From the April 2008 Idaho Observer:
Will the real murderer please take this young man’s place behind bars?
On April 18, I received a short letter and a simple trifold from Zach Schmidkunz. Zach, now 24, was sentenced in 2004 to serve 35 years in a North Dakota prison for murdering a friend while under the influence of selective serratonnin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI) drug "Zoloft" manufactured by Pfizer. Something inside me was moved--to tears. As I sat down to write Zach a letter, his trifold was open to his low-tech reproduction photo to the right of my keyboard and each time I glanced at it, tears would well up anew in my eyes. After completing the letter and addressing it to the ND state prison in Bismarck, I checked the Internet and found that all of the articles depicted Zach as a "good-kid-gone-bad" who deserved to be thrown away as a murderer. The only online image of Zach was the mugshot taken of him shortly after he turned himself in. It is not very flattering and, in a very real sense, is not the kid in the trifold picture. The real Zach comes through the trifold photo; Zoloft Zach comes through the mugshot.
Below is the trifold that prompted my tears and desire to help Zach bring awareness to a growing problem in America: Growing numbers of SSRI-related suicides and murders AND the prosecution of capital crimes cases wherein the defendant was under the influence of these "anti-depressants." The problem is compounded when you see how Pfizer effectively transforms the state into an accessory to the crimes of those who manufacture, approve for market and prescribe these drugs by supplying "persecutors" with a document known as "The Pfizer Manual for Litigators. This drug manufacturer-lawyer-produced document is given to state persecutors to instruct them on how to beat what is called "the Zoloft defense" in court by, in essence, stating there is no "science" to support, claims by the defense in court that Zoloft compelled someone to commit a capital crime.
Isn’t the FACT that Pfizer supplies persecutors with this damage-control document a tacit admission that there is a problem? Is it not the epitome of prejudice for the court to believe Pfizer/persecutors over defendants when Zoloft or other SSRI drugs are involved in a murder—particularly when, as in Zach’s case, the "murderer" was a good kid who never got in trouble and was liked by everyone his entire life until this Zoloft-induced incident took place?
Friends, neighbors, concerned citizens and everyone else who has contact with other people, you should be concerned. SSRI drugs are being prescribed like candy to the children, adolescents, young adults, adults, middle-aged persons and the elderly as if we are in the middle of a depression epidemic. According to the latest data, the number of "anti-depressant" prescriptions written by U.S. doctors in 2007 was 232.7 million in 2007—an increase of 25 million since 2003. These drugs react badly with numerous other commonly consumed-substances such as other drugs, alcohol and aspartame.
Now, after reading what Zach has to say and what his father has to say about what happened, put yourself in their shoes: What if you were the kid who had been, by all accounts, a "good kid" your whole life and then, in a moment of Zoloft-induced rage, killed your friend? What if you were the father or the mother who raised a good kid who loved his sister, loved his parents, got good grades and was a joy to be around--suddenly flipped and is now in prison for a period of time that will likely outlive you?
By now, we have ALL been touched by SSRI drugs. Some of us have horror stories and we KNOW what they can do to people.
Now for my final "now in this missive: Look around you and quantify the numbers of others who may end up killing someone else—or themselves—due to their mind/body/spirit reaction to an SSRI drug like Zoloft. How much longer are we going to tolerate courts taking the side of an industry that produces and prescribes drugs that set our neighbors up to commit murders that we know, in our hearts, would never have been committed had the "anti-depressants" not been involved?
Before I go, I would like to state that there are plenty of reasons for us, as Americans, to be depressed. I believe that there are biochemical factors that exacerbate depression to the point that drugs seem like the only way to overcome our depressed emotional states. It is my rather vast experience in this area that allows me to state, with absolute certainty, that if you help a depressed person clean up their diet, their depression lightens.
There is a lot more to be said in this area, but just suffice to say that, taking a wholistic approach to depression, minimizes (rather dramatically) the likelihood that a depressed person will harm himself or someone else.
