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Caltech Professor Dies After Attacking Wife, Setting House Ablaze : Violence: Daughter says she saw her father lighting matches as family escaped the fire. Motive is unknown.

February 24, 1994|MIKE CARLSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A Caltech professor, apparently armed with an ax, bludgeoned his wife early Wednesday, then set his La Canada Flintridge home on fire, perishing in the blaze, authorities said.

Jan J.A. van de Snepscheut's badly burned body was found in the remains of a bedroom of his one-story house in the 4700 block of Hayman Avenue by firefighters who responded to the 2:39 a.m. blaze, authorities said. His wife, Terre, who escaped the burning house, remained in fair but stable condition late Wednesday at Huntington Memorial Hospital in Pasadena.

Los Angeles County Sheriff's Deputy Angie McLaughlin said the wife told authorities she was asleep when the attack occurred, and recalled only that she was awakened about 2:30 a.m. "when her husband struck her with some type of object."

"The object has not been positively identified, but detectives have removed (an) ax from the scene as possible evidence," the deputy said.

Authorities said the motive behind the apparent attack is unclear. Neighbors described the couple as smart, friendly and involved in community activities and the local Girl Scout troop. None reported hearing any fights or disputes in the days before the fire.

The couple's three children, ages 14, 12 and 10, were in the house at the time the blaze erupted, officials said, but it was unknown whether they witnessed the attack.

Los Angeles County Fire Department Battalion Chief Jim Crawford said the elder daughter led the younger siblings to safety, then ran back into the house to look for her father. When she found him lighting matches, the girl told investigators, she fled.

The daughter suffered a minor case of smoke inhalation and was treated at the scene, Crawford said. Neighbors said the children are staying with friends.

Van de Snepscheut, 41, an associate professor at Caltech, taught introductory and graduate courses in the computer science department, Caltech officials said. A Dutch citizen born in Oosterhout, the Netherlands, he had taught at the university since 1989. He received his master's degree from Eindoven University of Technology in 1977 and his Ph.D. from the same university in 1983, officials said.

Van de Snepscheut was the founder of two microcomputer companies in the Netherlands. His work focused mainly on developing methods to fix bugs, or errors, in computer software programs. He published a book, "What Computing Is All About," in 1993 and thanked his wife and family "for their love and patience in the past years" in the last sentence of the text.

His students, stunned by the news of his death, said he had always been calm and good-humored in class, and had given no sign Tuesday that he might be under duress.

"I have a lot of respect for him. He was a really good professor, and his class was the only class I went to regularly," said Huy Le, 18, a computer science major who was one of 30 students in Van de Snepscheut's sophomore class.

Sophomore Anthony Molinaro, 20, was equally mystified.

"This must have been about his personal life," Molinaro said, "because his professional life really seemed together."

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