emotional moment when something like that happens,” she says. “And I was very much in love with him, but I foresaw – I’m a political strategist – that this would be very difficult. And I thought it might destabilise the monarchy.
“That’s why I never really encouraged it – I just took it as a token of the seriousness of the relationship, rather than something that would actually materialise.”
The romance would end that same year.
“My father was suffering from pancreatic cancer and had been given only a few months to live,” zu Sayn-Wittgenstein says. “So I decided to spend time with him – we were very close. To my great shock, just after his funeral, the king told me he’d been carrying on a relationship with another woman for a period of three years.
“It literally devastated me – it was the last thing I expected. I really needed emotional support after the death of my father, and the news created a monumental shock for me emotionally. I was just not expecting it after he’d asked me to marry him and gone to see my father. I was very unwell for a few months.”
Apart from Queen Sofia, zu Sayn-Wittgenstein says, she believed she was in an exclusive relationship with King Juan Carlos.
“I’d made it very clear I wouldn’t tolerate him having relationships with other women at the same time,” she says. “I think in the end he was mortified by what he did. But for me, that was something I could never overcome.”
Although the relationship was over, the two remained friends – partly because the king was close to zu Sayn-Wittgenstein’s children. At the end of 2009, Juan Carlos asked to see her.
“He had some bad news to tell me. He’d been diagnosed with a tumour on his lung and he was convinced it was cancer. He was terrified. He said his family didn’t know about it. And I didn’t want to abandon him. So I remained a very devoted, loyal, close friend during the time he was very unwell.”
When the king was due to have an operation in 2010, zu Sayn-Wittgenstein says he asked her to be in the hospital with him.
“I slept on a couch next to his bed prior to the surgery because he was very nervous about it,” she says. “But the biopsy showed the tumour was benign.”
Then the king’s family arrived.
“I was unceremoniously asked to leave by some not-so-very-kind member of his staff,” she recalls. “When Queen Sofia and some of the courtiers realised how serious the king was about me, quite a high level of hostility had developed.”
Even so, zu Sayn-Wittgenstein says her friendship with Juan Carlos continued.
“He recovered very slowly from the surgery,” she says. “So I would go to Madrid from time to time to see how he was doing with his rehabilitation, how he was recovering.”
Which brings us back to 2012 – Botswana, a dead elephant, and the king’s fractured hip.
“It’s never been reported that I actually organised his repatriation, because there was no plan in place,” zu Sayn-Wittgenstein says.
“We flew in on a private plane, and I was mindful of the fact that the king was not in good health – he had two doctors with him – which is why I was apprehensive. So I kept the plane close by. It was a huge responsibility – he was prepped up ready for surgery. And I was very, very nervous that we wouldn’t get him home alive.”
Quickly, the safari story became a media sensation – and zu Sayn-Wittgenstein believes this was all pre-planned.
“I think this trip would’ve been leaked regardless of the accident,” she says. “Scandals involving the king’s son-in-law and daughter started to emerge at the end of 2011, and I think that set in motion various factions inside the establishment and the royal family.
“There were forces at work inside the palace that were working on moving Juan Carlos on, trying to speed up an abdication,” she says.
The royal party arrived back in Madrid from Botswana late at night. King Juan Carlos went straight to hospital.
“From the moment I came back from that trip I was under full-blown surveillance,” says zu Sayn-Wittgenstein.
“This was the beginning of a campaign to paint me as this Wallis Simpson, Lady Macbeth, evil character who’d led this wonderful man astray on this trip during a big economic crisis.”
It was after this African trip that zu Sayn-Wittgenstein claims she began to receive unwelcome attention from Spain’s intelligence service, the Centro Internacional de Inteligencia (CNI). First she claims her flat in Monaco was targeted.
“The apartment was occupied when I was travelling,” she says. “I suddenly received messages from a security company saying, ‘We’ve been contacted by your friends in Spain.’ And I was texting the king, saying: ‘Who are those people, what’s going on?’ He told me they were there to protect me from the paparazzi.