With hope and prayers for Zach, his family--and our increasingly drugged nation--
The Idaho Observer
My name is Zach Schmidkunz and I am 24 years old. I grew up as any normal kid does in a good, family-oriented, Christian household. I got decent grades, played sports and never got in trouble. In the fall of 2003 I was prescribed the SSRI antidepressant Zoloft for depression by a family physician. Then after only two and a half weeks on the medication, I stopped taking it not knowing the horrible effect that action would have.
Tragically on November 17, 2003 I shot and killed a friend of mine in the basement of my parents’ home. She had come over to talk about my depression and for no apparent reason, I snapped. What I didn’t know was that by stopping the Zoloft I was now under the effects of what is known as Discontinuation Syndrome. I went from being a normal 20-year-old college student, to a 20-year-old murderer later convicted and sentenced to 35 years in prison for something a prescribed medication influenced me to do that I had no control over.
Sadly, I am far from being alone. There are many people at very young ages that have been on SSRI antidepressants and have killed people—most of them people they care about. I have been silent up until now. It is time I do my part to let the world know and help them to understand the dangers of these medications. I would very much like to share my whole story with you. If you do some research, you will find this is a very controversial topic right now. I am asking for your help. My friend didn’t deserve to die. Now I have to live with this horrible memory for the rest of my life. Please help me get the story out so others don’t have to experience this pain.
* SSRI antidepressants include the following: Prozac, Paxil, Zoloft, Luvox, Celexa, Lexapro, plus others.
* March 22, 2004 the FDA warned that SSRIs can cause anxiety, agitation, panic attacks, insomnia, irritability, hostility, impulsivity, akathisia, hypomania and mania.
* Late 2004 the FDA issued a Black Box warning on all SSRIs indicating that they increase suicidal thinking and suicidal behavior. This warning, which is one step below a ban, is reserved for drugs that can result in death.
* 2006 revisions were made to the SSRI medication guide. In the symptoms to watch for it lists: new or worse irritability, acting aggressively, being angry or violent and acting on dangerous impulses.
I AM NOT ALONE
• Kip Kinkel—15 years old when he killed both of his parents and two classmates while on Prozac
• Christopher Pittman—12 years old when he murdered both of his grandparents while on Zoloft
• Jarred Viktor—15 years old when he stabbed his grandmother 61 times after five days on Paxil
• Chris Fetters—13 years old when she killed her favorite aunt while on Prozac
• Kurt Danysh—18 years old when he shot and killed his father while on Prozac
This is only a partial list. The stories of many more and additional information on the dangers of these drugs can be found at the following websites:
www.drugawareness.org, www.antidepressantsfacts.com, www.breggin.com
www.thesaveproject.org, www.ssristories.com, www.teenscreen.com
Please respond to me at:
Zach Schmidkunz #25550, ND State Penitentiary
PO Box 5521 Bismarck, ND 58506-5521
A post-conviction hearing in Zach's case is scheduled for May 23.
After receiving my letter in which I emphasized the importance of writing up a chronology of his story and making a better image of himself available on the web, I received a call from Zach’s father, Gail. I suggested that he also write up the story from his perspective and attaché a photo of the real Zach. In record time he accomplished just that. My appreciation for this family and my desire to help them help their son help all of America’s sons and daughters avoid the myriad nightmares of SSRI drugs, both private and public, has been supported by the story below as written by a father. (DWH)
"Math Teachers Have Problems"
by Gail Schmidkunz
Once not so long ago, my family and I had a wonderful life. Both my wife Rhonda and I had secure jobs, a nice home, great church, and most importantly, two beautiful children and a son-in-law whom we loved very much.
We were a normal, common Midwest family who had an abnormal tragedy of such proportions strike that to this day, more than four years later, it all seems like a bad dream where we will wake up and once again have our happy lives back.
Our children were raised to love the Lord with all their heart first, then work hard at being law-abiding citizens contributing to the betterment of mankind. Family was important too. Especially our immediate family, we loved to spend time together.
There was not the usual conflict between mother and daughter, father and son or brother and sister. The only strain on family relationships occurred when Zach took his sister Kati’s diary to school for show and tell in second grade.
