Tuesday, October 02, 2007

I Was a Lonely Boy, I'm Not the Only Boy

By Kevin Guilfoile

While reading coverage of the Cornbleet murder in The Daily Herald, a newspaper from the island of St. Martin, I came across this startling sentence:

(Hans Peterson) reportedly inflicted major lacerations on the dermatologist’s hands and feet and then cauterized the wounds with a blow torch before stabbing him to death with a knife.

I had seen it alleged in other foreign reports that Peterson used a blowtorch in his murder of Dr. Cornbleet last October, but I have never read that claim in the American press.

That's probably because it's not true. Not exactly.

I'm told that Peterson confessed to investigators that he brought a blowtorch with him to Dr. Cornbleet's office with the intention of torturing the physician by cutting his hands and feet and then cauterizing the wounds so he wouldn't lose too much blood. This would have kept Dr. Cornbleet alive for as long as possible so that Peterson could cruelly prolong his suffering. But Peterson couldn't follow through with that part of his plan and he described to authorities the reason why.

More on that in a minute, because it touches on a subject we've discussed recently here at The Outfit.

[If you're unfamiliar with the Cornbleet murder case, in which a Chicago dermatologist was brutally stabbed to death by a former patient because the patient believed he was suffering permanent side effects from a prescribed anti-acne medication, start at the bottom and read up.]

Immediately, it struck me that this idea--cutting into the hands and feet and then cauterizing them--didn't occur to Hans a priori. He had to have heard of someone doing that before. I can only speculate, but I know of at least one popular movie--Tony Scott's version of Man on Fire--in which Denzel Washington does something similar to a man's hands with a cigarette lighter during an interrogation. There is also a more obscure film from the late 90s called Thursday. I haven't seen it but here is a monologue from one scene according to IMDb (bold emphasis mine):

BILLY HILL: Well, I ain't gonna s*** ya, pal. When I leave here today, you're gonna be dead as Cinderella over there. Regardless of what you tell me, I'm gonna f*** you up. [opens his bag and takes out a battery-powered circular saw; turns on the saw and holds it in front of Casey's face] YOU READY TO GET STARTED? [turns off the saw] I know you threw out the smack. And you probly don't know where the money is, neither. That's cool. Tho the truth is... I ain't got nothin' better to do, while I wait here for my old friend Nick. [reaching in his bag] Just so you know, I ain't gonna let you bleed to death. [takes out a blow-torch] No, sir. Cuz when I cut you... [turns on the blow-torch] I'm gonna cauterize it. I consider myself an artist. Matter of fact, I picked up this little girl at this club one time... and I cut on her for 16 hours. That's a personal best, but... I keep hoping... [turns on the saw] Alright, now, let's see. I think I'm gonna start at the feet, AND WORK MY WAY UP!

I have no idea if Hans has seen either film, of course.

I have been told, however, that Hans was a big fan of the Showtime series Dexter (based on a series of novels by Jeff Lindsay). I would never suggest that Dexter, or any other television program, caused Hans to become a killer. But Dexter premiered just three weeks before the murder and it's obvious why the character of Dexter Morgan--a serial killer who only kills villainous people--must have appealed to Hans, who rationalized his savagery by claiming that he was somehow a victim of Dr. Cornbleet's greed.

(There will probably be a lengthier post on this in the future, but I should note here that Peterson's assertion that Dr. Cornbleet prescribed him Accutane because he was desperate for patients and wanted Hans to make the mandatory follow-up visits is not only absurd on its face, but refuted by evidence that Dr. Cornbleet had a thriving practice and regularly saw more than 100 patients a week.)

But back to Peterson's confession. Hans allegedly told St. Martin police that he did not use the blowtorch on Dr. Cornbleet because killing a human being turned out to be a lot harder than he thought it would be. Dr. Cornbleet was in fine shape for a man of his age. He fought back. Hans ended up punched and bloodied himself. It took all of Peterson's attention and energy just to subdue Dr. Cornbleet. He had nothing left for extracurricular activity.

In the surveillance video from the night of the murder we see Peterson leaving the office building, covering his face with a sweatshirt and, according to one witness, apparently bleeding from the nose.

Last week Libby wrote an eloquent post about the proliferation of violent images in the media and the difficulty we all have determining which depictions are edifying and which are gratuitous. I don't believe that such images caused Hans Peterson to kill and I won't play psychiatrist and pretend I understand the forces, internal and external, that drove him to that madness. But when it came time to actually murder someone at close range, with his own hands, Peterson discovered that violent scenes on television and in movies and video games (and novels, too) had deceived him. He was completely unprepared for the intensity and the struggle and the blood and the chaos. The motion. The smell. The sound. Real murder was nothing like the movies.

In the first episode of Hans's favorite television series, Dexter Morgan, who is not only a serial killer but also a forensics technician, admires a crime scene (not his) that is mysteriously free of blood splatter. He thinks to himself in a voiceover, "No blood. No sticky, hot, messy, awful blood. No blood at all. What a beautiful idea!"

And not possible except on cable TV.

