The merchants along Milwaukee between Armitage and Diversey remember Stanley Wissner well because he often came into their stores, beginning in the early 90s. He was a shambling figure with yellowed teeth and worn clothes who gave off a strong odor. In winter he favored a face mask, a long coat, one pair of pants pulled over another, and an old pair of galoshes. For a time he was accompanied by an Airedale, to which he appeared devoted.
Wissner never bought much in the stores, but he seemed to savor the conversations he had in them. He told everyone he was a doctor who’d served in Vietnam and was now doing research on lead poisoning, though the rumor was that he’d lost his license. “He came off as very learned and knowledgeable, so when he said he was a doctor you believed it,” says Alan Gillman, whose family has owned its hardware store for a half century. “He used big words–his vocabulary was very expanded. He’s Jewish, and he knew that we were Jewish–and in this neighborhood you don’t find many Jews. He had a Yiddish vocabulary and enjoyed talking Yiddish with my father and my uncle.” Wissner also peppered his speech with Spanish, German, and a bit of Russian.
“He’d say he knew all these bankers and financiers,” says Modesto Senra, who runs Jule’s 5 & 10 Store with his father-in-law, Art Gartzman. “He said he was going to get rich.” He hinted that he had a wealthy brother in New York and sometimes gave the impression that he was already loaded–he once asked the landlord of Electronic Engineers about buying the building. He seemed up on the latest political and financial news, yet he also said that the CIA and FBI were out to get him.
The businessmen say that Wissner had two personalities. He could be prattling along courteously at the counter, then suddenly, for no apparent reason, he would lose his temper. “Sometimes when he went off on one of his tantrums you didn’t want him in the store, because he frightened the other customers–though he wouldn’t hurt a fly,” says Gillman. “The reason he flipped out, I don’t know.”
“To tell you the truth, if business was slow and no customers were there it was interesting to talk to him,” says Gary Siedband, the owner of Electronic Engineers. “But I never knew how much of what he said was truth.” Gillman liked Wissner, but Gartzman found him annoying, especially when he bragged that he spoke several languages or read textbooks. “I’m not an ignoramus,” says Gartzman. “I’ve had some college, and I can read a book. He came in and opened his mouth, and I wished he would leave. He was a total embarrassment. When I saw him coming I would go to the back of the store.”
At the time Wissner lived in a small two-bedroom brick house at 2024 N. Stave. In his first-floor office two posters of Albert Einstein hung on the wall, and the bookshelf held a volume of Shakespeare’s works and copies of Introduction to Mathematical Statistics and Exploring Canada. Tucked on a shelf above the stairs was sheet music for concertos by Beethoven, Bach, and Brahms.
But Wissner wasn’t taking care of the house. “I used to drive by the place on my way home,” says Siedband. “Stanley would be sitting on his front steps in his underwear or with his robe wide open. He wanted me to come in and help him with his computer system, but I wasn’t about to. The closest I got was to look in the front door. What I saw was a total shambles.”
In 1998 the city’s building department cited Wissner for ten violations, including a deteriorating roof, peeling exterior paint, yard debris, and rat holes. A department spokesman says Wissner took care of all but two of the violations, but there were always new problems. “He may have fixed a window, but then he’d take off a door for three or four weeks and live without the door,” says Walter Swieton, the owner of a salvage company who sold Wissner used windows, ladders, and a hot-water tank.
To solve his rat problem, Wissner went to Jim Easter, an exterminator with a small office on California. Easter remembers that Wissner could seem erudite and cultivated, pressing on him an article from the magazine Biophotonics International or giving him a bottle of Australian chardonnay as a present. Easter once bumped into Wissner, dressed in a suit and tie, at an IBM seminar downtown. “But then he’d talk about helicopters chasing him,” says Easter. “He could be very erratic. He’d holler at me, and I’d ask him to leave my store. But he’d be back. I was going to help him on a charity basis, but when I told him that he got very insulted. He said, ‘What? My money’s not good enough for you?'”
Neighbors watched the house on Stave continue to disintegrate. In the winter of 2000-’01 Wissner stopped showing up on Milwaukee, though with the warm weather he was back. By midsummer he’d disappeared again, and the store owners wondered what had become of the man they knew so little about.
