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A mad scheme to kill a scientist

COLUMN ONE

Brilliant and wealthy but a paranoid schizophrenic, Walter Sartory was a prime target. He was abducted, drugged and his body set on fire. And a housekeeper and her son have been charged with murder.

January 07, 2010|By Bob Drogin
(Los Angeles Times / Boone…)

Reporting from Hebron, Ky. — Like the disturbed genius in Hollywood's "A Beautiful Mind," Walter K. Sartory was a brilliant mathematician with a grave mental illness. It made him the perfect victim.

Sartory worked for 30 years at Tennessee's Oak Ridge National Laboratory, which was built in secret for the atomic bomb project and became America's largest science and energy lab.

Sartory's work on nuclear weapons remains classified, but he published pioneering papers on reactor design, medical centrifuges and other subjects. He won a top award at the lab and held three patents.

"You only played chess with Walt two or three times because you were always humiliated," said John Eveleigh, a British biochemist who worked at Sartory's side. "And I played chess for Oxford, so I wasn't an amateur."

Sartory was treated most of his life for paranoid schizophrenia. He believed the CIA trained ants to spy on him. He battled social phobias so acute that he turned down a high-paying job rather than submit to an interview.

When Sartory retired in 1992, he shut himself in a tiny apartment and used algorithms to invest on Wall Street. The savant built a $14-million portfolio before the stock market crashed last year, records show.

With therapy and new medicine, he began to travel. He moved to Hebron in March 2008 to be near the Cincinnati-Northern Kentucky International Airport. He had no immediate family and knew no one in the area.

Then last February, old friends phoned police to say the 73-year-old recluse had vanished. Their plea for help came too late.

Sartory had been abducted, drugged and duct-taped to a chair, police later concluded. He surrendered his financial accounts but died after he was denied the medicine that kept his panic attacks at bay. His body was stuffed in a trash can, doused with gasoline and burned.

"We all struggle to have faith in mankind," said Linda Tally Smith, the commonwealth's attorney who will prosecute the case. "To think a man who was already paranoid, who lived his whole life in fear of others, could fall prey to something so horrific is heartbreaking."

Exploitation of the elderly, and of the mentally ill, is a sad but growing trend. Prosecution is also more common thanks to surveillance cameras and other new tools.

But few cases present such a grim mix of pulp fiction and Greek tragedy as the lonely death of Walter Sartory.

Last January, Sartory spent three days visiting Therese "Terri" Davis, 60, in Binghamton, N.Y. They had met on an Internet site for people with personality disorders. This was their first date.

"He was so shy, so quiet," she recalled. "We held hands. I'm pretty sure he never held anybody else's hand before."

Sartory told her that government agents sometimes tampered with his car. "And when we went out to eat, he thought the waitress was laughing at him. I couldn't get him to smile."

Sartory also complained of a pushy housekeeper back home named Willa Blanc. At 47, she wore big blond wigs and rhinestone-encrusted fake fingernails, even when cleaning homes, and drove a candy-apple red 2007 Corvette.

Blanc worked in Sartory's neighborhood and offered to clean his house in mid-2008. He declined, but she kept bothering him, he said.

Sartory also complained about Blanc to Ann Cartee in Sterling, Va. They had met in an Internet mental health forum years before and spent hours together on the phone nearly every day.

"He said Blanc would knock on his door, barge in, and before you know it, she was there for two hours," Cartee recalled. "He didn't know how to get her to leave."

When Sartory returned from Binghamton, he found that Blanc and her 27-year-old son, Louis Wilkinson, had cleared his driveway of snow. Blanc handed Sartory mail, including financial statements, that she had taken from his mailbox.

Less than a month later, on Feb. 26, Cartee and her husband, Robert, called the Boone County Sheriff's Department in Kentucky to say their friend had not answered phone calls or responded to e-mails in 10 days.

The Cartees also sent police several of Sartory's recent e-mails. In one, he wrote that he had changed his locks in case Blanc had stolen a copy of his house key.

"I do not trust her," Sartory wrote. "I might be merely paranoid, but I suspect she might be running some sort of confidence racket. Or she might be casing my house to see if it is worth robbing."

Deputies checked Sartory's beige bungalow several times. But the shades were drawn, as usual, and nothing seemed amiss. They left notes under the door.

Then, on March 4, deputies noticed the garage door was unlocked and entered the house through there.

They discovered that the scientist had converted his living room into a monitoring station for extra-terrestrial life: Six powerful computers were running a program that analyzed radio signals from outer space.

Deputies found Sartory's schedules. He set precise times to brush his teeth, get dressed and so on, and then checked off each completed task.

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