UPDATE: The Cornbleet family has provided a link that will direct you to the US State Department's web site. There you can send a message directly to the Secretary of State (as Senators Obama and Durbin have done) requesting that she continue to put pressure on her counterparts in the French government for the extradition of Hans Peterson to the United States.

UPDATE 2: "There are multiple victims and multiple villains. I feel that one of the victims is Dr. Cornbleet and one of the villains is Dr. Cornbleet. One of the victims is Hans Peterson and one of the villains is Hans Peterson." Channel 5 in Chicago has posted part of an interview with Hans Peterson's father recorded for an upcoming feature for Dateline NBC. They will be running more of the interview on the news tonight, as well as a reaction from Dr. Cornbleet's son, Jon.


Matt said...

On an unrelated (and probably inappropriate) note, this story brought to mind Carl Hiassen's Skin Tight.

Mark Combes said...


Thank you for bull-doggedly pursuing this crime. It seems I only hear about it here on The Outfit. I wonder why? But that's another blog entry....

As a boy that got into his fair share of scuffles, I know first hand how difficult hand to hand "combat" is. It's not deftly thrown left hooks or swift leg sweeps. It's pulling hair; it's sweaty rolling around in the grass; it's exhausting. And if you really want to kill someone without a gun, you better be able to uncage the animal within. It seems that even insane people can't always do that.

Kevin Guilfoile said...

Thanks Mark. I think we'll see more coverage of this case soon. Several national newsmagazines are working on stories. We'll see.

Matt, I haven't read that Hiassen. What about this story reminded you of it?

radosh said...

If you Google various combinations of "blowtorch" "torture" "cauterize" etc. you'll see that this is an idea that's out there in various places.

Kevin Guilfoile said...

If you Google various combinations of "blowtorch" "torture" "cauterize" etc. you'll see that this is an idea that's out there in various places.

No doubt it is. And my point wasn't to say that Hans got the idea from either of those two films. I was using them only as examples. My (extremely speculative) point was that it seemed like a very specific thing, something he was copying from somewhere. I suppose it's possible he went on the internet specifically researching ways to torture people and got that back as a suggestion. But it seems to me more probable that he had seen that in a movie or read it in a book and decided he would try to replicate it.

Sara Paretsky said...

Former CPD Deputy Superintendent Jeanne Clark says that when the police catch up with murderers who didn't kill someone in the heat of the moment but who thought it through, planned it out, in their confessions they will often offer details that they lifted fromt books & movies. Once when the police arrested a hitman, he had a stack of 3x5 cards on the seat next to him of titles he planned to read while he rested after his hit; they almost c ame after me because the top card said "Killing Orders," Sara Paretsky, but the asst states atty issuing emergency warrants was a mystery reader and explained that the guy had twenty or so mysteries he was planning to read--not because he was in love with our genre, but because he wanted to see what good ideas he could cull. But that's another blog as well.

Anonymous said...

Does anybody know when Hans Peterson's sister contacted Jon Cornbleet and what she said? I have seen him posting on here before, but does anybody personally know or talk to Jon?

Matt Dubin

Kevin Guilfoile said...

Matt, Channel 7 in Chicago ran a story the other night detailing the first tip that came in pointing the finger of Hans Peterson. It was from a US marine who was acquainted with one of Peterson's roommates. I actually don't know what information Hans's sister might have brought to the investigation, but it's my understanding that it was after the call from the marine to the CPD.

Matt said...

Skin Tight featured a psychopathic Amish fella named Chemo who suffered from a severe skin condition - typical twisted Hiaasen - who did away with the dermatologist who messed up his treatment, or the like. Great stuff, probably my favourite Hiaasen after Double Whammy.

Anonymous said...

It was the sister who gave up where he was staying in Saint Martin among other things. The sister contacted the doctor's son and basically said that she knew what had happened and that she could not live with herself knowing what her brother had done.

accutane peterson said...

Dear anonymous (aka Jon),
Why do you need to create lies about Hans' sister? I know Hans' sister very well and I know very well that she did not know about this murder until after the confession. You also create lies that Hans had never been to France and doesn't speak French. He has been to France at least a dozen times and has many relatives there.
So...why the lies? Are you trying to create spin in the media?
Let's stick with the truth.

Anonymous said...

You might want to check the arrest warrant that clearly mentions the sister called in suspicions about Hans as well. It is written pretty clearly on there.

Anonymous said...

Sr. Peterson:

Somebody from the site contacted me that you posted this.

To answer your questions:

1) I have never publicly said anything about your family.

2) I was told Hans had never been on French soil by a Prosecutor in the case. It was reiterated on Inside Edition while a Prosecutor was interviewed by the host. We were following what was told to us. I think the important point is that he never lived there until after October 24th as we all know. If I was misinformed about visiting, I stand corrected and was misinformed.

3) Your ex-wife Jackie said that he can read some French, but can not speak the language. This was reiterated by the warden at his prison.


Jon Cornbleet

Kevin Guilfoile said...

"This man killed an American citizen in cold blood. I was just doing my job." An interview in the Chicago Sun-Times with the marine who tipped police.

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