A Fairy Tale Flames Out
(“A Second Shot at Love,” Forensic Files)
I grew up with a step-grandmother who wasn’t exactly evil but had a mean streak. It was hard to listen to her boss around my passive grandfather: “Shut up, Ben.” “No one was talking to you, Ben.”
And her 5-foot-tall size-16 presence was not without malice. Grandma Jeanne delighted in needling my father about how her son, Sandy — “my Sandy” — was the head of his department at the University of Cincinnati (she talked about it as though it were Oxford) while my dad was just a plain old professor where he taught.
No spendthrift. She could be charming and warm. You could drop her into the middle of any wedding or party and find her engaging in conversation with a stranger she was calling dear or darling and complimenting on a tie or beautiful head of hair or lovely New England accent.
Although she probably regarded my grandfather principally as a meal ticket, she was frugal with his money. They ate early-bird specials and took home leftover stuffed chicken breast and Parker House rolls and butter to eat for lunch the next day. They flew on super saver tickets to visit us in Pennsylvania.
And Grandma Jeanne kept my grandfather moving and active into his 80s. “Come on, Ben, no resting on your laurels.”
She said and did a few unforgivable things. When our family dog was old and getting feeble, Jeanne looked at her with disdain and said, “I think Julia is on her way out.” She insulted both of my brothers.
But, I must say, Grandma Jeanne was Maria von Trappe compared with Della “Dante” Britteon, who Forensic Files fans know from “A Second Shot at Love.”
Smitten. The episode begins in 1994 with the story of Darryl Sutorius, a divorced surgeon whose interpersonal skills could have used some rehab. He had a bad temper and tended to dish out demeaning verbal abuse, his first wife, Janet, said in her Forensic Files interview.
The lonely 6-foot-3-inch-tall doctor was none-too-charismatic to his colleagues either and, as such, probably didn’t attract much in the way of romantic interest via his career.
So, in 1994, Dr. Sutorius, 54, joined a dating service called Great Expectations that matched him up with Dante, a pretty, petite 44-year-old with a magnetic personality. She said she owned a day care center and had a degree from UCLA.
The heavyset cardiac and thoracic specialist was enchanted by Dante. He bought her a $5,000 ring, and they wed after a few months.
The marriage lasted less than a year, during which she used the poor man like a Powerball lottery ticket.
Getting greedy. She lived in a large, expensive house on Symmesridge Lane in the Symmes Township area of Cincinnati and enjoyed spa visits and a Lexus and three fur coats, all without the inconvenience of having a job. But that wasn’t enough.
Dante, it seemed, wanted everything. The doctor’s generosity toward his four children from his first marriage vexed her into fits of indignation and nastiness.
When she found out that Dr. Sutorius planned to pay for his daughter Deborah’s wedding, she got so mad it scared him into wearing a bulletproof vest. (At some point, Dante had bought a .38-caliber double action revolver at Target World and taken a shooting lesson.)
Toward the end, Dr. Sutorius was sleeping in the basement, talking to a lawyer about cutting Dante out of his will and divorcing, and asking his family members not to give any personal information to Dante.
By this time, he had found out at least a portion of the truth about the size-2 with fluffy blondish hair. She’d been married five times (more than what she had told him), never graduated from college or high school, used various aliases, and had threatened, tried to kill, or otherwise left previous husbands far worse off than the way she found them.
Losing formula. But the revelations came too late. When Dr. Sutorius, who was chief of thoracic surgery at Bethesda North Hospital, didn’t show up for work on February 19, 1996, his co-workers called 911.
Dante told the authorities who came to the house that she hadn’t seen her husband for days. Then she went down to the basement to look for him and “Oh, my God. He’s shot himself!”
The doctor had been depressed, so it wasn’t difficult to believe he had taken his own life, until investigators started studying the evidence.
As so with many other Forensic Files cases, the blood splatter and gunshot wound were in the wrong places to support the contention of suicide.
Jury’s in. Investigators believed Dante sneaked up behind her husband and shot him, then used his lifeless fingers to fire the gun into the couch so police would find gunpowder residue on his hands.
At the subsequent murder trial, the court heard evidence about how much Dante had to gain (a $1 million life insurance payout) via her husband’s death versus how little she would reap ($1,000 to $2,000 a month) from a divorce.
The jury saw through Dante’s charm and benign-looking physical appearance and convicted her of aggravated murder after deliberating for four hours on June 7, 1996.
More salacious biographical information about the slight-figured killer came out in the press. According to a Cincinnati magazine story by Linda Vaccariello, Dante (born Della Fay Hall) had become pregnant at age 19 and given the father custody of the resulting daughter, who later ended up in foster care. At one time, Dante claimed to have slept with talk-show host and former Cincinnati mayor Jerry Springer.
Exes’ convention. If anyone harbored doubts about Dante’s guilt, the unctuous interview she gave to Forensic Files surely chased them away.
Some of her ex-husbands met for the first time at the murder trial. Her third spouse, graphic artist Grant Bassett, told AP reporter Terry Kinney that Dante “was very striking … eye-catching. I thought I was getting into a pretty lady, very meek. Lo and behold, Tasmanian devil.”
Olga Mello, Dante’s own mother, reportedly suspected her daughter’s guilt from the beginning and had alerted police.
Dante received a sentence of 24 years and died of natural causes in Marysville Women’s Prison in Ohio on Nov. 20, 2010, at age 60.
The saga seems worthy of a made-for-TV movie, although I don’t believe one has been made. But Dateline NBC dedicated a feature, “The Doctor’s Wife,” to the story. And writer Aphrodite Jones detailed Dante’s crimes in Della’s Web (Gallery Books, 2011).
My aforementioned step-grandmother lived into her 90s. We didn’t have much contact with her after my grandfather died in his sleep at age 87. No signs of foul play, just a lot of nagging beforehand. — R.R.
Note: True Crime Truant will be off for Thanksgiving day and return Dec. 1. Until then, cheers.