The Toledo Blade
By JENNIFER FEEHAN, BLADE STAFF WRITER
July 30, 2006
FORT JENNINGS, Ohio – Amy Luebrecht’s support for her husband 14 months after he drowned their youngest son in the bathtub is unwavering.“Only briefly – I can’t even tell you how briefly – that afternoon I had just a little bit of anger,” she said. “By that evening I had forgiven him. I knew there was no way Mike could have done this. This was not Mike. I knew how much he was struggling. I knew how much he loved the kids. I knew family was his top priority.”For 20 years, Michael Luebrecht had battled mental illness. His case, his wife said, bears chilling similarities to that of Andrea Yates – the Texas woman found not guilty by reason of insanity Wednesday for drowning her five children.
“She, like my husband, has a medical file, a psychiatric file that’s inches thick,” Mrs. Luebrecht, 38, said in a recent interview at her home in this small Putnam County town about 80 miles southwest of Toledo. “She had mental illness. She tried to get help. She was hospitalized shortly before the killings, and they sent her home. Michael tried to get help and they sent him home to his family. We’re just blessed we didn’t end up like the Yates family with one survivor or no survivors.”
Like Mrs. Yates, Luebrecht, 38, was taking several medications to deal with his obsessive-compulsive disorder and depression, including Effexor, an anti-depressant that now has a label that warns users of a possible risk of homicidal thoughts.Mrs. Luebrecht wonders how and why such drugs are on the market. And she wonders why the justice system put her husband behind bars for 25 years rather than in a secure mental hospital where he could get help.
“I’m still so caught up in the injustice of the situation. I still can’t rest,” Mrs. Luebrecht said.
Illness takes root
Mrs. Luebrecht, who works at the local post office, met her future husband at church. They became friends and fell in love.
“He was very kind,” she recalled. “He was just joyful. He just had the joy of the Lord. He really loved other people a lot. He was just willing to serve. He loved to serve others.”Mrs. Luebrecht said she knew of his struggles with mental illness before they married in 1992 – he had been hospitalized for depression as a teenager – but she said his illness had always been manageable. Family photographs of Luebrecht show a handsome young man with bright eyes and a beautiful smile, but pictures taken in the year before Joel’s death show a gradual change – forced smiles, vacant eyes, and a widening of his face his wife said was brought on by the anti-psychotic drug Zyprexa, which has possible side-effects that may include weight gain.
Mrs. Luebrecht said that in the 11 months leading up to the crime, her husband had become so debilitated that he was unable to work at his longtime job as a bricklayer and spent most of his days in bed. If he got out of bed at all, she said, it was to play catch with their 9-year-old son, Lucas, push 5-year-old Seth on the swing, or enjoy 13-month-old Joel’s bubbly personality.
In March, he had told his psychologist he’d had thoughts of killing his children, prompting his psychiatrist to increase his dosages of Effexor and Wellbutrin. Mrs. Luebrecht said the psychiatrist did not think it was necessary to see her husband before his next regular appointment, and she probably took false assurance from his nonchalance.
“Just the thought that he could do something like that was unthinkable,” she said. “He never had a violent history ever.”The unthinkable
On May 23, 2005, Mrs. Luebrecht was notified at work to come home. Her youngest son was dead. Her husband had confessed to drowning him.Though devastated by the loss of Joel, she said she began to hope for her husband’s future.”I wasn’t actually worried at first about what would happen to Mike,” she said. “I thought Mike would finally get the help he needed. I thought he would get help, but he never did.”
