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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."
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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