By Kevin Guilfoile
On an August afternoon in 2007, John Mullarkey sent a text message (by some accounts to his mother) with his blood-splattered cell phone: I stabbed my self at demi.s i love you.
That same instant, Gayle Slomer of suburban Pittsburgh heard a desperate, frantic shriek outside her daughter's window. She ran out the door to find her daughter's 16-year-old neighbor Demi Cuccia bleeding in the front yard from more than a dozen stab wounds. Moments later Mullarkey, Cuccia's on-again-off-again boyfriend, emerged from Cuccia's house, a 10-inch, self-inflicted gash across his own neck. "Get away from me! I hate you!" Demi screamed at Mullarkey.
It was one of the last things she ever said.
Mullarkey confessed to the brutal murder at the scene. Later in the hospital, still unable to speak, Mullarkey wrote on an eraser board and handed it to an Allegheny County homicide detective: If somebody did something bad and they were taking medication, Mullarkey wrote, would that be a defense?
Approximately four months before the murders, Mullarkey began taking the powerful prescription acne medicine Accutane. According to the defense, Mullarkey stopped taking the meds just days before the murder because he was concerned about side effects, which included radical mood swings. Friends of Cuccia's however, paint a picture of Mullarkey as always having been controlling and jealous, and in the days before the murder, Mullarkey sent Cuccia a series of increasingly desperate emails and texts concerning the state of their relationship.
It's a shocking story, but many of the details will sound horrifyingly familiar to Chicagoans, as well as to readers of this site.
On October 24, 2006, respected dermatologist Dr. David Cornbleet, was viciously stabbed to death by Hans Peterson, a former patient for whom Cornbleet had allegedly prescribed Accutane several years earlier. Like Mullarkey, Peterson claimed to have stopped taking the drug after he became concerned about side effects. In fact, Peterson claimed to have taken only a couple of doses. Nevertheless for more than four years afterward Peterson would describe a series of persistent and unbearable side effects that he blamed on the small amount of Accutane he had taken in 2002.
Accutane has had a long history of both success and controversy. Many, including Michigan Congressman Bart Stupak, whose son committed suicide while on the drug, have tried to link it with depression. Roche, the pharmaceutical company that distributes Accutane includes a hefty warning label as required by law, but claims no causal link to depression, suicide or violence has been found.
The Mullarkey case, which has gone to trial this week, appears to be the first time a defendant has claimed his judgment had been impaired by Accutane. The results will be watched very carefully in Chicago, and in Peterson's native Eugene, Oregon, and also in Basel, Switzerland where Roche is headquartered.
If the Accutane defense succeeds, we will no doubt see it again.
Even if it doesn't succeed, I suspect we will see it again.
The story of Dr. Cornbleet and Hans Peterson is just as tragic but far more bizarre than the Mullarkey case. The tale includes a lengthy manhunt across several states, the nuances of international law and extradition, the television show Dexter, online poker, Barack Obama, a strange claim about Asperger's syndrome, and the heroic intervention of an Iraq war veteran. More than anything, though, it's about fathers and sons. I won't repeat all the details here, but if you follow this link and start at the bottom you can get, if not the whole story, a good sense of it.
As John Mullarkey sits before a jury, Hans Peterson sits in a jail cell on the island of Guadaloupe. He has been there for almost two years. The French government refuses to send him back to the US to face judgment, but they also seem reluctant to deal with his crime themselves. No charges have been filed and none seem to be coming in the immediate future. Under French law, Peterson can be held for another two years without trial. Although they serve a different system in a different jurisdiction, Peterson's court-appointed lawyers no doubt will also be watching the outcome of the Mullarkey case with keen interest.
Finally, a meaningless but eerie coincidence: I first wrote about the murder of Dr. Cornbleet 11 months after the crime, on August 15, 2007. The post went up around 9:30 Central Time.
John Mullarkey murdered Dana Cuccia just seven hours later.
UPDATE: A pharmacist testified in the trial yesterday that Accutane likely caused Mullarkey's depression and a mental disorder. On cross examination the pharmacist admitted that his experience with the drug was limited to what he'd read. "I don't think the FDA would (require those warnings) unless there was a problem with the drug," he said.
TOTALLY UNEXPECTED UPDATE: Roche pulls Accutane out of the US Market after an unrelated jury verdict in a class action lawsuit awarding more than $30 million dollars to users who experienced inflammatory bowel disease. More later.
UPDATE: A jury in Pittsburgh took just two hours to convict Mullarkey of first-degree murder.