Belmont Club

Like the Plague

Like the Plague
Plague procession to mark 350th anniversary of Bubonic Plague (Rex Features via AP Images)

It started as a brutal murder. A distinguished professor of microbiology and an Oxford University employee are principal suspects in the apparent sex-fantasy murder of Trenton James Cornell-Duranleau, 26. The hairdresser “was stabbed some 70 times and with such brutality that he nearly was decapitated. His throat was slit and his pulmonary artery torn. He had been stabbed 47 times in his back, chest, shoulder and abdomen. He was stabbed and cut additional times in his arms, chin, neck, hands and wrists.”

The plot twist twist is that the suspect, Wyndham Lathem, works in the field of deadly pathogens. “Lathem had been a faculty member at Northwestern since 2007. His lab studied the virulent form of Yersinia pestis, the gram-negative bacterium that causes pneumonic and bubonic plague in humans. He had a successful career as an independent investigator, including participating in recent scientific conferences on chemical and biological terrorism defense.”

Cornell-Duranleau … went to sleep in Lathem’s high-rise Chicago condo on July 26, at which point Lathem texted Andrew Warren, 56, an Oxford financial official and British citizen, that it was time to kill Cornell-Duranleau, prosecutors said.

Lathem began plunging a 6-inch dry-wall saw knife into his Cornell-Duranleau’s chest and neck, prosecutor Natosha Toller said. When the victim awoke, he began screaming and fought back.

Toller said Lathem then yelled at Warren, who was standing in a nearby doorway, and asked him for help. …

Warren bent over Cornell-Duranleau and joined Lathem in stabbing him, the prosecutor said.

She said the victim’s last words were addressed to Lathem: “Wyndham, what are you doing?”

The two middle-aged men fled to northern California before surrendering to the police. The distinguished pair made a bizarre picture in courtrooms ordinarily peopled with low-lifers. Daily Northwestern described the rise of Lathem’s brilliant academic career until it was interrupted by the unfortunate incident.

Throughout the past 14 years, Lathem established himself as one of the nation’s preeminent Yersinia researchers. He contributed to 28 different published research findings that have been cited more than 1,700 times, according to his database on ResearchGate.

Shortly before leaving Washington University in St. Louis for Northwestern in 2007, he discovered a gene in Yersinia pestis, known as PLA, that allows pestis to replicate quickly in air-filled areas — such as lungs, where it causes pneumonia, the key element of pneumonic plague — but does not affect its replication rate in lymph nodes and the bloodstream.

At Feinberg, Lathem discovered that the development of PLA gene was the factor that caused pestis to evolve from its ancestral bacteria and that PLA deactivates a “key regulator” in humans’ immune system response to bacterial infection, known as PAI-1.
Northwestern’s microbiology-immunology department was “advised” to refer all media requests to Cubbage, said a graduate student in the department. Cubbage declined to comment for this story and, citing the fact that Lathem is no longer employed by Northwestern, said the University will have no further comments regarding Lathem in the future.

But there were hints of something not quite right even before the brutal killing. The suspect had been slated to take up a post in France’s Institut Pasteur when the French authorities unexpectedly denied his application for a security clearance. “Six months before Wyndham Lathem became a suspect in a brutal stabbing death in his Near North Side home, French authorities denied the Northwestern University professor a security clearance to work at the prestigious Institut Pasteur, authorities said Tuesday.”

Lathem, 42, began making arrangements to move his lab overseas and mentioned his affiliation with the institute during a conference in Lithuania last September.

But Lathem failed to get final approval from the government and his application was turned down early this year, the institute said.

“Wyndham Lathem did not receive security clearance from the French authorities,” Perthuison said in an emailed statement. “This clearance being essential for this type of position, the recruitment was not pursued.”

French authorities did not provide the reason for rejection, Perthuison said.

The security clearance serves as a background check on scientists who will be working with dangerous pathogens in France. “They need to make sure people who are working with the materials are professional and can be trusted,” she said.

The subject of a clearance did not openly surface again until his supporters for a bail bond cited the ones he already had. Letters supporting Wyndham’s bail application “sought to remind the judge of the rigorous law enforcement screening required for researchers to get clearance to handle deadly pathogens.” Although the bail application was denied the defendant’s supporters waxed eloquent on the quality of the man.

In her letter, the friend wrote that Lathem had remained devoted to another friend in San Francisco, who suffered from a chronic illness, and theorized that Lathem’s flight from the murder scene ended in northern California because Lathem wanted to “be in close proximity to his dear friend and seek her confidence and guidance (and also ensure her wellness) after the terrible events occurred.”

Another friend unintentionally pointed up the privileged life Lathem led, in contrast with all but a handful of the people facing murder charges in a city that sees hundreds of killings each year. By way of describing the microbiologist’s generosity, he recalls how Lathem had offered free use of a vacation home owned by his family in Provence, France.

His guilt or innocence will be determined in court.  But one can hardly listen to his lecture describing the process of turning a relatively harmless bacteria into the pathogen that killed at least 75 million people in Europe without wondering whether humanity has the capability to handle the enormous power that science and technology has placed at its disposal.  Can any clearance or system of clearances protect us from the evil that lurks in the heart of men?

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The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America, by George Packer. Using a novelistic approach, Packer tells the story of the past three decades by journeying through the lives of several Americans, including a son of tobacco farmers who becomes an evangelist for a new economy in the rural South, a factory worker in the Rust Belt trying to survive the collapse of her city, a Washington insider oscillating between political idealism and the lure of organized money, and a Silicon Valley billionaire who arrives at a radical vision of the future. He interweaves these stories with sketches of public figures and collages made from newspaper headlines, advertising slogans, and song lyrics. Winner of the 2013 National Book Award.

For a list of books most frequently purchased by readers, visit my homepage.

Did you know that you can purchase some of these books and pamphlets by Richard Fernandez and share them with your friends? They will receive a link in their email and it will automatically give them access to a Kindle reader on their smartphone, computer or even as a web-readable document.
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No Way In at Amazon Kindle. Fiction. A flight into peril, flashbacks to underground action.
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