The confessed killer of Jon Cornbleet’s father sits in a West Indies jail, just out of reach.
“From what I understand, he was actually smiling. He thought it was hilarious,” Cornbleet says.
“He thinks that he basically got away with one.”
‘Hiding like a coward’
To his patients, David Cornbleet was an old-fashioned doctor, a 64-year-old sole practitioner who ran his dermatology practice without nurses. He drove a Buick, lived in a modest house and, his patients said, cared more about medicine than money.
To Jon Cornbleet and his sister, Jocelyn, David Cornbleet was more.
“He was an amazing father,” Jon Cornbleet said in an interview with “Dateline NBC”. “In the last few years, I considered him more to be like a best friend. ... Every single Saturday, I volunteered to help him out just because I enjoyed being around him.”
The interview will air Sunday at 8 p.m. ET.
It was Jocelyn Cornbleet who found her father in his office on Michigan Avenue in Chicago’s Loop on Oct. 24, 2006. He had been stabbed to death.
“There was not one person we could think of who could do that,” Jocelyn Cornbleet said. Her father “wasn’t a shady character. He didn’t do drugs. He wasn’t having affairs. He wasn’t that kind of person.”
But in the self-admittedly “far-from-normal” mind of Hans Peterson, Dr. David Cornbleet was that kind of person.
On Aug. 6, Peterson, 29, a law school dropout, abruptly walked into a police station on the Caribbean island of St. Martin, in the French West Indies, and confessed to French authorities that he killed Cornbleet. Peterson — whose DNA had been found at the scene, Illinois prosecutors said — was able to provide details of the crime that had not been made public, and he was taken into custody.
To the Cornbleet family, Peterson should be extradited to Illinois for trial on murder charges. But, like much else in this case, it is not that simple.
Peterson’s mother was born in France. Under French law, that means Peterson has dual U.S.-French citizenship. And French law bans the extradition of French citizens to other countries.
Despite the best efforts of the Cornbleet family, the U.S. Justice Department, Illinois prosecutors and both of Illinois’ senators, Hans Peterson remains in solitary confinement in a jail cell on the West Indies island of Guadeloupe, awaiting trial in a French court in the murder of Cornbleet. If he were tried and convicted in Illinois, he would most likely spend the rest of his life in prison, but if he is convicted in a French court, he could be paroled in as little as 22 years.
“He’s hiding like a coward,” Jocelyn Cornbleet said. “He did it, face it. He confessed to it.”
A cry for help on the Web
Peterson’s father believes his son killed Cornbleet “to avenge what happened to him.”
For several years, Hans Peterson haunted an Internet discussion forum devoted to people who believe they are victims of side effects of a medicine prescribed to treat severe acne. In postings on the site, which his father confirmed as authentic, Peterson writes that “my doctor” — Cornbleet’s name is never used — “deceived” him into taking the drug, marketed by Roche Pharmaceuticals under the brand name Accutane.
French authorities said Peterson told them that he killed Cornbleet because the Accutane left him with serious medical problems. Last May — 6½ months after he allegedly killed his doctor — Peterson returned to the discussion group to outline them: tinnitus, or ringing in the ears, as well as “total loss of sexual sensation, depression, anxiety, loss of craving for food, and some other neurological/mental problems.”
“I will never know again what it is like to pleasure a woman because I no longer have any sexual sensation — I will never again experience what silence is due to the constant ringing in my ears — I will never know who I would have become because of what this [expletive] drug has done to my mind,” he wrote in an another message posted months after the murder.
In more than five dozen postings over five years, Peterson repeatedly referred to his doctor as having hoodwinked him into taking the drug, without warning him of its side effects or having him sign a consent form. “He was an unethical old man,” Peterson wrote in his first posting, on June 16, 2002.
Peterson’s father, Thomas Peterson, himself a physician, told “Dateline NBC” that his son became psychotic after taking the Accutane in 2002. A warning insert distributed with Accutane says doctors should prescribe the drug for only the most severe cases of acne, but Peterson accused Cornbleet of prescribing it without having taken the time to determine that his son had a history of depression.
Roche: Don’t blame Accutane
Roche Pharmaceuticals expressed its sympathy for the Cornbleet family, but it said no studies had found a cause-and-effect relationship between Accutane and psychiatric events. The case is about murder, not Accutane, the company said, maintaining that it was safe and effective and had been used by millions of people worldwide.
But Peterson described a Jeckyll-and-Hyde transformation after his son took the drug, saying, “I know what he was like before Accutane and after — totally different people.”
“There are multiple victims and multiple villains, and I feel that one of the victims is Dr. Cornbleet and one of the villains is Dr. Cornbleet,” Peterson said. “One of the victims is Hans Peterson; one of the villains is Hans Peterson.”
The Cornbleets go online
Did Hans Peterson kill Dr. David Cornbleet? He says he did.
Was he responsible when he did so — was he in full possession of his mental faculties? The Cornbleet family would like an Illinois jury to make that decision.
“In his confession, when he actually spoke with them, he actually said he was doing this to avoid U.S. justice when asked about it,” Jon Cornbleet said, citing French authorities. “He blatantly said, ‘I’m doing this to avoid U.S. justice.’”
So the Cornbleet family has taken its campaign to the same forum Peterson used — the Web.
Dan Drucker, who is engaged to Jocelyn Cornbleet, set up a profile on MySpace.com. At first, it sought help finding Cornbleet’s killer. Since Peterson’s confession, it has morphed into a public relations megaphone urging visitors to put pressure on the French and U.S. governments to return Peterson to Illinois. Numerous supporters have followed suit, creating a network of online discussion about the case. (Note: The family has created a new site, drcornbleet.com, and the MySpace page as it looks now doesn't reflect their first efforts).
“The whole idea is to create enough buzz and awareness about this,” Drucker told NBC affiliate WMAQ-TV of Chicago.
“I actually have a master’s in marketing,” said Drucker, who said he had studied “how the Internet is the main tool that [young people] use to gather any information, any news. It’s the way they also communicate with one another.”
Prosecutors and Chicago police said they supported the family’s efforts. Police even provided video footage.
“It’s incredibly frustrating,” said Bernie Murray, chief of criminal prosecutions for the state’s attorney’s office in Cook County.
“I’ve tried all sorts of cases for over 20 years,” Murray told “Dateline NBC.” “I’ve never seen a situation like this where a crime was committed right here in the heart of Chicago, where all the evidence that will be related to this case comes from either Chicago or nearby, and what we see is a foreign country saying, ‘No, we’d like to try him in our country.’
But Jean-Baptiste Main de Boissière, the French consul general in Chicago, said there was no leeway. A French law passed in 1927 makes it illegal to extradite French citizens, he said.
“The person who is described as the murderer has dual citizenship,” de Boissière said. “He’s a U.S. national, but he’s also a French national.”
Whatever happens, a joint loss
Meanwhile, even as they argue over Hans Peterson’s ultimate responsibility for his actions, the families of David Cornbleet and Hans Peterson share an ultimate loss, and they share a reciprocal empathy.
“I can’t imagine what he’s going through knowing that he raised this individual,” Jocelyn Cornbleet said of Peterson’s father. “Trying to stick up for his son after he’s done this.”
And Thomas Peterson said: “I want the Cornbleet family to know that they have our deepest sympathy and condolence for the loss of Dr. Cornbleet. It was a very horrible way that he died, and my heart goes out to the family.
“Suicide would have been better than this,” he said. “At least no one else would have got hurt, and [his son’s] misery would have been ended.”