THE CARD WAS SIGNED WITH A question mark, but Virginia Brieant found nothing suspicious about the Valentines' Day gift of Golden Godiva candy that had been sent to her Westchester County home. She unwrapped the box and ate four of the chocolates. Then she collapsed.
That evening Chief Judge Charles L. Brieant Jr. returned from work to find his wife violently ill. She was rushed to a hospital where it was determined that she had ingested atropine and sparteine, substances which induce delirium and hallucinations. For several days, her life was in danger.
Early in the federal investigation which followed, FBI agents ascertained that one person was the possible, and perhaps only, suspect. His name was Dr. John Buettner-Janusch, and once he had been one of foremost scholars in the country, a man at the top of his field and chairman of New York University's Anthropology Department.
Seven years ago Judge Brieant had sentenced Buettner-Janusch to five years in jail for manufacturing LSD and Quaaludes in his Washington Square laboratory, a facility that NYU had built specially for him.
Seven years ago, Buettner-Janusch had witnessed the end of his career as an acclaimed and highly respected anthropologist. This past February, he allegedly tried to murder the judge who sent him away. Moreover, he allegedly sent poisoned chocolates to several other former colleagues.
The 62-year-old Buettner-Janusch, whose health is reportedly poor, is presently being held in the Metropolitan Correctional Center. He is charged with the attempted murder of a federal judge and his wife, tampering with a consumer product, and mailing injurious matter. The maximum sentence for these four counts is 63 years. A date has not yet been set for the trial.
On paper, Buettner-Janusch's credentials look impeccable. He began his carrer as an associate professor at Yale, moved on to the directorship of Duke's renowned Primate Center and then to his position at NYU. He has published more than 75 research papers in scientific journals and wrote the popular anthropology text "Origins of Man." Could this great scholar, his friends and enemies are asking, truly be guilty of criminal behavior and deadly intent?
The jury is still out on that one. Accounts of Buettner-Janusch differ sharply from person to person. Those who knew him early in his career offer favorable reports and stand firmly behind his integrity. But many of his fellow workers and subordinates say he was an abrasive and temperamental boss. Some go so far as to say he was a lunatic.
Both his supporters and his detractors agree that he held strong opinions on everything from vegetables to music to people to the world. And, apparently, it was impossible for those who knew BJ, as he was called, not to have strong opinions about him.
In talks with former teachers, colleagues, friends and associates, a portrait of Buettner-Janusch emerges that offers a better understanding of his psyche, although it fails to explain fully the motives behind either his drug manufacturing or his attempts at murder.
The son of a well-to-do architect, Buettner-Janusch was raised in Wisconsin, did his undergraduate work at the University of Chicago and received his Ph.D. from the University of Michigan in 1957. He taught at Yale for seven years and, after failing to receive tenure, moved to Duke in 1965. In academic circles he built a reputation based on his studies in physical anthropology, specifically blood and genetic relationships between lemurs, apes and humans.
In his private life, the professor seemed just as successful. Married in 1950 to Vina Mallowitz, the daughter of a prominent New Orleans physician and herself a dedicated biochemist, Buettner-Janusch and his wife worked together both in the field--studying lemurs in Borneo and Madagascar--and in the laboratory. They enjoyed concerts and theater; one of Buettner-Janusch's common complaints about Duke was its isolated location.
Frances Gary, a friend of Vina's whose husband also worked at NYU, recalls that the pair "used to come to New York City [from North Carolina] every other weekend for opera, ballet, and Broadway shows. They were a very cultural couple."
When the Buettner-Januschs moved to Greenwich Village in 1973, lured by one of the highest salaries paid an NYU chairman, they entertained frequently in their Washington Square apartment. Buettner-Janusch, a gourmet cook, was well-known for serving meals of impeccable taste. Larger gatherings, guests remember, were catered and attended to by a butler and maid.
"Buettner-Janusch had a great zest for life, for all the beautiful things. Everything he did had an exaggerated, posh New York air," Gary says.
"He invited the people he liked to these lavish parties in his apartment, parties that were way above the typical academic standards," says Richard Macris, a former student. "There was lots of good champagne and it was decorated with the original works of art and Navajo rugs he collected. It was a very elegant place."
