CHICAGO — The accusations tell a sordid tale that seems straight from a supermarket tabloid: The story of the genius scientist who stabbed his boyfriend to death as part of a violent sex fetish, then led police on a nationwide manhunt, sending his family a chilling video confession along the way.
But, prosecutors allege, it was all too real. And over the course of the next two weeks, Cook County jurors will meet the man at the center of it. Five years after the killing, former Northwestern professor Wyndham Lathem is slated to stand trial beginning Monday for first-degree murder.
And, his attorneys disclosed in court last week, Lathem himself intends to testify.
The defense surely hopes jurors will perceive Lathem far differently than the thrill-killer prosecutors accuse him of being. Instead, they want to showcase the Lathem who earned glowing accolades from colleagues around the country for his skill and temperament. And, court records show, Lathem may argue that he acted in self-defense.
Still, such extraordinary accusations could be difficult to overcome.
The victim, 26-year-old Trenton Cornell-Duranleau, was stabbed more than 70 times and was nearly decapitated, authorities said. Lathem’s co-defendant, British national Andrew Warren, is expected to testify against Lathem at length.
And while on the lam, Lathem sent a video to his mother with what prosecutors have characterized as a clear-cut confession: “I killed him, I did do it, it wasn’t an accident but it was a mistake,” he allegedly said.
Relatively little is known about what other evidence jurors will hear. Judge Charles Burns has conducted much of the proceedings in unusual secrecy, citing concern that too much information could spoil the jury pool. In early 2018, he signed a gag order barring attorneys from publicly expressing opinions about the case or discussing potential evidence.
Several key court documents have been filed under seal, and many arguments have been made in chambers. At Lathem’s final pretrial hearing Wednesday, attorneys spent some 40 minutes behind closed doors, discussing filings that had not been made public. At the end of the session, Burns did not make any public remarks about his rulings, if there were any.
Still, what has been made public about the Lathem case is salacious and extraordinarily sad.
In bringing the charges after their arrest in August 2017, prosecutors gave the following account of how they alleged the killing happened:
Lathem and Warren had chatted online for months about their shared fantasy of killing other people and themselves.
In late July 2017, Lathem paid for Warren to fly to Chicago, and the two came up with a plan to slay victims of Lathem’s choosing. Both men then planned to then kill each other simultaneously — Warren shooting Lathem while Lathem stabbed Warren.
Lathem lured Cornell-Duranleau to his apartment in the 500 block of North State Street and texted Warren that they would kill him that night.
Warren came over about 4:30 a.m. the next day after Cornell-Duranleau had fallen asleep in Lathem’s apartment. Lathem showed Warren a 6-inch drywall knife saw and gave him a cellphone with instructions to record video of Lathem fatally stabbing Cornell-Duranleau.
As Warren stood in the doorway to the bedroom with his cellphone in hand, Lathem stabbed the sleeping Cornell-Duranleau repeatedly.
Lathem cried to Warren for help, so Warren walked in, put his hands over the victim’s mouth and then hit him in the head with a heavy metal lamp.
As Cornell-Duranleau bled to death in the bedroom, his attackers showered and then tried to clean up the scene, prosecutors said.
They left Lathem’s apartment in the early morning hours and fled, prosecutors said, sparking a nationwide search that ended when they surrendered to authorities in California nine days later. Warren was arrested in San Francisco, while Lathem surrendered to U.S. marshals at the federal courthouse in Oakland.
While they were on the run, the men made two charitable donations in Cornell-Duranleau’s name, prosecutors said: $5,610 to the Howard Brown Health Center, an LGBT health and social services provider, and $1,000 to a public library in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin.
At the library, Lathem called the front desk of his apartment building and left an anonymous tip: Someone should check the apartment because a crime had been committed in that room.
Prosecutors said Warren confessed to authorities in chilling detail, recounting that Cornell-Duranleau “had no idea what was coming.”
Warren also made an ominous revelation: The two had planned to kill at least one other victim. But Warren didn’t know if that person had ever shown up to Lathem’s apartment after the two men fled, prosecutors said.
Agreement to testify
Warren pleaded guilty in 2019. Prosecutors said they would agree to recommend a sentence of 45 years in prison in exchange for Warren’s full cooperation as a witness against Lathem.
In addition, prosecutors agreed that they would not object if Warren tries to serve his sentence in his native England. Inmates repatriated to the United Kingdom are automatically released on the equivalent of parole after serving half of what remains of their sentences, according to the British charity Prisoners Abroad. That means that Warren’s prison term could be shortened by 15 years or more and allow him to serve his time closer to family and friends.
Illinois law does not allow for good-behavior credit on first-degree murder sentences, so Warren would have to serve out his full sentence if he stays in the U.S.
Warren, having allegedly been part of every aspect of the attack, is expected to be a central witness against Lathem.
With Lathem expected to take the stand in his own defense, that could set up a credibility contest between him and his alleged onetime co-conspirator.
In pre-gag-order public comments and in court, Lathem’s attorneys have portrayed him as nothing short of a genius. He is an accomplished microbiologist and immunologist who had spent about 10 years at Northwestern University. The university suspended him and banned him from campus after the warrant was issued for his arrest, then announced it was firing him because he fled police.
But before that, Lathem conducted extensive research on Yersinia pestis, the bacteria that decimated Europe during the Black Death.
He had been slated to move his lab to the prestigious Institut Pasteur in France, until he was denied security clearance to work with dangerous pathogens. French authorities did not provide the reason for rejection, a spokesperson for the institute told the Tribune in 2017.
During Lathem’s first Cook County court appearance, Lathem’s attorneys gave the judge dozens of letters attesting to his character and academic accomplishments. Last year they made repeated efforts — all unsuccessful — to get him released on bond so he could help research the novel coronavirus.
And the defense is expected to call at least one character witness attesting to Lathem’s “reputation for truthfulness,” attorneys said in court last week.
Other than that, little has been disclosed about what jurors might hear. The bulk of the public proceedings during Lathem’s last two pretrial hearings was devoted to attorneys’ request that all jurors be vaccinated against COVID-19, a request the judge denied.
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