Hearts of Darkness: The Brief, Unhappy Marriage of Darryl and Dante Sutorius

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AUG96HeartsofDarkness

Photograph by Jim Calloway

It could have been a scene from thirtysomething, except for the gray hair and lined faces that placed the men beyond the half-century mark. Dr. Darryl Sutorius, a cardiac and thoracic surgeon, was fixing dinner for friends, a couple who’d seen him through a long, hard divorce. Afterward they lingered over wine and conversation on that autumn evening, snapping pictures to remember the night.

“You’re so lucky,” Darryl said to the husband, a colleague whose own marriage seemed to be a match of soul mates. “I wish I could find someone like that.”

A few weeks later, Darryl announced to his frind, “I think I’ve found the one.”

So began the bried, wretched marriage of Dante and Darryl Sutorius. The details of their relationship would later take on a theatrical quality during Dante’s sensational murder trial. But when the stage set was struck, what remained was the ordinariness of Darryl Sutorius’s search for companionship and its bizarre, disastrous results.

They met through a dating service in November 1994. The 54-year-old surgeon’s divorce from his wife of 30 years was final after several years of separation. A subsequent relationship had ended, too. Della Dante Britteon was also recently divorced, pretty and youthful at 44.

Everything about Darryl was big. He was six-foot-three, topped 260 pounds, had a strong brow, large nose and broad mouth. Whatever he thought or felt announced itself on that face in spades. “You could read Darryl like a book,” a colleague recalls.

Everything about Dante was small. With delicate features and a tiny voice the diminutive woman was a striking physical contrast to the doctor. A contrast in other ways, too. With Dante says one of her former partners, “You never knew what you were going to get.”

When they were married by a magistrate in Kenton County barely four months after they met, Dante left the spot for previous marriages blank on the application. In fact, Darryl was her fifth husband.

Born Della Faye Hall—she took the name Dante later—she grew up on the West Side. Her father died when she was young; her mother eventually remarried. Pregnant at 19, Della Hall had a brief marriage to Joseph Hoeffer. A marriage to Ralph Beyer lasted from 1974 to 1979, ending with charges of neglect and cruelty on both sides. She gave custody of her pre-teen daughter to Hoeffer and headed to California in 1982, living on and off with her sister Donna. The daughter was eventually put into foster care. Returning to Cincinnati in the late ’80s, Dante met Grant Bassett; they moved to Dallas, married and filed for divorce within eight months. In 1992, she wed David Britteon. They parted in 1994.

Between the lines of this matrimonial roll call are tales of threats, violence, verbal abuse and celebrity bed-hopping, stories that fed a media frenzy as the case unfolded, prompting her attorney to protest the “smear factor.” But in court the jury heard very little about the many loves of Della Dante Hoeffer Beyer Bassett Britteon, only about the marriage of Dante Sutorius. And that was not the stuff of romance novels.

From the beginning Darryl’s friends thought something was odd about this affair. They didn’t understand why their requests to meet the new girlfriend were getting nowhere. He told friends how wonderful Dante was, but didn’t give many other details. But clearly he was smitten. One who saw them together before they married says that Darryl was almost adolescent in his devotion. Another reports that Dante was distinctly standoffish.

Perhaps that was because she was juggling several suitors at the time. In court a half-sister testified that late in 1994 Dante—who was unemployed—said she was running out of money. When the sister suggested she get a job, Dante countered that she was seeing several men, one seriously, and hoped something could come of that. David Britteon, Dante’s fourth ex-husband, recalls being invited to a strange Christmas dinner at Dante’s apartment in Covington. All the other guests were single men. “Sort of a lonely guys club,” Britteon explains. Dante was the charming and flirtatious hostess, and Darryl cooked the meal.

In February Dante and Darryl went to see rings at a jewelry showroom run by a friend of Darryl’s. They selected a stunning diamond wedding band and bought it on the spot. Afterwards, the shop owner saw Darryl bend down to kiss Dante. His bride-to-be gave him a peck on the cheek. “I thought, well, that’s not very passionate,” she recalls.

Around that time, Darryl presented his fiancé with a pre-nuptial agreement relating to his pension fund. Dante refused to sign it. If Darryl saw that as a bad omen, it didn’t cool his ardor. In March he came back from a trip to Florida and showed another surgeon a picture of Della taken on their holiday. “We’re married,” Darryl announced.

