By Dianna Waggoner
Updated September 23, 1985 12:00 PM
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Polite, patient and with the same deathwatch calm he had brought with him seven years and 20 days earlier, Theodore Streleski emerged last week from the California Medical Facility in Vacaville and prepared to resume an unexceptional life on the outside. The State of California and everyone in it presumably hope he succeeds, but Streleski, 49, is making no promises. He is a man who is capable of being provoked. On Aug. 18,1978, fed up with the years of quiet desperation to which he had apparently resigned himself as a graduate student, Streleski packed a two-pound sledgehammer into a small flight bag, left his apartment in San Francisco for the campus of Stanford University and there murdered a mathematics professor he felt had belittled him. He believed then, and does now, that he was making a morally justifiable statement. “I feel regret, but no remorse,” he says. “If you regret something, you say you see the tragic consequences; but if you had to make the decision again, you would do it the same way. That’s what I feel.”

Certainly Streleski cannot be faulted for lack of consistency. He spent eight years contemplating his grievances against Stanford and plotting a murder, systematically drawing up a short list of candidates. It seemed clear in his own mind that he had no choice but to do what he did. “The essential thing was to be able to bad-mouth Stanford and do it with some impact,” he says. “I considered other alternatives. I considered going to the alumni or students. I thought about trashing the place. I considered going to the media directly.” He rejected the last option as simply impractical. “I realized that I had no leverage,” he explains. “Television and the media don’t cover struggling graduate students. But they do cover murderers.” For Professor Karel W. deLeeuw, 48, a former Fulbright scholar and the father of three children, that dispassionate rationale was a death sentence.

For his killer, however, it would mean no great inconvenience in prison. Because of what a jury determined to be his “diminished mental capacity” at the time of the crime, Streleski was sentenced to a modest eight years. Offered parole three times last year, he at first promised to violate its conditions, then simply refused to accept it. His sentence was expiring, and he wanted freedom with no strings attached. He offers only qualified assurances that he won’t kill again. “I have no intention of doing it, but I don’t promise,” he says. “I haven’t promised anything about my future.” Prosecutor Alan Nudelman, who presented the state’s case against Streleski, is not reassured by such frankness and bluntly calls the man “a time bomb.”

If that is so, Streleski is chillingly deliberate in his mode of explosion. On the morning of the deLeeuw killing, he traveled to the Stanford campus, walked to the mathematics department and waited. When the professor arrived at his office, the murderer hesitated only a moment at deLeeuw’s door, took a deep breath to keep his composure and stepped inside. “He was sitting with his back to the door,” Streleski recalls without apparent emotion. “I walked up directly behind him. I hit him squarely on the top of the head with the hammer and then administered two or three of what I call ‘insurance blows’ to the right of the temple. There was nothing violent to the action at all. He rolled back to the storage cabinet in a rather graceful motion. At some point I heard what I assume was a death rattle. I covered him with a clean garbage bag like a shroud to save the feelings of the janitor who would probably find him.”

The killer’s surrender too was carefully planned. After taking a train to San Francisco, where he phoned his ex-wife’s family to warn them that there might be “some legal problems,” he returned to Palo Alto, had a beer and a slice of pizza and waited in a bus shelter reading a Western novel until 3 the next morning. Then he walked to the police station and turned himself in, handing over the bloodied hammer in a clear plastic bag.

Theodore Landon Streleski was born in Breese, Ill. and grew up in nearby Carlyle, the only child of a mother who was a schoolteacher and a father who, after their divorce, went to work for Caterpillar Tractor Co. “I left home when I was 19,” says Streleski, “and I haven’t been back since. I haven’t seen my mother since 1959. In general we don’t get along.” The son was closer to his father (“I’ve always said he was the only person I ever met who could read my mind”), but the older man died of a brain tumor in 1956. After graduating from the University of Illinois, Streleski was admitted to Stanford in 1959 and three years later was awarded a master’s degree in electrical engineering. Then began a traumatic 16-year quest for his doctorate, a time of frustration and personal slights, during which Streleski labored slavishly over his studies, struggled to survive financially and searched in vain for several years for a professor willing to be his thesis adviser.

