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Prescription for violence?

Gebauer case draws notice of group linking crime, antidepressants

Sunday, June 01, 2003

By Joe Smydo, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Looking to bolster a theory linking antidepressants to adolescent violence, a group that studied the Columbine High School massacre has decided to follow the John Gebauer murder case.

The International Coalition for Drug Awareness -- counting dozens of cases in which juveniles reportedly hurt themselves or others while taking prescription drugs such as Paxil, Prozac, Celexa and Luvox -- wants Congress to hold hearings on whether the antidepressants are appropriate for young people.

Through monitoring of newspapers and the Internet, group members built a bank of cases to advance their claims. In the process, they became aware of Gebauer, 16, charged last year with fatally shooting his adoptive mother, Alison, and sexually abusing her corpse at the family's Fallowfield farm.

Gebauer, who faces a preliminary hearing June 18, acknowledged taking an antidepressant in an October 2000 school essay he wrote about his family life. He didn't identify the drug.

Washington County assistant public defender Thomas Cooke said Gebauer had been prescribed Prozac before coming to live with Alison and Edward Gebauer, who adopted him in 1999, but didn't know whether his client ever took the drug. Washington lawyer David DiCarlo, Gebauer's court-appointed guardian, declined comment.

Ann Blake Tracy, the coalition's executive director, said Prozac and other antidepressants can induce a state in which adults or juveniles act out their "worst nightmares." Tracy said she founded the nonprofit group in Salt Lake City, Utah, about 10 years ago to educate people about the risks and described teenagers as particularly vulnerable because of their developing minds and bodies.

She said Prozac, Luvox and Paxil belong to a family of drugs that, in fighting depression, restrict the brain's ability to metabolize the chemical serotonin. The coalition's Web site at drugawareness.org says serotonin "is the same brain chemical that LSD, PCP and other psychedelic drugs mimic in order to produce their hallucinogenic effects."

In some people, Tracy said, violent tendencies occur during use of the drugs and during withdrawal. If people aren't weaned from the drugs slowly, she said, violent behavior can linger for months or years.

"It begins to subside, but it can continue," she said.

A spokesman for the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America could not be reached for comment. But drug companies have refuted the coalition's claims and similar arguments by lawyers who took the companies to court.

Lisa Van Syckel, the coalition's New Jersey director, said she called Cooke last month after Common Pleas Judge Katherine B. Emery rejected Gebauer's motion to have his case heard in juvenile court. She said she wanted to alert Cooke to the drugs' effects on some people and speak about cases the group had investigated, including the 1999 Columbine massacre of 12 students and a teacher by trenchcoat-clad teens Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold.

"I know the Eric Harris file like the back of my hand ... I now understand how Columbine could have occurred," Van Syckel said, referring to the gunman's use of Luvox.

Cooke said he's willing to consider Van Syckel's information but doesn't know how, if at all, the group's concerns would fit into a defense strategy for Gebauer. He said he doesn't know whether there's a conclusive scientific basis for the theory of antidepressant-induced violence or whether it would be possible to isolate a drug's effects from the effects of a traumatic childhood.

Gebauer, 15 at the time of the shootings, lost his biological mother to cancer when he was 7. His father was out of his life by then, and the child was shuttled between foster homes for years before the Gebauers decided to adopt him.

Cooke said he still needs medical records to determine when Gebauer took Prozac, if at all. He said it doesn't appear Gebauer took an antidepressant while living in Washington County.

Van Syckel said she would consider traveling to Washington for Gebauer's trial.

The notion of antidepressant-induced violence has been introduced in court with mixed results.

Van Syckel said she helped Mark Taylor -- wounded multiple times by Harris -- to file suit against Luvox manufacturer Solvay Pharmaceuticals. In February, Taylor settled for a $10,000 contribution to the American Cancer Society.

Two years ago, a federal jury in Cheyenne, Wyo., ordered Paxil maker GlaxoSmithKline to pay $6.4 million to relatives of a man who fatally shot his wife, daughter, granddaughter and himself after 48 hours on the drug. It was the first major victory in such a case, with the jury finding the drug primarily responsible for the violence, said the plaintiffs' lawyer, Andy Vickery of Houston, Texas.

Vickery reached an undisclosed settlement for Melvin J. and Diane V. Cassidy of Monroeville, Allegheny County, in their lawsuit three years ago against Prozac maker Eli Lilly and Co. The suit alleged Diane Cassidy attempted suicide because of the drug.

While Tracy blames the drugs' impact on serotonin levels, Vickery offered a somewhat different theory. He said a small percentage of people may have difficulty metabolizing the drugs and act aggressively when the medications build inside them.

Vickery, who chronicles some of his cases on the Web site at justiceseekers.com said drug companies are liable because they haven't adequately warned consumers about the danger.

Some lawyers also have assailed the drugs in criminal cases.

Psychiatrist Peter R. Breggin says on his Web site at breggin.com that his expert testimony persuaded a South Carolina judge to reduce the sentence of a man who committed rape after taking Paxil and a Virginia judge to reduce the sentence of a man who shot his wife and a sheriff's deputy after taking Prozac and other drugs.

Columbine is one of many cases the coalition cites in letters to elected officials demanding better regulation of the drugs. One case hits close to home for Van Syckel, who said her family's story will be told in the August issue of Good Housekeeping magazine.

She said she became active in the coalition after her daughter, Michelle, a high school senior, four years ago complained of ill health, mistakenly was diagnosed with depression and was prescribed a variety of antidepressants. Van Syckel said she saw sweeping changes in an honor-roll student who spoke French fluently, had no history of drug or alcohol abuse and hailed from a stable family.

She said her daughter cut herself dozens of times with knives, razors and jagged pieces of compact disc cases. "She even cut the word 'die' in her abdomen" and threatened to kill her mother with an ax, Van Syckel said in a July 30 letter to President Bush that urged him to act on her concerns about the drugs.

Van Syckel said her daughter had Lyme disease, not depression, and was evidently infected by a tick when the family settled in New Jersey after living five years in Belgium.

Meanwhile, the Van Syckels have sued the doctors who misdiagnosed Michelle and the hospitals where she was treated. The case has not been resolved.

"Her beautiful smile and wonderful disposition have returned, and she has been treated for her Lyme disease," Van Syckel told Bush. However, the letter said Michelle has irreversible brain damage and other problems.

Van Syckel said she wasn't satisfied with Bush's response, which arrived in the form of a letter from a U.S. Food and Drug Administration official who asked the family to file a formal report about Michelle's reaction to the drugs. On a more positive note, she said, a handful of congressman have come out in support of hearings on the issue.

U.S. Rep. Tim Murphy, R-Upper St. Clair, a child psychologist who took office in January, said he did not know whether his office had been contacted by the coalition. But Murphy, co-chairman of the Mental Health Caucus, said he's willing to listen.

"I'll certainly review anything they send to me on that," he said.

Joe Smydo can be reached by at jsmydo@post-gazette.com or 724-746-8812.

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