Nobel winner admits child abuse Gajdusek sentenced to a year in jail for having sex with youth

February 19, 1997|By Marcia Myers | Marcia Myers,SUN STAFF

A headline in yesterday's editions erroneously stated that Dr. Daniel Carleton Gajdusek, who pleaded guilty Tuesday to two counts of child abuse, had been sentenced. Gajdusek will be sentenced April 29.

The Sun regrets the error.

Nobel Prize-winning scientist Dr. Daniel Carleton Gajdusek, who for more than 20 years brought dozens of children from the primitive Pacific island cultures he studied to live with him in Maryland, pleaded guilty yesterday to child abuse.

Gajdusek's arrest last spring was based on the allegations of a 24-year-old college student whom he brought to this country as a teen-ager. The student's charges led to a wider investigation into potential abuse of other children sponsored by the scientist.


But prosecutors said yesterday that they had insufficient evidence to bring more charges against the doctor, though they believe there were five victims.

Under a plea agreement, Gajdusek will serve no more than a year in the Frederick County Adult Detention Center. He had faced a 30-year prison term.

"Proportionally, for a 73-year-old, one year is a substantial sentence," said Frederick County State's Attorney Scott L. Rolle.

"Somebody who engages in this kind of behavior needs to know it's not only wrong but that there's a price to pay," he said. "It doesn't matter who you are. This is wrong."

Under the plea agreement, Gajdusek admitted guilt to two counts of child abuse. The agreement also includes the dismissal of two counts of unnatural perverted practice.

The bargain further guarantees the federal government will end its investigations into possible immigration violations involving the children Gajdusek imported and his use of National Institutes of Health funds.

Gajdusek, who retired Monday as chief of the Laboratory of Central Nervous Systems at the NIH in Bethesda, admitted to engaging in sexual activity with a Micronesian youth he brought here in 1989. The youth later reported their relationship to authorities.

The scientist also admitted to unlawful sexual contact with another youth, an incident not included in the charges. Prosecutors said they obtained a statement from the boy, but he later returned to Micronesia, making it impossible to prosecute the case.

Police arrested Gajdusek in April after the FBI taped a phone conversation in which he allegedly admitted to sex with a youth.

Yesterday, casually dressed in khakis and a brown corduroy shirt, Gajdusek maintained a matter-of-fact demeanor throughout the 40-minute hearing. He left the courthouse without comment. About 40 colleagues and friends, including scientists from NIH, the Johns Hopkins and Georgetown universities, as well as adults whom Gajdusek brought here as children, filled the courtroom.

Some traveled from New York and California to be there. Those who would speak about the case said his admission did not convince them of the scientist's guilt.

"He was bargaining for something else," said Dr. Robert G. Rohwer, a close friend who worked with Gajdusek as a fellow in his lab at NIH for 10 years. "He was being threatened with an interminable number of other suits and investigations. He is almost 75. He does not want to do this for the rest of his life. His feeling is that if he admits to this and gets it behind him, he can have maybe a decade left of productive life."

Mathias Maradol, 41, whom Gajdusek brought from Micronesia in the late 1960s, did not attend the hearing, but said he remains convinced of the scientist's innocence. He is among 56 children Gajdusek brought to Maryland, most of them boys.

"I speak from my own experience with him," said Maradol, a minister counselor to the United Nations for Micronesia. "I'm not sure if he's doing this [pleading guilty] for himself or for others around him. The cost associated financially, physically and mentally has been very difficult for everyone."

According to court documents, the sexual contact involved "mutual masturbation and genital kissing" but not sodomy.

A pediatrician, virologist and anthropologist, Gajdusek won the Nobel Prize in 1976 for discovering a "slow virus" that attacked the brain after being dormant for long periods.

Gajdusek made his discovery in a remote region of the New Guinea highlands, where he theorized that the disease was spread through cannibalism by the Fore tribe. At the time of his study, tribesmen ate the remains of close family members as a sign of respect and love.

Although his arrest last year shocked many, his explicit journals, describing the sexual activities of youths in the cultures he studied, had long provoked speculation in scientific circles about Gajdusek's relationships with the boys he sponsored.

During yesterday's hearing, Gajdusek's comments to the judge underscored his status as an out-of-the-ordinary sort of criminal.

"How far did you go in school?" asked Circuit Judge G. Edward Dwyer, which is routinely asked of anyone about to plead guilty.

"That's very hard to say," Gajdusek replied, noting that he had earned several doctorates. "I've never stopped going to school."

When the judge asked if he understood English sufficiently to decipher the documents in his hands, Gajdusek -- who was born in Yonkers, N.Y. -- said yes, he spoke the English language "and many others."

Gajdusek, who remains free on $350,000 bond, will be sentenced April 29. He will be eligible for probation after nine months, but is barred from unsupervised contact with minors after his release.

A year from the start of this sentence, he will be free to leave the country. The scientist, who now lives in Middletown, has indicated plans to move to London or Ukraine after his release, Rolle said. He has been on a leave of absence from NIH since his arrest.

Pub Date: 2/19/97

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