Through it all Prof. deLeeuw, apparently unaware of the effect he was having, began to emerge as the rock on which Streleski’s hopes were repeatedly dashed. Early on, says Streleski, the professor told him he would have to give up his part-time job at the Lockheed Corporation because it was against departmental policy. Later, he says, deLeeuw answered one of his questions cuttingly during an algebra examination, once made fun of Streleski’s highly polished Florsheim shoes (deLeeuw himself preferred sandals) and reacted scornfully when the student asked him for help. When Streleski complained to him about his difficulty in finding an adviser, deLeeuw allegedly called him a “schoolboy” so vehemently that he sprayed spittle in Streleski’s face.

Temporarily discouraged Streleski took a year off in 1967, spent some time in San Francisco and married an airline stewardess and part-time secretary named Merrily Merwin. Optimistically he returned to Stanford the following year. “You still here?” asked deLeeuw one day, spotting his former student in the halls. For Streleski it was a crushing rebuke. “For the first time,” he says, “it occurred to me that there was a question about my getting a Ph.D. at Stanford. I dwelled on the incident. I thought I had better start paying attention to some people instead of equations.”

By 1970 things began to look up. Streleski was awarded a $2,000 fellowship after complaining to the dean. But he and Merrily seemed always to be living on the edge, barely scraping by on her uncertain income and whatever Streleski could earn on the side. “We qualified for welfare and food stamps,” Merrily would testify at his trial, “but he didn’t believe in asking for assistance from anybody. As the pressures increased he felt he couldn’t just drop the degree. He had spent too many years [trying to get it].”

By early 1973, Merrily said, Streleski was no longer the man she had married. He punched her sometimes, once sending her to the hospital emergency room. He forbade her to answer the telephone and took her on walks so they could talk, he said, without being overheard. “He began to feel that maybe there was a conspiracy against him,” said Merrily, “and that he would have to work harder…. Toward the end he got very tense. He broke things occasionally. He didn’t understand why Stanford had ignored him. He kept saying that it would be over shortly. It was only a short time now, he would say. But it never was a short time. It just went on and on.” Merrily left him in 1974, and nearly four years later came the divorce. By that time Streleski had lost his last job and had been living for a week on Rice-A-Roni. Finally he was ready to act.

At his trial, in March 1979, Streleski refused to allow his attorney to plead him not guilty by reason of insanity. But a defense psychiatrist did characterize him as a paranoid psychotic, and the jury, convinced that the killing was not the coolly rational act that Streleski claimed, found the defendant guilty of murder in the second degree. Under current California law Streleski could have been sentenced to from 15 years to life in prison. But a state law in effect at the time and repealed eight months later, set the maximum sentence for second degree murder at only seven years. (Streleski received an additional year for using a weapon.) The killer was not displeased. “My feeling for the jury is mellow,” he says, “because they gave me the use of the word ‘murderer’ at the cheapest possible cost. I wanted that buzz word to play with. There are other students who have encountered the treatment I did, but who has ever heard of them? The publicity has been used as a weapon against Stanford. I think I got out of the murder what I wanted.”

That may be so, but others take a more rational view. “The problem was with the law, not the verdict,” says prosecutor Nudelman. “The law we had then was an unconscionable expression of an inept legislative process. It was a scandal.” DeLeeuw’s widow, Sita, is still distressed but says she harbors no bitterness. “I just know that things happen for reasons we don’t know anything about,” she explains. “I don’t know if forgiveness is the right word or simply choosing not to hold anger because anger destroys people.” As for the man who might benefit most from that credo, Theodore Streleski plans to return to San Francisco and look for a job. “Probably some normal introverted thing,” he says quietly. “I’m an incorrigible technician personality.” Though many Californians are not nearly so confident, he does not regard himself as a threat. “I killed for notoriety,” he explains one more time. “If I kill again, it weakens my argument.”