Sunday, March 23, 1997
Della's jewels give us hint
of our values


BY LAURA PULFER
The Cincinnati Enquirer

People stayed away in droves.

It was an auction of jewelry belonging to Della Dante Sutorius, the delicately pretty Symmes Township ''black widow'' convicted of murdering her husband last year. For all that she has been described as the wealthy wife of a doctor, the 11-piece ''collection'' was not the kind of stuff you lock in a safe.

A couple of thin gold chains, some rings, a strand of pearls and a Lady Elgin watch were casually strewn on a counter at the Hamilton County Courthouse on Thursday before the sheriff's sale.

The only item of real value - a flashy gold-and-diamond ring in a Newstedt box - was appraised at $5,800. I wondered whether she bought it for herself. I wondered whether it was a gift. I wondered whether any of this meant anything to her. Or to anybody else.

Unwelcome pity

Presiding over the viewing was an exceedingly telegenic member of the sheriff's department, Lt. Jeffery B. Haynes, who wore a black-and-gold checked bow tie, black suit and crisp white shirt. I asked him whether Mrs. Sutorius tried to keep any of the jewelry. He didn't think so.

Appraised at $7,565, the jewelry was seized to defray the cost to taxpayers of her continued efforts to get out of jail. Mrs. Sutorius was convicted in June of the murder of her fifth husband, Dr. Darryl Sutorius. She is appealing a sentence of life in prison.

Of course, in our justice system, life in prison usually means considerably less than that. She will, however, be nearly 70 years old before she is eligible for parole.

Violent people frighten me, and I love the idea of locking them up so they can't hurt anybody else, including good old irreplaceable me. But there is something about Della Sutorius' life that makes me feel an unwelcome twinge of pity.

Maybe it was her mother's account of Della Mello's childhood in Western Hills. Olga Mello says ''Dumbo'' never was much of a student and worked part time at a neighborhood grocery.

''Her lines were always a mile long,'' Mrs. Mello told The Enquirer's Kristen DelGuzzi. ''The line would start growing, and she would get flustered and do something wrong. People in the neighborhood used to walk by the store and see those long lines and they knew. They would go tell everyone, 'Della's working again. The lines are a mile long.' And people in the neighborhood would laugh and walk up there to see it.''

That's what her mother said.

A heady moment

None of her family was among the small group that obediently followed Lt. Haynes to the hallway for the auction. At least nobody who would admit it to me. Sentimentality was not the draw. An Oakley Realtor bought everything for $5,100.

The jewelry was sold to him in one lot after bidding on the items separately failed to reach the minimum total of $5,043.34. I counted only 27 people who might have competed with him for the prize, which he says he'll probably resell.

Spectators included 11 members of the press, one of whom actually began bidding. Startled, her cameraman swiveled the lens toward her face. A courthouse worker on her break jumped in on a $10 necklace that was bid up to $25.

Lt. Haynes experienced a heady moment early in the morning when he observed that ''this is just like the Jackie Onassis sale.'' Well, hardly. The world came to bid $34.5 million for the belongings of a woman they adored.

No one was standing in line to pay outrageous prices for the ''described chattels'' of the woman who called herself Dante because she thought it sounded fancy and whose mother called her Dumbo. Did we stay away simply because we didn't like her? Didn't we want bragging rights to a murderer's treasures?

Or, even better, perhaps no one was interested in claiming the detritus of a ruined and sad life. Maybe we still have the decency to reject keepsakes whose provenance is violence and misery.

Whatever it was, I'm proud to notice that the people of Cincinnati stayed away in droves.

Laura Pulfer's column appears in The Enquirer on Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. Call 768-8393 or fax 768-8340. She can be heard Monday mornings on WVXU radio (91.7 FM) and as a commentator on National Public Radio's Morning Edition.