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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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Dr. Cornbleet worked by himself in his Loop office, without a secretary, an arrangement that had long worried his family.

On the 12th floor of her father’s building, the first thing Jocelyn Cornbleet noticed was that the door to his office was unlocked. Her father always locked the door this late. With an impending sense of doom, she turned the knob and stepped inside.

The office included a reception area and three tiny examination rooms. The middle door was closed but marked by a smear of red. “I knew he was in there,” the daughter says.

Peering in, she saw that the room was a mess. “Obviously there had been a struggle,” she says. “The blinds were bent and weren’t closed properly. The stuff on his desk was all over the place.” When she looked down, she saw her father in a pool of blood. One of his shoes was off. He had deep cuts on his hands and feet. Police would later say that the doctor had been bound with duct tape, but the daughter didn’t see any. The family would also learn that the killer allegedly had planned to use a blowtorch as part of a torture scheme.

“I didn’t cry and I didn’t freak out,” she told me one afternoon recently. “I immediately called 911,” she says. But when an operator came on the line, she couldn’t speak. “I was yelling at the person because I couldn’t say what I wanted to say—that he was in this room and here was the address. Finally, I just screamed, ‘There’s been a murder here. You need to send someone!’

“Then I had to call my mom,” she says, “which is the most horrible thing you can ever do. I said, ‘Dad’s dead.’”

The police and the detectives arrived within minutes. They blocked off the room. They introduced themselves, then began asking questions. At first they pressed her about her whereabouts that night. “Do you think I did this?” she asked. As the investigation continued, the questions focused on the doctor. Was he having an affair? No. Could he have been using drugs? No. Was he gay? Did he have a lover? No. No. The daughter says that police also cast a suspicious eye on her mother. Was this about insurance? No.

The family understood why such things needed to be asked. Still, the children say, the mere suggestion that their father was involved in something shady hurt. “When someone gets killed in that way, I think people automatically assume he is having an affair, or doing drugs,” Jocelyn says. “My dad was the most clean-cut person there could be. It was very important for us to clear his name.”

Investigators soon found a woman who had shared the elevator ride down with the likely killer. The young man, a bloody towel or jacket held to his face, “was shaking and breathing very heavily,” Jocelyn says the woman told police. “We thought that he had been punched in the face and maybe his nose was broken, because the woman who rode down with him in the elevator said there was blood all over his face. [In his confession] Hans admitted there was much more of a struggle than he had bargained for.” (Police stopped commenting on the case after Hans Peterson’s arrest.)

Footage from video surveillance cameras, which would be played repeatedly on news broadcasts, showed a man with a messenger bag walking into the building. Wearing jeans, a red baseball cap, and a waist-length jacket, he pushes the “up” button and then steps into the elevator. Forty-five minutes later, the cameras capture him re-emerging, his face now hidden by a bloody towel or jacket. Police say the man, who hurries down the hall and out a revolving door, is Hans Peterson.

Jocelyn Cornbleet says police told her what happened next: Hans Peterson ducked into the parking garage, climbed into his rental car, and drove back to New York. He stayed there for about two months. Then, around Christmastime, he packed a suitcase and caught a flight to Oregon to see his mother and father.

Tom Peterson says he noticed nothing amiss with his son, beyond the symptoms he had shown since taking Accutane. He did notice that Hans was spending time on the Internet, researching the Caribbean island of St. Martin. On the last day of his visit, the son revealed why: He was moving to St. Martin to resume his career in Internet gambling.

From his new Caribbean home, Hans Peterson reentered the blogosphere. Only this time, he did not seek out an Accutane support group. Instead, he sought information from a site devoted to Asperger’s syndrome—a milder variant of autistic disorder. In his second posting (republished on theoutfitcollective.blogspot.com, a Web site run by Chicago crime writers), he wondered whether he might have the syndrome—much as he wondered if Accutane were to blame for his difficulties: “Hi, I have always been different from most of my peers—extremely quiet, unable to engage in any sort of small talk, somewhat obsessive, intelligent, and somewhat unable to make friends. Many of these qualities I attributed to the fact that I grew up in a house in the middle of nowhere, with no immediate neighbors, and the way that may [sic] parents were rather different than most people in the town that I lived near. (White trash town—my father is a doctor, my mother from France, and not used to many American customs.) I was always considered talented and gifted in school, but I struggled socially (many people felt I was mute), and I have never been in a real relationship in my life despite my above average physical attractiveness. I am now 28 years old and recently moved from the United States to an island in the Caribbean.”

* * *

Mourners packed the Weinstein Funeral Home in Chicago for the dermatologist’s funeral. Adding to the unreal feeling of the event for the family was an instruction by police to keep an eye out for anyone among the mourners who didn’t belong—killers sometimes showed up at such ceremonies for their victims, they said. “I gave a speech and the whole time I was looking to see if there was a young man sitting by himself,” the daughter says.

Jocelyn’s eulogy took the form of an open letter to her father. “Not only did you devote your life to your family,” the daughter said, while television cameras whirred and reporters scribbled, “but to the literally thousands and thousands of patients you saw and helped. Each one you treated as if they were the most important person in the world because for that moment, their problem was your dedication and goal to fix.”

They buried David Cornbleet, dressed in the blue doctor’s coat that had once been his father’s, in the New Light Cemetery in Lincolnwood. After the ceremony, Jon Cornbleet stood alone at the site. “Dirt was being piled onto the grave and I was just crying my eyes out,” the son recalls. “And I said to [my father] right then and there, no matter what I had to do, I wasn’t going to give up. I didn’t know thing one about being a detective, but I’m a smart guy; I’m a resourceful guy. I told him, ‘You were an awesome father—you were my best friend and I’m going to do this for you.’”

* * *

Photograph: Courtesy of Jonathan Cornbleet

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