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Smart cop fails to nail wily headhunter

September 29, 2023

This is a true story about headhunters and cannibals in New Guinea, a fatal disease, a Nobel Prize-winning scientist, my Grandpa and brother and a smart Chicago cop. You might want to sit down for this.

Robert Kahn

By Robert Kahn

Deputy editor emeritus, Courthouse News

For a year or two my Grandpa was the only one in the United States who could cure syphilis, without killing or crippling you along the way. In doing so, he invented hypoallergenic cosmetics, as I wrote last week. That was an odd story, but this one is truly strange.

My Opa ran Ar-Ex Cosmetics at 1036 W. Van Buren in Chicago for 40-some years. Sometime after he died and his factory stood empty and idle, Chicago police found a human skull at the bottom of a dumpster in the Ar-Ex parking lot. The skull’s previous occupant, “Melanesian, male,” apparently died from a stiff whack to the head. Also at the bottom of that dumpster was a check for four figures, made out to my brother, signed by our Opa.

All of this “evidence” was years old. But not too old for a smart Chicago police detective.

All of this is true.* (I shall use asterisks from hereon to remind you of this.)

Chicago Police Detective Teas was assigned the case. If it was a case.

Over the years, Detective Teas discovered that my brother, to whom Opa wrote the check, had become a research scientist at the National Institutes of Health. Detective Teas also found that my brother’s lab at the NIH was just down the hall from the laboratory of Dr. Carleton Gajdusek, who’d won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1976 for his work on kuru, a slow virus.

Kuru is an inevitably fatal virus, a prion disease, whose symptoms may include “pathological outbreaks of laughter.” * There is no cure for it; after the symptoms manifest, it kills you within a year. But don’t worry: it’s pretty hard to catch. The only way you can get it is to eat the brains of someone who has it. *

Don’t get me wrong: Headhunters in New Guinea did not go around eating brains like snacks. They did it as part of a funeral rite. *

Dr. Gajdusek discovered the disease, or deciphered it, after several trips to the highlands of New Guinea, where he found that only headhunters had kuru. (It turned out to be related to bovine spongiform encephalopathy, which we know as mad cow disease. But no one knew that then.)

Kuru has a very long latency period — that’s why it’s called a slow virus — so even though New Guinea had suppressed, or tried to suppress, headhunting in the 1960s, people were still dying of kuru.

The internet did not exist back when Detective Teas was on my brother’s case, so he couldn’t type any keywords — kuru, Gajdusek, spongiform encephalopathy — into a computer, and come up with clues. No, the detective did it all by himself.

So. One day my brother gets a long-distance call from a Chicago cop to his lab at the NIH. It’s Detective Teas, who identifies himself, by name and occupation, and begins the interrogation.

Now, my brother — no dummy: the check in the dumpster was for tuition at Yale Medical School, where he got a Ph.D. — my brother, I say, wondered what the hell this was about.

So as Detective Teas questioned my brother, my brother questioned the detective: about the check in the dumpster, the skull and why the detective had called him in the first place.

Subjected to this unexpected counterinterrogation from a suspected perp, Detective Teas finally coughed it up. He asked: “When’s the last time you were in New Guinea, Doctor?”

As this point, as the Good Book says, the scales fell from my brother’s eyes.

“Wait a minute,” he said. “You think that check was to pay me for going to New Guinea to smuggle headhunters’ brains into the United States for Dr. Gajdusek, for scientific research?”

Silence on the phone. Then, finally: “Umm … yes.”

My brother disabused the detective: He had never been to New Guinea, did not work with Dr. Gajdusek, Yale Medical School was expensive, and his Opa was a good guy — and a scientist too.

So the case of the unidentified Melanesian male remains unsolved. But I tell you one thing: That was some brilliant police work from Detective Teas. And even though he was investigating my brother, who was innocent, I’ll tell you what else: I almost wish he’d caught him at it.

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