“I’m a Jewish ghetto brat,” Wissner, who’s now 65 and living in a nursing home, likes to say. The oldest of three children, he grew up with his sister Delores and brother Leonard in a Bronx household where money was always in short supply. “Most of us can look back at having had a happy childhood,” says Leonard, who’s 56. “But I can honestly say that for Stan and me and Delores as children there was never a moment like that, and I’m sure Stanley bore the brunt of the experience.”
Their father, Irving, was a movie projectionist; their mother, Anna, worked in a garment factory and would tell her children that if it weren’t for them she wouldn’t have to be a slave. Leonard, now a partner in a successful investment firm, describes his mother as a guilt-ridden Romanian immigrant who’d lost all but two brothers in the Holocaust and was probably psychologically unbalanced. “She worked all day in the factory, with all that noise,” he says, “and when she came home at night she would literally be screaming.” Their parents fought a lot and finally divorced when Stanley was 13. A photograph of him taken around this time, at his bar mitzvah, shows a smiling, confident young man with slicked-back hair.
“The one thing that was instilled in us,” says Leonard, “was that to get ahead you had to do well in school.” Stanley won admission to the competitive Bronx High School of Science, where some of his classmates remember him as a left-leaning contrarian. “It was the McCarthy era,” says Richard Ullman, a close high school friend. “We were in history class one day when the teacher, Mr. Warner, said something about the anticommunist establishment. Stanley whispered to his neighbor, ‘Oh, he has to say that.’ Mr. Warner overheard Stanley and said, ‘You either prove that or withdraw it.’ I don’t recall exactly what happened, but Stanley was this guy who was always looking for conspiracies in things.” Ullman says Stanley had a taste for Herman Melville, especially Moby-Dick, and T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound and that he dismissed classmates who focused on math and science and avoided the arts as “well-oiled machines.”
Stanley was a premed and German student at the City College of New York, where the education was cheap and good, and he graduated at the top of his class in 1957. “Colin Powell was there then,” he says proudly, though he admits they weren’t acquainted. He went on to the State University of New York’s medical school in Brooklyn, and to pay for it he helped his father in the projection booth. He says they grew close, but Leonard remembers a darker relationship: “Our father got up one day and told Stanley, ‘I’m not always going to support you.’ That was hurtful.”
Stanley says that while he was in medical school he married his girlfriend after she threatened to embarrass him by telling administrators she was pregnant. “There were Jewish girls who would get pregnant and say, ‘Give me money for an abortion,'” he says. “It wasn’t my child. I didn’t have any feeling toward him.” He says his wife put the boy up for adoption, and they soon divorced. Neither Stanley nor Leonard knows what became of the child.
Stanley did his internship at Beth-El Hospital in Brooklyn and his residency at Cook County Hospital, then got a fellowship studying cardiology at Mount Sinai Hospital on the southwest side. In 1967 he shipped out to Vietnam for a two-year tour as a field surgeon. “I was in a war zone, where you learn to bury your feelings,” he recalls. “I got an idea of what the military-industrial complex is about, and I survived.”
After he came back he got another fellowship to study cardiology, at the University of Chicago, where he remained until 1973. Then he established a cardiology practice in the Loop. He oversaw the computer analysis of electrocardiograms for Telemed Corporation and gave testimony on heart problems in workers’ compensation cases. “He was very bright and very knowledgeable–a good doctor,” says cardiologist Howard Cohen.
But Wissner says he always preferred research: “If you are going to make anything of yourself in medicine you have to make yourself a credited scientist.” In 1974 he published what he calls his “magnum opus” in the Journal of Electrocardiology–a dense, technical paper laying out the research he’d done on sheep hearts and showing that an excess of lactic acid was a big contributor to heart attacks. He calls the paper “immortal,” but Cohen, who contributed to the journal the same year, can’t remember it.
Associates say that during this period Wissner also developed an obsession with heavy-metal poisoning. “Lead and the other elements are ubiquitous and very dangerous,” he still says. He, like some other scientists, contends that the metals impair cognitive development and lead to autism and antisocial behavior.