Neither of our children were troublesome during their growing up years. Especially our son, Zach who never caused trouble at home nor at school. Not even a traffic ticket. He was a giant teddy bear. Zach was certainly as big as a bear standing almost six feet tall and weighing nearly two hundred seventy pounds. He played high school football and wrestled for the Magicians, his high school in Minot, North Dakota. Zach was never an over achiever in athletics. In fact he never completely reached his potential because he was not aggressive. He did not have that fire in his belly when he needed it to be successful. This did not matter to the small children who knew Zach. After a wrestling match, the kids would race to the wrestling mats to roll around with Zach. He was so good with these little kids. A modest, gentle giant who would lay on his back letting the future grappler have his way with him.
Zach graduated and left that next fall to attend the University of North Dakota (UND). He had many friends at the university but his best friends remained in Minot to attend the university there. He missed home and his close friends more than we knew. Zach was suffering from the onset of depression. We now believe that he began to spiral into the abyss of depression during his senior year of high school.
Zach’s depression deepened and he was miserable. His performance in the classroom was slipping, his grades were sinking and he began to party and drink as a way to deal with his state of mind. This behavior that was not part of our family’s value system.
The summer after his first year at UND, Zach worked as a counselor at Shepherd’s Hill Bible Camp near Bottineau, North Dakota. His camp nickname was Yogi. Nothing more needs to be said as to why he was given that name. This was a happy time for Zach. The happiest he had been in a long time. He was with new friends and this interaction helped to lift him from his depression. But, all good things must end. Zach returned to Minot to attend classes at Minot State University because his grades from the previous year were too low to permit a return to UND.
Instead of having friends near, his friends had all left to attend UND. This was not a good thing. We did not know the depth of Zach’s depression. We did not know how he suffered. Zach was hiding his battle with depression from us. His pride and fear that he would disappoint his mother and I along with the nature of the sickness kept the truth hidden, buried from us.
It was in October of his second year of college that his mother and I were alerted by a friend and fellow summer camp counselor that Zach was depressed. Kristin (her Bible camp name was Smurf) was worried that Zach’s depression was serious and that we needed to be concerned about his well being.
Zach had sessions with our pastor but he did not feel any better. We then scheduled appointments for counseling with mental health professionals. The procedure was to visit with a psychologist first to receive counseling. If there was no improvement, the next step was to see a psychiatrist and to possibly be placed on medication at that time. This plan would take weeks if not months to implement. I new Zach was still hurting and suggested that he see our family doctor about being placed on an antidepressant. At that time I thought antidepressants helped people.
Zach returned home with samples of Zoloft. When he asked the doctor if there were any side effects, the doctor replied sure, even aspirin has side effects.
For 21 days Zach took the Zoloft. It did not help. Later we found out it made him feel "weird" and "strange." He stopped taking the Zoloft on a Thursday. By Saturday there were signs of "discontinuation syndrome" but we had no clue as to what was happening. On Sunday evening Zach seemed energized and our usual bouts of horseplay took a strange turn as Zach was very aggressive which was not normal behavior for him.
By Monday morning, Zach’s seritonin levels continued to crash and he was falling apart. He was restless, agitated and could not settle down. The hair on his arms stood up, he had his music playing at full volume but could not hear it. He sat spinning circles in his chair and if he tried to sit, his leg jerked up and down, a serious case of restless leg syndrome. Attending classes in this state of mind was out of the question.
Seeking relief from this torment, Zach went online to chat with a friend. Zach said that he was depressed and saw no reason to live and was considering suicide. His friend Alexis offered to come over and talk. We were devastated to learn they had sex during this time together. Devastated because none of Zach’s behavior was making any sense. Having a girl over to visit with no adults around was one thing, but to have sex, this was just too much to try and understand [Zach told me that he had always planned to save sex for marriage. (DWH)]. About this time Alexis told Zach that depressed people usually kill themselves.
