Bloodlines: The Death of Chicago Dermatologist David Cornbleet

After dermatologist David Cornbleet was murdered in his Michigan Avenue office, his son, Jonathan, devoted himself to finding the killer. Now a shy and troubled young man—a former patient of Dr. Cornbleet’s—has confessed. But that man’s anguished father is arguing that a drug prescribed by the slain doctor may have contributed to the killing.

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Peterson in police custody on the French island of St. Martin

Since it was first approved by the Food and Drug Administration in 1982, Accutane has been—and continues to be—one of the most highly effective, profitable, and controversial acne drugs available. Originally studied for use as a chemotherapy agent, the medication also showed an extraordinary ability to clear up the most virulent forms of acne—in particular, severe nodular blemishes.

To date, the drug has been prescribed to more than 13 million patients, and it brings its manufacturer, the New Jersey–based Roche Pharmaceuticals, some $700 million in annual sales. From the beginning, however, the drug’s potential side effects raised deep concerns. Pregnant women, for example, were warned that the medication could cause birth defects. The drug also was linked to premature birth, miscarriage, and infant mortality.

Roche Pharmaceuticals has also admitted that Accutane can cause depression, psychosis, and, in rare instances, thoughts of suicide. Indeed, a product information insert included with the drug warns patients to stop Accutane if they or a family member notices symptoms of depression or psychosis. Those symptoms include the patient’s becoming more “irritable or aggressive” than usual, or “acting on dangerous impulses.”

In addition, a 1998 FDA memo states: “Given all the pieces of evidence available, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that Accutane can adversely affect the adult human brain in clinically significant ways and that Accutane use is associated with severe psychiatric disease in some patients.” The memo recommended “active consideration of removal of Accutane from the market.”

Accutane remained available, but the FDA ordered Roche to strengthen the warnings on the drug’s packaging to alert doctors to the risks of “depression, psychosis and, rarely, suicidal ideation, suicide attempts and suicide.” The FDA also sent a letter warning Roche to cease “false and misleading” advertisements that promoted Accutane as an “effective treatment of severe acne . . . [that] minimizes negative psychosocial effects such as depression and poor self-image.”

Many of the concerns over the drug have arisen from several high-profile deaths associated with the drug. In 2002, Charles J. Bishop—a 15-year-old high-school freshman who had been prescribed the medication—killed himself by piloting a stolen Cessna 172R into the 28th floor of the Bank of America Plaza in Tampa, Florida. On May 14, 2000, the son of Michigan congressman Bart Stupak shot himself in the head hours after his junior prom. His father blamed psychological side effects from Accutane and launched a campaign against the medication that continues to this day. “This drug represents a public health concern for the American people,” he declared in a congressional hearing. “We cannot allow the drug manufacturer and the FDA to continue to turn a blind eye to the lives lost, families devastated, and dreams dashed by an acne drug.”

Roche maintains that the drug is safe when used correctly and insists that no study “has found any cause-and-effect relationship between Accutane and psychiatric events.” (Roche responded to requests for an interview with a statement reiterating its position.)

Opinions within the medical community continue to vary. “I have myself given it to hundreds of patients and have never seen a significant side effect,” says Robin Gehris, a pediatric dermatologist at Children’s Hospital in Pittsburgh. “I think to say that a person took a drug and four years later that [a crime] was that drug’s fault, I think is just the hugest stretch I’ve heard.”

In a study of Accutane two years ago, J. Douglas Bremner, a psychiatrist at Emory University, found that the drug caused a decrease in brain function in the section of the brain regulating mood and impulse. “My opinion is the risks of depression, suicide, violence, and aggression from Accutane have been downplayed in the past,” he says.

Members of the Cornbleet family scoff at the notion that two doses of Accutane taken four years before their father was killed could lead to murder. Such a claim, says Jocelyn Cornbleet, is simply a ruse to “get the focus off of [Hans Peterson] and put it on the big bad pharmaceutical company.”

