A mad scheme to kill a scientist
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.
In the kitchen, they found the prescription pills Sartory took daily to ward off psychotic episodes. He would not have left home without them.
Neighbors mentioned seeing a van from the cleaning service Molly Maids in Sartory’s driveway. Company officials disclosed that Blanc, who sometimes worked for them, told them that she and Sartory “would be traveling” indefinitely.
On March 10, Sheriff’s Chief Det. Coy Cox stopped at Blanc’s two-story brick home in nearby Union, Ky. She assured him she had just seen Sartory in a grocery store and promised to call when she heard from him.
The next day, Cox found a letter in Sartory’s mailbox from Fidelity Investments. The detective faxed a subpoena to Fidelity, which informed him that Blanc had added her name to Sartory’s brokerage account.
Cox raced back to Blanc to demand an explanation. This time, she said she had passed Sartory in his silver Prius.
“I said, ‘That’s not what you told me before,’ ” Cox recalled. “She was totally cool, didn’t blink an eye. She said, ‘Really? Well, he’s fine. He’s probably home now.’ ”
As Cox drove away, Blanc packed a bag and fled with her son.
Police were ready. Surveillance teams shadowed the pair as they changed hotels and cars three times in two days and shuffled cellphones to avoid being traced.
The trackers lost them in Cincinnati traffic. But other clues quickly emerged.
Cox interviewed Blanc’s husband, an electronics engineer. He said she had been his maid before they married. But she emptied his financial accounts, he said, and ran up $500,000 in debts. The mortgage company foreclosed on their home in mid-February, the engineer added.
That was just before Sartory disappeared.
The engineer also disclosed that Blanc had totaled his Chevrolet Trailblazer on Feb. 22. She had been on her way to rural Indiana to visit a friend with whom she liked to gamble, he said.
Cox drove to Indiana. Police told him Blanc was hauling a large plastic trash barrel when she crashed the SUV. She told police at the scene that the 50-gallon can contained firewood. The lid was fastened with bungee cord, and no one bothered to check.
She insisted that the tow-truck driver return the wrecked SUV, barrel and all, to Kentucky.
Once there, police say, Blanc and her son moved the trash barrel to a rented Dodge van and drove back to Indiana.
Blanc had stopped shortly before the accident to gamble at the Argosy, a riverboat casino on the Ohio River. Now, on her second trip with the barrel, she stopped at another gaming hall.
“They played bingo until it got dark,” Cox said. Then they drove to her friend’s farmhouse about 40 miles southwest of Indianapolis.
The farmhouse owner, Dwayne Lively, later told police that Blanc and her son drove up but did not stay. But Lively’s daughter, Amanda, pulled up just as detectives were leaving and gave a more alarming story.
“She said Willa Blanc just showed up and said she had a large dog in the trash can, and paid her dad $1,000 to help them burn it,” prosecutor Smith said. “They took all night to do it. This was even weirder than we were imagining.”
Blanc’s son “got third-degree burns from churning the fire,” said his lawyer, Jason Gilbert, a public defender. Blanc, he added, “didn’t sleep for 48 to 72 hours during this period. She was manic.”
Police found charred human remains, a pair of burned metal-rim glasses, and steel tread from incinerated tires scattered in the nearby Morgan-Monroe State Forest.
Arrest warrants were issued for Blanc and Wilkinson. Police spotted Blanc’s Corvette at a Red Roof Inn early the next day in nearby Sharonville, Ohio, and arrested them both.
Blanc and Wilkinson have pleaded not guilty to charges including murder, kidnapping, theft and abuse of a corpse. They are being held in lieu of $10-million bail each in the Boone County jail.
After his arrest, Wilkinson told Cox that he was “tired of his mother controlling his life” and of being her “slave.” He gave two videotaped statements. The grisly details spilled out at subsequent court hearings.
Wilkinson lived in the basement of the house his mother and her husband shared. He had discovered Sartory confined there on Feb. 16 or 17, he said. The elderly man’s hands and feet were taped to a chair, and tape covered his mouth. He appeared drugged.
Wilkinson said his mother ordered him to stay in the basement and locked the door. He said he pulled the tape from Sartory’s mouth, and the captive asked if the “terrorist had been paid” and pleaded to be set free.
Denied his pills for several days, Sartory repeatedly vomited and struggled to breathe. Wilkinson said he tried to revive him three times with mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, but never called 911.
Wilkinson told detectives he carried Sartory “like a baby” up the stairs at one point to get him medical help, but his mother ordered him to stop. It’s not clear when Sartory died, but Wilkinson said they stored the body in the trash can for two days in the garage.
Before Sartory died, police say, he gave Blanc his computer passwords and a power of attorney granting control over his bank and brokerage accounts. He also appeared to revise his will to leave Blanc the bulk of his fortune, although police believe the document is forged.
Blanc withdrew $210,000 from Sartory’s account, the maximum available, before her arrest and was due to get $1.3 million more the day Cox sent his subpoena and Fidelity stopped the transfer.
Cox also checked at the Chevrolet dealership where the SUV had been towed after the accident. A salesman said Blanc had erupted in fury when she learned that someone already had bought a new, top-of-the-line Corvette ZR1 that she wanted. The car cost more than $100,000.
“She became very irritated, very angry,” Cox said. “She told them she was about to get $7.5 million in cash.”
When police searched her home, he said, they found a book with a title like “How to Choose Your Prey” in her safe.
“In her mind, he was perfect,” Cox said. “She’s tapped out. He has lots of money. He doesn’t know anybody. He lives behind closed doors. He’s trying to communicate with ET. Who would miss him?”
At an hourlong court hearing Dec. 2, Wilkinson stared at the floor, never looking at his mother. She fidgeted and glared at reporters through sparkling Dolce & Gabbana designer glasses above her black-and-white prison stripes.
Smith said she will seek the death penalty for Blanc when the case goes to trial, probably in the summer. Joanne Lynch, a public defender who represents Blanc, said the case is in a preliminary stage and the facts are still undetermined. Boone County Circuit Judge Anthony W. Frohlich has scheduled a hearing today to determine whether Wilkinson is mentally competent to stand trial. His lawyers also will seek to have his confession tossed out.
Sartory’s last known act was to send two dozen red roses on Valentine’s Day to Terri Davis, the woman he visited in Binghamton.
“The flowers were so beautiful,” she said. “I tried calling him and calling him and calling him. And then I heard the news. And I cried, and I cried, and I cried.”