July 31, 2013
The Suicide of LeAnn Leutner
By Elizabeth Stuart
She left behind a baby boy, an estranged lover, and a custody case that would challenge progressive New York.
Lincoln Edward Amory Leutner-Sporn crawls across the multicolored carpet, ignoring a pile of blocks and a stuffed animal and heading straight for a thick psychiatry text. Chubby, with a round face and sandy blond hair that’s parted and neatly combed to the side, he paws through the pages of the book, clumsily opening and closing it with dimpled hands.
His father, Dr. Jonathan Sporn, a director of clinical research for the pharmaceutical giant Pfizer, chuckles as the baby abandons academic pretense and shoves the book in his mouth. At 55, Sporn has white hair. He has kind eyes and a crooked smile. “If he eats it, that’s a good sign,” he jokes. “That’s the biggest tribute Lincoln gives.” Sporn fancies the baby’s antics an early sign of intelligence. The kid is bound to be brilliant, he tells anyone who will listen—just like his mother.
Sporn, however, may not have the opportunity to see how Lincoln turns out.
The doctor and his girlfriend, LeAnn Leutner, a high-powered corporate lawyer and Democratic Party leader, celebrated the long-awaited birth of baby Lincoln in July 2012. Six months later, Leutner committed suicide. Because the couple was not married and the baby was conceived with the help of a sperm donor, the state declared Lincoln an orphan and placed him in foster care. After a bitter custody battle that stretched to June, a judge sent Lincoln to Illinois to live with Leutner’s sister. Sporn didn’t even get to say goodbye.
The case illustrates a gap between the law and the increasingly dynamic definition of family. Today, the majority of babies are born out of wedlock. As technology improves, and prices for assisted reproductive technology come down, more and more children are welcomed into complex parental situations.
Beyond the custody battle, though, the crumbling of Sporn’s family is a cautionary tale. In a way, Leutner’s determination to have a baby—no matter the cost—sent her down a path that would ultimately lead to her death. Infertility treatment is a grueling emotional ordeal for any woman. For a woman like Leutner, who had a history of mental illness, it was a dangerous proposition.
“Looking back, there are so many things I wish I would have done differently to prevent this,” Sporn says. “Every day I’m in pain about LeAnn. I wake up with it, and I go to sleep with it.”
Leutner was a wisp of a woman, with ivory skin, ebony hair, and apple cheeks that dimpled when she smiled. Her voice was small, to match her frame, and high like a child’s. She was 40 years old when she died, but she still had a girlish air—”like a princess,” friends say. When others dressed in baseball caps and T-shirts, Leutner wore red lipstick and pearls. She loved glittery shoes, dangling earrings, and dresses covered in sequins and lace. Friends remember her first for her smile, which came fast and easy, and her tinkling laugh. It “lit up the room,” wrote high school classmate Stacey Hoelscher, a kindergarten teacher in Illinois, in a memorial newsletter. “She was always kind.”
But behind her warm exterior, Leutner was frail as a bird. She struggled with mood problems, an eating disorder, dissociative states, and obsessive-compulsive symptoms, according to a custody petition Sporn filed in Manhattan Supreme Court. On her teeth, friends noticed staining and erosion—telltale signs of bulimic purging. People wondered when she refused to eat at parties: Does her collarbone protrude too much? Is her skin a bit too pale? To close friends, Leutner confided, “I never expected to live past 25.” She treated her struggles with a daily 80mg dose of Prozac.
Since her youth in southern Illinois, those around her described Leutner as “self-assured” and “confident in her path.” She breezed through a finance degree at the University of Illinois with highest honors, and, at 19, was accepted into Yale Law School. Among the youngest in the class of 1995, Leutner was less traveled and worldly than her peers, says classmate Jesselyn Radack.
But Leutner was also among the brightest. Her memory was near photographic. She knew politics inside out. “She could win a game of Trivial Pursuit with one roll of the dice,” one friend jokes. Though law school could be a pressure-cooker, where ambition is cunning and looking down one’s nose comes easy, Leutner’s acumen wasn’t something she flaunted. “Hers was a quiet brand of brilliance,” Radack says.
In between homework and editing Yale Law & Policy Review, Leutner attended meetings for the school’s feminist club and volunteered at a legal clinic, helping battered women get temporary restraining orders against their abusers. When Radack and her group of friends poked fun at a stuck-up classmate, Leutner didn’t join in. “She had a youthful innocence and trust in people,” Radack says. “She was always looking for the good side in everybody.”