Wissner did have friends. While serving as an expert witness for workers’ comp attorney Charles Wolff, he struck up a friendship with Wolff’s son Dan, a defense lawyer. “We would go out for drinks, and he’d talk about a paper on lead poisoning that he was working on,” says Wolff. “His vocabulary was colorful, and he had great conversational ability. Whether or not the paper ever got published, I believed what he said. He was good company. Sure, he was a little strange, but then most people who are bright are a little strange.” But Wolff says that in the late 70s the strangeness got worse. “There was always a government conspiracy going on. He became useless as a witness, and my father couldn’t put him on the stand anymore.”
Wissner, who says he’s gay, had a long business and personal relationship with real estate investor Darrell Windle, and for a time they shared an apartment in a building Wissner owned on North Bissell. “Darrell was like a Jewish mother to me, at a time when I needed one,” says Wissner. “He got me into things on the business end.” They bought into buildings in the DePaul neighborhood, but according to Windle, the two broke up in the late 70s. “I know he was less than pleased,” says Windle. Around the same time, Wissner stopped working for Telemed. He’s vague about the reason. “There were some unethical things being done,” he says. “There was a home invasion, and I kept a gun in my bedroom.”
Wissner continually sent copies of his sheep-heart paper to other cardiologists. “In business you measure things in money, but in academia you measure things by how people regard you,” says Leonard Wissner. “Stanley couldn’t get recognition for his paper, and it was very frustrating for him.” During this period Leonard began to notice disturbing changes in his brother: “He lost a person that he loved plus a job that was ideally suited for him, and the cardiology paper was being ignored. He went into a self-destructive mode. I’d get calls from him in the wee hours of the morning, and he was tremendously difficult to deal with.” Leonard broke off contact with Stanley in 1978, at a time when Stanley admits he was “drinking and doing drugs–I was going down the wrong alley.”
By 1980 Wissner had sunk to working as a physician at a cut-rate clinic and pharmacy on Lincoln and at a clinic in West Town operated by Drug Industry Consultants. In 1984 the U.S. attorney indicted 40 DIC employees–the founder, several associates, and 16 physicians, including Wissner–accusing them of engaging in a $20 million scheme to defraud the medicaid system. Wissner and the other doctors were charged with prescribing cough syrup, sedatives, and other prescription drugs to addicts and dealers as heroin substitutes, and with ordering unnecessary tests and prescriptions that were billed to medicaid. “Stanley fit the profile here,” says Elliot Samuels, Wissner’s defense attorney in the case. “The owners would find these mentally dysfunctional doctors, stick them in the back of their offices, put prescriptions in front of them, and say, ‘Sign here. Sign here.'” Daniel Purdom, the assistant U.S. attorney who led the prosecution in the case, says of Wissner, “He was a pretty smart guy, but he was nutso.”
Samuels asked that Wissner be examined at the Isaac Ray Center, a forensic psychiatric practice affiliated with Rush Medical College, to determine his fitness for trial. “On mental status examination he [Wissner] demonstrated looseness of associations, grandiose thinking, erratic mood, inappropriate mannerisms, and presented himself in a generally unkempt and somewhat slovenly manner,” wrote psychiatrist James Cavanaugh, Isaac Ray’s director, in a discharge summary in October 1984. Cavanaugh diagnosed Wissner as suffering from manic depression and noted that an acute psychotic episode had been “resolved.” He also reported that he’d prescribed lithium, along with Haldol, an antipsychotic, and Tofranil, an antidepressant.
In February 1985 U.S. district judge John Grady conducted a hearing on Wissner’s case at which Samuels contended that Wissner “knew that he was doing wrong, was not on the up-and-up, but he tried to rationalize what he was doing. He was facing difficult times and was having a hard time getting a job, I think…and agreed to work for these people [DIC] because of that.” In his own testimony Wissner said, “Essentially what went on was [the pharmacy] was a place where [clients] would get celerity, their juice and beans. I rationalized it [in that] I felt I was contributing to the lead poisoning scene, that these people were afflicted with lead poisoning and that mentally they needed it [a prescription drug] to control violent crimes.” He did concede that cough syrup and sedatives wouldn’t alleviate lead-poisoning symptoms but said, “I really didn’t until recently know that I was violating the law.” Asked now about his association with DIC, he says, “They came to me with a new approach against heroin and the homeless, and it looked interesting. They paid me. I was able to retire all my debt.”
