Fentress et al v Shea Communications et al. — (Let Them Eat Prozac)

SSRI Ed note: Landmark case: Man intolerant of SSRIs given Prozac, he kills 8 employees and himself at the Standard Gravure plant followed by his own suicide.

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Let Them Eat Prozac

Trial Background

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)