Zach felt used and was hurt by that comment. But for the first time in his life he began to get angry. Really angry. He was not angry at Alexis. Others had hurt him too and he never became angry. Something was going terribly wrong with his thinking. The anger was becoming a burning rage. Zach was angry with everything. The rage was so intense, Zach said he felt like a zombie.
Later that afternoon, we discovered his friend’s body in our basement. Zach had shot Alexis and drove away in a rage only to turn himself in to authorities 200 miles later after the rage subsided and his mind began to clear. He remembered shooting his shotgun, but did not know he had shot anyone until he was charged with murder by the police.
We were informed late that evening that Zach had turned himself in. True Zach was safe, but we did not feel a whole lot better knowing that there was a family in Minot whose daughter would not be returning home that night.
The police and State’s Attorney immediately ranted and raved that our boy had gone bad. That was their explanation for what had happened and law enforcement were not pleased when we refused to abandon our son and let the system have it’s way with him.
I’ll never forget the day after the murder when we were able to visit Zach in the Ward County Jail. Glass separated Zach from his mother and I. I talked to him first. I looked into his blue eyes and saw brokenness, hurt and sadness beyond description. I could not be angry. Instead I told Zach that I loved him and we would be by his side, always. With tears streaming down his cheeks, he kept telling me over and over that he did not know what had happened and why he was overcome by rage.
As his mother talked to him, my heart was tortured further as I pondered how fate had taken away all the comforts of home and that now a cell might be his home for the rest of his life. Thinking about what this naive boy of mine was about to face as an inmate was almost more than I could stomach. Zach was ignorant to the ways of the world. He was in for a very rude awakening and his mother and I would not be there to help him.
The next six weeks were dark and gloomy for Rhonda and I. We could not believe that Zach had gone bad much less snapped. During this time, people would talk to us about their experiences with Zoloft. The gears began to turn when a family friend told us that she had an overwhelming urge to kill someone when she was on Zoloft. My friend and colleague Steve, insisted that I consider Zoloft as a possible reason for Zach’s rage. I agreed to talk to our high school classmate who was a psychiatrist in the Houston area and had experience with SSRI’s and adverse events.
We were told that we needed to have Zach evaluated by a forensic psychiatrist to determine if Zoloft had anything to do with Zach’s rage. For the first time in many days, a small spark of hope began to glow in our hearts. Our instincts had led us to the truth about what happened to Zach, and now there was a chance that science and medicine might be able to tell us what really happened.
When the day finally arrived for the start of Zach’s trial, no one could have prepared us for what to expect. The immediate, vicious attack on our son’s character by the State’s Attorney during his opening arguments was a nightmare filled with horrors.
Our system of justice, this adversarial legal battlefield, is all about the prosecution and law enforcement working together to put someone away. In this case, they wanted to send my away son for a long, long, time. Someone who had no history of crime, rage or angry outbursts. A kind, gentle young man who never had been in any kind of trouble. Why couldn't they see something had caused Zach to do this?
The prosecution followed the Zoloft prosecutor’s manual to a T by attacking Zach’s makeup and personality arguing that Zach was a monster planning to murder someone. That tactic was effective, very effective. So effective that early that evening Zach’s Grandmother, who had been at the trial that day, had a heart episode that sent her to the hospital from church via the ambulance. Grandma has a history of heart problems and she was so upset by the opening remarks, she nearly had a heart attack. Grandma, against her wishes, was not permitted to attend the trial. She wanted to be there for her grandson. She wanted her grandson to see her in that courtroom as proof that she, as the rest of the family and friends who filled the courtroom, were there to support Zach because they knew he was no monster.
No fewer than four expert witness for the defense and prosecution testified that Zach was clinically depressed. Dr. Hackett, the defense expert witness, testified that Zach was experiencing "Discontinuation Syndrome" from abruptly stopping the taking of the Zoloft which caused the uncontrollable rage that took a young woman’s life. Would this have made any difference to the jury or would Dr. Hackett’s testimony sway the prosecutor? During his closing remarks, he said Zach made a choice to take a life when he became angry instead of just walking away. The State’s Attorney and law enforcement don’t understand or just don’t care to understand what an SSRI does to a person’s brain when you have an adverse event. They want nothing to do with the possibility that the Zoloft had altered Zach’s brain chemistry causing the uncontrollable rage.