Cavanaugh continued to examine Wissner, including once when he had to be hospitalized, and in April 1985 he wrote Samuels that being in a courtroom would compound Wissner’s stress “and he would then be psychologically unfit to stand trial.”
In October 1985 Judge Grady ruled that Wissner and two other DIC doctors were mentally unfit to stand trial. “Unfortunately, this is a case that arguably we ought to move to Michael Reese Hospital [then celebrated for its psychiatric expertise] for the actual trial,” Grady said. “We have got so many people [doctors] who are elderly, infirm, emotionally impaired in one way or another. It is a basket case of a case.” Some of DIC’s staff were given stiff sentences; the founder got 12 years in prison and an $8 million fine. Technically, the U.S. attorney could have reinstated the charges against Wissner if his psychological condition had improved, says Samuels, “but he was more trouble than he was worth.”
By this time, according to a state report, Wissner’s medical license had been suspended, “following allegations of prescribing controlled substances not in the ordinary course of medical treatment.” His main source of income gone, he asked Darrell Windle to buy out his share in their real estate investments. That allowed him to pay Samuels and cover his living expenses for the next few years. In 1990 he sold the building on Bissell just as it was being foreclosed on, then he moved to an apartment on Clybourn and began taking computer classes.
Soon he decided to start marketing his views on lead poisoning, which he was sure would make him wealthy. He sought an audience with Hannah Gray, then U. of C.’s president, hoping to persuade her to pay for his research. In a 1993 letter to a lawyer who’d employed him in workers’ comp cases, he argued that the attorney should create an intellectual-property division in his firm that would push Wissner’s idea of testing hair for heavy metals. Wissner even had a monograph ready to go: “Scalp Hair: A New Diagnostic Tool in the Assessment of Environmental Disease.” “I put it in circulation,” he says, “and it’s in the Library of Congress.”
Wissner enlisted two people to help him make his case: Clyde Rosenthal, an accountant, and Arlyce Stearns, a patent attorney. Rosenthal is now dead. Stearns, who’s now retired, says she was simply doing a client’s bidding. “I’m not saying his theories weren’t without merit, but at that point he was far from the practice of medicine,” she says. “You don’t do things with a kitchen stove as your laboratory.” As far as she knows, he never attracted a backer.
Six years ago Wissner contacted Andrew Bieber, the Chicago account manager of the Environmental Systems Research Institute, a California-based company that makes mapping software. “Dr. Wissner called and went into a lengthy discussion of his methodology for sampling lead and other metals by hair samples,” says Bieber. “We had more talks on the phone, though they were all one-sided–he talked, and you listened. If you interrupted him he’d say, ‘Shut up and listen.’ So you were on the receiving end of him for 20 or 30 minutes.”
One day Wissner dropped off an envelope for Bieber at his apartment building. “The manila envelope had a typewritten label attached with mucilage glue that I used in grade school,” Bieber says. Inside was the sheep-heart paper “with scraps of breakfast food on it. There were also rambling notes about when I went to Washington, D.C., I should look up the wife of somebody I’d never heard of.” Later another letter from Wissner was dropped off. “The letter said he was neither an ass kisser nor a kiss ass,” says Bieber. “Then there was something about chaining computer programmers to their beds and giving them food only once in a while.”
Beginning around 1990 Wissner would ride the bus out to the area around Armitage and Milwaukee. “He came into our store, talking about the neighborhood and how it was up-and-coming,” says Gary Siedband of Electronic Engineers. “To look at him, he could have been somebody living under a viaduct. But one day he showed up with a realtor, and then, sure enough, he bought a house.” According to county records, Wissner bought the house on Stave for $69,000 in 1992.
Wissner seems happy recalling the merchants he knew along that fading section of Milwaukee, calling Alan Gillman “my main squeeze” and Art Gartzman “my friend and a member of the tribe.” The merchants say he seemed to see himself as something of a bon vivant. He spoke of being part of the New York cultural scene as a young man, saying he used to party with Woody Allen and Dustin Hoffman. He prided himself on a Capper & Capper suit he’d picked up at Amvets and on his closet full of overcoats. He listened to Mozart and Mahler at home. He loved his Airedale, which he named Gimp after the protagonist in Isaac Bashevis Singer’s short story “Gimpel the Fool,” and he mourned the dog when it died.