They knew remarkably little about each other, but it’s doubtful how much Darryl could have learned about Dante even if love wasn’t clouding his vision. Neither Bassett nor Britteon got full accounts of her previous marriages before they tied the knot. She did, however, give them juicy details of affairs with a number of Cincinnati notables, including former mayor Jerry Springer. A spokeswoman for Springer has said the name doesn’t ring a bell with the talk show host.

The investigation preceding the trial produced a number of people whose memories were clearer. Among them were men she knew in the late ’70s and early ’80s. One ex-boyfriend says he believes she set fire to his bed while he slept.

Another says he believes she burned down his house. In an interview for this story, the man said he met her in the early ’80s when she was working as a cocktail waitress at the Conservatory in Covington. She was sweet and quiet, and he liked talking to her. One evening when he came in for a drink she was in tears because she was going to be evicted from her apartment. He gave her some financial help and took her out to dinner a couple times. Eventually they got involved.

She was playful, fun and romantic, he says, and he enjoyed being with her. He even found her peculiarities amusing. She was almost phobic about germs. She wouldn’t touch her meal in a fast food restaurant if a bus boy ran a carpet sweeper where she was eating, explaining that it stirred up dust. When she drank soda from a bottle or can, she always left a couple of inches in the bottom. “That’s where all the spit is,” she told him. This fastidiousness apparently stopped at her own door.” The first time I visited,” he says, “the sink was full of dirty dishes and the trash was full of dirty paper plates.”

Paying the rent was a constant problem for Dante, the ex-boyfriend reports, perhaps because she had a hard time keeping a job. At first he felt sorry for her. Then he realized that she wasn’t showing up for work regularly. “Her whole story was that nobody’s ever treated her right,” he says. “When I met her I thought this could be true.”

Eventually Dante’s boyfriend learned what would happen to those who didn’t “treat her right.” It was her chronic jealousy that eventually drove him away. When he told her that he wanted to break up, they agreed to meet at January’s, a now-defunct dance club, to talk about it. Dante arrived an hour late, he says, smelling like a campfire. They talked about their relationship, and she was remarkably agreeable when he suggested they “just be friends.” When he got home that night, his house had burned down. Investigators determined it was arson; he was cleared.

A few weeks later, he says she called him and said she feared she was pregnant. He did some quick calculations and told her exactly why she couldn’t be pregnant by him.

“Her voice dropped to a growl,” he recalls. “She said, ‘You son of a bitch. I should have killed you when I had the chance.’”

Information about her life in California is sketchy, although Hamilton County prosecutors called on L.A. investigators to dig for details. They say she seems to have partied a lot and worked intermittently, quitting jobs whenever she moved in with a man. Another arson investigation, in 1985, centered on her, but no charges were filed. One man she lived with in Los Angeles told investigators she was jealous and on one occasion came after him with a knife. After they broke up, the brakes on his car failed because someone had poured motor on oil on them. He claims an acquaintance later admitted he’d told Dante how to do it.

There are wilder stories, largely unsubstantiated, from Dante’s sister, Donna Hall. The most sensational is that she had a boyfriend who disappeared mysteriously. According to Hall, Dante said she had killed him.

L.A. homicide investigators couldn’t locate a missing person report to match the tale, but that didn’t stop Hall from blowing into town during the trial and giving the press and earful about Dante’s California years. Prosecutors say that Hall believes her sister returned to Cincinnati to leave her dark past behind.

“Are you a genius?” the woman perched at Benjamins bar (now defunct) at Garfield Place asked in her soft, girlish voice.

Grant Bassett, a computer graphics specialist still smarting from a divorce, protested shyly that he was not.

“Well, I think you’re a genius,” she cooed.

It wasn’t long before Bassett had a new girlfriend, this charming, quiet, sweet Dante who was impressed with his business acumen and awed by his talent. He was touched by the stories of her hard life, which, she said, included a childhood of abuse. She showered him with compliment and was grateful for his kindness. He bought her a coat on the first cold day of fall, because she said she had never owned a winter coat. Afterward, she sat in his car crooning, “This is so wonderful….G.B. is so wonderful.”

“She talked like a baby,” he says today. But the baby talk was effective. When he was transferred to Dallas, he invited her to join him, and they moved to Dallas January 1, 1989. In late February she said she was pregnant. They were married by a Justice of the Peace. A few days later she announced that she’d had a miscarriage, but refused to see a doctor.