Tom Peterson acknowledges the skepticism. “I have to agree, it’s hard to believe,” he says. “But there it is.”

Whether or not Accutane drove Hans Peterson to violence, as he and his father claim, it’s clear Peterson developed an obsession with the drug. On May 12, 2002, using the login name of “hansp,” he signed up for a membership with the Accutane/Roaccutane Action Forum Group—a blog for people who believed they had suffered adverse side effects from the drug. Within five years, he had posted more than 60 times to the blog, starting with his first entry on June 16, 2002: “In late April, I went to see a dermatologist for my very mild, but persistent acne. He was an unethical old man who suggested Accutane. I took it for 2 days. Then I got a bad headache and read about the side effects. I stopped right away. I thought that I was safe having only taken a few pills. However, about 5 days later, I got really depressed and couldn’t sleep. My ears started to ring. . . . My appetite went away. . . . A couple of days after this, my libido vanished and I lost virtually all sexual sensation. . . . It has been over a month and a half since my very brief experience with Accutane and most of these effects have not improved at all. Am I permanently affected from taking an acne medicine for 2 days?”

Several news outlets have reported that Peterson claimed the drug caused him to be impotent. But a posting by Peterson on November 15, 2002, suggests otherwise. “Since taking a relatively high dose of Accutane for a very short period of time 7 months ago,” he wrote, “I have been experiencing persistent sexual problems. I would describe it as a loss of libido and sexual sensation. . . . I can get an erection and otherwise function normally. The pleasurable sensation is just gone.”

In 2002, despite his growing obsession—and seemingly out of the blue, his father says—Peterson decided to take the law school admissions test. “He doesn’t get the book, doesn’t take the class, but scores phenomenally high,” Tom Peterson says.

Shortly after, his son accepted a scholarship to Yeshiva University’s Benjamin N. Cardozo law school in Manhattan and moved to New York from Oregon, where he had been living with his mother. “So starting in January of ‘03 he begins classes,” the father says. “By the fall of ‘04, he’s two-thirds done and in the spring of ‘05 he’s supposed to graduate.” By this point, Hans Peterson lived in an apartment in the East Village with two roommates.

The father says he tried to reach his son there several times as the graduation date approached, but “suddenly, he wasn’t returning my phone calls. I finally called and said, ‘If I don’t hear from you within 24 hours I’m going to call the police and report you as a missing person.’ Well, then he calls back and says, ‘I quit law school. I stopped going to classes four months ago, and I’m doing Internet gambling.’”

Unbeknownst to his father, Hans had turned inward again, and more profoundly than ever. He had grown “increasingly antisocial, manic, prone to isolationist behavior, staying awake for days,” a friend of one of Hans’s roommates wrote to Jon Cornbleet in an e-mail. “He would shun large groups and [the roommate] recalls being unintentionally engaged in discussions about Accutane and the effects of the medicine,” said the friend, a 25-year-old marine who is now in Iraq. At some point, Hans also began talking to the roommate about harming the prescribing dermatologist for what “he had done to him,” the marine added. (Neither the roommate’s name nor that of the marine has been released.)

On October 19, 2006—five days before the murder—Hans set out to do just that, police believe. Renting a car in New York, he left the city, bound for Chicago. Police say he had made an appointment, using a fake name, with Dr. David Cornbleet.

* * *

Photograph: Courtesy of Jonathan Cornbleet

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6 years ago
Posted by Anonymous

My heart really goes out to Jon Cornbleet. He is a real hero and something should be done to grant him the justice he so badly has worked so hard for. He is somebody I greatly admire and respect. I think that Jon Cornbleet is the next John Walsh.

I really hate France for making this nightmare continue for him.

6 years ago
Posted by Anonymous

This is an excellent article. I am very impressed with the class and respect that Jon Cornbleet always shows.

Jon Cornbleet is a real life hero and somebody we should all aspire to be. I sit here and can not believe not only how strong a person he is, but how wonderful a son he is to his father. Jon's pursuit of justice is so admirable.

