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

Times Staff Writer

. . . 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."

One of the things with which Kneissl and Von Auersperg have come to terms is the fact that, although they are children of privilege--indeed, they are a prince and princess, born to Sunny von Bulow and her first husband, Austrian Prince Alfred Auersperg--and had access to the wisest legal minds money could buy, they felt like powerless bystanders during the second trial.

"We almost saw the system making it easier for him (Von Bulow)," Von Auersperg said, "while doctors who had never seen our mother were trying to portray her as an alcoholic. We began to see the whole trial turned into a trial of my mother's character."

Barred from the Providence courtroom except when they were testifying--"The defense attorneys decided we might be prejudiced by testimony of the other witnesses," Von Auersperg said--they sat out the proceedings at Clarendon Court. "My mother's family should have had the right to be there," he said. "Every victim has the right to be present."

Victims 'Feel Lost'

It is a judicial system, he said, that makes victims and victims' families "feel lost, feel alienated."

Von Auersperg and Kneissl contend that, by disallowing what they call damning evidence, Rhode Island Superior Court Judge Corinne P. Grande influenced the outcome of the trial. That evidence included taped testimony from the first trial in which Von Bulow's former mistress, Alexandra Isles, told of giving him a marriage ultimatum and testimony by bank trust officer George Morris Gurley outlining the details of Sunny von Bulow's will.

That jury should have known, Von Auersperg contends, that "if Mother were to die, he would have inherited $14 million. If they divorced, he would have had absolutely nothing." (Save for an annual income of $120,000 from a trust she established for him by terms of a premarital agreement.)

In July, Von Auersperg and Kneissl filed a civil suit in U.S. District Court, Manhattan, charging Von Bulow with assault with intent to kill and asking for $56 million. A federal judge is expected to rule soon on Von Bulow's request for dismissal.

They "want nothing to do with the money," his stepchildren emphasized (Kneissl calls it "blood money"). Von Auersperg explained that, because it is necessary to sue for money in a civil suit, they decided on $56 million based on their mother's projected hospital costs over her probable lifetime, multiplied by three. They also want Von Bulow removed as a beneficiary of her trust fund.

'Terribly Difficult'

"Obviously," Von Auersperg said, "it's terribly difficult to put a price on (what's happened to) my mother."

If the civil suit goes to court, Von Bulow would be required to testify, something he did not do at either of his trials and that Von Auersperg wants him to have to do.

"We owe it to my mother to get this man out of her life," Von Auersperg said. "He is still technically her husband, although he lives in her apartment with another woman. Technically, he has control of her life, and we think that's outrageous. I don't want him in any way her spouse. And I don't think he should benefit" from her misfortune.

Should they win the suit, Kneissl said, the money would be funneled to a good cause, perhaps to further knowledge of brain damage through the planned coma research foundation she wants to bear her mother's name. Von Auersperg said, "We haven't gone through this for five years for Claus von Bulow's money."

They are an attractive pair; Von Auersperg handsome, articulate and poised and Kneissl tall, tanned and blond with striking blue eyes. They are remarkably straightforward. Asked about the extent of her mother's wealth, Kneissl said matter-of-factly, "I think Mummy's estate is close to $105 million."

Sunny von Bulow, the only daughter of Pittsburgh utilities magnate George S. Crawford and Annie-Laurie Crawford Aitken, who was connected to the Carnegies, was beautiful, blond, adored and pampered by her family, a dazzling debutante who wed royalty. That marriage fell apart after eight years and, in 1966, she married Von Bulow, a suave Danish-born, Cambridge-educated man-about-society.

During the trials, Sunny von Bulow was depicted by the defense as pathologically shy, a neurotic woman with few inner resources who drowned her anxieties in alcohol.

A "smear," contends her son, "the most outrageous lies." They believe the outcome might have been different if a dozen or so character witnesses had been permitted to testify for their mother. That's one of the changes they want to see made in the system.

"We give the defendant the presumption of innocence," Von Auersperg said, while "so often it's the victim who's put on trial, like our mother, who was helpless and could not defend herself."

Asked to describe her mother, Kneissl replies, "Warm, giving, fun to be with." Pathologically shy? Kneissl smiled, shook her head and said, "My mother didn't enjoy the same kinds of people he (Von Bulow) enjoyed. And I can see why. And she didn't like enormous groups of people." Both of them depicted her as a woman who preferred opera and books to partygoing.

