et al v Shea Communications et al.
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
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
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.
Cornwell J. The Power to Harm. Mind, Medicine and Murder on
Trial. Viking, New York (1996)