Yet he was also washing his clothes in the sink and letting his teeth decay. “I was afraid to go to the dentist,” he says. “A young tough said things to me in the office.” He smoked a lot and says he suffered a heart attack but recovered.
He talked increasingly of plots the CIA, FBI, and Chicago police were mounting against him, and he began alienating people he’d known for years. “He would stop by my office unannounced,” recalls lawyer Dan Wolff. “He said he was being chased or that people were shooting at him. At one point he took out $100 and gave it to my secretary for service, and we gave it back to him. He’d hand over $200 to make phone calls. He was presuming on my father’s friendship and where I had a soft spot for him because of my father–I represent enough crazy people that have criminal problems that actually exist. Finally I didn’t return his phone calls.” Wissner also called the flamboyant Julius Echeles, a sometime mob attorney who’d once given Wissner advice. Echeles wouldn’t have anything to do with him.
When he’d been flush in the 1970s and ’80s Wissner had seen two psychoanalysts, Anna Castellanos and Thomas Pappadis. “I’d been taking on too much,” he says, quickly adding that he wasn’t in therapy. “They were like my advisers.” He says that after he moved to the house on Stave he was admitted at least once to Chicago Read Mental Health Center, a state-operated hospital on the far northwest side. “They shanghaied me off the street,” he says. “They used me as a paradigm. They made decisions around me.”
A spokesman for the Illinois Office of Mental Health, which operates Chicago Read, said he couldn’t give out any information about former patients, so it’s not clear whether Wissner was ever on psychotropic drugs. But Wissner insists, “I don’t take medication. Drugs are dangerous, and doctors make money off them.”
In 1995 Wissner was in court because his onetime patent attorney Arlyce Stearns was trying to collect $4,000 he owed in legal fees. By chance he met another lawyer there, Mark Edelstein, who agreed to take Wissner’s side in the suit. Edelstein won the case and continued to watch out for Wissner’s interests.
By then, Edelstein says, Wissner was surviving on a $937 monthly social security disability check, which was deposited directly into his bank account. Edelstein says Wissner seemed to manage to pay his bills regularly, with the exception of his real estate taxes. “The due date would come, and he wouldn’t have paid the county treasurer all he owed–the money would be dribbling in. I would go downtown with him to make sure he got the situation worked out.”
Edelstein says he was fond of Wissner. “Sure, he’d say he had $10 million coming from the University of Chicago, that Julius Echeles was his best buddy, or that Bill Gates loved his intellectual property,” he says. “But I found him to be a nice person. My father cooks in the back of our office, and he and Stanley used to talk in Yiddish playfully to each other. Stanley was also concerned about me.” Edelstein’s two-year-old son died in February 1999 of a bronchial attack. “I told Stanley about it, and he was compassionate in his way. He said he was sorry.”
In March 1998 Wissner was arrested and charged with soliciting two underage neighborhood boys for sex. “It was all salacious,” he insists. “I don’t have anything to do with children.” Lee Carson, the assistant public defender who represented Wissner, agrees: “He had a reputation in the neighborhood as a strange old man, and the kids put this beef on him. There wasn’t anything to it.” The case was ultimately dismissed, as was an allegation of criminal trespass brought in June 1998 after he yelled insults and obscenities at the manager and customers at the Menard’s on Clybourn.
Edelstein, who was as close to Wissner as anyone in recent years, believed that Wissner could still manage on his own. “Stanley needed assistance with certain tasks, but he was living within his means,” he says. “I thought this was a guy who was surviving on his own–that he had all his necessities lined up, and that’s better than the alternative. Did I call the authorities? No, because he was doing his own thing, and he didn’t appear to be hurting himself or others. The thing is that you always want to err on the side of freedom.”
But people in the neighborhood grew increasingly concerned. The owner of a used bookstore on Milwaukee called the police after seeing him out in the cold weather without shoes and then drinking from the store’s coffee pot. “We may not have had a lot of contact with him overall, but he was sitting out on his stoop morning, noon, and night,” says Mike Ryan, community-relations sergeant for the local police district. “His living conditions were just horrific.”