This is such a sad tragedy. Hans Peterson is a scum and shame on France for not extraditing this guy.

6 years ago
Posted by Anonymous

Why is France not extraditing him? He visited France a dozen or so times and thus he is protected under their laws? No wonder EVERYBODY hates the French. I think that what they are doing is criminal and I hold France personally responsible for aiding and abedding a confessed murderer.
I am very touched by the dedication and determination of Dr. Cornbleet's son. I think that all of us inside wish that we had the heart and courage that he does.

6 years ago
Posted by Anonymous

I have been following this sad tragedy since it happened. I think that John's persistency and determination is so honorable and such an ode to his love of his father. He shows a lot of class toward the Peterson family which is admirable.

Shame on France. I thought that the new President wanted to be different yet it is the same old song and dance with France. I will never visit or support those jerks.

6 years ago
Posted by Anonymous

who ever came up with the website/myspace idea was a genius

6 years ago
Posted by Anonymous

Excellent article. I never thought about the impact on the Peterson family. I now feel a great deal of sympathy for them (excepting Hans) as well.

Hans Peterson should be extradited and face his crime. You cannot tell me that in 4 years, he did not have one single lucid moment where he could have expressed and sought help for his feelings of anger. There are many medications that will help a psychotic individual function in society without murdering others.

6 years ago
Posted by Anonymous

Excellent article. I am saddened by the tragedy of Dr Cornbleet. He was the greatest doctor that I was ever fortunate to know. I miss his wisdom and humor tremendously.

Kudos have to be given to the son of Dr Cornbleet who has become a real life hero.

I can assure you that I or nobody that I know will ever support the French again. I think that they are obstructing justice and should be ashamed of themselves for not extraditing an American citizen.

6 years ago
Posted by Anonymous

It would appear that no one is addressing the issue that Hans only took this drug twice, from his own fathers' admission. Unless I missed it somewhere!? How about having someone, who is qualified to do so, evaluate the effects it can have on a person: same height, weight and gender, as Hans, having only taken the drug twice as well as compared to those mentioned in the article that the drug had a psychotic effect on (in terms of how long, etc., they took it). Let's get some conclusive evidence that it was the drug FIRST. In addition, someone else said it, he had more than enough time, Hans and his father, to seek help (or intervene on behalf of his son) before this happened. This is an unforgiveable crime, and he should pay. And ditto, SHAME ON FRANCE for even becoming involved: whether he was there once or a dozen times, in my opinion, it does not matter - he didn't live there!

6 years ago
Posted by Anonymous

Just a horrible crime and plan by Tom Peterson to distract attention from a first degree murder to two pills of vitamin a. Not to say that I wouldn’t do the same if this was my son, but it is clear that the Peterson family feels so much shame that they will do anything to transfer the blame. They are loosing a son in all of this, so it is OK to feel sympathy for them, but if one really reads between the lines of this story, Tom Ps previous comments, and even Hans’ posting on the Asberg blog, it is clear that Hans was an unguided child from the start. It seems that Top P may never really have known Hans, and only now is getting involved in his life by starting a crusade against accutatne. Perhaps this is noble cause or just a way for him to make up for lost time. Either way if wants to build support for his cause he should do everything in his power to get his son back to the US, including hitting the media in the same format and volume that the Cornbleets did.

6 years ago
Posted by Anonymous

I think it is time for France to update their law of 1927.

6 years ago
Posted by Anonymous

It sounds like Peterson may be schizophrenic. Escalating social isolation in late adolescence with depression among other things. Accuatane probably had nothing to do with it. All the more reason we need to extradite this guy back to the US to have some court appointed experts (not ones chosen by the Petersons) weigh in and see what's up with this guy for sure.

The French are just reprehensible.

6 years ago
Posted by Anonymous

By the way, the French law doesn't allow them to extradite anyone to a country with a death penalty. Never mind that this happened in Chicago and Illinois is currently under a death penalty moratorium. That's one of the excuses the french are using - that Peterson might be executed.