The Great Gatsby style of these affairs, the posh aristocratic excesses of Buettner-Janusch's daily life, made it all the more difficult for many to believe the accusations of wrongdoing. Indeed, some say that his luxurious lifestyle contributed to the university's continued support of Buettner-Janusch in the face of faculty criticism and, eventually, accusations of drug manufacturing. When the chairman was indicted for making LSD and Quaaludes in his lab, NYU refused to suspend him, saying they preferred to wait before making a decision on the future of this valued member of their staff.
"BJ had the administration absolutely snowed, what with his beautiful apartment on Washington Square, his wealthy wife, his catered Thanksgiving and Christmas parties. For academics, it was high living. The deans and administrators were very impressed," says Charles Leslie, an anthropology professor who, while he was at NYU, was vocal in his protests of Buettner-Janusch's conduct.
However, NYU Professor of History and Sociology Norman Cantor, who was dean of the faculty during Buettner-Janusch's chairmanship, maintains that the university was responsive to faculty complaints. "In the spring of 1979 I personally interviewed every member of that department. Only a very small number thought he was abrasive and difficult to get along with. If the majority had opposed him, he would not have been reappointed as chair," he says.
"Under his administration the anthro department grew in status and increased its ability to recruit students," says Cantor. "It is true that he was extremely opinionated and sometimes brusque, but so are many chairs, and many college presidents."
"I would say that if the drug thing hadn't been discovered, the odds are that he would have continued as chairman," continues Cantor.
In February 1979, Macris, then a student and research assistant in Buettner-Janusch's lab, became suspicious that drugs were being made and reported his doubts to NYU anthropology professor Clifford Jolly. Over the next few months, Jolly and Macris kept notes on laboratory activites, recorded conversations with Buettner-Janusch, photographed materials and secretly took samples that, when analyzed by the Drug Enforcement Agency, proved to be methaqualone and lysergic acid diethylamide, both illegal.
Apparently the anthropology chairman was planning to sell the drugs and had set up a corporation named Simian Expansions to launder the money. Buettner-Janusch pleaded not guilty in the trial which followed, a large part of his defense resting on character witnesses who testified to his brilliance and untarnished reputation. During the trial his lawyer, Jules Ritholtz, hypothesized that Jolly himself could have planted the samples of LSD and Quaaludes.
Some have called Buettner-Janusch a psychopath; others say he made drugs in his lab for the perfectly legitimate purpose of testing the reactions of lemurs, that he did not deserve a criminal sentence, and that this latest incident of poisoned chocolates is simply evidence of a mind warped by an unfair trial and a harsh prison sentence.
Dr. James N. Spuhler '40, former chair of the University of Michigan's anthropology department and advisor of Buettner-Janusch's doctoral dissertation, says he believes the full story is not yet out.
"All I know is I think Cliff Jolly is a shit. He, or someone destroyed a lot of things out of sheer jealousy. I mean, someone poured acid on the slides of lemur chromosome studies that BJ had done," says Spuhler.
One former anthropology chairman at Michigan, Fred Thiene, remembers his old research assistant fondly. "I found the drug business incredible. He had no reason to do it, and I still don't really believe it. One looks at motive, and there is none, at least financially."
"Some people might have been envious of his position. He was the target of a certain amount of jealousy, and he may have been set up," he says.
Other people have suggested that the sudden death of Vina Mallowitz from cancer in 1977 caused him to "fall to pieces" and that the drug business was a direct response to the loss of his wife. "She was a steadying influence, she guided him," says Sherwood L. Washburn '35, formerly the head of the anthropology department at Chicago.
The most common theory, however, is that Buettner-Janusch was always slightly off balance. "He wasn't doing it for money, he was doing it for ego. This was just part of his megalomania. He thought he could do anything and get away with anything," says former NYU professor Charles Leslie.
BUETTNER-JANUSCH'S STORY contains many Dr. Jekyll-Mr. Hyde elements. His behavior changed drastically according to whom he was with, swinging unexpectedly from charming to spiteful and back again.
According to a professor who asked not to be identified, "He was nice to people who were useful to him, but if in any way he thought you were unworthy, he would take action against you. He humiliated colleagues in public."
