Theodore Streleski, a Stanford mathematician.
In 1978 he bludgeoned his adviser, Karel deLeeuw, to death with a ball-peen
hammer after being told that, after 19 years of graduate school, he
wasnít going to get his doctorate.
Mr. Streleski received a sentence of seven years
based on a defense of diminished capacity, according to newspaper
accounts. He did not admit any remorse when he was freed, but said he
didnít have any plans to kill again.
Theodore Streleski (born 1936) was a
graduate student in mathematics at Stanford University who murdered
his former faculty advisor, Professor Karel de Leeuw, with a small
sledge hammer on August 18, 1978.
Shortly after the murder, Streleski turned himself
in to the authorities, claiming he felt the murder was justifiable
homicide because de Leeuw had withheld departmental awards from him,
demeaned Streleski in front of his peers, and refused his requests for
financial support. Streleski was in his 19th year pursuing his
doctorate in the mathematics department, alternating with low-paying
jobs to support himself.
During his trial Streleski told the court he felt
the murder was "logically and morally correct" and "a political
statement" about the department's treatment of its graduate students,
and he forced his court-appointed lawyer to enter a plea of "not
guilty" rather than "not guilty by reason of insanity" as the lawyer
had urged. Streleski was convicted of second degree murder and he
served seven years in prison for his actions.
Streleski was eligible for parole on three
occasions, but turned it down as the conditions of his parole required
him to not set foot on the Stanford campus. Upon his release in 1985,
he said, "I have no intention of killing again. On the other hand, I
cannot predict the future."
Widow of Slain Professor Speaks Out
Los Angeles Times
October 5, 1985
Seven years ago, my husband, Karel de Leeuw, a
Stanford University mathematics professor, was bludgeoned to death by
one of his former students.
Theodore Streleski never denied the killing. In
fact, he boldly explained that the murder was his dramatic way of
protesting the university's decision not to grant him a Ph.D. after 16
years of study.
Last month, Streleski was released from prison
after serving a seven-year term.
And all the horror of my husband's death came back
to haunt me--not because his killer had been released, but because the
media has turned him into a celebrity, and permitted him to give his
version of my husband's death unchallenged.
I watched recently as he coolly explained to a
nationwide television audience on the Phil Donahue show why it was
necessary to kill my husband. I heard him air his grievances--real or
imagined--with no one to challenge him. And I suffered at the
implication that Karel was a cruel and unfair man, when I feel the
opposite was true.
The rationale used by the media for the attention
given Streleski, as expressed by Donahue and others, is that the press
is performing a useful function.
Donahue said he is calling attention to a criminal
justice system that has released an acknowledged murderer from jail so
quickly. And Donahue says that as a result of such publicity, such
laws might be changed.
But I seriously question the sincerity of that
I suspect that the journalists who decided how to
handle the story of the Streleski release thought they knew what
people wanted to see and read.
They decided that what the public wanted was more
detail about what drove a seemingly intelligent man like Streleski to
coldblooded murder. Or perhaps a rehash of the gory details of how he
bought a hammer one afternoon, and went back to my husband's office to
I am indignant that the media would pander to such
base instincts in human beings.
And I am more indignant because I think those base
instincts are nurtured by a media that continues to feed a hungry
I fully understand that it is not the obligation of
the press to censor the news--to spare us the details of a story that
But I question the usefulness of repeating such a
story over and over--and thereby conditioning people to expect such
details from the press.
I also question the balance and fairness of the
coverage of Streleski's release. My husband is no longer here to
But there are dozens of Stanford graduate students
who would vouch for the fact that Karel was a kind, compassionate man,
always ready to put his time aside to spend it with his students,
listening to them, talking with them and even feeding them.
Why are these students not interviewed?
Finally, I wonder what will happen when the
publicity dies down? Streleski says his "job" now is using the media
to tell the public about Stanford. He has said publicly that he killed
my husband so that reporters would want to hear his story. What will
he do when they stop listening? How will he react when he is abandoned
by those who have flocked around him for so long?
Since Streleski's release, Stanford has refused to
be drawn into further public debate about the fairness of his
treatment by the university. Officials here hoped to let the publicity
die quickly and get back to business as usual.
I want to remain silent as well. But after a few
days of hearing Streleski tell his story unchallenged, I felt the need
to respond to reporters' inquiries in an effort to inject a dimension
that was being forgotten into the story that I didn't want people to
forget. I wanted people to know that whether Streleski was crazy or
sane, whether his grievances were legitimate or not, a good man died
on Aug. 18, 1978.
One journalist who called me assured me that she
wanted to hear about my husband. A reporter from People magazine
interviewed me for several hours and took numerous photos at my home.
The resulting story in a Sept. 23 issue was three pages long and told
Streleski's story once again at length. One quote from me. No word
about Karel and Stanford.