“But had he been concerned about my security, he could have called his close friend, Prince Albert [of Monaco], who’s also a longstanding friend of mine, and said, ‘We have some security concerns – could you keep an eye on Corinna’s flat?'”
So what were they looking for?
“Documents – and in a very thorough way… They stayed for weeks and weeks.”
She says she does not know what kind of papers they were searching for.
On a business trip in Brazil, zu Sayn-Wittgenstein says she was followed. And that she received an anonymous death threat telling her there were many tunnels between Monaco and Nice – a reference to the crash that killed Princess Diana. In her Swiss apartment, she says, a book was left in her living room about the princess’s death.
Later in 2012, she claims she was visited in London by the head of Spanish intelligence, Félix Sanz Roldán.
“He said he was sent by the king,” she says. “The primary warning was not to talk to the media.
“He said if I didn’t follow these instructions, he would not guarantee my physical safety or the physical safety of my children.”
The BBC tried to contact Felix Sanz Roldan (who is no longer head of Spanish Intelligence) via the CNI, about these serious allegations. There was no reply to these inquiries. And Iberdrola, a Spanish company whose advisory panel he sits on, refused to facilitate contact with him.
Certainly, Félix Sanz Roldán is known to be very close to King Juan Carlos.
“When Félix Sanz was appointed director of the CNI, an intense friendship grew between them – he totally protected the king,” says Fernando Rueda, an academic at Villanueva University, and an expert in the Spanish intelligence service.
“But Félix Sanz was not the first head of the CNI to tell the king that the relationship with Corinna was very negative, and that Corinna was not to be trusted,” he adds.
So what does he make of zu Sayn-Wittgenstein’s claims of harassment?
“Nobody knows if it’s true or not,” he says.
“But it wouldn’t surprise me, because if the intelligence service considered the security of the Spanish state was in danger, they would use all mechanisms to get someone to return documents.”
In Spain, King Juan Carlos was not able to shake off the curse of the elephant. In 2014 he abdicated in favour of his son Felipe. As emeritus king, he was still busy with official engagements, trade trips and international travel – especially to the Middle East.
And it is those very close contacts Juan Carlos has in the Middle East that have become the subject of intense scrutiny – especially from prosecutors. Judicial inquiries began after the recordings of a rogue Spanish police officer became public. He taped all his conversations with the rich and powerful – including with zu Sayn-Wittgenstein.
In 2018 that audio was published in the Spanish media. In one of the recordings, a female voice asks rhetorically in Spanish about the emeritus king: “How does he get money? He takes a plane, goes to Arab countries… And he returns with the cash in suitcases – sometimes with five million. He has a machine to count it – I’ve seen it with my own eyes.”
Corinna zu Sayn-Wittgenstein has never officially confirmed it was her on the recording. But the revelations from those tapes were sensational, and they became the catalyst for the opening of investigations in Switzerland and, more recently, in Spain.
At the heart of the proceedings is a $100 million payment from the late king of Saudi Arabia that was placed in a Swiss bank account linked to a Panama-based offshore foundation in 2008. The beneficiary was King Juan Carlos.
The Swiss prosecutor is investigating three people with ties to the former king. And he is looking into whether this money was connected to the awarding of a massive contract to a Spanish consortium to build a high-speed rail link in Saudi Arabia three years later. In other words, was it a kickback?
In Spain, the Supreme Court has opened an investigation into emeritus King Juan Carlos himself – but it can only examine alleged wrong-doing after he abdicated in 2014, when he lost his immunity from prosecution.
Then in early August 2020, weeks after he was linked to the inquiry, the ex-king made the shock announcement that he had left Spain; after two weeks of speculation about his whereabouts, the Spanish royal palace said he was living in the United Arab Emirates.
