Evelyn Pringle February 6, 2006
Gail and Rhonda Schmidkunz describes their 20-year-old son Zach as an "All American Boy," with no criminal record and no history of angry outbursts or losing his temper. However, this non-violent, law-abiding "All American Boy" is now serving a 35-year prison sentence for killing a friend after he abruptly stopped taking the SSRI, Zoloft.
In an all too familiar story by now, a family doctor sent Zach home with samples packs of Zoloft because he was depressed, without advising Zach about any of the adverse events he might experience. He took the pills for 21 days and then stopped because he felt the drug was not helping.
"Zach stopped taking the Zoloft on a Friday," Gail notes. "By Saturday, there were symptoms of discontinuation syndrome," he recalls. "They continued to intensify through Monday when the murder happened," he said.
Without knowing about the problems with the drug, Gail explains, Zach missed the signs that might have warned him that he was having a withdrawal reaction from Zoloft.
During a chat session on the internet with a friend, Zach said that he was depressed and saw no reason to live and was considering suicide. The friend was a girl and offered to come over and talk. During the visit, she said that depressed people usually kill themselves which apparently set Zach off.
He drove off in a rage, and three hours later when his head began to clear, he thought he remembered shooting someone.
Zach went and turned himself in to police, Gail said, but he did not know that he had murdered the girl until he was charged.
The rage that he felt was like nothing he ever felt before, Zach told his father and mother. "The intensity was indescribable," he told Gail.
Like so many other people who have committed violent acts while on SSRIs, Zach said, "it was like watching himself in a movie going to get the shotgun."
"He had this over-powering urge to shoot something and tried to stop himself but was powerless to do so," he told his parents.
At the criminal trial, Dr Maureen Hackett, a forensic psychiatrist from Minneapolis, who had evaluated Zach, testified that abruptly stopping the drug had lead to "a discontinuation syndrome rage and insanity that caused the homicide."
However, with the help of a Zoloft manual provided by Pfizer, Gail says, the "prosecutor convinced the jury my son was a monster and that Dr. Hackett was a hired gun bought for a price and would tell the court whatever we wanted her to say."
"What is important in this case," he points out, "is that we had an expert that proved that discontinuation syndrome is real and established in the medical community."
Gail urges everyone who has had an adverse reaction to an SSRI to contact their lawmakers and tell their story.
"Somehow," he says, "we need to pressure the FDA and the drug companies to come clean about the dangers of these drugs and make them responsible for the lives their drugs have destroyed."
Joyce Storey's son, Brian, was also called an "All American Boy" in the media, and according to Joyce, he was.
This mother's "All American Boy" is now serving life in prison without the possibility of parole for a murder he committed while on Zoloft
Brian was 17-years-old when the family doctor diagnosed him with depression and put him on Zoloft. Once again, the family was not warned about any side effects of the drug and in fact, the doctor told Joyce, "even if a person is drinking or doing drugs, that Zoloft works well with them."
Brian killed a woman five days after he began taking the drug. Authorities found no illegal drugs in his system, only Zoloft.
The psychiatrist that examined him after the crime, a faculty member at Yale University, Dr James Merkangis, testified that Brian had suffered a manic reaction to Zoloft.
Like so many children who commit violent crimes while on SSRIs, Brian told Dr Merkangis that his recollection of the crime "was like being in a dream."
Six months after Brian's arrest, another boy at his high school, Jeff Franklin, attacked his parents and three of his brothers and sisters with an ax while on Prozac.
"Both of his parents died and Jeff is now serving two life sentences," Joyce said. "This is not a coincidence," she warns, "there is a common denominator, teenager, severely depressed, on an SSRI antidepressant."
According to Joyce, "there are 6 to 8 million children on these drugs."
"The question is why are we handing these drugs out like candy," she wants to know.
"The answer is a $17 billion a year business," she says.
In Washington state, on April 15, 2001, 16-year-old Cory Baadsgaard took a hunting rifle to school and held a teacher and 23 classmates hostage for 45 minutes.
A few months earlier, Corey had been diagnosed as having a social anxiety disorder, and was prescribed Paxil by the family doctor. When Paxil did not seem to work, the doctor upped the dose.
A few months later when Paxil still did not seem to work, the doctor took Corey off the drug and placed him on another SSRI, Effexor, with instructions to gradually increase the dose to 300 milligrams over 3 weeks.