During Streleski's final year in prison he was
eligible for parole three times. Each time the parole board met, I was
besieged by reporters.
They turned up on my doorstep, albeit sheepishly,
demanding to hear expressions of outrage about the fact that the man
who coldbloodedly took a hammer to my husband's skull might be let out
Of course I was outraged. My husband is dead. My
children are without a father because a man wanted to "make a point"
about Stanford University.
We have tried to put our lives together. I find
solace in prayer and meditation and joy in playing with my new
But I am still frustrated, angry and most of all
It may seem inappropriate that my anger is at the
press rather than at my husband's murderer. But this seems to be the
only statement I can make.
The media, in their eagerness to give Streleski a
forum, become themselves accomplices in the murder--giving Streleski
what he wanted in the first place.
Giving in to reporters' urgings--saying I am
outraged that my husband is dead or that Streleski is out of jail--won't
bring Karel back or put Streleski back in jail.
But if I insist that the press could do it better--that
it has an obligation not to pander to people's basest instincts and to
be fair, even at the expense of sensationalism, then perhaps reporters
and editors will remember my pain.
My husband's life was dedicated to a deeper
I remain with that fact.
SITA de LEEUW
A Remorseless Murderer Goes Free After Seven
Years, Refusing to Promise That He Won't Kill Again
By Dianna Waggoner - People.com
September 23, 1985
Polite, patient and with the same deathwatch calm
he had brought with him seven years and 20 days earlier, Theodore
Streleski emerged last week from the California Medical Facility in
Vacaville and prepared to resume an unexceptional life on the outside.
The State of California and everyone in it presumably hope he succeeds,
but Streleski, 49, is making no promises. He is a man who is capable
of being provoked.
On Aug. 18, 1978, fed up with the years of quiet
desperation to which he had apparently resigned himself as a graduate
student, Streleski packed a two-pound sledgehammer into a small flight
bag, left his apartment in San Francisco for the campus of Stanford
University and there murdered a mathematics professor he felt had
belittled him. He believed then, and does now, that he was making a
morally justifiable statement. "I feel regret, but no remorse," he
says. "If you regret something, you say you see the tragic
consequences; but if you had to make the decision again, you would do
it the same way. That's what I feel."
Certainly Streleski cannot be faulted for lack of
consistency. He spent eight years contemplating his grievances against
Stanford and plotting a murder, systematically drawing up a short list
of candidates. It seemed clear in his own mind that he had no choice
but to do what he did. "The essential thing was to be able to bad-mouth
Stanford and do it with some impact," he says. "I considered other
alternatives. I considered going to the alumni or students. I thought
about trashing the place. I considered going to the media directly."
He rejected the last option as simply impractical. "I realized that I
had no leverage," he explains. "Television and the media don't cover
struggling graduate students. But they do cover murderers." For
Professor Karel W. deLeeuw, 48, a former Fulbright scholar and the
father of three children, that dispassionate rationale was a death
For his killer, however, it would mean no great
inconvenience in prison. Because of what a jury determined to be his "diminished
mental capacity" at the time of the crime, Streleski was sentenced to
a modest eight years. Offered parole three times last year, he at
first promised to violate its conditions, then simply refused to
accept it. His sentence was expiring, and he wanted freedom with no
strings attached. He offers only qualified assurances that he won't
kill again. "I have no intention of doing it, but I don't promise," he
says. "I haven't promised anything about my future." Prosecutor Alan
Nudelman, who presented the state's case against Streleski, is not
reassured by such frankness and bluntly calls the man "a time bomb."
If that is so, Streleski is chillingly deliberate
in his mode of explosion. On the morning of the deLeeuw killing, he
traveled to the Stanford campus, walked to the mathematics department
and waited. When the professor arrived at his office, the murderer
hesitated only a moment at deLeeuw's door, took a deep breath to keep
his composure and stepped inside. "He was sitting with his back to the
door," Streleski recalls without apparent emotion. "I walked up
directly behind him. I hit him squarely on the top of the head with
the hammer and then administered two or three of what I call 'insurance
blows' to the right of the temple. There was nothing violent to the
action at all. He rolled back to the storage cabinet in a rather
graceful motion. At some point I heard what I assume was a death
rattle. I covered him with a clean garbage bag like a shroud to save
the feelings of the janitor who would probably find him."
The killer's surrender too was carefully planned.
After taking a train to San Francisco, where he phoned his ex-wife's
family to warn them that there might be "some legal problems," he
returned to Palo Alto, had a beer and a slice of pizza and waited in a
bus shelter reading a Western novel until 3 the next morning. Then he
walked to the police station and turned himself in, handing over the
bloodied hammer in a clear plastic bag.