So where does Corinna zu Sayn-Wittgenstein fit in? She is one of the individuals being investigated by the Swiss prosecutor. And that is because in 2012, after the Botswana debacle, the then-King Juan Carlos transferred what was left of that $100 million from Saudi Arabia – around €65m – to her.
“I was very surprised because it’s obviously an enormously generous gift,” she says. “I will say, though, that conversations about him managing his will during his lifetime had taken place in 2011. He started to talk about his death and what he wanted to leave in his will.
“He also mentioned he wanted to take care of me, but no amounts were ever discussed. He was worried that the family wouldn’t respect his wishes,” she claims.
She says she received the money after her flat in Monaco was ransacked and she was visited by the head of the CNI.
After the transfer was made, she flew to Madrid to thank the king, she says, and he told her that he felt guilty about what had happened to her: “I think he was very shocked to understand the extent of pressure I’d been put under, and the extent of the reputational destruction that had taken place.”
In testimony to the Swiss prosecutor, zu Sayn-Wittgenstein said she believed the king had given her the money out of love.
“I think it was recognition of how much I meant to him, how much [her son] meant to him,” she says. “It was a gratitude for looking after him during his absolutely worst moments.”
She insists the king was not trying to hide or launder this money by bequeathing it to her – even though in 2014, he asked for the money back.
“In 2014 he made desperate attempts to get me to come back to him,” she says. “At some point he realised I wasn’t going to return, and he went completely ballistic. He asked for everything back. I think it was just a tantrum he threw.
“So he’s confirmed to the Swiss proceedings that he actually never asked for the money back, and that I never carried money on his behalf.”
In Spain, Juan Carlos’ multi-million euro gift to zu Sayn-Wittgenstein has generated intense interest – and outrage. The news broke as Spain confronted one of the worst coronavirus outbreaks in Europe.
Ivette Torrent, a young lawyer from Barcelona, began an online petition calling for the cash to be transferred to the Spanish public health care system.
“Exhausted health personnel were working a thousand hours with minimal resources,” she says, adding that allocating the funds to them would be the “fairest thing”.
Close to 250,000 people signed. So what would Torrent like the king’s former lover to do with the cash gifted to her?
“I don’t know if this money is illegal,” she says. But if the ongoing investigations establish an illegal origin for this money, “they should return it”.
And zu Sayn-Wittgenstein’s response?
“I will leave this up to the Swiss prosecutor,” she says. “Putting me under pressure on that is not the right way to go forward.
“Because I think in that case, everybody needs to return everything. What I find extraordinary is they’re rolling 40 years of the modus operandi of a family enterprise into a focus on one person. And that’s me… Because there will be hundreds of other accounts in other jurisdictions.”
Corinna zu Sayn-Wittgenstein maintains the obsession with her and the money she received from the emeritus King is part of a still on-going, pernicious campaign partly orchestrated by Spain’s CNI.
She has supplied the BBC with a catalogue of police crime numbers relating to incidents she claims have occurred in the UK over the past few years.
“The harassment has never ceased – it’s intensified if anything,” she says.
“But we will be talking about this in the proceedings coming up in the UK. The case will treat all elements of the abuse campaign. Juan Carlos will be the defendant, but he may not be the only defendant.”
Those English legal proceedings are yet to be issued.
For Fernando Rueda, the expert on Spain’s CNI, there is a question mark over her claims.
“It no longer makes sense for the Spanish secret service to harass her in the UK when things are already public. What she’s doing is trying to defend herself by presenting herself as a victim,” he says.
“Corinna’s problem is that she’s facing legal cases, and she has to explain and justify why she has €60m. She could be charged. But Juan Carlos, according to Spanish law, cannot be charged,” he adds.
In spite of the judicial hot water she finds herself in, zu Sayn-Wittgenstein says she does not have misgivings about her early relationship with the emeritus king.
“I do not regret at all my romantic relationship with Juan Carlos,” she says. “I have very sincere feelings for him. And I am extremely saddened by the turn it has taken.”