This was the trial following the murder spree of Joseph Wesbecker at his place of work in Louisville, Kentucky, which led to the death of 8 employees at the Standard Gravure plant followed by his own suicide.
Joseph Wesbecker was born in 1942. His father died when he was a year old leaving him to be brought up by his sixteen year old mother, Martha. He had a poor and difficult childhood, looked after by Martha and other relatives as well as spending time in an orphanage. In his twenties he began work as a printing press operator in the Standard Gravure plant in Louisville, Kentucky. He worked his way up the trade to a journeyman’s card.
He married and had two sons. In the 1970s, the printing industry ran into difficulties. The pressure on Wesbecker and his colleagues increased as more work was asked of fewer employees. When Mike Shea, using money from the workers’ pension fund to defray the purchase cost, bought Standard Gravure, employees began carrying guns to work, and threats became commonplace. Strained at work, Wesbecker’s first and later a second marriage broke down[i].
Wesbecker began to see psychiatrists and was diagnosed as having depression. He made a suicide attempt and was subsequently put on a number of different medications. In the summer of 1988, his physician, Lee Coleman, prescribed him the recently released new wonder drug, Prozac. Wesbecker stopped Prozac after two days, claiming it didn’t suit him. He went on disability in the spring of 1989. He had begun to dread the job and was concerned about going back. Then his disability payments were cut.
On August 10th 1989, Coleman suggested trying Prozac again. When he next saw Wesbecker a month later Coleman thought Wesbecker was much more agitated and volatile. Coleman wanted to stop the drug and made a note to this effect, but Wesbecker, who had fifteen days of pills left, refused to stop. It had helped, he claimed. When Coleman asked how it had helped, Wesbecker said it had helped him to remember an incident at work where he had been required to perform an act of oral sex with one of the foremen while his co-workers watched. This according to Wesbecker had been put to him as the price of getting off a particular printing press he hated.
Coleman when later deposed testified: “I knew that Prozac in some people could cause nervousness, can cause agitation, can cause sleep problems, plus I had started him on it three or four weeks before. When you start a new medication and something different happens, you tend to suppose that it’s the medication that is causing it within that period of time”.
A number of Wesbecker’s friends later reported that over the next few days he was agitated, his sleep was poor, his appearance unkempt, and he was pacing endlessly. On the morning of the 14th of September, he was seen by his ex-wife Brenda who said, “he was more nervous than I’d ever seen him”. His son James said, “he really wasn’t the same person”.
Later that day, Wesbecker went to the printing presses, with an AK47 and other guns and walked through the plant shooting at his former colleagues. He killed eight and severely wounded twelve others, before shooting himself dead.
Did Wesbecker’s Prozac play a part in the events of September 14th? On the one hand he was at risk for suicide and the printing press was an accident waiting to happen, but on the other hand his history contains evidence of prior intolerance to Prozac and evidence of decompensation when re-exposed to it. The almost psychotic developments where he began to talk about non-existent sexual abuse, during his final course of treatment, had been reported in other settings, was found in Lilly’s trials with Prozac, and has been reported since on Prozac. Something similar had led to the discovery of the first tricyclic antidepressant, imipramine. If Prozac lit the fuse, was this an idiosyncratic reaction as might happen with almost any drug including Aspirin or did Lilly know that catastrophic deterioration of this kind might happen more often than would be expected on an idiosyncratic basis?
Along with the trial transcript are the depositions of Charles Beasley, John Heiligenstein Clinical Research Officers, Eli Lilly, Leigh Thompson Chief Scientist of Eli Lilly, Richard Wood who had been the Chief Executive Officer of Eli Lilly, Joachim Wernicke, Irwin Slater who was responsible for keeping the drug alive in the company when it appeared ineffective in early trials and Ray Fuller who was the pharmacologist responsible for early testing of the drug.
The Fentress/Wesbecker trial gave rise to a series of hearings afterwards, which overturned the verdict in favour of Lilly and dismissed the case as settled. The background to these hearings is outlined in an Amicus Brief to the court and a verdict from the Kentucky Supreme Court.[i] Cornwell J. The Power to Harm. Mind, Medicine and Murder on Trial. Viking, New York (1996)
After 30 years, the truth is confirmed—Eli Lilly, the maker of Prozac, secretly paid off plaintiffs in a court case.
The plaintiffs were families of victims killed by a man who went violently crazy after taking Prozac.
