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Ex-Dentist Accused in Murder Case a Success Story Gone Wrong

December 28, 1986|TOM GORMAN | Times Staff Writer

If this were a made-for-TV movie, the opening scene would probably be a wide-angle pan of the psychiatric security unit on the sixth floor of the County Jail downtown, with men in blue shirts and pants sitting around on their bunks or in straight-backed chairs watching television.

The camera would focus in on a 31-year-old, pleasant-looking and lanky fellow with straight brown hair parted down the middle, looking quiet and subdued. He's under medication to calm him down, and it shows in his eyes. The camera would begin making a slow, 360-degree circle around him, and in the background we would see nurses, not jailers, walking about the room.

The scene would be interspersed with a quick succession of flashbacks:

- First, as a proud Eagle Scout, leading younger teen-agers on a night hike, under a full moon, through Anza-Borrego Desert State Park. We'd hear the wisecracks and giggling of a good time.

Back to the psychiatric ward.

- Then, graduation from the University of Southern California's dental school, the youngest in his class, ready for private practice. We would hear the applause of his parents and younger brother who, a few years later, would also become a dentist.

Back to the psychiatric ward.

- Next, this same man in the Alaskan tundra fields along Prudhoe Bay, holding blueprints and a calculator and pointing to an oil pipeline pump station. Other men would be nodding affirmatively. "Good job, Steve," we'd hear.

Back to the psychiatric ward.

- In blurred action and with a confused, muddled sound track of gunfire, shouting and screaming, this man now squeezing the trigger of a handgun, his forearm jumping up involuntarily from the recoil of each shot, and a handsome doctor backpedaling and finally falling to the floor, his chest bloodied.

The psychiatric ward.

- Now in court, standing before a judge, his attorney stating matter of factly: "Not guilty, your honor, by reason of insanity."

- Finally, back to the psychiatric ward, the camera stopping and focusing in on his eyes as they slowly close.

This is a story about Steve Larsen, whose life as a super-achiever soured in a plot that turns from bad to worse.

He is accused of killing Dr. Craig Blundell, a popular Escondido physician, devoted family man and devout Christian, on July 28. He had met Blundell only once before but vented on him anger for an uncured stomachache--a stomachache that his attorney and some doctors said was psychosomatic.

Larsen's lawyer, criminal defense attorney Barton C. Sheela, said in an interview that there is no need to use the word "alleged" in this case.

"He killed the doctor," Sheela said of his client. "The only issue is his legal responsibility for his actions."

It will be a jury's job to determine whether Larsen was sane at the time he squeezed the trigger and should be sentenced to prison, or whether he was insane and should be sent to a hospital for the criminally insane.

Sheela said his defense will be an attempt to show that Larsen, Eagle Scout-turned-dentist-turned-petroleum engineer, is a paranoid schizophrenic who should spend much of his life in a hospital instead of prison. Psychiatrists already have told Sheela as much, but the decision will rest with a jury in a few months.

For a time, Larsen didn't believe he had killed Blundell. Initially, he thought that the CIA had schemed, on behalf of one of his employers, to put plastic bullets in his gun and to stage Blundell's death as a way to "get him," Sheela said. After all, everyone was out to "get him," Larsen thought--even those two old people who were laughing in the checkout line of the Safeway store in Bakersfield. They were laughing at him, Larsen believed.

Sheela said it was only when Larsen was shown pictures of Blundell's autopsy that he finally understood that he had killed another human being.

Now, Larsen is filled with remorse, Sheela said.

Steven Alan Larsen was born Aug. 26, 1955, the elder of two children of Marilyn and Gordon Larsen. His parents are longtime Escondido residents who own a pleasant home surrounded by a grove of avocado trees on the town's west side. She is a housewife; he is a construction engineer who specializes in nuclear power plants and is currently assigned by a Japanese contractor to a job in Saudi Arabia.

Larsen's parents declined to be interviewed. This story is based on interviews with his brother, Ken; neighbors and co-workers; school and work records; police investigation reports obtained by The Times, and the transcript of a preliminary court hearing at which Municipal Judge Victor E. Ramirez ordered Larsen held for trial.

Neighbors always knew the Larsens to be a friendly, hospitable couple, and Steve Larsen as a fine young boy, if a bit shy. At Del Dios Middle School in Escondido, his old school chums recalled, Steve showed an early interest in math and science, and hung out with chess players.

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