Von Auersperg describes his mother as "a very family-oriented person, somebody who provided a great life for all of her family. She was very concerned about us." As for allegations at the trial that she was self-destructive, he said: "She was not someone whose intent was to detach herself from that life."

Today, Sunny von Bulow lies in kind of a twilight zone between life and death in a private room in New York's Columbia Presbyterian Hospital. "Seventy percent of her brain cells are destroyed," Kneissl said. "She can differentiate between day and night, but probably not focus. She hears sounds but probably does not understand them. We don't think she recognizes anybody."

Kneissl and Von Auersperg visit their mother on major holidays and on her birthday, sometimes in-between. "Maybe," he said, "a familiar voice makes a difference."

There are fresh flowers, which she loves, in the room at all times. She listens to opera cassettes through headphones. "To relax her," her son explained. "The nurses say when the tapes stop she becomes agitated."

Guard at the Door

There is a guard posted at Sunny von Bulow's door. "We don't want curious people walking in," Von Auersperg explained. "Someone, maybe an off-duty nurse, took some pictures and sold them to a German magazine," which published them.

The approved visitor list includes Claus von Bulow and Cosima von Bulow, the 19-year-old daughter of Sunny and Claus. Cosima has been estranged from her half-brother and half-sister since siding with her father during his ordeal. Her maternal grandmother, who died in April of 1984, dropped Cosima from her will.

Kneissl and Von Auersperg say they feel no rancor toward Cosima and they hope for a reconciliation. Said Kneissl: "She knows where we are and knows that we love her. She was only 14 years old when this happened to our mother. . . ."

It is with some bitterness, however, that Kneissl observes that Von Bulow "has started going to see my mother only since the inception of our civil suit. I find that particularly appalling."

'She Is Still Beautiful'

Sunny von Bulow is not, Kneissl insists, the physically diminished human vegetable described in some reports. "She was an incredibly beautiful woman," she said, "and she still is beautiful."

Her children describe her condition as "completely stabilized," in good health except for muscle deterioration. She has no life support system, only a feeding tube and a tracheal tube to keep her lungs clear. "She hasn't had so much as a cold since she's been in the hospital," Von Auersperg said. "She could live another 20 years."

Occasionally, there is a glimmer. Said Kneissl: "She will cry and she will laugh. The doctors say it could be a reflex, something that happened in the past. They also say she has no memory of pain."

The center that bears Sunny von Bulow's name was born at an April, 1985 meeting in Washington, D.C. of SHARE, a seminar for victims' organizations, which Von Auersperg attended.

"It seemed like the right time," he said, after about a decade of victim activism, to galvanize the momentum and form a coalition. "There are about 1,800 groups out there," he said, ranging from Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) to Parents of Murdered Children.

At the conference he met Anne Seymour, then on the staff of Dallas-based MADD, an organization then going through a leadership struggle that resulted in an extensive staff turnover. Seymour and E. Gene Patterson, also formerly with MADD, came over to start the Von Bulow center.

With Von Auersperg as president, Kneissl on the board of directors and Patterson as executive director, the center was incorporated in November as a nonprofit organization with funding of $1.7 million for its first three years from a charitable trust left by Annie-Laurie Aitken. (The trust, which generates an income of $6 million a year, benefits such diverse causes as the Metropolitan Opera and the Newport, R.I., police and fire departments.)

Won't Abandon Cause

After three years, Kneissl said, "We'll take another look at it" but the hope is to get corporate and foundation funding and she makes it clear the family will not abandon the cause.

Von Auersperg hopes the center will be a catalyst for formation of a network of victims nationwide, both those affiliated with single-interest victims' groups and those who have been laboring alone without peer support and with little or no knowledge of the law or of their rights. "People who are running on 99% heart," he calls them.

The common bond: These are victims who feel they have been dealt with by a criminal justice system that is more responsive to, and more sensitive to, the needs of the defendants than the victims of violent crime.

For example, Von Auersperg said, "one nightmare" of victims is that the criminal will be paroled without their knowledge and "turn up on their doorstep someday."

The Von Bulow center will work to enlighten public awareness about victims, will conduct education programs for victims and their advocates and will serve as a national resource data bank to provide information on victims' rights, legislation, reparations and social, psychological and medical implications of victimization.