6 years ago
Posted by Anonymous

Excellent article. I am blown away by the dedication and heroism of Dr Cornbleet's son, Jon. I have to say that I am not sure anybody else would have handled this with such honor and dignity. France should be ashamed of themselves and I for one will never give that country another dime.

6 years ago
Posted by Anonymous

I want to put my two cents into this as I have been following the case for months. The French just flat out suck as a country. They are the most corrupt government and never ever will the United States have a relationship with them when they pull monkey business like this. I think that France should be ashamed of themselves for their actions. I think that our government needs to intervene and get this to happen. No family should have to go through what the Cornbleets have to with this horrible monster who should be locked up forever and ever....

6 years ago
Posted by Anonymous

I think it is time for France to step up and be an ally to the United States as they claim they are.

I have never seen such injustice in my life. France should be ashamed of themselves and why on earth do they want this murderer as part of their country?

I have to applaud Cornbleet's son and all of his efforts. He is the silver lining in this horrible mess created by Hans Peterson. 2 pills caused murder 5 years later, give me a break!

6 years ago
Posted by Anonymous

Jabiru 2

... Le meurtrier, un autiste social depuis sa prime enfance ( Asperger Syndrome) est un garçon solitaire intelligent. Ses gains au poker On line sont facilités par les logiciels qu’il a lui-même créés. Avant d’arrivée à St Martin ( fwi) le 29 dec 06
Il a pensé à se suicider, il est allé pour ça au Mexique.
Il n’a pas confiance dans les institutions de son pays.

Il a choisi une pointe avancée de la France en Amérique
Pour s’y livrer après le meurtre.
L’affaire y sera jugée. 15 à 22 années de prison. Pas plus.

http://jabiru.blog.lemonde.fr

6 years ago
Posted by Anonymous

Jabiru 1
bon article de Bayan Smith, qui synthétise bien l’affaire une année après le meurtre


De mon point de vue , le profil psychologique du meurtrier
est la piste d’enquête actuellement la plus intéressante.
La question de l’extradition étant pliée,
comme d’habitude dans les commentaires boucs émissaires
« les frenchy sont des salauds de pas nous rendre le diable »

L’essentiel à mes yeux c’est le cocktail chimique Zolof / Accutane traitements chimiques incompatibles .

Avec Internet, nous disposons de la preuve irréfutable de l’évolution des faits en 2002
Oui, deux comprimés de 80g d’accutane ont flingué le mental
d’une jeune franco-amércain d’origine suédoise par sa branche paternelle. Tandis que les Cornbleet juifs allemands, ont quitté l’alllemagne Nazi en 1939 .

les généalogies parentales de ces deux familles blanches viennent de la vieille Europe, dont tous les pays ont aboli la peine de mort...

6 years ago
Posted by Anonymous

I have been following this case. I really would hope that France would send this guy back to the US. But we have laws that say we think it's okay for our government to kill people, so that goes against France's ethics and laws. I applaud France for holding firm. I have been a witness to murder and now my brother killer will also be set free after 25 years. Which is not far of the mark with what this guy would get in France.

I hope Jon that you and your family can rest in peace. And as far as Hans' family, get over it! Your son is the killer not the drugs!

For you anti-frenchy's- you are morons. I mean I don't love the French like I do many countries. But seriously..... you think this is bad, what about our own government? Get educated, get the facts!

6 years ago
Posted by Anonymous

Are these people Cornbleet's family? You guys are so disgusting...Hans is a real vicim here. Accutane is one of the worst drugs and if you guys suffer long term aacutane side effects, you will understand what I am talkinga about...

6 years ago
Posted by Anonymous

I am French and only heard about this tragedy over myspace. The French people had never heard about it so don't blame them please.
I, and the few people I could warn about this tragedy, are actually very sad and doing the little that we can to let the people know to have something done about it. The problem is that the information doesn't go across the country. The French who know about it support you and want the murderer to be in jail.

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