The following was written by Janet Lagerloef, a writer from Sugar Grove who is finishing up a book about her 10-year friendship with Marilyn Lemak, who is serving a sentence of life without parole for killing her three children in their Naperville home in March,1999. In last week’s issue, I covered the details of that crime and Lemak’s bid for executive clemency based on a claim that high doses of prescription Zoloft had warped her thinking and made her delusional.
Tuesday’s issue contained a raft of reader responses, to which Lagerloef’s comments here were addressed:
An antidepressant saved me. For the vast majority of users, antidepressants are perfectly safe. But I was one of the millions of lucky ones — Marilyn and her children were tragically not.
Here’s a telling quote by retired FDA scientist, Richard Kapit, M.D.
“I had always thought the drugs (SSRIs) had the potential to cause manic episodes, and manic episodes are frequently accompanied by violence. I accepted that in rare patients it could cause them to become manic and suicidal. I don’t think I doubted, or anyone doubted, in rare patients that could be true.”
Houston attorney Andy Vickery wrote Marilyn’s clemency petition. He has represented many tragic involuntary intoxication cases. Here is an excerpt from my book:
One year before Marilyn killed her children, on February 13, 1998, in Gillette, Wyoming, Donald Schell, after two days on Paxil, shot and killed his wife, his daughter, his eight-month-old granddaughter, and then shot himself. Andy represented Schell’s son-in-law, Tim Tobin, who was the husband of Schell’s daughter, and the father of his granddaughter. Tim was convinced the man who carried out this massacre was not the man he knew.
The photo above is of the Schell and Tobin families.
In June of 2001, the Tobin case went to trial (five months before Marilyn’s trial began). Andy put everything on the line professionally and financially. GSK brought in a million dollars a day in gross revenues, and Andy had a small, albeit successful, law firm in Houston.
“I had to psyche myself up,” Andy told me. “I’m on my white charger. I’ve got my lance. But from the other side of the courtroom, I think I appeared like a little shepherd boy with a slingshot. Their wealth and power is infinite.”
Andy Vickery won. The jury awarded Tim Tobin 6.4 million dollars, and it remains the largest settlement in an involuntary intoxication case. “And maybe the best part,” Andy said, “is that the truth of these stories could no longer be ignored. It opened the door for me and other lawyers, advocacy groups, and scientists to bring the evidence to the attention of the regulatory authorities. The FDA could no longer bury its head in the sand.” Andy’s verdict helped pressure the FDA into requiring the first black box warning on SSRI’s at an open advisory meeting in 2004.
Ten months before Marilyn killed her children: On May 28, 1998, in Los Angeles, Brynn Hartman killed her husband, Phil Hartman. Phil was the popular star of Saturday Night Live in the 1980’s, famous for his impression of Bill Clinton, and at the time of his death was starring in NBC’s sitcom NewsRadio. They were about to film their fifth season when Phil’s wife, Brynn, shortly after beginning Zoloft, killed him and herself. Phil and Brynn’s two young children were suddenly orphans.
I happened to watch John Hartmann, Phil’s brother (Phil dropped one “n” from their last name when he entered show business), in a documentary about his family’s tragedy, which aired on the Reelz Channel. John said that he believed Zoloft was the reason his sister-in-law killed his brother. I found a phone number for John, a music executive in California; he took my call and generously answered my questions.
“Brynn saw a doctor for depression and was prescribed Zoloft,” John said. “Not long after, she shot my brother and then herself. The media said she did it because she was jealous of my brother’s success in show business after she herself had several failed attempts. There’s some truth to that; she was jealous of my brother, but suggesting she’d orphaned their children over it was preposterous.”
John researched and became convinced Zoloft made her do it. “Nothing else made sense,” John told me. “I learned these crimes are covered up by Big Pharma. I had to forgive Brynn for killing my brother. It wasn’t easy, but it simply wasn’t her fault. Even my mother forgave her, and her son’s death destroyed her.”
Greg Olmstead, Brynn’s brother, came to the same conclusion. He contacted the best attorney handling these cases: Andy Vickery. Andy filed a lawsuit against Pfizer, the maker of Zoloft. “It settled quietly out of court, for an undisclosed amount,” said John. “The money was put in a trust for the children. Pfizer was certainly aware of the enormous publicity this case would have generated.”
Thirty-three days before Marilyn killed her children: On January 30, 1999, Ryan Ehlis shotgunned his five-week-old daughter, Tyra Lynn, in Grand Forks, North Dakota. Andy represented him in a criminal trial.
“Ryan Ehlis was hearing command hallucinations —caused not by Zoloft, but by Adderall, an equally powerful psychoactive drug,” said Andy. “I went to the prosecutor and explained the effects of these drugs and implored him to drop the murder charges against him. And he did, saying, ‘It was the right thing to do.’”
On November 28, 2001, the day after Marilyn’s trial began: Twelve-year-old Christopher Pittman walked into his grandparents’ bedroom in Chester, South Carolina, as they slept, and shot and killed them both. This is the tragic story that still brings Andy to tears, not only as an attorney, but also as a grandad. What made Christopher’s action so hard to believe was that he’d recently run from Florida to his grandparents’ home for refuge when his mother abandoned him for the second time, and his father hit him yet again.
It was five months after Andy’s groundbreaking Tobin win when Christopher’s father contacted Andy. Andy agreed to defend his son pro bono, because he thought if anyone could save this boy, it was him. “Christopher had a rough life, but he was a good boy,” said Andy. “Before starting Zoloft he’d never been in trouble.”
Andy showed the prosecutor in Christopher’s case what the prosecutor in the Ryan Ehlis case had done. He explained that Christopher, just after starting Zoloft, killed the two people who were his only real saviors in the world. “I thought the prosecutor would set this boy free, or at a minimum send him back to juvenile court where, at the worst, he would get out by age twenty-one,” Andy said. “I was wrong. Then I was sure I could convince the jury. Wrong again.”
Christopher’s case became nationwide news and Andy was interviewed by 48 Hours before the trial began. After seven hours of deliberation, the jury came back with a guilty verdict. “I wasn’t prepared for that,” Andy said. “I was devastated. Still am. It ripped my heart out.” Christopher was sentenced to twenty-five years and is eligible for parole in 2026.
It was three years after this verdict in 2004 that the FDA finally agreed to the black box warning for adolescents. “Unfortunately, it was too late for Christopher Pittman because he’d already been prescribed Zoloft,” Andy Vickery said to a nearby reporter at the FDA meeting. “Two things might have happened. The doctor may not have given it to him, or he might have provided him with the appropriate warnings.”
“I wonder if things would have been different for Christopher and his grandparents had the warnings come three years ago,” Andy mused, as he walked away.
In the wake of the Pittman verdict, Judge Daniel Pieper, said:
“There is no case in South Carolina that addresses involuntary intoxication by prescription drugs… It seems to turn the whole medical system on its side if you can’t rely on the medication your doctor prescribes.
It potentially forces you into a situation of lifetime commitment if that drug induces an effect of which you are unaware. There’s something disconcerting about that, albeit probably of a legal nature that is troubling me”.
In a post next week, we will pick up on some of the points raised in the original series of four Lemak posts and this further set of posts in the Picayune Sentinel.