She was harder on herself. At Yale Law, instead of letter grades, teachers gave students a fail, pass, or honors. In one class, Radack remembers, there was only a pass/fail option. Leutner worried: Would potential employers understand why she hadn’t gotten honors?
After graduation, Leutner was recruited by the Wall Street law firm Fried Frank. She would later become an associate at Simpson, Thacher & Bartlet, where she advised billionaires like Ralph Lauren and J. Christopher Flowers on compliance with securities laws and disclosure requirements. None of her Yale friends were surprised by her success. But they were surprised she chose the cold, hard world of corporate law. Leutner was an idealist—the kind of person to be voted “most likely to dedicate her life to public service.”
In Manhattan, a colleague introduced Leutner into the Community Free Democrats club on the Upper West Side. She was instantly enamored, says member Bernadette Evangelist. Leutner quickly rose through the ranks, serving as a board member for New York City’s Economic Development Corporation, as treasurer for Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer, and finally as the 67th Assembly District leader.
She had a reputation for being remarkably evenhanded—”especially for someone in politics,” Evangelist says. When she’d stand up to give her monthly reports as a district leader, she slathered colleagues with praise. She had a fondness for calling people “my hero.” Though colleagues describe Leutner as fiercely loyal, she wasn’t one to let others dictate her opinions. “She was independent,” Evangelist says. “Whatever she believed in, she would not change her mind.”
It was a whirling, fast-paced life, and Leutner was hypnotized. Even after marrying and having a son in 2000, says longtime friend Alan Flacks, Leutner spent hours on the streets, clipboard in hand, doing grassroots campaigning and staying out late at rallies, hobnobbing with political friends. While club members describe her as a “loving, proud mom,” some gossiped behind her back, accusing Leutner of treating her child like a “toy.” Her marriage would implode before her son, Brennan, was five years old.
Brennan moved to Garden City with his father and visited Leutner on the Upper West Side on weekends. The former couple clashed so frequently that Brennan started seeing a counselor, according to New York City Family Court documents. When Brennan was in town, Leutner would call Flacks and the two would take the boy to a museum. Once, perhaps in a moment of wishful thinking, Brennan took his mother’s hand, kissed it, took Flack’s hand, kissed it, and brought them together. “I now pronounce you man and wife,” he said.
At 70, Flacks is short and stout with wild, white hair and a knaggy beard. A gadfly and political activist, well known on the Upper West Side for publishing a weekly newsletter highlighting the Community Free Democrats’ juiciest gossip, he talks nonstop, weaving in and out of stories like a drunk driver in traffic. He has a tough time defining his 15-year relationship with Leutner. “I wouldn’t say we dated.” But for years, he has carried a faded photo of her in a fanny pack he keeps slung around his hips. “I suppose I loved her,” he says. When Leutner died, he gained 20 pounds.
dreamed of having more children. It tore her apart that she did not have full custody of Brennan, Flacks says. At one point, she considered asking a friend to donate sperm so she could have a child on her own. A year after her divorce, Leutner and Flacks took Brennan to the Jacques Marchais Museum of Tibetan Art on Staten Island. While the boy played among the Buddha statues, Leutner told Flacks, “You’re on my short list.” She sounded so serious that he went home and made some phone calls to find out what his responsibilities as a sperm donor might be.
Jonathan Sporn is a gentleman. He opens taxi doors. When he greets a woman, he takes her fingertips and lifts them to his lips. He wears designer jeans and plaid sport coats; his English is proper and he smells of sandalwood and spice.
Sporn grew up in Miami Beach “before it was nice,” he says. He enrolled in medical school at the University of Miami because his father was a doctor. After an unfulfilling year as an internist, Sporn became infatuated with the Russian spiritual teacher G.I. Gurdjieff, who said that most humans live their lives in a state of “waking sleep” they must transcend in order to achieve their full potential. During his courtship of the daughter of a Harvard neuroscientist, Sporn got a more scientific introduction to the workings of the human brain. He spent hours with his girlfriend’s mother, talking about the latest research. “I liked the daughter’s body and the mother’s brain,” he says. Combined, the two experiences prompted him to specialize in psychiatry.
“A computer can do the job of an internist,” he says. “You plug in the symptoms and come up with a diagnosis.” The illness of the mind, though, that’s a puzzle that requires creative thinking. While some symptoms can be accounted for by biology, many are tied up in layers of human experience. Sporn enjoys sorting them out.
