By Love Deceived

updated 11/03/1997 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 11/03/1997 AT 01:00 AM EST

WHEN DOROTHY ZAUHAR PICKED up her fiancé, Richard McNutt, from Minneapolis's University of Minnesota Hospital on July 10, 1996, she had every reason to celebrate. McNutt had just undergone a successful kidney transplant—the organ having been bravely donated by Zauhar's brother John Dahl—and now the long-planned wedding was just two weeks away. But, Zauhar recalls, "I don't think we were even out of the parking lot when he said, 'My doctor said I can't be under stress for three months.' " That was the moment, says Zauhar, that she realized the wedding plans were off and decided she and her brother may have been betrayed by McNutt. "I just felt very hurt that he could possibly do something like this," she says. "I felt that I was used."

Today, Zauhar, 59, and Dahl, 54, have intentions of their own. On Sept. 29 they filed suit against McNutt in St. Louis County District Court, seeking at least $150,000 and charging that McNutt repeatedly misled them by guaranteeing Zauhar's future happiness and reneging on an agreement to compensate her brother if Dahl donated his kidney. While it is against federal law to exchange human organs for material obligations, Zauhar believes her moral rights will be recognized.

McNutt, 64, claims to be deeply hurt by the lawsuit. His lawyer Nicholas Ostapenko, in a written statement, says, "Mr. Dahl...convinced a battery of psychologists, social workers and physicians... that his sole motivation was humanitarian." His client, he adds, "fully believed he was the beneficiary of a true gift." And McNutt won't be making up with Zauhar. On June 28 he married Patti Sue Bennett, 43, a nurse who tended to him when he was a dialysis patient.

It was in April 1994 that Zauhar, a real estate salesperson and licensed practical nurse, was introduced to McNutt by a mutual friend during a weekend at the friend's vacation cabin in Iron River, Wis. She was impressed. McNutt was a charming, thrice-divorced, Harvard-educated entrepreneur who had built a local fuel-oil business into a profitable chain of gas stations. Zauhar, the mother of three grown children who was divorced from her first husband in 1983, hadn't been so happy in years. "We enjoyed each other's company," she says. "I can remember sitting there with him saying, 'It's so much fun to laugh.' "

Soon, McNutt was calling her daily and providing Zauhar with more than just laughter. The week after they met, he invited her to stay at his summer house, where they consummated what became, in her words, "a lovely, hot, passionate love affair." The two quickly settled into Zauhar's two-bedroom duplex in Duluth. McNutt gave her a monthly allowance, often paid her Visa bills and purchased a $500,000, 5,000-square-foot house with her on Duluth's Pike Lake. "I thought I had died and gone to heaven," says Zauhar. "I thought I had everything."

By the fall of 1994, McNutt—who suffered from a congenital kidney defect—told her he needed a transplant. She immediately offered one of her own. "I felt that was the biggest act of love that somebody could do for somebody else," she says.

Although she was a good match, Zauhar was turned down by doctors because of a prior medical condition—a blood clot in her lung—that disallowed her from undergoing the surgery. According to the suit, when none of Mc-Nutt's eight children came forward and a childhood friend who had volunteered didn't pan out, Zauhar made her offer again, this time concealing her condition. But the hospital staff remembered her earlier application. "I was willing to die for him," she says.

It was then that Dahl came to the rescue. "It was for Dorothy's sake," he says. "We both were sent to an orphanage when we were very young. Our parents were unfit—they were alcoholics." Still, Dahl asked McNutt to reimburse him for lost income and, in case he didn't survive the procedure, to establish a life insurance policy in his name with his wife as beneficiary. McNutt, Dahl says now, did neither.

The end of the affair played out slowly. Though McNutt and Zauhar continued living together after the transplant, says Zauhar, he began taking secret trips with Bennett. Last March, Zauhar finally moved out. Now she wants her due. "Life doesn't always go the way it should, and you can't force anybody to love you," she says. "But Mr. McNutt should not have taken a kidney from my brother."

ALEG FOEGE
LORNA GRISBY in Duluth

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