Widow of Slain Professor Speaks Out
Seven years ago, my husband, Karel de Leeuw, a Stanford University mathematics professor, was bludgeoned to death by one of his former students.
Theodore Streleski never denied the killing. In fact, he boldly explained that the murder was his dramatic way of protesting the university’s decision not to grant him a Ph.D. after 16 years of study.
Last month, Streleski was released from prison after serving a seven-year term.
And all the horror of my husband’s death came back to haunt me--not because his killer had been released, but because the media has turned him into a celebrity, and permitted him to give his version of my husband’s death unchallenged.
I watched recently as he coolly explained to a nationwide television audience on the Phil Donahue show why it was necessary to kill my husband. I heard him air his grievances--real or imagined--with no one to challenge him. And I suffered at the implication that Karel was a cruel and unfair man, when I feel the opposite was true.
The rationale used by the media for the attention given Streleski, as expressed by Donahue and others, is that the press is performing a useful function.
Donahue said he is calling attention to a criminal justice system that has released an acknowledged murderer from jail so quickly. And Donahue says that as a result of such publicity, such laws might be changed.
But I seriously question the sincerity of that argument.
I suspect that the journalists who decided how to handle the story of the Streleski release thought they knew what people wanted to see and read.
They decided that what the public wanted was more detail about what drove a seemingly intelligent man like Streleski to coldblooded murder. Or perhaps a rehash of the gory details of how he bought a hammer one afternoon, and went back to my husband’s office to find him.
I am indignant that the media would pander to such base instincts in human beings.
And I am more indignant because I think those base instincts are nurtured by a media that continues to feed a hungry public.
I fully understand that it is not the obligation of the press to censor the news--to spare us the details of a story that isn’t pretty.
But I question the usefulness of repeating such a story over and over--and thereby conditioning people to expect such details from the press.
I also question the balance and fairness of the coverage of Streleski’s release. My husband is no longer here to defend himself.
But there are dozens of Stanford graduate students who would vouch for the fact that Karel was a kind, compassionate man, always ready to put his time aside to spend it with his students, listening to them, talking with them and even feeding them.
Why are these students not interviewed?
Finally, I wonder what will happen when the publicity dies down? Streleski says his “job” now is using the media to tell the public about Stanford. He has said publicly that he killed my husband so that reporters would want to hear his story. What will he do when they stop listening? How will he react when he is abandoned by those who have flocked around him for so long?
Since Streleski’s release, Stanford has refused to be drawn into further public debate about the fairness of his treatment by the university. Officials here hoped to let the publicity die quickly and get back to business as usual.
I want to remain silent as well. But after a few days of hearing Streleski tell his story unchallenged, I felt the need to respond to reporters’ inquiries in an effort to inject a dimension that was being forgotten into the story that I didn’t want people to forget. I wanted people to know that whether Streleski was crazy or sane, whether his grievances were legitimate or not, a good man died on Aug. 18, 1978.
One journalist who called me assured me that she wanted to hear about my husband. A reporter from People magazine interviewed me for several hours and took numerous photos at my home. The resulting story in a Sept. 23 issue was three pages long and told Streleski’s story once again at length. One quote from me. No word about Karel and Stanford.
During Streleski’s final year in prison he was eligible for parole three times. Each time the parole board met, I was besieged by reporters.
They turned up on my doorstep, albeit sheepishly, demanding to hear expressions of outrage about the fact that the man who coldbloodedly took a hammer to my husband’s skull might be let out of prison.
Of course I was outraged. My husband is dead. My children are without a father because a man wanted to “make a point” about Stanford University.
We have tried to put our lives together. I find solace in prayer and meditation and joy in playing with my new grandson.
But I am still frustrated, angry and most of all sad.
It may seem inappropriate that my anger is at the press rather than at my husband’s murderer. But this seems to be the only statement I can make.
The media, in their eagerness to give Streleski a forum, become themselves accomplices in the murder--giving Streleski what he wanted in the first place.
Giving in to reporters’ urgings--saying I am outraged that my husband is dead or that Streleski is out of jail--won’t bring Karel back or put Streleski back in jail.
But if I insist that the press could do it better--that it has an obligation not to pander to people’s basest instincts and to be fair, even at the expense of sensationalism, then perhaps reporters and editors will remember my pain.
My husband’s life was dedicated to a deeper integrity.
I remain with that fact.
SITA de LEEUW
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