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Final arguments made in rape case in which Zoloft is blamed

A prosecutor in the Inland Empire says the idea that the drug put the defendant, a former Marine and policeman, into a delirium is baloney. The defense calls the antidepressant the only possible explanation.

June 12, 2012|By Phil Willon, Los Angeles Times
  • Anthony Nicholas Orban, left, an Iraq war veteran and former Westminster police detective accused of rape, listens to testimony last month with his attorney, James Blatt.
Anthony Nicholas Orban, left, an Iraq war veteran and former Westminster… (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles…)

A San Bernardino County prosecutor Tuesday urged a jury not to be swayed by testimony that the antidepressant Zoloft put a former Westminster police detective in a fog that made him not responsible for kidnapping and raping a waitress in 2010.

Deputy Dist. Atty. Debbie Ploghaus called the so-called Zoloft defense, backed by a psychiatrist's testimony, "a bunch of baloney" and a desperate attempt by Anthony Nicholas Orban to sidestep overwhelming evidence against him.

Orban was identified by the victim, was implicated by his best friend, was captured on security video footage at the scene of the attack and left his police service weapon, with his name on it, in the victim's car.

Ploghaus told the jury that while bar-hopping in Ontario before the kidnapping, Orban groped a woman's chest, grabbed a man's crotch and repeatedly texted a former girlfriend hoping for an afternoon tryst.

"He was a highly trained officer who wanted to have sex. He had sex on the mind. Don't forget that," Ploghaus told jurors in her closing argument.

Orban's attorney, James Blatt of Los Angeles, said the assault ran counter to a life spent protecting community and country as a police detective and a Marine veteran of the Iraq war. The only plausible explanation for the defendant's behavior, Blatt argued, was the potent effects of Zoloft, which sent Orban spiraling into an "unconscious" delirium.

"At the time he was not aware, not aware of the torturous things he had done,'' Blatt told the jury.

Orban, hair clipped and wearing a pressed dark suit, sat emotionless as the prosecutor recounted the graphic details of the sexual assault.

The victim sat in the front row of the Rancho Cucamonga courtroom, clutching a friend's hand, as the prosecutor recounted her testimony that Orban rubbed his weapon against her face during the attack.

The jury of eight women and four men began deliberations late Tuesday morning after the monthlong trial. The panel will have to decipher complex testimony from dueling medical experts.

If jurors find Orban not guilty by reason of unconsciousness, he will walk out a free man. If they convict him, they then must decide whether he was sane. If declared sane, Orban could face up to life in prison. If found insane, he would be sent to a state mental hospital for treatment.

One juror was excused Tuesday after the judge learned that he recently asked the bailiff if he could "thank" Orban for his military service. Even though no contact had been made, Judge Shahla S. Sabat determined that the juror "cannot be fair to both sides" and replaced him.

"This is going to be a huge appeal issue," Sabat acknowledged.

The Westminster detective is accused of abducting the waitress, then 25, as she walked to her car after a Saturday shift at the Ontario Mills mall. His police service weapon drawn, Orban forced the victim to drive to a self-storage lot in Fontana, according to authorities.

The victim told the jury that Orban sexually brutalized her in the parked car, hidden behind tinted windows, as people walked a few feet away. At one point, Orban snapped pictures with his cellphone, telling her to "smile for the camera." He chambered a round in his semiautomatic pistol, shoving the barrel deep into her mouth as tears rolled down her cheeks, she said.

"He said if I cried, he would kill me," the victim told jurors. "Then he pulled the gun out and said, 'I think we'll continue this in the desert.'"

When Orban was distracted by an incoming cellphone call, the woman said, she jumped out of the car and ran to safety in a nearby liquor store.

The defense relied on Dr. Peter Breggin, a New York psychiatrist and critic of psychotropic drugs who has testified in other cases across North America.

Breggin said he believed Orban suffered a psychotic break from reality shortly before the kidnapping and was in an unconscious state of delirium, void of control or memory, during the attack.

"I don't even think he knows he's tormenting her," Breggin testified. "He would not under any circumstances behave like this if he was not driven over the edge by the drugs."

Orban had temporarily quit taking Zoloft, prescribed by his psychiatrist, then resumed it at full dosage five days before the attack, which Breggin said sent him into a state of manic psychosis.

The prosecutor criticized Breggin as "intentionally misleading" and told jurors that the scientific community rejects his medical theories.

Ploghaus' medical expert, Dr. Douglas Jacobs, an associate clinical professor at Harvard, testified that Zoloft has been prescribed to millions of people and proved to be safe. There has been no evidence that Zoloft causes delirium or unconsciousness, he said.

Tracy Orban, the defendant's wife, who testified as a defense witness, sat in the back of the courtroom listening silently during the two days of final arguments that ended Tuesday.

"Being married to him, I watched the effects of the Zoloft on him. How it stripped him. How it impaired him," she said after Tuesday's proceedings. She said that's why she drives to the jail in Fontana every week to visit him.

phil.willon@latimes.com

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