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Judge tempers sentence for cyanide tamperer

By
FRANCES ANN BURNS

NEWARK, N.J. -- A despondent Yugoslavian-born physics genius whose bizarre suicide ploy touched offa cyanide tampering scare received a relatively lenient sentence of five years in prison from a judge 'moved by the depths of despair to which he had sunk.'

U.S. District Judge Maryanne Trump Barry recommended Thursday that former Princeton University graduate student Dragoljub Cetkovic serve his sentence at a federal institution in Butner, N.C., where he can receive psychiatric treatment. He is expected to be deported when he is released, prosecutors said.

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Cetkovic will be eligible for parole within a year and would be unlikely to serve more than three years. He could have been sentenced to up to 15 years for product tampering and giving false information.

Cetkovic is only the second person arrested for cyanide tampering with consumer products since seven people died from taking cyanide-laced Tylenol in the Chicago area in 1982. Several people have died in similar incidents, including a New Jersey man killed last year by cyanide-laced instant soup.

Cetkovic was arrested in March, a month after a tainted tea bag was found in the Super Fresh grocery in Princeton Township. He admitted leaving the tea bag on the back of a store shelf and making a telephone call in which he falsely told a store manager that cheese had also been poisoned, touching off a recall of all cheese products purchased at the store.

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Cetkovic said he intended no harm, but wanted the tea bag tested by health officials to determine if it contained a lethal dose so he could commit suicide.

Witnesses described Cetkovic as a genius recruited by Princeton for graduate work in physics at the age of 19. He balked at taking certain required courses and eventually was asked to leave the university.

At the time of his arrest, Cetkovic had lost his student visa and was applying for permanent residency in the United States. He testified that he was in despair because of his father's fatal illness and the end of a romantic relationship.

'I was moved by the depths of despair to which he had sunk, the desperation which one human being could experience,' the judge said. 'I do not believe that the defendant intended to hurt or kill anyone.'

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