He had been a genius in her eyes in Cincinnati, but in Dallas, Bassett says, “I was an idiot, a nerd, a yo-yo.” She even mocked his New York accent. After a day spent watching TV talk shows, she would browbeat him with “insights” she’d gleaned from them. In one explosive argument, he says he called 911, she got on the extension and screamed, and he ended up in jail.

He says she would prey on his vulnerabilities. Even her threats were calculated to make him feel worthless. She told him, “I could kill you and no one would miss you. I could kill you and the world would thank me.”

She left him the week before Memorial Day, but soon had a change of heart and came back. In the summer she had a face lift. After she’d recovered, she packed up the furniture and took off while he was out of town.

Back in Cincinnati, she was on the downtown happy hour circuit again, hanging out at Covington Landing and putting in a regular Friday night appearance at the Boathouse. Her love interests during that time included investment counselor Lawrence Wulker, who filed a court complaint against her, claiming that she “attempted to kill me with a .22-caliber pistol.” The court complaint also indicates she told Wulker she was pregnant and threatened to kill him if she miscarried.

David Britteon, and Englishman in the States on a work visa, met her when he was entertaining Japanese clients at Covington Landing. Eventually they dated. The week he accepted a five-month job in Kansas City, she announced she was pregnant. They married on Valentine’s Day, 1992, in New Orleans. At the clerk’s desk, she tried to conceal her age as she filled out the marriage license, but Britteon saw that she was 41—six years older than she had told him she was. He was 29.

Dante quit her job as a live-in governess in Loveland and moved to Kansas City with Britteon, eventually admitting she wasn’t pregnant. As in her previous marriage, she did not work, either outside the home or in it. Instead, she watched TV true crime and talk shows.

When they returned to Cincinnati, the jealousy began, he says. She would follow him to lunches with colleagues. If he golfed with friends, she would call the course repeatedly and would often be waiting in the parking lot when he finished.

As with Bassett there were violent arguments and 911 calls. He says she threatened to kill him if he cheated on her and to have him thrown out of the country if he left her. He didn’t have a Green Card, he says, so he decided to stick it out. He owned a gun, and friends suggested that he hide the ammunition. After an argument, he says she came up behind him, pointing the gun and screaming, “Where’re the fucking bullets?” They finally divorced, but not before he was jailed for hitting her—a charge that was eventually dismissed.

Revenge—that’s what Britteon sees as Dante’s leitmotif. “She was very big on revenge. Whatever was done to her, she got back 10 times over.

“I think that’s why she killed him.”

There is another big Why in this case, a question the prosecution didn’t have to answer.

Janet Sutorius, Darryl’s ex-wife, was in a store one day during the murder trial and overheard two clerks talking. “How did a smart man like that doctor marry a woman like her?” one tsk-tsked to the other. There was no doubt who was being discussed, Janet says. “It’s what we all wonder.”

Darryl had left Janet and his four children saying he wanted to find some happiness in whatever time he had left to live. Friends say he felt lonely in his marriage and outside it, and he deeply wanted someone to fill that emptiness.

By all accounts, he was not an easy man. He was a moody, demanding perfectionist with an explosive temper. He isolated himself from his family with his dissatisfaction and outbursts. On the job he earned a reputation as difficult even in a field where tempers, egos and arrogance are commonplace. At Bethesda North Hospital, where he was chief of thoracic surgery, he was known to verbally abuse staff, and some refused to work with him.

His friends and colleagues don’t deny that his temper was his biggest enemy. Once he exploded when an anesthesiologist came into the O.R. sockless. “It set a tone,” his colleague said simply.

But the bad temper was accompanied by great surgical skill. Those who worked with him say he was a superb technician, fearless in tackling complex cardiac cases. And despite outbursts that rattled the silver at his family’s dinner table and sent nurses running for cover, he was phenomenally cool in a surgical crisis. In an operating room, says one colleague and mentor, “Darryl could control situations that were uncontrollable.”

Outwardly, he seemed to be in control of his life, to. He bought a lovely house in the suburbs shortly after meeting Dante and seemed to be moving toward a picture-book version of a second marriage.

But Darryl’s oldest daughter, Deborah, was skeptical from the first. She met Dante the week before the marriage. Deborah says she found her cold and distant, even toward Darryl, who had such obvious affection for her. When Deborah visited them in the new house on Symmesridge Lane, she saw just how distant. The master bedroom was on the first floor. Dante had moved into a room on the second.