Ian Tattersall, curator of New York's Museum of Natural History and a longtime friend, knew a different person. "I found him to be a warm, loyal, and kind person, always very supportive and solicitous."
But, he acknowledges, "Some people he liked and found easy to get along with. Those people he supported to the hilt. But there were clearly two distinct poles to the man. If he didn't like you he could be abrasive and nasty."
Some of those who were victims of his nastier side do not see the alleged attempted poisoning of Judge Brieant as a move out of character for Buettner-Janusch. Rather, they point to this latest act as proof positive of his dangerous eccentricity and vindication of their own suspicions. If Buettner-Janusch had a talent for impressing certain people, he also, apparently, had a flair for making enemies.
University of Delaware Professor Charles Leslie says he left NYU because he found the situation to be intolerable. "I had known him at Chicago, and I thought that even though he was difficult it would be all right. However, it soon became obvious that he was out to hatchet me."
"At Chicago, Buettner-Janusch was one of the most colorful people on campus. He was a dramatic character, one who stood out in a crowd. He thought of himself as a celebrity--powerful, elegant, witty. But he was so flamboyant, and so egotistical, that it seemed at once a tip off to some hidden flaw," Leslie says.
According to Leslie, Buettner-Janusch fired assistant professors without cause, bragged about his wealth and, in general, dominated the department with his autocratic attitude.
"One time I complimented him on his silk tie and he said, 'Oh yes, I bought it in Paris on sale for $200,'" Leslie recalls. "Another time he came in to my office and decided to take my table and my typewriter for his own use. He didn't need them, that was done purely as a bullying thing."
"It was hard for anybody he took a dislike to. He would fly off the handle at students and victimize certain people, withholding their pay raises and exploiting their weaknesses," remembers Jolly, who conducted the undercover investigation into Buettner-Janusch's activities that eventually led to the discovery of the illegal drug manufacturing.
"Working with him on an equal footing was almost impossible. He would arbitrarily change his mind just for the sake of establishing dominance, and he tended to bully others," Jolly says. "Still, if the drug charge hadn't come up, he probably would have stayed. He would have stayed, and everyone else would have left."
Leslie, who accepted an offer from the University of Delaware in order to get away from Buettner-Janusch, says, 'I hated him. I fantasized about shooting him. It became so completely unbearable that I had to leave."
Last year, Leslie recieved a box of Golden Godiva chocolates. The sender was not identified and, because of an address mix-up, the chocolates were spoiled by the time the professor and his wife received them. This year, the Leslies were again sent a mysterious Valentines gift of candy, and the FBI analysis concluded that these chocolates contained the same poison as those sent to the judge. Reportedly, people at Duke and Yale received similar packages.
An aspect of the poisoning affair that amazes people is that one of Buettner-Janusch's fingerprints was on the box of candy sent to the judge. Whatever else Buettner-Janusch may or may not have been capable of, leaving an incriminating print seems an act of carelessness out of keeping with his meticulous personality. Some friends have suggested that the former professor, disillusioned by his attempts to reintegrate himself into academia, became so despondent that he wanted to return to jail.
Others are especially surprised by this act of vengeance because Buettner-Janusch had seemed fairly content since leaving jail. He planned to get back into academic life and mentioned his hopes for new research projects. The big talk, however, served only to cover his disappointments.
"Two weeks before it happened, I ran into BJ in a supermarket and he said he was getting a big research grant and that he was getting along wonderfully. I don't know who would give him a grant, but he seemed composed and happy," says Cantor.
Tattersall says, "He came out of prison much less abrasive, a much nicer man than when he went in. He appeared at peace with himself."
Buettner-Janusch had been staying in the Tattersalls' Greenwich Village apartment, looking after their dog while the couple was away when, police say, he allegedly prepared the poisoned candy. Furthermore, chocolates were also sent to friends of the Tattersalls. Tattersall says that he feels betrayed. "He has not endeared his latter self to us," comments the museum curator.
The consensus of Buettner-Janusch's former mentors is that attempted murder is the act of someone very different from the man they knew and admired. "He must have just lost his wits. It was not a clever thing to do, and he was a clever man," says Thiene. "It has a certain flamboyance, however, that is typical of him."