Killer's mother urges peers to monitor depressed kids

She says anti-depressant led son to poison friend

May 20, 2004|By Laura Cadiz | Laura Cadiz,SUN STAFF

Ever since her son slipped a fatal dose of cyanide into his best friend's Vanilla Coke last year, Susan Furlough has wondered if she could have prevented the tragedy by more closely monitoring his treatment for depression.

Furlough, a pediatric nurse, said the day of the crime her teen-age son, Ryan Furlough, had taken 300 milligrams of Effexor, which is now facing international scrutiny for its behavioral side effects in youths. She is urging parents to take a strong lead role in the treatment of their mentally ill children, in the hope that no other family has to experience a similar nightmare.

Ryan Furlough, 19, was convicted Monday of first-degree murder in the death of Benjamin Vassiliev after jurors rejected his defense that the anti-depressant led him to kill.

"Had I acted more like a nurse and less like a mother, maybe I would have prevented this," Susan Furlough said yesterday in her first extended interview. "If this was one of my patients, I would have stood up and said, `This has to improve.' But I was trying to act like a mother and let the professionals do their job."

Furlough said she has gone through much soul-searching since the crime, turning to her friends in the medical field for support. They have told her that she relied on professionals to do their job.

"They keep reminding me, `You weren't being paid to do this. ... Stop beating yourself up,'" she said.

Furlough blames the high dosages of Effexor her son was taking and inadequate therapy for the poisoning in the basement of her Ellicott City home. She said her son doesn't remember putting cyanide in a drink to poison Vassiliev while the two played video games in January 2003. It took her son a year to realize that he had killed his friend.

"He actually said to me about two to three months afterward, `I couldn't do this, I couldn't kill my best friend, he was my soul mate,'" Furlough said.

After 17-year-old Vassiliev died, Furlough said she "took a good hard look" at her family life and realized something had changed her son's entire personality. She read the information about Effexor's side effects again and thought: "My goodness, why didn't I notice all these side effects? They were here. They didn't come up with big neon signs, but they were here and they should have been caught by the doctors."

Wyeth Pharmaceuticals, the drug manufacturer, sent a letter to health care professionals in August stressing that Effexor is not recommended for pediatric patients, warning of the possibility of hostility, suicidal tendencies and self-harm.

In December, British health authorities warned doctors against prescribing Effexor and five other anti-depressants to children, contending that the drugs are too risky. And the U.S. Food and Drug Administration is studying whether Effexor and nine other new-generation anti-depressants can lead to dangerous side effects in children, including hostility or suicide.

In spring 2001, Furlough took her son to a psychologist and a psychiatrist she found on her insurance provider list because he was somewhat sad and was struggling with classes at Centennial High School. He was initially prescribed the anti-depressant Wellbutrin in May 2001 and was placed on Effexor in November 2001. His dose of Effexor was increased to 300 milligrams a day in April 2002.

Furlough said her son continued to do poorly in school -- he finished second to last in his junior class -- and in the six months before the crime, he would zone out and also become aggressive, talking back to his parents when they asked him to do usual household chores. He was no longer the child who would sleep in the basement instead of killing a bug in his bedroom.

The changes were gradual, Furlough said, but she believes that if the doctors were effectively communicating with her son, they would have noticed something was wrong. She said her son later told her that he was not talking with his doctors, explaining: "I just couldn't talk to them, and they didn't talk to me, and they didn't care."

Joseph Murtha, Ryan Furlough's defense attorney, focused on the effect of Effexor in arguing against a first-degree murder conviction for his client, a theory that the jury rejected.

But one juror, Charles Cullen Jr., said the panel spent at least half of its discussion on Effexor and the effect it might have had on the crime.

Prosecutors claimed there was no evidence that pointed to Effexor being a factor. They argued that Ryan Furlough methodically planned Vassiliev's death, researching poisons and fatal dosages over the Internet, and will ask for a sentence of life without the possibility of parole when he is sentenced July 20.

"Many people are on anti-depressants," Senior Assistant State's Attorney Mary Murphy said during closing arguments. "... They don't go out and kill."

Murtha said the contention that Effexor spurred the crime is a strategy "where the science hasn't caught up with the argument."

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