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By Shawna Morrison
Rodney Startz said he stopped taking antidepressants a few weeks before shooting his former girlfriend.
DUBLIN — Behind an acrylic window in the New River Valley Regional Jail, Rodney Startz held up the papers that he thinks explain what led him to kill.
There are stacks of them, articles printed from the Internet with titles like “Judge reduces sentences in latest Paxil and Prozac criminal cases” and “Source: Suspect was taking drugs for depression.”
Startz said the articles could easily be about him.
If he hadn’t been coming off the antidepressant drug Lexapro in February 2006, Startz said, he would not have walked into the Fairlawn Wal-Mart and fatally shot his ex-girlfriend, Donna Jean Angelo.
The 46-year-old Radford man pleaded guilty to first-degree murder in December, but on Wednesday he’ll ask Circuit Court Judge Bobby Turk to withdraw that plea.
“Courts tend to frown upon such efforts,” said Scott Sundby, a law professor at Washington and Lee University. Before accepting a guilty plea, a judge always asks a series of questions to make sure the defendant understands what is happening.
“The defendant usually will have been advised by an attorney on the wisdom of the plea,” Sundby said. “Courts are most likely to allow the withdrawal of the plea, therefore, where they find that the defendant for a good reason was not aware of a circumstance that is relevant to the decision to plead.”
In a long, rambling interview last week in a jail visitation room, Startz said he didn’t have enough information about Lexapro to enter an informed plea.
He now wants a jury to hear his case, even though he knows jurors would likely have to sit through a graphic security video of the crime.
Startz said he thinks a jury, if provided information about the dangers of antidepressants, would find him guilty of something less than first-degree murder.
“I know I didn’t kill her in my right mind,” he said.
Angelo, 46, was fatally shot the afternoon of Feb. 25.
A store manager, she was working a checkout line when Startz walked in. He waited a few minutes while she finished checking out a customer, then grabbed her by the hair and forced her into an open area.
There, he pulled out the .380-caliber handgun he always carried, put the barrel behind her left ear and fired.
Startz said he doesn’t remember shooting Angelo and has refused to watch the tape of it.
He and Angelo had officially broken up about two years before, and she moved out of the house they owned in Radford. But they continued to see each other until October 2005, he said.
After their breakup, Startz wanted to move into an apartment he found in Christiansburg and asked Angelo several times to sell him her part of the house or buy out his, he said.
On Feb. 25, he wanted an answer about the house. He said he snapped when she wouldn’t give him one.
At the corner of Ingles and Roberts streets, the little white house with a big front awning remains unoccupied.
Part of the textured ceiling in the front bedroom has been torn down, a remnant of a home improvement project Startz started.
The key to the apartment he planned to move into still lies on a kitchen table.
Next to it, on a white stove, are four small sample boxes of 10 mg Lexapro tablets.
Startz said he doesn’t understand why it bothered him so much that Angelo wouldn’t answer him when he asked about the house — unless that was a side effect of the Lexapro withdrawal.
“That’s what this medicine does, I found out later,” he said, “makes the little things drive you crazy.”
“He was obsessed with getting an answer from her,” said Sheena Viers, a longtime friend of Startz and Angelo.
She said the couple were at her house “probably four nights out of seven,” playing cards and hanging out.
“They used to push each other’s buttons, one just as much as the other,” she said. “But I never saw any violence. I’ve went over and over and over it in my head and I can’t imagine what would have pushed him to that point.”
“I didn’t want that woman dead,” Startz said in the jail. He laid down the phone that let him speak through the window and wiped tears from his face with the back of his hand. “I had no reason to kill her.”
After the shooting, Startz went home. For about seven hours, police tried to get him to surrender. Several times, he walked out, put a gun to his head and walked back in.
He gave himself up, he said, only after police told him Angelo had survived. Then he was told he faced a murder charge.
The case had been set for a January jury trial. Startz’s attorneys, Jeffery Scott and Greg Hagar of the Pulaski public defender’s office, seemed to be leaning toward an insanity defense.
But on Dec. 1, Startz pleaded guilty in Pulaski County Circuit Court to first-degree murder and using a firearm in commission of murder.
He said last week that he didn’t want to plead guilty and changed his mind several times.
No deals were made, so a sentencing hearing was scheduled for March 9. Startz faces up to life in prison.
Not long after the December hearing, Startz said, he read an article about how some people experience debilitating symptoms when they stop taking Lexapro.
Like Paxil and Prozac, Lexapro is part of a group of antidepressants called SSRIs, selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors. Introduced in 2002, it’s one of the newest. According to Lexapro’s Web site, it’s generally tolerated better than some other antidepressants.
An Internet search pulls up hundreds of articles about lawsuits filed after people who were taking an SSRI either committed suicide or displayed some violent behavior.
Startz had already seen a psychiatrist about his Lexapro use, but after pleading guilty, he decided to investigate the drug further. Family members helped him seek out more articles.
Startz was prescribed the antidepressant on May 23, 2005. He said he took 20 or 30 mg once a day but didn’t like the way it made him feel.
“It made me feel numb, like I didn’t care,” he said. In February, “I just stopped taking it.”
Court papers differ on the day Startz quit taking the Lexapro. One document says he stopped the drug Feb. 8, another says Feb. 10. Startz recalls it as Feb. 13.
A psychiatrist met with Startz at the jail on Sept. 18. The doctor’s report, shown to The Roanoke Times by Startz, reads, “The duration of over two weeks from stopping the Lexapro to the time of the shooting does not suggest cessation of the Lexapro was that likely a candidate to have influenced his behavior at the time of his crime.”
“Does that say definitely not?” Startz asked. “No. ‘Likely.’ He can’t say it definitely wasn’t” a factor.
Grabbing at the thick stacks of articles on the desk in front of him, Startz questioned the psychiatrist’s report: “He’s saying it didn’t happen to me, but it happened to all these other people?”
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Va. Supreme Court rejects Startz’s appeal — (The Southwest Times)
A decision by the Virginia Supreme Court has exhausted Rodney Gene Startz’s ability to appeal his first-degree murder conviction in the 2006 death of his estranged girlfriend.
Startz filed the appeal after the Virginia Court of Appeals ruled in February that Pulaski Circuit Court Judge Robert Turk did not abuse the discretion of the court in denying Startz to withdraw his guilty plea.
Startz also challenged the judge’s decision to allow two women to provide a victim impact statement during Startz’s sentencing hearing.
The appeals court found “the ends of justice would not be served in permitting (Startz) to withdraw his guilty pleas.”
Now, the Virginia Supreme Court also has rejected Startz’s appeal.
“The conviction is now final, and (Startz) no longer has any direct appeal of this conviction,” Pulaski County Commonwealth’s Attorney Mike Fleenor said.
Startz was convicted of the murder of Donna Jean Angelo inside the Wal-Mart at Fairlawn. He received a 75-year prison sentence.
Startz claimed he learned after pleading guilty that the psychiatric medication Lexapro he was taking prior to the offense caused him to commit the murder.
Judge Turk disagreed, calling Startz’s actions a “cold, calculated, premeditated act.”
Turk cited police testimony that Startz commented following the shooting that “a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do.”