His work history is studded with prestigious posts. He worked at Harvard and the National Institute of Mental Health, where he was among the first to demonstrate the mood-stabilizing effects of Lamictal, an anticonvulsant drug used in the treatment of epilepsy. As a psychiatrist at Massachusetts General Hospital, he helped author a textbook on the neurobiology of mental illness. And after the fall of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, Sporn went to Russia to volunteer in hospitals. There, he fell in love with an aspiring psychiatrist. They were married 15 years before separating in 2009.
Sporn met Leutner at a bar in March of 2010. She was wearing a business suit, sipping Lambrusco while she marked up a proxy statement. He sat down next to her. “You really shouldn’t be doing your homework at the bar,” he said.
The next night they went on their first date, to a jazz concert at Lincoln Center. He found her pretty, well read, and clever. She reached out and touched his thigh. “Are you real?” she asked.
For their fifth date, they flew to Africa. They tracked black rhinos in Namibia, saw giraffes, leopards, and elephants. At night, they curled up inside their tent and listened to the lions roar.
By December, Leutner had moved into Sporn’s apartment on Riverside Drive in Manhattan. He called her “dollzy.” She called him “boysee.” They argued over the TV remote and split the chores. He managed to coax her from a vegan to a vegetarian diet. Once, he claims, she even agreed to try a steak.
During their first year together, they went to Italy. She took him home to Illinois to meet her parents and attend her high school and college reunions. With Brennan, now 12, in tow, they traveled to Disney World and took a fishing trip to Maine.
“In Sporn, LeAnn found someone who loved her, liked her, and who could put up with her mishigas,” Flacks says.
Soon, the couple was talking about raising a family.
Leutner wanted two more children. She was approaching 40 and felt anxious about her age, so the couple started trying to conceive before they’d been dating a year. After a few unsuccessful months, hey turned to in vitro fertilization.
“We were very excited,” Sporn would later write in court papers. “There was no one else who I would have wanted to start a family with and LeAnn felt the same way.”
The doctor prescribed Leutner hormone injections to encourage her body to release more eggs. The process was “intense” and “emotional,” Sporn wrote. Month after month, the doctor delivered bad news. Leutner grew more and more anxious. Time was her enemy. “LeAnn felt the weight of the world on her shoulders,” Sporn wrote.
A number of studies indicate that rates of depression are significantly higher among infertile couples than those who can naturally conceive. The process of in vitro fertilization itself exacerbates psychological distress—especially if the embryos fail to take. In a 2012 study at Spalding University in Louisville, Kentucky, researchers found women who use assisted reproductive technology can develop post-traumatic stress disorder. Though her symptoms were well managed before she tried to get pregnant, Leutner’s mental health risks were magnified.
Most doctors agree that taking antidepressants doesn’t negatively affect a woman’s fertility. Though the topic is controversial, a number of recent studies also show that, even during pregnancy, the drugs are relatively safe. Leutner stopped taking her Prozac anyway. Sporn begged her not to. At least wait until you get pregnant, he pleaded. She did not listen.
Frustrated and losing hope, Leutner tearfully considered using an egg donor. Sporn reassured her. He loved her so much, he told her; he wanted the baby to be biologically just like her. The couple picked out an anonymous sperm donor. Sporn insisted on using a fellow Jew. They tried a “split cycle,” where the doctor mixed Sporn’s sperm with the donor sperm. When that, too, failed, Leutner and Sporn tried again using only the donor sperm. The doctor implanted two embryos. The pregnancy test came back positive. They were going to have twins.
The two began nesting, picking out furniture for the nursery and shopping for tiny hats and shoes. Sporn put headphones on Leutner’s swelling belly and played music for the babies. They hired a nanny and started talking about names. It should have been a happy time, but Leutner’s mental health was quickly deteriorating.
A few weeks after the positive pregnancy test, Leutner started to bleed: She lost one of the babies. If only she had stayed in bed, she obsessed, it never would have happened. When the doctor told her the surviving child was a boy, she was disconsolate. They must immediately try for a girl, she told Sporn. She was anxious, compulsive, eating less and less. Sporn worried she was falling back into disordered behavior. He pushed her to see a psychiatrist.
The baby was born July 16, 2012. The couple named him Lincoln, after the country’s 16th president. Sporn slipped into a doting parental daze almost as soon as he cut the squalling infant’s umbilical cord. Lincoln was so alert and responsive. Already, Sporn told the pediatrician, the baby must be exhibiting signs of superior intelligence. The doctor indulged him. “I’ve been doing this 25 years and most parents think their baby is special,” he says the doctor told him. “But this baby does seem special.”