On June 6, Luebrecht was indicted by a Putnam County grand jury on a charge of aggravated murder with a death-penalty specification. His court-appointed attorney, Bill Kluge of Lima, entered a plea of not guilty by reason of insanity.Although it’s rare for a criminal defendant to meet the insanity standard, Mr. Kluge said he was convinced Luebrecht would. In Ohio, as in Texas, a defendant must prove a severe mental disease or defect prevented him from understanding the offense was wrong.Luebrecht was evaluated at the Court Diagnostic and Treatment Center in Toledo and later by a forensic psychologist from San Diego. Neither concluded Luebrecht was insane when he drowned his son.”That’s a high hurdle to cross,” Mr. Kluge said. “The classic case of an [insanity defense] is, I kill somebody and then I stand around afterward wondering what to do next. Anything that shows prior preparation or subsequent preparation to leave after the incident indicates it’s not an [insanity situation] because it shows you were aware of the wrongfulness of your actions.”In Luebrecht’s case, it appeared to investigators that he had planned his son’s murder. He had driven to the babysitter’s house, told her he was taking Joel to a doctor’s appointment, driven home, filled the bathtub with water, and held his son underwater. Afterward, he wrote a note to his wife and packed some clothing in a plastic grocery bag. He also called 911, told the operator he had drowned his son, and administered CPR at the operator’s direction.Without expert testimony to back up an insanity claim, Mr. Kluge said he did not believe Luebrecht could pursue an insanity defense. In February, Luebrecht pleaded guilty to aggravated murder in exchange for the dismissal of the death-penalty specification. In March, Putnam County Common Pleas Judge Randall Basinger sentenced him to life in prison with the possibility of parole after 25 years.Mrs. Luebrecht and her two sons now visit him twice a month at the Warren Correctional Institution near Lebanon, Ohio.”He told me he was sorry but he still doesn’t know why,” she said. “He doesn’t know why he did it, but he felt like he had to and he felt like he was in a trance or a dream.”Issue of insanity
While she does not try to excuse her husband’s crime, Mrs. Luebrecht said she believes Ohio law should be changed to more appropriately deal with defendants who have documented mental illnesses.Toledo attorney Sheldon Wittenberg has filed and withdrawn insanity pleas for numerous defendants over the years. Only one of his clients cleared the legal hurdle.In 2002, Daniel Rodgers was found not guilty by reason of insanity in Wood County Common Pleas Court after he stabbed a stranger walking down the street in Bradner then went back to his garbage truck route. He too had a history of mental illness.”It’s a very high hurdle, as it should be,” Mr. Wittenberg said. “I think what the public fails to know, though, is that an individual found [not guilty by reason of insanity] isn’t set free. He’s set up for treatment for as long as the underlying sentence to the original charge would have kept him there or until he’s found to be well.”Not alone in support
While the legal issues surrounding her husband’s case disturb her, Mrs. Luebrecht said she’s also troubled by the influence the medication he was prescribed by his psychiatrist may have had on him.In November, 2005 – six months after Luebrecht killed their son – drugmaker Wyeth Pharmaceuticals Inc. began including “homicidal ideation” as a “rare adverse event” Effexor users could experience.Ann Blake Tracy is on a campaign to have such drugs banned.”Since when is [homicidal ideation] an accepted side effect? It’s OK to kill somebody?” said an incredulous Ms. Tracy, executive director of the International Coalition for Drug Awareness. “I think this would probably be the first time I can think of in the history of this country that we’ve allowed a drug on the market that causes homicide.”Wyeth Spokesman Natalie de Vane said homicidal thoughts are not a side effect of the drug. She said the company added “homicidal ideation” to Effexor’s label because during testing of the drug, one participant reported having homicidal thoughts “which may or may not have to do with the drug.”Two weeks ago, Mrs. Luebrecht flew to Houston to take part in a news conference held by Ms. Tracy’s coalition outside the courthouse where Andrea Yates was on trial. There, she met with survivors like Russell Yates, who divorced his wife Andrea but supported her insanity defense.”We were all blindsided by this,” Mrs. Luebrecht said.She is now committed to trying to change things for her husband and others like him.”I would testify before Congress. I would do anything I can,” she said. “It’s just incredible that people are following doctor’s orders and it ruins the entire rest of their life. If I could help this not to happen to one person, it would be worth it to me.”Contact Jennifer Feehan at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-353-5972.