Sometime in 2000 Wissner stopped paying his gas bill, claiming that the gas vapors were harmful. He also decided that space heaters were sufficient to heat his house. At the end of December word spread that Wissner had developed gangrene on one foot, and Charlene Valentine, a project coordinator with the city Department of Human Services who deals with hard-core cases involving seniors, and Joe Torres, a police officer who works with the elderly, showed up at the house.
“The door was wide open,” Valentine would later testify in court. “I was standing outside looking at water and icicles hanging from the ceiling and coming down.” Inside, she said, “there was water coming from the ceiling, and there were wires hanging, and there was raw garbage in there. You could smell it. Some people in the neighborhood told me that there [had] been homeless people sleeping in there, and I was extremely concerned.” When Torres saw water dripping on a space heater, he decided the place was “a tragedy waiting to happen.” They found Wissner lying on a couch with frostbite, not gangrene, on two toes on his left foot.
Valentine ordered the remaining utilities shut off, and Wissner was shipped to Saint Elizabeth’s Hospital, then Mercy Hospital, for treatment. Officials say he refused psychiatric evaluation, and at first he didn’t even want them to tend to the frostbite. He remained at Mercy for two weeks, says Edelstein, who found him a single-room-occupancy apartment in Logan Square where he could stay for three months.
The office of the Cook County Public Guardian, which has the power to take control of the affairs of adult residents of the county who have assets of more than $25,000 and are physically or mentally disabled, wanted to add Wissner to its caseload, but Valentine says that once he was released from Mercy he dropped out of sight. It’s not clear how long he stayed at the SRO, but at some point he moved back into the house on Stave. “His goal was to fix the place,” says Edelstein.
The city had discovered 18 code violations in the house, and on August 13, 2001, a team of inspectors from the building department went to check on its condition. They found Wissner on the sidewalk repairing some windows. Inspector Frank Fuscaldo asked Wissner if he could go inside. “He said I could go but that he was a known sodomist, and if I went in it would ruin my reputation,” Fuscaldo would later testify. “I said, ‘Maybe we’ll come back another day.'”
The next morning Fuscaldo, Valentine, and Wissner were in housing court. “I’m a world-famous doctor,” Wissner told the judge. “The criminal conspiracy to murder me is well documented. They shut off my electricity and busted my pipes. The psychiatrist I use is one being used by the FBI.” The judge ordered Fuscaldo’s inspection crew to go back to the house that afternoon, accompanied by a police escort.
When the inspectors and a city lawyer arrived Wissner was waiting. “He was livid,” Valentine says. “His face was red as a tomato.” And he kept sticking his tongue out at them. They went inside anyway. In the kitchen were parts of bicycles, an old computer, and a shopping cart filled with empty cereal boxes. Dirty dishes were piled in the sink. The stairs were broken, pipes were leaking, and the sewer had backed up–feces and water covered the basement floor. Light fixtures and parts of the ceiling were falling down, and the roof had holes in it.
“I think you need to go the hospital,” Torres says he advised Wissner, who suddenly became docile and replied, “If you think so I’ll go.” Torres and Valentine took him to Weiss Memorial Hospital–which then ran an outreach program for abused, neglected, and homeless seniors–and Wissner voluntarily admitted himself.
Dr. Pawel Dudek, a staff psychiatrist, would later testify that Wissner had very high blood pressure and was “disheveled, unkempt, with very poor hygiene and was acutely confused and delusional.” He said Wissner insisted that the CIA wanted him dead and that he’d told the story to newscaster Diane Sawyer. “He asked that I address him as ‘Dr. Wissner, the famous cardiologist,'” said Dudek, who noted the irony of a heart doctor refusing to take medication for high blood pressure. Dudek diagnosed Wissner as paranoid schizophrenic, then prescribed antipsychotics and a mood stabilizer. Wissner refused to take the drugs for five days and continued to deny he needed psychotherapy.