To announce the boy’s birth, Leutner sent out an e-mail blast giving his name as “Lincoln Edward Amory Leutner-Sporn.” But on the birth certificate, she left the line next to “father” blank.
“Enrolled Democrat, I trust?” Flacks joked when Leutner sent the baby’s first photo.
“Oui, bien sûr!” Leutner replied. Yes, of course.
Sporn loved to take the baby for walks in his stroller. When he attended his philosophy and tennis clubs, he took Lincoln along. Leutner showed the infant off at Community Free Democrat meetings. Everyone fawned over him. “She was so happy when she was with her sons,” club member Bernadette Evangelist recalls. “She just glowed.”
Behind the smile, though, Leutner was suffering. When Lincoln was six weeks old, she stopped breastfeeding and started another in vitro cycle. Some days, says nanny Arleen Gonzalez, she was so exhausted that getting out of bed was too much.”She was not the same woman who hired me,” Gonzalez says.
Despite her declining health, Leutner returned to work in the middle of November. Around Thanksgiving, she tried to kill herself by jumping from a window. She was taken by ambulance to the hospital, where she spent 10 days in treatment.
Leutner had been home three days when Gonzalez arrived and found Lincoln alone. Just minutes before, Sporn had left Leutner lounging in bed. “Are you feeling up to going to work today?” he’d asked her. She said she thought that maybe she was. Then Sporn had headed downstairs to work out at the apartment building’s gym.
“I could hear the baby crying from the elevator,’ Gonzalez says. “I knew right away that something was wrong.”
Sporn ran up the stairs. He found Leutner in the stairwell, climbing over the railing. He grabbed her arm just before she slipped out of reach. She dangled, nothing between her and a 19-story fall but his grip. He pulled her to safety, but she fought him. He restrained her until police arrived.
Together, they rode in the ambulance to the hospital. She seemed calm. “I have to get to work,” she told Sporn. “I am working on some research for a client.”
At the hospital, she refused to allow the staff to speak to her psychiatrist. She was distant. Her body withered. Her cheeks became gaunt, her eyes sunken.
Sporn and Leutner had been planning to take a scouting trip to Burma over Christmas. He considered canceling, but he was emotionally exhausted. “It was tearing me apart that I couldn’t fix her,” he says. “I convinced myself that she just needed time.” He called the psychiatric ward and gave the doctors his professional opinion: Leutner was a danger to herself. Then he left her in the hospital. Lincoln, then five months old, he left with Gonzalez.
The doctors planned to keep Leutner three weeks, but on December 17, with the help of friend Myra DiDonato, Leutner checked out of the psychiatric unit and retrieved Lincoln. Convinced that Leutner did not need to be in the hospital, DiDonato told authorities that she “looked great” and that she had just been “going through a lot” with her boyfriend, according to government records.
Leutner sent the nanny a text message Dec. 28 to inform her that she had rented a second apartment because she “wanted more space for the baby.” Could Gonzalez work at the new address as well? When Sporn returned from Burma the next day, Leutner was packing up some of her things. Two days later, she left Lincoln with DiDonato, went to the apartment she had rented, and flung herself 14 stories to her death.
The state took Lincoln into custody.
No one notified Sporn. When he couldn’t get in touch with Leutner, he called her sister, Susan Sylvester, in a panic. Sylvester’s husband took a message. They did not return his call. He learned of Leutner’s death from child protective services.
Eleven days after Leutner died, The Community Free Democrats Club put together a memorial service at Fordham University. When the invitations went out, a club leader took Sporn aside and told him he wasn’t welcome. Because Leutner had moved out of Sporn’s house before her death, many felt she was trying to get away from him.
Rumors flew. Did Sporn go to Burma for a romantic vacation with his ex-wife? Was he was still married? Was he was using Leutner to have a baby because he and his wife couldn’t get pregnant? “People are acting like Sporn murdered her,” Flacks says.
Flacks, though, had a different theory. “LeAnn did not want to be leashed to anyone. She told me that repeatedly,” he says. “She and Sporn had been arguing over living arrangements. She wanted a bigger apartment, and he didn’t want to move. So she got a bigger apartment.”
On his way to the memorial, Sporn called several friends and asked them to meet him at the fountain in front of Lincoln Center; he didn’t want to walk in alone.
The lineup of speakers included Congressman Jerry Nadler and Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer. Nadler noted that the United States fails to give priority to mental illness. He was the only speaker to even allude to the sickness Leutner successfully hid for so long.
“Nobody said what happened,” says Evangelist. “To me it was insulting because we were there because we cared about her. Why not talk about it?”
