The downfall of a boy genius

By JAMES POPKIN  |  March 29, 1987
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PRINCETON, N.J. -- The year was 1974 and nuclear physicist John Archibald Wheeler had a surprise for his colleagues at Princeton University.

A new physics talent with a photographic memory had sprung up from the hills of the southern Yugoslavian province of Montenegro. He was young -- only 18 or 19 at the time -- but professors at the University of Belgrade said he was good.

'Brilliant. That was the essence of it,' recalled Wheeler, 75, now retired and living outside of Princeton.

A distinguished physicist who knew Einstein, worked on the hydrogen bomb at Los Alamos and coined the term 'black hole,' Wheeler had little trouble convincing fellow faculty members to admit the boy genius to their prestigious doctoral program.

Thirteen years have passed since Wheeler brought the charming, yet erratic and belligerently proud Dragoljub Cetkovic to Princeton and introduced him to some of the physics community's greatest minds.

It is an introduction that the don of the Princeton physics department and his colleagues have come to regret.

Cetkovic, now 32, was eventually ejected from Princeton but remained in the area, occasionally surfacing at university libraries and making trouble until he was barred from campus.

The one-time physics whiz kid is in even bigger trouble now. FBI agents arrested him last Monday in a middle-aged woman's apartment in Hightstown, outside Princeton, and have charged him with causing a bizarre cyanide tampering scare.

Federal prosecutors have accused Cetkovic of calling a Princeton Township supermarket last month to warn that cheese in the grocery had been poisoned with cyanide.

Falsely identifying himself as a reporter for a Trenton, N.J., newspaper, the heavily accented Eastern European expert in quantum-field theory allegedly supported his threat by directing the night manager to a single tea bag left on a store shelf.

Although laboratory tests on $14,000 worth of cheese revealed no signs of tampering, state health officials did discover a lethal dose of potassium cyanide in that mint spice-flavored tea bag.

Both cheese and tea products were pulled from the store's shelves and no one was ever injured.

But when the FBI arrested Cetkovic, they found a doctored piece of candy, a hypodermic needle and other utensils that could be used to contaminate food. They also found a 'pill-sized' vial of powder that Cetkovic admitted was filled with cyanide.

A psychiatric examination has been ordered and Cetkovic's lawyer is planning an insanity defense. Cetkovic has said he engineered the tampering scare not to hurt anyone, but to 'learn what the lethal dose of cyanide was in order to be able to kill himself,' court documents said.

He confessed to the FBI after learning that the phone call to the store had been traced back to his apartment, a federal prosecutor said.

The arrest hardly stunned Princeton's physics department. Professors, administrators and acquaintances said the one-time prodigy was headed for trouble almost from the day Professor Wheeler ushered him into the world of Ivy League academic intensity in 1974.

After arriving months late for fall-term classes, Cetkovic refused to take any of his required examinations.

'He apparently had convinced himself and others that he had done a Ph.D. thesis when he arrived,' one professor said. 'He was certainly one who was obviously a very diligent student and collected voluminous class notes. But he felt he was a little too good to take exams.'

Urged to reconsider, Cetkovic became even more stubborn. When he refused to begin teaching classes a year later, Barry Simon, the physics department's director of graduate studies, took action.

'I sent a memo to him that said, 'If you're not prepared to teach, go back to Yugoslavia,'' said Simon, now a professor at Cal Tech.

Eventually, in 1976, the Cetkovic was asked to leave the graduate program. He did not take the news well.

'He claimed then and forever after I had somehow besmirched his honor,' Simon said.

Simon heard that Cetkovic had just taken out a $5,000 contract on his life. Local police were notified, but the threat was never substantiated.

Several professors are certain, however, that the sullen and often disheveled ex-student threatened suicide -- and revenge.

He reportedly said that, if he killed himself, 'some one member of his 400 relatives would have been morally obligated ... according to the code of Montenegro to come and assasinate Simon,' a former university official said.

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