Darryl’s friends didn’t see much of them together, and they ha begun to get the distinct impression that Dante didn’t want to get to know—or perhaps by known by—them. At a friend’s wedding reception, Dante followed along behind Darryl and barely made eye contact with the others. When she would visit Darryl at the hospital, she didn’t acknowledge his colleagues in the halls.

That summer, Dante’s daughter’s children spent a week with the couple, and observers say that Darryl genuinely seemed to enjoy them. His relationships with his own children had been strained since the divorce. He was closest to Debbie, who says she valued her time alone with her father; with a new stepmother, that time was harder to come by.

Apparently things began to go downhill in the marriage sometime in the fall. A co-worker of Darryl’s says the usually reticent Dante suddenly opened up to him during a Hospice benefit at the Aronoff Center. She complained she and Darryl disagreed about “everything.” Roughly translated “everything” seems to have meant money…and the power to control it.

Darryl had worked hard to establish a solo practice in the early ’80s. When financial success came, he spent big. Cars, a boat, expensive furniture—Darryl, a minister’s son, wanted all the accouterments of the big-ticket doctor. Even so, a friend testified, “Darryl was what we’d call a poor-mouth in Western Hills.” He always talked like he was in a jam financially. And indeed, one colleague chose not to go into practice with him because he felt he was fiscally irresponsible. It took two years to finalize his divorce because he dug in his heels over the division of property.

Donna Hall said in a Cincinnati Post interview that her sister Dante’s philosophy was, “You find a wealthy man and, when they die, you’d get their money.” Whether that’s true or not (one ex-husband says she owned a copy of the book How to Marry Money), previous liaisons had left Dante neither rich nor widowed. But before she married Darryl, Britteon says, she referred to him as “Daddy Warbucks.”

After the marriage, she told a relative that the expensive gifts he bought her—three furs and a bronze and crystal chandelier—were booty she’d extracted to balance the sales when he helped his children with college costs and other expenses. But things swung far out of balance in December, when Debbie Sutorius got engaged.

Debbie, her father’s pride and joy, went to the Sutorius house with her fiancé to break the good news. She would have liked to have the moment alone with her dad, but, as always, Dante was there. The four sat down together to talk about plans. Debbie said she wanted to have a simple wedding. “Well, I hope so,” she says Danted replied. “You’re only a waitress, and you can’t afford an elaborate wedding.” Debbie looked at her dad; he turned away.

Debbie called him later, told him bluntly what she thought of Dante and said she didn’t want the woman at her wedding. Dante, as was her habit, was listening on the extension. Debbie was furious. She telephoned Dante when her father was gone, called her insecure, selfish and “Just another one of my dad’s possessions.” During testimony, prosecution was permitted to play a tape of Debbie’s answering machine, in which her dad begged her not to call Dante anymore. “I may not live through this,” he said.

Psychiatrists always get a lot of new patients around Christmas, so Dante Sutorius’s request for an appointment with Dr. Louis Spitz last December wasn’t unusual. What was unusual was that she was calling for her husband—he was the one who needed help, she said. Spitz agreed to see them both on January 6.

Later, on the witness stand, Spitz testified he had encountered a depressed husband, a tumultuous marriage and a vicious wife not like the compassionate woman who had made the appointment. The couple talked about Debbie’s wedding—Darryl wanted to help with the cost, and Dante was furious. Darryl was upset with her eavesdropping and snooping through his papers.

In front of Dante he also told Spitz about her threats: She said she’d tell his friends he was impotent. She’d contact the IRS and accuse him of income tax fraud. She’d ruin his business by getting in touch with referring physicians, telling them that he was filthy because of a bowel condition and wasn’t fit to perform surgery. She didn’t deny the threats, Spitz says.

Darryl also conceded he’d been suicidal during his first divorce, but didn’t feel that way now.

Spitz referred the couple to a marriage counselor and continued to see Darryl alone. In subsequent meetings, Darryl talked about feeling trapped in the marriage and financially stressed. He was quite literal about feeling trapped: He was sleeping with a chair pushed against his bedroom door in fear for his life. He told Spitz that Dante had had a previous husband put in jail and that she’d burned down a boyfriend’s house. “She will kill me and get away with it,” Darryl said in therapy.

