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Bloodlines: The Death of Chicago Dermatologist David Cornbleet

After dermatologist David Cornbleet was murdered in his Michigan Avenue office, his son, Jonathan, devoted himself to finding the killer. Now a shy and troubled young man—a former patient of Dr. Cornbleet’s—has confessed. But that man’s anguished father is arguing that a drug prescribed by the slain doctor may have contributed to the killing.

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Growing up a happy child in Oregon, Hans Peterson especially loved donning a football uniform.

Tom Peterson is also a doctor who has a son and a daughter. Raised in a suburb north of Milwaukee, Peterson earned his undergraduate degree at the University of Wisconsin, in Madison. While traveling around Europe the summer before medical school, he met a French woman named Jacqueline Lebas at a youth hostel in Scotland. The two married in 1972. Jackie became a dual citizen in 1991.

Hoping to land a job in emergency room medicine, Peterson began looking for small hospitals that would hire a doctor fresh out of school. He found one in Roseburg, Oregon, and the couple moved there in 1974. He initially chose the ER, he says, “because you had to think fast, come up with diagnoses, and keep your cool through it all. But when you were done for the day, you were done.” His outside interests—marathon running and triathlons—would eventually lead to his long-term career path. “I would get injuries, and runners would come to me for help curbside,” he says. “Eventually, someone said, ‘Why don’t you just open an office in sports medicine?’”

He did, and in July 1978, the couple had their first child. Blond, blue-eyed, Hans Peterson was named after his great-grandfather Johann, a homesteader who had come to the United States from Sweden. Four years later, the couple added a daughter. (Peterson asked that she not be named, a request honored by Chicago.)

Both children were shy. The sister participated in gymnastics and ballet, Peterson says, “but was really very withdrawn through school. She just kind of liked observing what was going on and not being a part of it.”

There was a history of depression in the family, though early on the son revealed little sadness. A picture of Hans at the age of 15 shows a fair-haired boy in shoulder pads, down on one knee, clutching a football and beaming proudly. “He was a happy child in his early years,” the father says. “He was crazy about football, although he was not a real good player. But he loved the game and he loved wearing the uniform—that was just the coolest thing for him.”

Russ McIntosh, a longtime friend of the Petersons’, recalls that Hans was never a big conversationalist, “but he was always engaged,” he says.

When Hans reached his high-school years, however, a sense of melancholy began to show itself. “He started getting more and more shy or being more and more aware of being shy,” the father says. “When you get to be teenagers, all the little social structure starts. And since he wasn’t the kind of person who easily engaged people in conversation, he kind of felt left out of things. Not that people didn’t like him. He was very likable and everyone was fine having him around, but he wasn’t in the in crowd. He didn’t have much of a social life and he didn’t date much” beyond taking McIntosh’s daughter to the prom.

One day, Tom Peterson says, he noticed that his son was reading a book on how to overcome shyness. “I asked him what that was about, and he said, ‘I just can’t seem to light people up or get girls to want to go out with me. I feel lonely.’”

The father says he was concerned enough about the depression to take his son to a therapist. “He’d get into a pretty blue mood where he didn’t want to do anything,” the father says. “As he got more and more into teenage years, you started seeing it more and more, to the point when he was 16 he got put on antidepressants [Zoloft] for the first time.” By then Tom and Jackie Peterson were having their own troubles. They divorced in 1994.

* * *

Every day, as evening gathered, the dermatologist went through the same routine. “My dad was very methodical,” recalls his daughter, Jocelyn. “Every day at about six he would call my mom and say, ‘I’m finishing up; I have one more patient.’ Then he would transfer the phones so that they forwarded to his house” in Lincolnwood, on the Northwest Side.

By 7:30 p.m. on Tuesday, October 24, 2006, however, Dr. Cornbleet’s wife, Aileen, had not heard from him. She immediately called Jocelyn, who was walking her dog downtown. “It’s nearly 8 o’clock and I haven’t heard from your father yet,” her mother said. “I’m concerned.” Shortly after, Jocelyn received a call from her brother. “You’re the only one in the city,” Jon said. “Can you go and check on him?”

The daughter felt an immediate sense of dread. Something had to be very wrong. Had he had a stroke? A heart attack?

Walking into her father’s office building, a high-rise across from Millennium Park, the daughter approached the security guard. “Have you seen Dr. Cornbleet?” she asked. The guard hadn’t. Panic rising, Jocelyn took the elevator to the 12th floor and walked down the marble hall to the door of her father’s office.

* * *

 
Photograph: Courtesy of Tom Peterson

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