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Like the Plague

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.