On August 24 probate-court judge Maureen Connors heard a petition from the public guardian’s office to have Wissner declared incompetent so that it could take over his affairs. She named lawyer Susan Lorraine Kennedy Wissner’s guardian ad litem, with the task of determining whether he wanted to contest the petition and who he wanted to represent him. Two days later Kennedy, also a registered nurse, went to see him. He’d been transferred to Chicago Lakeshore Hospital, an Uptown psychiatric facility with locked wards, and when she approached he was eating spaghetti. Noodle strands hung from his mouth as he spoke. “He demanded to see credentials and inquired as to why there was official business on a Sunday,” Kennedy wrote in a report to the judge. At first he accused her of being part of a conspiracy, but gradually he softened. “We’re getting along, aren’t we?” he told her. “And we have never met, right?” He said he wouldn’t object to the public guardian taking temporary control of his affairs.
Back in court on August 28, Judge Connors granted the public guardian’s office temporary custody until a hearing determined whether full custody should be granted. Wissner, who’d been moved to a nursing home in Wicker Park, said he wanted to contest the move for full custody and asked to have Russell Hoover, a lawyer at Jenner & Block, as his advocate. Hoover barely remembered Wissner. “I have a vague memory of his showing up a couple times, with some kind of claim he wanted to assert against the University of Chicago, and then of two or three phone calls,” he says. “We never established an attorney-client relationship.” He wasn’t interested in starting one, and neither were the other lawyers Wissner suggested. In October, Connors appointed Kennedy as his lawyer.
At the full-custody hearing, on January 31, 2002, Judge Connors waited over an hour for Wissner to arrive, then started the hearing without him. Dudek described Wissner’s two and a half weeks at Weiss and Lakeshore hospitals, his paranoid rants, his unwillingness to accept treatment. He said Wissner was a paranoid schizophrenic. “He’s not able to live on his own because of the severity of his illness,” he said, adding that Wissner wasn’t equipped to make reasonable decisions about his finances or his property.
Suddenly Wissner, trailed by his caseworker, swept into the courtroom, loudly greeting Kennedy and hugging her before taking a seat at the defense table. He seemed to pay close attention to Dudek and then to Frank Fuscaldo, who reported what city inspectors had found. “The house is not habitable,” Fuscaldo said.
The next person to testify was Linda Koester, a case-management supervisor for the public guardian’s office, who said Wissner displayed paranoid behavior and “disjointed thoughts and disorganized thinking.” She too thought him “incapable of handling his finances and personal needs.”
Kennedy didn’t want Wissner to take the stand, but he insisted. He promptly reported that he’d testified in 1,000 workers’ compensation cases. “I’d like my curriculum vitae to be entered into the record,” he told Judge Connors, though he admitted he hadn’t brought a copy with him. He spelled his name carefully for the court reporter, then blurted out, “We talk about Albert Einstein, and we talk about Sigmund Freud–that’s the level I work on.” Then he argued for his freedom. He said he paid his own bills: “I am debt free. My property tax is paid.” He said he hadn’t been arrested in 20 years.
“I want input with the judge,” he told Connors. “There is judicial review of the record. I don’t want it to end here. I want the power of subpoena.” He referred Connors to the judge who’d handled the suit Arlyce Stearns had brought. Then he implied that his brother, “one of the richest and most powerful financiers,” would help him. “They wrote him up in the Wall Street Journal–with a pictureâ” he said. “My reputation is fleshed out with good old solid cash.”
Kennedy tried to focus Wissner’s testimony with questions, but it was futile. Wendy Shparago, the assistant public guardian assigned to the case, kept silent. “Typically in a courtroom people aren’t supposed to do a narrative,” she says, “but I just let Dr. Wissner go on. I wanted him to say his piece.”
“There have been serious attempts on my life,” he went on. “We may need a police escort. I don’t want it to end here.”
Connors had heard enough. “Will you step down?” she asked.
“Can I leave?” Wissner asked sweetly.
Mark Edelstein, the last witness at the hearing, acknowledged that Wissner’s house was in poor condition and said, “He needs to sell the house and get different shelter.”
