Pilot's acne drug tied to suicides

St. Petersburg Times,
published January 9, 2002

Investigators searching the home of Charles Bishop, the teen who flew a small plane into a Tampa skyscraper, find a prescription for Accutane. The teenage boy who intentionally crashed a small plane into a downtown Tampa high-rise Saturday was prescribed an acne-treating drug linked to suicide and depression, authorities said Tuesday.

Investigators searching the East Lake home where 15-year-old Charles Bishop lived with his mother found a prescription for Accutane, Tampa police spokeswoman Katie Hughes said. The medication, used by about 12-million people since 1982, affects the body's central nervous system. According to the Food and Drug Administration, 147 people on Accutane committed suicide or were hospitalized for suicide attempts from 1982 to May 2000. U.S. Rep. Bart Stupak, D-Mich., initiated a federal investigation into the side effects of Accutane after his 17-year-old son committed suicide in 2000. The manufacturer says the drug is safe. "We can't attest to whether (Bishop) was taking it, or how much he was taking," Hughes said. "We don't know any of that."

The Hillsborough Medical Examiner's Office said it will take about two weeks to complete toxicology tests to determine if any drugs were in Bishop's system. Bishop, an East Lake High School freshman, steered a single-engine Cessna into the 28th floor of the Bank of America Plaza building Saturday, killing himself and damaging offices. Reached at her East Lake apartment on Tuesday evening, the teen's mother, Julia Bishop, told CNN: "He was my shining star. He was the light of my life. There is nothing I would not do for that child.

Everybody loved him." She said that she has not slept or changed clothes since hearing the news and that she was shocked by the note found with her son, expressing support for Osama bin Laden. "My son wanted to join the Air Force. He loved his country," she said in a telephone interview. "He was a friendly, social boy. I don't know how I go on living without him. He was my boy." Pinellas sheriff's detectives, who conducted the search of Bishop's home, plan to investigate the teenager's use of Accutane, Sgt. Greg Tita said. The two-page note, while sympathetic to bin Laden, gave no further motive. Neatly written in cursive, it was found in a small satchel on the plane, along with Bishop's flight log.

Three times before the crash, Bishop told a friend at East Lake High School he was going to be in the news. The last time was in an America Online instant message sent to sophomore Emerson Favreau two days before the crash. "He had told me to watch the news on Saturday and he would be on it," said Favreau, 15. But he thought Bishop was joking. Bishop messaged that an airline was thinking about hiring him.

That didn't quite make sense, but Favreau said it might have been the only thing Bishop could think of to cover his real intention. Favreau said Bishop never seemed depressed and was not a loner. He tried to make friends, but preferred small social groups to big ones. "He was a cool, kind, pretty funny kid," said Favreau, who shared an interest in flying. "This was a shock. . . . There was no indication whatsoever that he was suicidal or that anything was wrong." Favreau said Bishop "hated bin Laden." Asked why his friend crashed, he said, "The best explanation that I can think of is that he wanted attention, and he was willing to commit suicide to get it." The owner of the flight school where Bishop stole the plane said Tuesday that Bishop had casually asked about practicing takeoffs and landings shortly before he flew off without permission Saturday. He said Bishop was never instructed to do a prelight inspection of the plane, an account that differs from accounts given after the crash. "He was never told to preflight the airplane," said Robert Cooper, owner of National Aviation Flight School at St. Petersburg-Clearwater International Airport. "He was not authorized to preflight the airplane." Cooper said Bishop and his flight instructor passed each other in a hallway shortly before 5 p.m. Saturday.

The instructor asked Bishop what he wanted to do during his lesson. "Let's work the pattern," Bishop told him, using the term for practicing touch-and-go takeoffs and landings, Cooper said. Bishop got the flight book and the keys to the airplane and was buzzed through an electronic door by a clerk who had seen him many times before. "He was buzzed outside because people know him," Cooper said. "He was a fixture out there." There was nothing unusual about Bishop hanging around the planes. What was out of the ordinary was that "he untied the airplane, got in, cranked it up and was gone," Cooper said. Cooper said there was nothing unusual or inappropriate about Bishop's interaction with the school until the moment he stole the plane. "People are focusing on the wrong thing," he said.

"This is not an issue of security. This is an issue of trust." Bishop's grandmother, Karen Johnson, was in the lobby when she learned her grandson had stolen an airplane. The instructor said Bishop had told her earlier in the day, "if something happened to him, he didn't want his enemies coming to his funeral and don't tell his father," Cooper said. "I guess it crystalized later. She kind of put the pieces together." Cooper said the school does not plan to change its procedures. "We've gone through our procedures with the FAA and other agencies," Cooper said. "We have outstanding procedures.

There's really nothing to change." Records from Tampa International Airport indicate officials were able to react quickly. At 5:05 p.m., the minute the plane crashed into the Bank of America tower, the daily incident report from TIA shows the dispatcher contacted officials with Hillsborough County Aviation Authority and the police. At 5:30 p.m., the TIA tower called a "ground stop" on all departing flights, still allowing arrivals. That order was lifted at 6:05.

One expert on aviation policy said Tuesday it would be folly for the federal government to attempt to address the crash with changes in procedures for student pilots. "The FAA and the NTSB always jump on the infinite minutiae to stop one small, isolated incident from happening again instead of stepping back and looking at the big picture," said Rich Charles, head of the aviation program at Georgia State University. "This was a truly anomalous situation." - Information from Times staff writers Richard Danielson, Katherine Gazella, Jean Heller, Amy Herdy, Tamara Lush and Jeff Testerman, researcher John Martin and the Associated Press was used in this report.