The day that Corey took the first full 300 milligram dose, he did not feel well so he stayed home from school and went back to bed. That evening he woke up in a juvenile detention center.
Corey had no idea what he had done. "I asked one of the members of the juvenile detention center and I found out that I had taken my high-powered rifle that I use for hunting to my third period class, took 23 of my classmates hostage and teacher hostage," he said.
Cory has no recollection of his actions that day although he had plenty of time to try and remember as he sat in jail for 14 months before being released based on testimony by psychiatrists explaining the adverse effects of Paxil and Effexor.
Before this incident, Corey had never been violent and he has never been violent since.
One of his friends who watched Corey at school that day described his actions to his father, Jay. "Cory was yelling" he said, "and then he just stopped, looked down and saw the gun in his hand and woke up."
Delnora Duprey is a grandmother who mourns the loss of the years since she has seen her grandson Christopher play ball, ride a bike, talk on the phone, or run in to ask, "hey, grandma, what's for dinner?"
According to Delnora, Chris is a tall, thin quiet boy, well-liked and respectful to everyone, "who loved his family dearly, and had hopes and dreams for a future."
The family's nightmare began when at 12-years-old, Chris was diagnosed with depression, and "placed on medication that was never tested on children and never meant for their use," according to Delnora.
After Christopher became depressed and threatened to commit suicide, he was hospitalized and put on Paxil. A short time later his father sent him to South Carolina to live with his paternal grandparents. By all accounts, Christopher liked living there and truly loved his grandparents.
When it came time to refill the Paxil prescription, his grandparents took him to their family doctor who had no Paxil and sent Christopher home with a bag of sample packets of Zoloft instead, and wrote the instructions for use on the outside of the bag.
For the record, in Pfizer's 2004 Annual Report, under product description, it says that Zoloft is not approved for treating pediatric patients. Christopher was a 12-year-old child at the time he was sent home with a bag of Zoloft.
He was never weaned off Paxil before the drugs were switched and Paxil has a well-documented history of side effects itself. When Christopher complained about how the medication made him feel, the doctor upped the dose to 200 milligrams
About 48 hours later the 6th grader shot and killed his paternal grandparents as they slept and burned the house down around them.
Christopher was tried as an adult, and despite testimony by two psychiatrists that he was "involuntarily intoxicated" on Zoloft at the time of the crimes, the jury found him guilty.
Prior to being placed on SSRIs, Christopher "was a sweet boy who never hurt himself or anyone else before," she added.
A child like Christopher could not have possibly known what he was up against in the courtroom, when it came to convincing members of the jury of his guilt or innocence depending on their understanding of the adverse effects of Zoloft.
Realizing how costly it would become if a jury were to blame Zoloft for the crimes, Pfizer got involved behind the scenes and provided the prosecutor with guidance on how to cross-examine expert witnesses like Dr Anne Blake Tracy and Dr Peter Breggin, who were scheduled to appear and testify on Christopher's behalf.
State Prosecutor, John Justice, admitted during a court hearing that Pfizer had provided him with information to help him prepare for the trial. As it turns out, the company had provided FDA reports along with instructions for their interpretation and presentation in court, in addition to records of previous testimony given in other cases by Christopher's expert witnesses.
South Carolina has a minimum 30 year prison sentence for adults who commit murder. Christopher's aunt, Melinda Pittman Rector, the daughter of his murdered grandparents, appeared at the sentencing hearing and begged the judge for leniency, saying that her parents would want the court to show mercy toward their grandson.
Even after listening to his aunt's plea for mercy, the judge sentenced Christopher to the full 30 years in an adult penitentiary.
In a letter written in jail, Christopher describes the same recollection about the night he killed his grandparents that so many other children on SSRIs have described when committing violent crimes.
"Through the whole thing, it was like watching your favorite TV show," Christopher wrote, "you know what is going to happen but you can't do anything to stop it."
Last summer the South Carolina Supreme Court agreed to hear Christopher's appeal and needless to say, his family members, as well as advocates from all over the country are hoping for a reversal of the guilty verdict.
But the headlines with stories about children committing violent acts due to the adverse effects of SSRIs seem like they will never end.
On January 26, 2006, a psychologist on Court TV reported that Cody Posey, the 14-year-old child who killed his parents and his sister in the summer of 2004, was on Zoloft at the time that of the murders.
Cody started taking Zoloft on April 20, 2004 and killed his family members on July 5, 2004. His father was the range manager for the well-known TV reporter Sam Donaldson.