Theodore Landon Streleski was born in Breese, Ill.
and grew up in nearby Carlyle, the only child of a mother who was a
schoolteacher and a father who, after their divorce, went to work for
Caterpillar Tractor Co. "I left home when I was 19," says Streleski, "and
I haven't been back since. I haven't seen my mother since 1959. In
general we don't get along." The son was closer to his father ("I've
always said he was the only person I ever met who could read my mind"),
but the older man died of a brain tumor in 1956. After graduating from
the University of Illinois, Streleski was admitted to Stanford in 1959
and three years later was awarded a master's degree in electrical
engineering. Then began a traumatic 16-year quest for his doctorate, a
time of frustration and personal slights, during which Streleski
labored slavishly over his studies, struggled to survive financially
and searched in vain for several years for a professor willing to be
his thesis adviser.
Through it all Prof. deLeeuw, apparently unaware of
the effect he was having, began to emerge as the rock on which
Streleski's hopes were repeatedly dashed. Early on, says Streleski,
the professor told him he would have to give up his part-time job at
the Lockheed Corporation because it was against departmental policy.
Later, he says, deLeeuw answered one of his questions cuttingly during
an algebra examination, once made fun of Streleski's highly polished
Florsheim shoes (deLeeuw himself preferred sandals) and reacted
scornfully when the student asked him for help. When Streleski
complained to him about his difficulty in finding an adviser, deLeeuw
allegedly called him a "schoolboy" so vehemently that he sprayed
spittle in Streleski's face.
Temporarily discouraged Streleski took a year off
in 1967, spent some time in San Francisco and married an airline
stewardess and part-time secretary named Merrily Merwin.
Optimistically he returned to Stanford the following year. "You still
here?" asked deLeeuw one day, spotting his former student in the halls.
For Streleski it was a crushing rebuke. "For the first time," he says,
"it occurred to me that there was a question about my getting a Ph.D.
at Stanford. I dwelled on the incident. I thought I had better start
paying attention to some people instead of equations."
By 1970 things began to look up. Streleski was
awarded a $2,000 fellowship after complaining to the dean. But he and
Merrily seemed always to be living on the edge, barely scraping by on
her uncertain income and whatever Streleski could earn on the side. "We
qualified for welfare and food stamps," Merrily would testify at his
trial, "but he didn't believe in asking for assistance from anybody.
As the pressures increased he felt he couldn't just drop the degree.
He had spent too many years [trying to get it]."
By early 1973, Merrily said, Streleski was no
longer the man she had married. He punched her sometimes, once sending
her to the hospital emergency room. He forbade her to answer the
telephone and took her on walks so they could talk, he said, without
being overheard. "He began to feel that maybe there was a conspiracy
against him," said Merrily, "and that he would have to work harder....
Toward the end he got very tense. He broke things occasionally. He
didn't understand why Stanford had ignored him. He kept saying that it
would be over shortly. It was only a short time now, he would say. But
it never was a short time. It just went on and on." Merrily left him
in 1974, and nearly four years later came the divorce. By that time
Streleski had lost his last job and had been living for a week on
Rice-A-Roni. Finally he was ready to act.
At his trial, in March 1979, Streleski refused to
allow his attorney to plead him not guilty by reason of insanity. But
a defense psychiatrist did characterize him as a paranoid psychotic,
and the jury, convinced that the killing was not the coolly rational
act that Streleski claimed, found the defendant guilty of murder in
the second degree. Under current California law Streleski could have
been sentenced to from 15 years to life in prison. But a state law in
effect at the time and repealed eight months later, set the maximum
sentence for second degree murder at only seven years. (Streleski
received an additional year for using a weapon.) The killer was not
displeased. "My feeling for the jury is mellow," he says, "because
they gave me the use of the word 'murderer' at the cheapest possible
cost. I wanted that buzz word to play with. There are other students
who have encountered the treatment I did, but who has ever heard of
them? The publicity has been used as a weapon against Stanford. I
think I got out of the murder what I wanted."
That may be so, but others take a more rational
view. "The problem was with the law, not the verdict," says prosecutor
Nudelman. "The law we had then was an unconscionable expression of an
inept legislative process. It was a scandal." DeLeeuw's widow, Sita,
is still distressed but says she harbors no bitterness. "I just know
that things happen for reasons we don't know anything about," she
explains. "I don't know if forgiveness is the right word or simply
choosing not to hold anger because anger destroys people." As for the
man who might benefit most from that credo, Theodore Streleski plans
to return to San Francisco and look for a job. "Probably some normal
introverted thing," he says quietly. "I'm an incorrigible technician
personality." Though many Californians are not nearly so confident, he
does not regard himself as a threat. "I killed for notoriety," he
explains one more time. "If I kill again, it weakens my argument."