The mass shooting took place in 1989, in Kentucky. I covered the case in 1999, by which time the Lilly payoff was an open secret among some lawyers, doctors, and reporters.
But NOW we have confessions from the plaintiffs who took Lilly’s money. In the trial, Eli Lilly was exonerated, absolved of any blame for murders by the jury.
Ahrp.org: “The Louisville Courier Journal reports that thirty years after Joseph Wesbecker went on a deadly shooting rampage in Louisville Kentucky, on September 14, 1989, the families and survivors of his actions have finally come forward to tell the truth. They were plaintiffs in a lawsuit against Eli Lilly because they had reason to believe that Prozac, manufactured by Lilly, had been the trigger that propelled Wesbecker on his violent rampage. Eli Lilly had paid these plaintiffs $20 million in hush money to conceal damaging evidence about Lilly’s culpability in marketing defective, deadly drugs from the jury in the Wesbecker- Eli Lilly trial.”
The Louisville Courier Journal: “On the eve of the jury’s verdict, which absolved Lilly of liability, the company made the secret payment without telling the judge overseeing the case. In exchange for the payment, the plaintiffs – eight estates and 11 survivors – agreed to withhold damaging evidence about the arthritis drug Oraflex that Lilly withdrew from the market. Lilly [had previously] pleaded guilty to 25 criminal misdemeanor counts for failing to report adverse reactions that patients suffered from the drug [Oraflex], and the drug company feared that the Prozac jury would be more inclined to rule against the drugmaker [on Prozac] if it learned of it.”
In other words, the court, which was willing to hear evidence about Lilly’s Oraflex cover-up, never did hear that evidence, which would have alerted the jury that Eli Lilly had a track record of concealing damning truths about its drugs.
AHRP: “Circuit Judge John Potter, the judge in the [Prozac] case, suspected that Lilly bribed plaintiffs and their lawyers before the jury verdict. He uncovered evidence of bribery, and fought Eli Lilly for years but failed to obtain [proof of] the terms of the [Prozac payoff] deal. Lilly succeeded in keeping its criminal action from a judicial proceeding. As is Eli Lilly’s norm and practice; it trashed the judge for his pursuit of the truth.”
The Louisville Courier Journal: “The drugmaker that produces Prozac, the antidepressant that Joseph Wesbecker’s victims blamed for his deadly shooting rampage 30 years ago at Standard Gravure, secretly paid the victims $20 million [in 1994] to help ensure a verdict exonerating the drug company. Indianapolis-based Eli Lilly vigorously shielded the payment for more than two decades, defying a Louisville judge who fought to reveal it because he said it swayed the jury’s verdict.”
“Wesbecker began taking Prozac about a month before his murderous spree that killed eight and wounded 12 in the print shop attached to the Courier Journal. All but one of the victims sued Eli Lilly, the company that manufactured the popular but controversial drug.”
“On Sept. 14, 1989, Wesbecker, a pressman who had been placed on long-term disability leave for severe mental illness, entered Standard Gravure around 8:30 a.m., carrying a bag full of weapons, including a semiautomatic rifle. Over the next 30 minutes, Wesbecker walked through the building, firing more than 40 rounds at those he encountered before shooting himself in the [head] with a handgun. It is the worst mass shooting in Kentucky’s history.”
You need to understand that a diagnosis of “severe mental illness” is a far cry from “killing eight people and wounding 12 people.” The two factors are not automatically connected as cause and effect. If they were, we would see a dozen mass murders every day. That said, according to press reports, Wesbecker did have thoughts about committing violence before he was started on Prozac, and even made threats to commit murder. But he didn’t kill anyone until after taking Prozac. And the charge against Prozac was: it was the chemical trigger that pushed Wesbecker over the edge from thought into horrific action. (In that regard, see the brief collection of studies I cite below.) In any event, no argument about motivations for murder justifies Eli Lilly’s $20 million bribe to the plaintiffs. Lilly wanted an absolute slam dunk in the Wesbecker trial, to protect itself from many other law suits where, no doubt, the role of Prozac in suicide and murder was more vivid.
You also need to understand the status of Prozac in the years leading up to the rigged 1994 trial in Kentucky that falsely exonerated Eli Lilly. I’m talking about media coverage, psychiatric literature, the court system, and the mindset of the public. Prozac was precariously perched on a ledge. Would it gain universal acceptance? Would it be exposed as a gross danger? At the time of the Kentucky court case, there were roughly 100 other law suits against the drug heading toward trial. The outcome of the Kentucky Wesbecker case would send a powerful signal to lawyers and plaintiffs about the odds of winning judgments against Eli Lilly and Prozac. If Lilly were exonerated in Kentucky (and it was, through payoffs), lawyers in other such cases would back off. They would see little point in trying to prove Prozac was a grave danger.
