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John Sterns' wife tells all

by   JUDY HODGSON

JOHN STERNS TRADED HIS ORANGE JUMPSUIT emblazoned with "Property of the Humboldt County Jail" for street clothes in early December after serving six months or so of his one-year sentence. He was out just in time to pick up a copy of the glossy new East Bay Diablo magazine. In its January edition is a tell-all by his wife, Martha Ross.

Sterns, you may recall, was Humboldt State University's top fund-raiser, earning $98,000 a year and occasionally staying in $350-a-night hotel rooms at taxpayers' expense while he padded his expense account (an extra $50,000) and lied about the amount of money he was raising ($15 million that didn't exist). For two years prior to his arrest in March 2001, Sterns shuffled money from fund to fund to cover his trail, and browbeat his own staff who dared question him.

Ross, a former reporter and now an editor for an on-line news service, writes that she had no clue as to what her "extremely intelligent, loving, and truly altruistic" husband was up to until the day he came home early from work with news of his firing.

"I couldn't understand what he was doing home in the middle of a workday morning. I looked down from the second-floor landing. John was emptying his keys and wallet onto a kitchen counter, his ritual upon arriving home. Hearing my footsteps, he looked up. In a quiet, urgent voice, he said, `Something bad has happened.'"

The article, called "Love Interrupted," sometimes reads like a paperback novel -- or the latest installment of "Can this marriage be saved?" ("During a lovely, intense courtship, John made me feel loved, understood, and quite certain that we were meant to be together.") They lived in Bangkok for three years where John "started a very successful program that provided HIV education to low-income men and women." They later settled in San Francisco where they "lived the life of upwardly mobile young urbanites" before landing the job at HSU.

Much of the article deals with what happened after Sterns' arrest and his mental illness. Ross moved back into her parents' home in Walnut Creek; Sterns lived for a time in San Diego where he was treated for depression. Ross says her husband quit taking antipsychotic medication he was first prescribed "because the doctors there believed the break with reality was a one-time occurrence that had passed."

Apparently not. Sterns that summer rejoined his family in Walnut Creek but soon resumed his habit of inflating his resumé in an attempt to find work.

"Discovering the (false) resumés one night in November 2001 after John had gone to bed constituted one of those heart-pounding, stomach-knotting motion picture moments, like in A Beautiful Mind, when the wife walks into an old backyard shed and discovers a room full of evidence that her schizophrenic husband has crossed back over into madness."

Her discovery led to another round of doctors, medications, more soul-searching ("Was it possible the police and John's former co-workers knew something I didn't?") and a new diagnosis: "schizoaffective disorder."

Unfortunately Diablo readers will be left with a rather one-sided sympathetic picture. What gets little ink in the story is the wake of damage Sterns left behind here --employees who left jobs and had careers and their lives interrupted, students needing financial help from funds that were drained.

At the end of the article is a useful list of books and agencies dealing with mental illness. But somehow I couldn't quite muster warm and fuzzy feelings for the reunited couple at Christmas. Maybe because I know people who struggle with mental illness who don't commit fraud, embezzle, lie, manipulate and bully their staff. And I probably resent just a touch convicted criminals who profit in any way from the havoc they wreak.

John Sterns gives mental illness a bad name.

 


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