All of this family, including Zach, are people who obeyed the law and held the police and the judicial system in high esteem--until Zach’s arrest. The tactics they have used to convict my son have been dishonest and misleading. The prosecution would do anything to get the judge or jury to believe what they were saying was the truth. Case in point: During the first four days of the trial, time after time reference was made to blood found on Zach’s pants. Finally, on the fifth day of the trial, an expert State Laboratory witness confirmed that after two separate tests that the blood on Zach’s pants was not human (test #1) and that it was deer blood (test #2). But, for the better part of the week, the prosecution wanted the jury to think that the blood on Zach’s pants was from the crime scene.
The morning of this tragedy, Zach went to his clothes hamper and put on a pair of pants that had been there for two weeks. Pants that he had put there during deer season. People who understand depression would recognize how impaired Zach’s ability was to make even a simple decision like what clothes to wear.
For two weeks, we sat through a barrage of attempts by the prosecution to lead the jury to believe that Zach was a good kid who went bad and his psychological profile was such that he was destined to be a murderer. It was nearly more than we could bear, sitting through this fabrication and distortion of facts.
Zach’s defense attorney battled gallantly, but to no avail. The jury showed no understanding much less mercy and we have to wonder what affect the State’s Attorney’s closing remarks had upon the jury when he said, "Perhaps if Mr. Schmidkunz had been a better Christian, this murder would not have happened."
Could things get any worse? They could and did as the jury foreman read the verdict; "We the jury find Zachary Schmidkunz guilty of AA murder ..."
Words fail to express the sorrow we felt at that moment. We were escorted from the courtroom before anyone else was permitted to leave. I tried to be strong but inside the tears burned with savage intensity as I led my family out of the courtroom.
Zach was sentenced, at the age of twenty-one, to serve 40 years in the North Dakota State Penitentiary. In North Dakota, convicts must serve eighty five percent of their sentence before being eligible for parole. The judge did suspend five years.
During Zach’s sentencing, he told the court that he accepted full responsibility for his actions but he wanted to make it clear one more time that he never planned or intended to harm Alexis or anyone. He said he would do his time but would never let the system change him into someone he is not. I was proud of Zach for having the courage to make such a statement.
It has been nearly four and half years since Zach’s first night in jail. I miss him as much today as I did the day he was arrested.
We have battled through the legal process of appeals. The judge did reduce Zach’s sentence by five more years and now we are in the last phase of appeals, Post Conviction Appeals. On May 23, 2008, Zach’s attorney will present oral arguments to the court as to why Zach should be granted a new trial. Our expert witnesses will also testify, as will Zach. The State will do its best to defeat our attempt at a new trial.
What I would not do to be able to travel back in time and change what has happened and to give a family its daughter back. But since I cannot, I must be satisfied to know that you have read my story. A true story about a young man sick with depression who went to the doctor to get medicine to make him well. The medication did not make him better so he quit taking it only to discover one day, to his horror, that he had murdered his friend. Do you want to live each day as Zach now does--knowing that at his hand he killed someone, with his hand, but not with his mind?
Learn from this story.
We, like you, thought once upon a time that such a nightmare would never happen to us.
You can contact Gail at firstname.lastname@example.org
Note: Thank you for reading this far. Though I have no idea what the details of defense strategy are at this time, I can say for sure that there are two things that matter most here: That a huge wave of public understanding results to help accomplish that this case deserves—a new and very public trial. Whatever you can do to help achieve these ends will be appreciated and rewarded in ways that money cannot buy. This I just know.
Please send this email to everyone in your circles. I have sent it to everyone in mine. Ask everyone you know who has a website to post this email and Zach’s photo (they can email me and I will respond by attaching the original .jpeg). Among the goals we hope to achieve by getting the human truth out about what happened to Zach, is to make sure that, when people "Google" Zach Schmidkunz, they get to see the real Zach. (DWH)