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Lariam connection to Bragg killings?

By MARK BENJAMIN and DAN OLMSTED   |   Aug. 7, 2002 at 9:05 AM   |   Comments

FAYETTEVILLE, N.C., Aug. 6 (UPI) -- At least one of the four Fort Bragg soldiers suspected of killing his wife this summer had apparently been taking an anti-malarial drug associated with aggression, paranoia and suicidal thoughts, United Press International has learned.

That soldier, Sgt. 1st Class Rigoberto Nieves, shot and killed himself after shooting his wife, Teresa, in a bathroom of their Fayetteville home on June 11, just two days after returning early from service in Afghanistan, according to police.

In another case, Sam Pennica of the Cumberland County Sheriff's Office said he plans to discuss detecting the drug with the county medical examiner in the case of Sgt. 1st Class Brandon Floyd. Floyd, 30, shot his wife, Andrea, in their home in Stedman, near Fayetteville, on July 19, then turned the gun on himself.

"I will bring it to the attention of the medical examiner," Pennica said.

Army troops in Afghanistan are routinely prescribed the anti-malaria drug, Lariam. An Army medical source familiar with Nieves' duty in Afghanistan, speaking on condition of anonymity, said he was sure that Nieves had been given the drug.

Army officials told UPI that they have no plans to look at a possible link between Lariam and the incidents because they don't believe the drug could have been a factor.

Maj. Gary Kolb, spokesman for the Army's Special Operations Command, said the military is conducting a review of the circumstances surrounding the killings to see what, if anything, can be done to prevent future problems. That review is focused on marital problems, and Lariam is an unlikely culprit, according to Kolb, because one of the four soldiers had not been deployed to Afghanistan or elsewhere and a second had returned from Afghanistan in January.

"We've had other soldiers go and come back (without a problem) before these incidents occurred. ... One of the guys was back for seven months, making it unlikely that (Lariam) would be a factor," Kolb said.

"There were problems in the marriages before this. That is the focus of the investigation right now."

The four incidents have drawn national attention and sent Army officials looking for a common thread:

-- Nieves, a Green Beret, shot himself and his wife, Teresa, on June 11 in the master bathroom of their home in Fayetteville, police said. He had come back early from Afghanistan two days before, reportedly to deal with personal or family problems.

-- Master Sgt. William Wright, a special operations soldier, strangled his wife, Jennifer, at their Fayetteville home on June 29, then buried her body in a shallow grave, according to authorities. They said he confessed on July 19 and led them to her body. Wright, who had been back from Afghanistan for about a month, is charged with first-degree murder.

-- Sgt. Cedric Griffin, an Army cook, stabbed his estranged wife to death in her trailer "at least" 50 times and set her body on fire July 9, authorities said. He had not been deployed. He is charged with first-degree murder.

-- Sgt. 1st Class Brandon Floyd, 30, shot his wife, Andrea, in their home in Stedman, near Fayetteville, on July 19, then shot and killed himself. Floyd, a member of the secret counter-terrorism unit called Delta Force, had gone to Afghanistan in November and returned in January.

Lariam, also known by the generic name mefloquine, is the Army's drug of choice to prevent malaria, which is endemic in Afghanistan from May to November in all but the mountainous central and northeast regions of the country. The Army's Walter Reed research institute invented the drug. Lariam is manufactured by the Swiss pharmaceutical giant Hoffmann-La Roche and was cleared for use in the United States in 1989.

For the majority who tolerate the drug well, Lariam is considered highly effective at preventing malaria.

Official Army spokesmen would not say whether any of the soldiers involved in the family shootings had taken Lariam, citing the ongoing investigation. Sgt. Wright was in Afghanistan during a period when Lariam was dispensed, but it was unclear whether he took the drug, and his lawyer, Thomas Maher, said he did not know whether his client had taken it. It was also unknown whether Floyd took the drug.

The state medical examiner's toxicology report on Nieves said only that there was no alcohol in his system. A spokesman said no other toxicological tests had been performed. An autopsy was performed on Floyd but the results are not yet available.

According to the official product information sheet prepared by the drug company and approved by the Food and Drug Administration, less frequently reported side effects include depression, hallucinations, psychotic or paranoid reactions, anxiety, agitation, aggression and confusion. The label also warns "suicidal ideation has also rarely been reported, but no relationship to drug administration has been established."

A two-month investigation published by United Press International in May found mounting evidence that suggests Lariam has caused such severe mental problems that in a small percentage of cases it has led to suicide. A UPI story published July 30 reported that scores of Peace Corps volunteers are coming forward saying that over the past 12 years they suffered paranoia, anxiety, hallucinations, memory loss and suicidal behavior they blamed on Lariam. Some of the reports include problems that patients said have lasted for years or months after they stopped taking the drug.

The U.S. Labor Department awarded two volunteers workman's compensation for Lariam-induced psychoses -- one lasting three days, the other an entire year.

In several other countries, reports associating Lariam and violence have been investigated.

During the Somalia operation in the early 1990s, a Canadian army corporal, Clayton Matchee, allegedly tortured and killed a 14-year-old boy who had snuck into the compound. The incident occurred on what troops called Psycho Tuesday, the day they took their weekly Lariam dose. Matchee subsequently attempted suicide by hanging and suffered permanent brain damage.

His wife, Marj, told a Canadian newspaper at the time that when her husband was home from Somalia on leave before the incident, she woke up in the middle of the night to find his hands around her neck. Marj Matchee said her husband attributed his behavior to Lariam.

A formal inquiry into the incident concluded that no link to Lariam could be established "without extensive further investigation."

U.S. Army officials said they never saw any problems among U.S. soldiers taking Lariam in Somalia. The activist group Lariam Action said that it has been contacted by 120 veterans of Somalia who said they continue to have problems with the drug, including 11 who said they have considered or tried suicide.

The wife of one veteran also wrote in an e-mail to the group that when her husband returned from Somalia, "he would wake up in the night and choke me or just about punch me, thinking I was someone from Somalia. He was extremely angry all the time, and very abusive."

(With assistance from freelance writer J.S. Newton)

© 2002 United Press International, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Any reproduction, republication, redistribution and/or modification of any UPI content is expressly prohibited without UPI's prior written consent.
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