What dark chain of events led to the death of the King and nine other members of the royal family is the question that continues to confuse and convulse the landlocked country at the foot of Mount Everest more than a week after the gruesome, predinner slaughter at the King's Narahiti royal palace compound in Kathmandu. An official probe being worked on over the weekend to reach a verdict will probably put the blame on an allegedly intoxicated and unhinged Crown Prince Dipendra, who was found fatally wounded near the scene of the massacre and named King while on life support, expiring at a military hospital after a two-day, unconscious reign.
The government will have to work a lot harder than it has so far to present the facts of the case to a stunned and distrustful public. Nepalis, in the city at least, seem existentially rattled by the loss—the royal family had become a pillar of stability in a country that has seen 10 governments in 10 years of constitutional democracy—and so distraught about the delayed explanations about the tragedy that the official verdict is not going to be an easy sell.
One eyewitness to the murders, Rajiv Shahi, son-in-law of Birendra's brother, went before the press last week to tell what he saw. TIME has contacted two other survivors who corroborate nearly every detail of Rajiv's story: that Crown Prince Dipendra entered the suite of rooms and cold-bloodedly gunned down his parents, brother, sister and five other relatives. The other witnesses are both uncles of Dipendra. Ravi, a widower, was married to a daughter of the late King Tribhuvan. Maheshwar Kumar Singh, 66, is married to another daughter of Tribhuvan. None of the three witnesses saw any indication, as had been earlier reported, that there was a family argument before their arrival—something that might have set Dipendra off. Nor did they see what ultimately happened to the Crown Prince, who was found with fatal gunshot wounds on a footbridge between the billiards room and his house across the garden. What they do agree upon is that Dipendra went on a three-minute spree of terror that destroyed a big chunk of his family, changed the line of succession—and traumatized his nation as never before.
The party began at 7:30 and the guests were on time. The younger set included Dipendra and his cousin Prince Paras (who should have been named as Crown Prince when his father was crowned King Gyanendra—but pointedly was not). An open question is why Dipendra departed so early, 45 minutes after the guests arrived. Rajiv has said Dipendra was "very intoxicated," and that's why he was escorted home and deposited in his bedroom by his brother Rajiv and Paras. But his uncle Ravi disagrees, saying Dipendra got him a drink, seemed sober—and even claimed not to be drinking because there was no Grouse whiskey.
The King came into the billiards room after his son had left. But when Dipendra returned, he walked straight up to him to perform his act of regicide without any sign of intoxication. At the first burst of fire, "I instinctively plugged my ears with my fingers and closed my eyes," recalls Maheshwar. Opening his eyes, he found the King "had a very strange look on his face, and then he began to lean to the right." Rajiv, a medical doctor, rushed over from a corner and tended to the fallen King, as did Maheshwar. Ravi, a retired general, did not think these first wounds were fatal.
Then the Crown Prince left the room, only to come back, fatigue hat pulled low, eyes barely visible but walking steadily, to finish the job—as he would do several times. This time, he shot two uncles and his aunt, among others, and left the room again. Cousin Paras was in a corner of the billiards room, in front of a group of princesses. After a minute, Dipendra returned. He strode up to the five wounded or dead relatives, including the King, and fired at them again, at point-blank range, and then targeted his sister Shruti as she bent over her injured husband. The final time, he left and returned to pump bullets into those he had already shot. Then Dipendra turned his gun toward Paras. His cousin shouted, "Nai, Dai! Nai Dai! (No, Brother! No, Brother!)" He didn't fire. The bodies of his mother and brother Nirajan were found outside in the garden. None of the witnesses saw their or Dipendra's own demise. Maheshwar heard the sound of a gun, perhaps a revolver, from the garden and deduced afterward it was Dipendra's suicide shot.
Many Nepalis won't want to believe this version of events for a complex mix of reasons. Few can understand why a dutiful son would murder his parents and relatives—even over a disapproved marriage plan, the prevailing theory—and Dipendra was known for self-restraint, while his cousin Paras was the allegedly hotheaded one. Suspicions run deep over the fact that the King, Queen, the Crown Prince and his younger brother died, changing the line of succession to another family branch. "There is only one truth and people will have to believe it," says Damodar Gautam, Nepal's former ambassador to the U.S. Nepal can't help itself until the truth is told.