Advocates for Victims

The center plans to conduct leadership seminars and to organize a cadre of volunteers to be advocates for victims. Legislation on behalf of victims also will be sought.

It is what Von Auersperg calls "justice for all--even the victim."

Thirty-two states, including California, have passed victims' rights bills. These bills, which differ from state to state, specify such rights as the victim's right to information and to notification about criminal justice procedures from pretrial through parole, the right to separate and secure areas for victims and defendants waiting to testify, the rights of speedy property return and speedy trial and of victim input into the court proceedings, either by written statement or as a participant.

Family members, as in the case of the Von Bulow trial, often are kept out of the courtroom by the invocation of the rule of sequestration--that is, witnesses should not hear testimony of other witnesses.

Eight states, California not among them, have passed statutes that give victims and their families the right to be present, and to be heard, in court.

Another thrust will be to mobilize grass-roots organizations to protest proposed drastic cutbacks in federal funds for victims. The 1984 Victims of Crime Act designated $100 million a year until 1988 to support, among other things, state compensation programs and local efforts such as rape crisis centers and battered women's shelters.

Said Kneissl: "Victims' lives can be absolutely demolished not only by the original crime, but by the follow-up system. Somehow we've got to make the system work better for people, or what kind of world will we have for our children?"

To the young and the elderly, in particular, confrontations with an assailant can be terrifying months or years later. Center volunteers would "walk victims through the system," for example to parole hearings where they may have to come face-to-face with the criminal for the first time. Patterson also talks of the possibility of seeking pro bono legal help for victims.

Said Patterson: "We hope to change some public perceptions about victimization. There's a common feeling in this country that if you were a 'good' person, this wouldn't have happened to you, that you somehow generated this crime yourself. Victims do feel extremely guilty. Even parents of children who have been brutally murdered feel extremely guilty, feel that it wouldn't have happened 'if'. . . ."

'Changed Our Lives'

Their own experience "changed our lives," Kneissl said, "but we can take what happened to my mother and try to turn it into some good."

That is not the same as being able to forget. She wonders, for example, what to tell her daughters, Sunny, 3, and infant Alexandra when they are old enough to wonder about their grandmother.

But she has learned, "The horror of the stories (of others) makes what I've been through seem like a piece of cake."

Alexander Von Auersperg, as president of the Sunny von Bulow National Victim Advocacy Center, has been a frequent visitor to headquarters in Fort Worth, a city chosen for its central location and because nonprofit organizations find more reasonable rents here.

Kneissl is directing a second family cause, establishment of the Sunny von Bulow Coma Research Foundation in New York. Incorporation papers have been filed and it, too, will probably be funded by the Aitken trust.

She points up the need--the increasing number of under-35 coma victims as a result of automobile or motorcycle accidents, the medical advances that may keep them alive, though comatose, for years.

Currently, she is working with Columbia Presbyterian Hospital to set up a data base on neurological research and is in preproduction on a film about brain damage that will explore both clinical and medical aspects and, Kneissl said, "how it affects the family," emotional and financial costs.

Both Parents in Comas

Kneissl and Von Auersperg are in a unique position to understand these things. Both their mother and their father are considered to be in irreversible comas. Their father, Alfred Auersperg, 50, is a car-crash victim hospitalized in Salzburg, Austria. "He's in the same condition my mother's in," Kneissl said. "The prognosis is the same."

Kneissl, who earlier produced a film on famed German photographer Alfred Eisenstaedt, will produce the 60-minute film, which she and her brother will narrate. "People will talk to us," she said, "as victims." PBS, Kneissl said, has promised "their best time slot" in a year.

Somewhere down the line, she would like to produce a film on victims but not, she emphasized, "the Von Bulow Case."

Ala Kneissl and Alexander von Auersperg are getting on with the business of living. "At the moment," she said, "we're recognizable. But we do live our lives."

Often, now, they weekend in Newport at Clarendon Court. "It's full of a lot of good memories" that overshadow the bad ones, she said. "My mother created the house so we could be together there as a family."

And they have plunged wholeheartedly into this fight for victims' rights.

"It is irritating to be known as 'the Von Bulow kids,' " Von Auersperg said. "It would be nice to be known as 'the kids who turned this thing around and made a difference.' "

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