About 220 people, mostly friends Leutner had made while serving as a Democratic district leader, came to pay their respects. While guests shared memories of Leutner in hushed tones, photos of her life flashed across a screen behind the podium. There was Leutner in Italy and Hawaii. There she was in pearls and heels at political fundraisers, at the ocean, suited up for a scuba diving expedition, and at the sand dunes, wearing hiking boots, long hair blowing in the wind. In several photos, she cradled Lincoln, beaming proudly.
Sporn made no appearance in the photos. He did not speak at the service, and he was not asked to write down his memories of Leutner for the special commemorative newsletter the club published in February.
“I feel like the world is against me,” he says. “I’m like the witch in the Salem Witch Trials.”
Both Sporn and Sylvester petitioned for custody of Lincoln. Sylvester filed in family court, where custody cases are considered private under New York law. Sporn, at the advice of his lawyers, filed in the Manhattan Supreme Court, where records are public.
“I am begging this court to assist me in piecing together the shattered pieces of my heart,” he wrote in his petition.
Within days, the story was picked up by the New York Times, the New York Daily News and the New York Post. Outrage over Sporn’s predicament lit the blogosphere. The story soon went international.
Much of the coverage delved into the social implications of Lincoln’s guardianship. Similar unconventional custody cases have been popping up with increasing frequency. In Texas, a judge is considering whether a woman who gave birth to twins using donor eggs can legally claim to be their mother after the man, a gay friend who donated the sperm, sued for custody. In Massachusetts, a court recently ordered a man to pay child support for twin girls born using donor sperm and eggs—even though he was estranged from his wife at the time of conception.
“Gay rights are moving forward; single women now account for 41 percent of all births,” wrote New York Times columnist Ginia Bellafante. “Americans build caring families with lovers, friends and neighbors; from one-night stands and anonymous providers of genetic material. And yet, even in a place as progressive as New York, the legal system has been slow to synchronize to these altered realities.”
In some form or another 35 states have attempted to address the issue of parental rights and in vitro fertilization. Most laws aim to allocate parental rights to intending parents, rather than sperm donors, egg donors, or surrogate mothers, says Naomi Cahn, a professor at George Washington University who specializes in reproductive law. For the most part, this prevents a donor or surrogate from making a claim on the child. Few states have addressed the rights of unmarried parents like Sporn.
“We need to decide when someone who has functioned as a parent is entitled to be recognized as a legal parent,” Cahn says.
Sporn and Sylvester, overwhelmed by the media frenzy, both petitioned the court to have the case sealed. (Though Sporn agreed to share memories of Leutner and Lincoln, he declined to discuss the custody proceedings with the Voice.)
“The future of a child, not yet eight months old, hangs in the balance of this case,” wrote Sporn’s lawyers. “Lincoln deserves to live his life without being forever subject to Internet and other publications which reveal intimate details about his mother and himself. If this case is allowed to be publicized, he will spend the rest of his life as the subject of ‘Google’ searches, insensitive inquires as to his background and scrutiny by strangers. It cannot be that he should be bound to such a life.”
Justice Laura Drager, who oversaw the custody proceeding in Manhattan Supreme Court, agreed.
After a social worker inspected Sporn’s and Sylvester’s homes in January, Drager found both living situations “to be appropriate for Lincoln.”
“I believe it would be in the best interest of the child to have this matter resolved as soon as possible,” Drager said. But she ruled that “the child will remain in the care of social services pending the outcome of the legal battle.”
For six months, while Lincoln was in foster care, Sporn got to visit him for a couple hours every three days. “Things are so accelerated during the first year of life,” Sporn lamented. “Every three days Lincoln is different.”
He watched wistfully as the baby bonded with his foster parents. When he talked about his life with Lincoln “when all this is over,” he considered plans to stay in New York so Lincoln could maintain a relationship with his foster parents. But as the months dragged on without resolution, the optimism drained from his voice.
“I may shoot myself before it’s over,” he said.
In June, Drager announced her decision to award custody of Lincoln to Sylvester.
Despite the fact that Sporn raised Lincoln as his own, he was fighting an uphill battle in family court, says Melissa Brisman, an attorney specializing in reproductive law. Because Sporn is not the biological father and he was not married to the child’s mother, New York law views him as a stranger. In some states, fathers have successfully argued that they cared for the child. But in New York, no one has ever won on that argument.
Sporn is in the process of appealing, but Brisman can’t give odds for his success.
“To the best of my knowledge,” she says, “there’s never been a case quite like this.”