Here is some background about Prozac in those years. It illustrates how great the threat was to Eli Lilly’s blockbuster antidepressant then—and, by comparison, how little any concern is allowed into the public arena now.
On February 7th, 1991, Amy Marcus’ Wall Street Journal article on the drug carried the headline, “Murder Trials Introduce Prozac Defense.” She wrote, “A spate of murder trials in which defendants claim they became violent when they took the antidepressant Prozac are imposing new problems for the drug’s maker, Eli Lilly and Co.”
Also on February 7, 1991, the New York Times ran a Prozac piece headlined, “Suicidal Behavior Tied Again to Drug: Does Antidepressant Prompt Violence?”
In his landmark book, Toxic Psychiatry, Dr. Breggin mentions that the Donahue show (Feb. 28, 1991) “put together a group of individuals who had become compulsively self-destructive and murderous after taking Prozac and the clamorous telephone and audience response confirmed the problem.”
Breggin also cites a troubling study from the February 1990 American Journal of Psychiatry (Teicher et al, v.147:207-210) which reports on “six depressed patients, previously free of recent suicidal ideation, who developed intense, violent suicidal preoccupations after 2-7 weeks of fluoxetine [Prozac] treatment. The suicidal preoccupations lasted from three days to three months after termination of the treatment. The report estimates that 3.5 percent of Prozac users were at risk. While denying the validity of the study, Dista Products, a division of Eli Lilly, put out a brochure for doctors dated August 31, 1990, stating that it was adding ‘suicidal ideation’ to the adverse events section of its Prozac product information.”
An earlier study, from the September 1989 Journal of Clinical Psychiatry, by Joseph Lipiniski, Jr., indicates that, in five examined cases, people on Prozac developed what is called akathisia. Symptoms include intense anxiety, inability to sleep, the “jerking of extremities,” and “bicycling in bed or just turning around and around.” Breggin comments that akathisia “may also contribute to the drug’s tendency to cause self-destructive or violent tendencies … Akathisia can become the equivalent of biochemical torture and could possibly tip someone over the edge into self-destructive or violent behavior … The June 1990 Health Newsletter, produced by the Public Citizen Research Group, reports, ‘Akathisia, or symptoms of restlessness, constant pacing, and purposeless movements of the feet and legs, may occur in 10-25 percent of patients on Prozac.’”
There are other studies: “Emergence of self-destructive phenomena in children and adolescents during fluoxetine [Prozac] treatment,” published in the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (1991, vol.30), written by RA King, RA Riddle, et al. It reports self-destructive phenomena in 14% (6/42) of children and adolescents (10-17 years old) who had treatment with fluoxetine (Prozac) for obsessive-compulsive disorder.
July, 1991. Journal of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. Hisako Koizumi, MD, describes a thirteen-year-old boy who was on Prozac: “full of energy,” “hyperactive,” “clown-like.” All this devolved into sudden violent actions which were “totally unlike him.”
September, 1991. The Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. Author Laurence Jerome reports the case of a ten-year old who moves with his family to a new location. Becoming depressed, the boy is put on Prozac by a doctor. The boy is then “hyperactive, agitated … irritable.” He makes a “somewhat grandiose assessment of his own abilities.” Then he calls a stranger on the phone and says he is going to kill him. The Prozac is stopped, and the symptoms disappear.
(What is true about Prozac is true about Paxil or Zoloft or any of the other SSRI antidepressants. And be warned: suddenly withdrawing from any psychiatric drug can be extremely dangerous to the patient. Gradual withdrawal must be done under the supervision of a professional who understands exactly what he/she is doing.)
So—A drug company, Eli Lilly; a drug, Prozac; mass murder; trust; betrayal.
A final piece of the truth now comes to light in the Wesbecker case.
In this sordid drama, there are many other actors. I’ve covered them in other articles. But I can’t let this article end without mentioning the FDA, the sole federal agency responsible for certifying all medical drugs as safe and effective for public use. That agency went rogue a long, long time ago. It takes no responsibility for launching killer chemicals on the population. It operates as a colluding partner with the pharmaceutical industry. Trusting the FDA to protect people from drugs such as Prozac is like trusting a PR company, hired to promote war, to maintain the peace.