Kennedy then argued that Dudek had seen Wissner for only two and a half weeks and so his diagnosis of paranoid schizophrenia was suspect. Maybe Wissner was simply depressed because his house was being seized, she said. “He is an educated man, a University of Chicago fellow. He is poor, but he is careful with his money. He has taken initiative to pay his bills.” She asked that Wissner be allowed to establish a reverse mortgage, with his bank sending him a monthly sum based on the equity of his house, and that any guardianship be limited.
But Connors said, “There is clear and convincing evidence that Dr. Wissner can’t make personal and financial decisions.” She said that the house on Stave was “incredibly unsafe” and that Wissner had made no effort to comply with his doctor’s orders. She granted full custody, though she said that if she saw improvement she might change it to limited custody.
Wissner didn’t respond, and when he got up to leave he acted as if he’d been at a tea party. He said he was glad to have met Connors, and as he, Kennedy, and Shparago headed out of the courtroom everyone seemed cordial. Wissner was talking away breezily when he abruptly turned to Kennedy and said, “Susan, I hope your ovaries freeze.”
Shparago says the public guardian’s office had no choice but to intervene. “There was concern that he would lose his property, his only asset,” she says. “And there were health concerns. We couldn’t have him walking around with no shoes in winter. This was a quirky person, but he was also somebody who was causing harm to himself and to the value of his estate.”
Wissner now lives in Winston Manor, an aging nursing home filled with the mentally ill. He can still vote, but he’s not permitted to leave the home unescorted. He wanders the premises, but he prefers the semiprivacy of the second-floor room he shares with two other men. “I sleep well,” he says. “I get up in the morning and take my hypertension medicine. I need to rest, so later I lie down and sleep again. They treat me like a baby here. It’s a warm, supportive environment. I don’t know what my status is. I’d like to get back in my house.”
That’s not likely. It’s now boarded up, but it’s in worse shape than ever. The back fence is smashed. Glass from broken windows litters the kitchen floor, and the mattress and dresser in the second-floor bedroom are upended. The building department has gone to demolition court in hopes of getting the house torn down, though Shparago is trying to sell it and put the proceeds in a trust for Wissner’s benefit.
Wissner says he occasionally sees a psychiatrist at Winston Manor, but he’s not taking the psychotropic drugs he’s been prescribed. “I refuse to take Depakote,” he says. “Drugs are dangerous. I’m not here for psychiatric reasons, but for medical reasons–to recover from a stroke [he says he had a minor one last fall] and a heart attack.”
Shparago says it’s unlikely that Wissner will regain his independence. “It’s only if the person follows the recommended treatment,” she says. “But there is only so much we can do about that. These people are in control of their destiny as to what they are willing to do. They hold the keys to their own jail. I don’t think he has any acceptance that he has an illness. Nothing would make me happier than if he could improve. It’s a tragic situation, really. The only real positive is that his brother and his sister want to be involved in his life again.”
Last fall the public guardian’s office contacted Leonard Wissner and Delores Vermont, now a chemist in Saint Louis. “I talked to him on a couple of occasions,” says Leonard, “and I could see how sick he was.” He came to Chicago in February. “I expected him to look a lot worse,” he says, “but I was pleasantly surprised.” The two brothers sat talking for a couple hours on Saturday evening, and Leonard was touched that when he left Wissner announced to the others in the recreation room, “That’s my brother. That’s my brother.”
Wissner had said he needed glasses to read, and later that day Leonard picked up a pair of magnifiers as well as a CD player and some opera CDs, which he took to the nursing home when he returned on Sunday afternoon. “It wasn’t as depressing as I thought it would be,” he says. “Stan could have had it made if you look at the man he was in 1974. He had a cardiology practice, he had the real estate–why, now he should be out on the golf course with millions of dollars in the bank. It was because of his genius that he wanted a career in research, but his illness did him in.”
“I’m alive,” said Wissner, as he sat in a meeting room at Winston Manor in early March, “and I’m not unhappy.” Periodically another nursing-home resident opened the door, and Wissner barked, “Get out!” The door slammed shut. “The CIA is watching me,” he said. “My brother is exploring equity underwriting for a deal that will make me rich, having to do with lead, cadmium, and manganese. I love my brother so much. He’s like a child–see, I only see him as my little brother. A financial deal is coming along. Is that delusional? That’s not delusional. Am I right?”
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Kathy Richland.