Soon Darryl began telling both the marriage counselor and Dante’s half-sister Cheryl Sullivan, about his fears for his safety. Dante’s mother, Olga Mello, had called him and said Dante was dangerous. He called his sister’s husband, a retired Columbus police office, to say that Dante had a gun—David Britteon’s .22, as it turned out. His brother-in-law told him to turn it over to the police immediately. So did attorney Guy Hild when they meet January 22 to talk about divorce. Two days later, Darryl broke into Dante’s bedroom, found the .22 and handed it over to the sheriff’s office. A few days later he told his friend Richard Brunsman he’d had a couple drinks to get the nerve to break into her bedroom and get it. He also told Brunsman that if he turned up dead, Dante did it.

That same evening Dante was chatting it up at Charley’s Oyster Bar and Grille on Montgomery with John Donovan, president of NuSash. Dante wanted to know all about Donovan—where he lived, what kind of house he had, that sort of thing. She told him that she was unhappily married and that she thought her husband was cheating on her. “I’m going to get rid of him,” she said. “I think I’ll poison him.”

Bar patrons were not Dante’s only confidants. Neighbor Beth Brutvan testified that Dante had told her Darryl was violent and abusive—easy for Beth believe since Beth was a medical transcriber and knew his reputation. Dante told Beth that he cut off her credit cards, and she suspected he was having an affair.

At some point in early February, Dante knew the marriage was about to be history. On February 7 she went into the PNC Bank in Montgomery distraught, explaining that her husband was getting a divorce, and there was money missing from her account. Shaking, she said she wanted to closer her to CDs and her checking account. The CDs contained about $1,000 each; the checking account, the assistant branch manager told the tearful woman, was overdrawn.

“The fat son-of-a-bitch was supposed to deposit $500,” she hissed.

That was Wednesday. On Friday, Dante renewed her expired driver’s license, then went to Target World. The clerk noticed the date on the new license when Dante put $100 down on a used .39-caliber double action revolver.

Then, suddenly, things got happier at the Sutorius house. On Saturday, February 10, Darryl told his psychiatrist that Dante was calm, even charming. On Monday he faxed a letter to Guy Hild to proceed with divorce and a temporary restraining order that would keep Dante away from him. On Friday, he contacted Hild’s office to confirm that he’d be in on the following Monday—the 19th—to sign the documents.

That same Friday Beth Brutvan and Dante had lunch. Dante looked exhausted. She shook as she drank her coffee and talked about the state of her marriage. On the way home, Dante mentioned that Darryl had once attempted suicide. She added that she was thinking of getting a gun.

She did so at 8:45 the next morning, picking up her new weapon at Target World and shooting like an expert in her free lesson. Shortly after noon she bout a box of ammunition at Wal-Mart, then went home and called her youngest half-sister, Nicki Mello, to see if she had plans for the evening. Nicki didn’t invite her along.

That same morning, Darryl had gone to his appointment with the psychiatrist, then made rounds at Christ and Bethesda North hospitals where, staff later testified, he was relaxed and upbeat. That evening, he picked up a few groceries at Kroger on Fields-Ertel Road just before 9. Sometime after that, he headed home for the last time.

Dante put in some telephone time on Sunday. She called to invite Nicki to a movie. Nicki declined. She left several similar messages on Beth’s answering machine. Meanwhile, at Christ Hospital, a patient’s blood pressure was dropping, and Dr. Sutorius was ignoring his pager. On Monday morning, Darryl’s office manager arrived to work, saw the unanswered calls and called 911. Eventually deputies found their way to the lovely house on Symmesridge Lane, and to the little woman with the big past.

Della Dante Sutorius was convicted of aggravated murder of her husband on June 7. Among the prosecution’s dozens of witnesses were Dante’s three half-sisters, two Bob Evans waitresses and Beth Brutvan, who wept at betraying Dante’s confidences.

But, jurors said afterward, it was overwhelming physical evidence—the wound, the bullet path, the blood—that convinced them. They accepted the premise that at approximately 2:30 a.m. on February 18, Dante Sutorius shot her husband as he slept on the couch in the basement, waited until he had breathed his last, then fired a second shot with his hand around the gun to make it look like a suicide.

She shot him, the prosecution argued, to collect assets she would have lost if they divorced. Probably a vast oversimplification, Bassett and Britteon say. In their view, it was money and vanity, money and control, money and revenge.

Jerome Kunkel, an attorney on the prosecution team, referred to the Black Widow when he laid out his closing statements. He told the jury, “That woman is the most dangerous person you’ll ever see because doesn’t look like it.”

Darryl Sutorius, who knew the human heart inside and out, didn’t see into hers until it was far too late.

Originally published in the August 1986 issue.

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