WASHINGTON, Aug. 31 (UPI) -- One of four soldiers suspected of killing his wife near Fort Bragg this summer appears to be suffering from worsening mental problems, an acquaintance who visits him weekly told United Press International.
Master Sgt. William Wright, a special operations soldier, had taken the anti-malaria drug Lariam for service in Afghanistan this year. The drug has been linked with severe mental problems including paranoia, confusion, psychosis and hallucinations and is part of an Army investigation into possible ties between the killings.
Wright, who is being held in the Cumberland County Jail in Fayetteville, N.C., talks of people trying to poison him, wakes up at night due to voices that appear real, and sometimes gets lost in a conversation, according to John Lown, who goes to the jail weekly on behalf of his Baptist church, which Wright also attended.
"He just seems paranoid. He alluded to some people who have given him something, like poison. He doesn't know if someone gave him something," Lown told UPI Friday after visiting Wright this week. Lown is a former Green Beret medic who says Lariam has caused anger and erratic behavior in himself and other soldiers.
"He talks in circles," Lown said of Wright, adding that he has "a strange stare" and occasionally "babbles."
"His thoughts aren't clear. There's something really messed up with it," Lown said, adding that based on his weekly visits he believes the symptoms "are worsening, not getting better."
Wright is accused of strangling his wife, Jennifer, in their Fayetteville home on June 29. Two other soldiers suspected in the string of killings also served in Afghanistan and also took Lariam, UPI reported in August. Those two soldiers killed themselves after killing their wives. Lariam's label also warns of reports of suicide.
In a fourth case, a soldier who had not been deployed recently is charged with killing his estranged wife.
Lariam is used before, during and after going to a place where malaria is a risk. Mental problems have been reported to last long after a patient stops taking the drug.
The Army -- which invented the drug and said it is safe -- has consistently said it has no reason to believe that Lariam played a role in the deaths. An Army epidemiological team arrived at Fort Bragg this past week and is looking at a broad range of possible links, including medications.
Published reports said the team has extended its stay through the coming week.
The Army told UPI Aug. 22 that the epidemiological team would study "physical, behavioral, possible pharmaceutical, and other aspects" of the cases.
There was no way to independently verify the symptoms Lown described or determine whether they are related to the drug, although other people who visited Wright in recent weeks described similar symptoms to varying degrees.
Wright's lawyer, Thomas Maher, declined to comment on the report. Cumberland County Chief Jailer Dan Ford told UPI Friday he wasn't aware of any reports of Wright having problems and hadn't seen anything out of the ordinary.
Some of Wright's possible symptoms appear consistent with, but more intense than, odd behavior that friends and family said they noticed in him after coming back from Afghanistan. His father-in-law, Archie Watson, told UPI that after returning from Afghanistan Wright would sometimes quit talking in the middle of a sentence and walk out of the room. A neighbor described a conversation with him as "almost incoherent."
Family and acquaintances of the other two soldiers also described behavior before the killings that they considered odd and out of character. In one case, a Delta Force soldier became unable to contain his rage at his wife in public. In the other, a soldier who returned earlier from Afghanistan to deal with personal problems went to new neighbors' homes to inform them he was "the man of the house."
UPI has been conducting a six-month investigation of Lariam, known generically as mefloquine and manufactured by Swiss drug giant Hoffmann-La Roche. In May, UPI reported that mounting evidence suggests Lariam has caused such severe mental problems that in a small percentage of cases it has led to suicide. UPI also reported that scores of Peace Corps volunteers were coming forward describing a wide range of serious problems from long-term use of the drug.
In July, Roche warned for the first time on the drug's product information sheet that there have been reports of suicide, but added that no connection to taking the drug could be confirmed.
In a front page Boston Globe article Saturday, an Army spokesman was quoted as saying officials are "concerned with any changes in the package insert." The spokesman also said the Army hadn't been informed after Roche settled in May a lawsuit by an Ohio woman who alleged the drug triggered the suicide of her husband.