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Von Bulow Stepchildren Speak Out : They Open Victim Advocacy Center in Mother's Name

March 30, 1986|BEVERLY BEYETTE | Times Staff Writer

FORT WORTH, Tex. — . . . While our mother cannot speak for herself, we can and will continue to speak for her . . . . This center--the Sunny von Bulow National Victim Advocacy Center--will also speak for her, as well as for countless victims crying out for the recognition too long denied them . . . .

--Alexander von Auersperg, at dedication ceremonies Feb. 6

"People ask, 'Why can't you just put this behind you?' " said Alexander von Auersperg, who was seated beside his sister, Annie-Laurie (Ala) Kneissl, in the board room of the new Sunny von Bulow National Victim Advocacy Center. "But we have to live with this the rest of our lives. How we live with it is what is important."

It has been almost a year since Claus von Bulow, in a second trial, was acquitted on charges of trying to kill his wealthy socialite wife, Martha (Sunny) von Bulow, with injections of insulin to aggravate her hypoglycemia (a low blood-sugar condition). Von Bulow's stepchildren, however, remain unwaveringly convinced of his guilt.

And they perceive their mother, now 54 and lying comatose in a New York hospital since 1980, as a double victim, victimized as well by a judicial system they contend "put her on trial." Now they've put up $1.7 million of the family fortune to help victims, in general.

Yes, Von Auersperg acknowledged, "In a sense, this is therapy." But, he said, he and his sister are determined "to lessen the tragedy for other people, to take our frustration and channel it positively."

They want people to know that every 26 seconds an American is the victim of a violent crime--that adds up to 5.9 million crimes of violence each year in this country. And they want people to know that, as they see it, victims aren't getting a fair shake.

Von Auersperg, who was educated at Brown University and is now a manager for E.F. Hutton in New York, and his sister Kneissl, a Manhattan-based film producer, wife and mother of two, were 21 and 22 when their mother fell into what doctors believe is an irreversible coma in December, 1980.

Their suspicions that she was a victim of attempted murder, and their perseverance, led to the two widely publicized trials of Claus von Bulow.

Theirs was a family tragedy played out in public, seized upon by the world's media as a plot better than an Agatha Christie thriller. It had everything--the heiress taken mysteriously ill, the husband as suspect, the Other Woman, all of this against the backdrop of the Von Bulows' 20-room oceanfront mansion, Clarendon Court, on Newport, R.I.'s millionaires' row.

Sentenced to Prison

At the first trial, in 1982, the jury found Von Bulow guilty of trying to murder Sunny von Bulow, first in 1979 and again in 1980. Sentenced to 30 years in prison, he remained free during the appeal process after posting a $1-million bond put up by his friend, billionaire J. Paul Getty Jr. Ultimately, the conviction was overturned on a technicality ("an outrageous technicality," Von Auersperg contends): The police had no search warrant when they seized from the mansion a "little black bag" containing the questionable drugs.

In April of last year, the jury at the second trial found Von Bulow not guilty. Von Auersperg and Kneissl were "devastated" but, they add, "We've come to terms with it." Kneissl added, "That's not to say that every time we see my mother that's not a reminder. . . ."

Von Auersperg and Kneissl say they have seen a draft of a book by Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz, who handled Von Bulow's appeal. There are, Kneissl said, some serious "misstatements," and she and her brother have made it clear to the book's publisher, Random House, that they would sue for libel.

Occasionally, they see Von Bulow, on a Manhattan street or in a restaurant. "We don't try to see him or try not to see him," Kneissl said. "We really have nothing to say." Von Bulow has called his stepchildren "misguided."

They do not feel hatred toward him. No, Kneissl said, "Hate is irrational. I think bitter, appalled. Angry, certainly."

'Thought He Loved Our Mother'

She added, "It's very difficult to crystallize what you feel. . . . We lived with him for 14 years and loved him and thought he loved our mother."

Did her mother love him? "That's a hard call," she said. "I think she was very fond of him."

Recently, Von Bulow, 59, and his friend, 48-year-old Andrea Reynolds, the wife of TV producer Sheldon Reynolds, appeared together on the cover of Vanity Fair magazine--photographed in Sunny von Bulow's Fifth Avenue apartment, where they live. Von Auersperg calls it "thumbing his nose at us."

For their part, Kneissl said, there were those in Newport who felt from the beginning that "we should have kept our mouths shut and dealt with this internally, because that's the way things are done in Newport."

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