November 06, 2006 12:00 PM

Paul McCartney is no stranger to bad breakups—the Beatles come to mind—but even he couldn’t have been prepared for this. Eight pages, faxed anonymously to news outlets on Oct. 17 and filled with nasty accusations: that McCartney, 64, pushed his wife, Heather, 38, into a bathtub during her pregnancy; that he grabbed her neck and choked her; that he drunkenly cut her with a broken wine glass; that he demanded she cook for him when she was in pain and on crutches. The charges—apparently a leaked draft of a petition prepared for an English court by Heather Mills McCartney—sparked a Fleet Street frenzy and blew the lid off of an already bitter divorce. “It has now spiraled out of control,” says noted British divorce lawyer Vanessa Lloyd Platt, who points out that English courts encourage divorce petitioners to keep their allegations as mild as possible. “I can’t remember such a high-profile case being splashed in the papers like this. This is Armageddon.”

Headlined across British newspapers just a week before the couple’s daughter, Beatrice, turned 3, the explosive charges seem designed to sully the image of the beloved ex-Beatle. But who leaked them, and why? If the disclosures were a calculated escalation in an already venomous divorce or a bid to gain leverage in the court of public opinion, no one is taking responsibility. Mills McCartney, who split from her husband this May after nearly four years of marriage, denies making any documents public. “She was absolutely shocked by it and had no clue as to how it came to be faxed around,” says her spokesman Phil Hall, himself a former British tabloid editor. Indeed, on the heels of the revelations, Mills McCartney plans to sue three British newspapers for what her lawyers termed “false, damaging and immensely upsetting” stories surrounding her divorce. Still, her camp has pointedly declined to comment on the allegations in the documents. McCartney, too, let his lawyers do the talking in a take-the-high-road statement. “Our client would very much like to respond,” it read, but “Sir Paul has maintained his silence in not commenting on the media stories.” Others, though, raced to his defense. “Paul doesn’t beat up women,” says his friend and ex-publicist Geoff Baker. “He doesn’t eat flesh, let alone beat it.”

But reports in the British press say Mills McCartney has audiotapes to back up many of the published claims of abuse, and a source who knows her well tells PEOPLE such tapes do exist. “Paul admitted to being violent to her and to abusing her [on the tapes],” says the source, who claims to have heard the recordings. “Sometimes he’s very apologetic, sometimes he’s in a rage. It’s pretty crazy. There are tapes where she’s crying and pleading with him to stop. He eve n admitted to being a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.” The source also says McCartney confessed to striking his first wife, Linda. “When Heather and Paul were arguing and it got into the abuse,” says the source, “Paul said, ‘Well, everybody knows I hit Linda.'” Accusations of abuse against Paul are upsetting to Carla Lane, one of the late Linda Eastman McCartney’s oldest friends. “Linda was my best friend,” says the U.K.-based scriptwriter. “And if he did things like that, she would have told me—and she never did.”

No one disputes that McCartney’s second marriage—a clash of two outsize personalities and egos—was far stormier than his first. At least some of the friction between Paul and Heather, it seems, stemmed from difficulties relating to her disability (she lost her left leg in a traffic accident in 1993 and now wears a prosthetic). The source who claims to have heard the audiotapes says they confirm that Paul insisted his wife prepare meals for him after surgery on her amputated leg left her temporarily in a wheelchair in April. One night, a drunken McCartney “stabbed her with the [broken] wineglass,” says the source, referencing another incident mentioned in the controversial documents and borne out, adds the source, by the tapes. “[He] then wanted her to apologize for getting him all upset. He really did still want her to cook for him even though she’d just had a surgery.” McCartney’s camp declined to comment to PEOPLE on any issues relating to the divorce. “I don’t think I’ve met a less violent man in my life,” says Baker, who has known the musician for decades. “To accuse Paul of stabbing a woman with a broken glass is ludicrous.”

Fueling the vitriol are the extremely high stakes in Britain’s most publicized divorce since Charles and Diana. Still to be decided in the divorce proceeding: who gets custody of Beatrice, and how big a chunk of McCartney’s estimated $1.5 billion fortune Mills McCartney—who never signed a prenup—gets to keep. Perhaps that’s why McCartney came out swinging in late July, when he surprised his wife by reportedly filing for divorce, claiming she was “rude” and “argumentative” to his employees. This came amid a wave of bad press for Mills McCartney, including reports she once worked as a high-priced escort (which she denied) and posed nude for photographs; she was also linked romantically with her personal trainer. “Whatever happens, everyone treats Paul like the Queen Mother and Heather like the Wicked Witch,” says a friend of the former model’s. “She is just trying to get through a difficult period of her life.” The source who claims to have heard the tapes says that contrary to published reports of a $60 million settlement offer, McCartney has not yet “even offered her five dollars. As far as Heather being out for the money, that couldn’t be further from the truth. All she wants is to make sure she and Beatrice are taken care of.”

Ironically, the leaked allegations, even if true, might not have much bearing on any financial settlement, say legal experts, and could even cost Mills McCartney money. “If part of any big settlement was buying her silence,” says Lloyd Platt, “that has now been blown apart.” Claims of abuse could affect the custody issue, though most experts believe the couple will settle their differences before the case goes to court—despite all the fireworks. “It’s like two boxers punching each other, and they run out of steam and give up,” says Marilyn Stowe, head of the family law unit at a noted British firm. “They both just need to get a grip and sort this out.”

Perhaps they already are. As their divorce exploded into a full-blown scandal, both combatants lay low. Lately, McCartney has been turning to his daughter, designer Stella, 35, for support; he was spotted using his cell phone to record the crowd applauding her at a recent Paris show of her clothing line. Mills McCartney, meanwhile, has been living quietly in her beachside place on the south coast of England, working out and consulting with lawyers while the fallout from her bombshell continues—and British tabs gear up for whatever may come next. “This may be hugely entertaining for a lot of folks,” says Geoff Baker, “but it’s horribly ugly for them.”

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