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Cyanide suspect described as boy genius gone bad

By
JAMES POPKIN

TRENTON, N.J. -- The suspect in a cyanide tampering scare once was admitted to Princeton University as a 'boy genius' but later threatened to harm several professors there after he was asked to leave in 1976, university sources said Tuesday.

Dragoljub Cetkovic, 32, a Yugoslavian national, came to the United States in 1973 after graduating from the University of Belgrade. Hailed as a prodigy and a brilliant theorist, he began working toward a doctorate in Princeton's prestigious physics graduate program at age 17.

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University professors, administrators and laboratory personnel, who spoke on the condition that their names not be used, said Cetkovik quickly made trouble for himself by refusing to take any of the department's required examinations.

'He apparently had convinced himself and others that he had done the equivalent of a Ph.D. thesis when he arrived,' one source said. 'He came advertised as a boy genius. To admit someone at that age is quite unusual.'

Cetkovic, who was being held at a federal detention center in New York, was arrested Monday at a friend's apartment in Hightstown after confessing to the FBI that he had poisoned a tea bag with a lethal dose of cyanide, prosecutors said.

He also admitted to calling the night manager of a Princeton Township supermarket Feb. 10 to warn that cheese sold in the store also was poisoned, Assistant U.S. Attorney Anne Singer said.

No cyanide was discovered in the cheese, but a lethal amount of the poison was found in a tea bag left on a shelf of the Superfresh market.

Cetkovic will undergo a psychiatric evaluation Wednesday, public defender John Hughes said. A bail hearing is scheduled for Friday.

One member of Princeton's physics department said that, after a year in the department, Cetkovic refused to be tested.

'He was certaintly someone who was obviously a very diligent student and collected voluminous class notes,' the professor said. 'But he felt he was a little too good to take exams.'

University officials gave Cetkovic two chances over a two-year period to take an examination and begin researching his thesis. When he would not comply, he was ousted from the doctoral program, the sources said.

Cetkovic did not take the news well, sources said.

He warned that he would kill himself and 'threatened various faculty members,' one professor said, adding that he had never been personally threatened but had heard from other professors of the 'veiled threats.'

'He's a Montenegrin (from southern Yugoslavia), and they have a vindictive reputation, and he was displaying all of those characteristics,' the professor said. 'He announced that all his relatives in Montenegro would come over and take care of all the people at Princeton.'

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