Charles Bishop's first—and final—solo flight ended not with a smooth landing but in an explosion of shattered glass. On the afternoon of Jan. 5 he stole a Cessna 172 from the National Aviation Flight School at St. Petersburg-Clearwater International Airport, where he was a student. Minutes later he crashed into the 28th floor of the Bank of America office tower in downtown Tampa. In his pocket was a handwritten note claiming sympathy for Osama bin Laden and his attacks of Sept. 11.
In the wake of the crash, Charles's mother was too devastated to speak more than a few words in public. Now Julie, 35, is resolved to tell her son's story. Insisting he never would have committed such an act on his own, she places the blame on Accutane, a prescription acne medicine Charles took for 10 months before his death. On April 15 she and her mother, Karen Johnson, 62, filed a $70 million wrongful-death suit in Hillsborough County, Fla., against drugmaker Hoffmann-La Roche Inc., asserting that taking Accutane made Charles severely psychotic.
It is not the first time someone has raised questions about Accutane. Rep. Bart Stupak, a Michigan Democrat whose son BJ inexplicably shot himself at 17 two years ago after using the drug for five months, has begun investigating it with the House Energy and Commerce Committee. "When I heard of [Charles's suicide]," says Stupak, "my first thought was, 'I wonder if the kid was on Accutane?' " And on April 9 the FDA posted an article on its Web site, warning that "Accutane may cause depression, psychosis and, rarely...suicide attempts and suicide."
Hoffmann-La Roche would not comment for this article. But Accutane has staunch defenders. "I don't know how we could do without it," says Dr. David Pariser of Norfolk, Va., a member of the American Academy of Dermatology's board of directors. "Some patients develop depression, but the major change I see is an improvement in self-esteem because their acne cleared up."
In fact an autopsy detected no Accutane in Charles's blood. But his grandmother insists he took it the day he died. There are few other clues to Charles's bizarre end. "The Tampa police said he was 'a disturbed loner,' but it's just not true," says Julie, a graphic designer who had been raising him with her mother's help since splitting with her husband, Charles Bishara, 37, in 1986. "He had a lot of friends. He was a happy boy. He had a very witty sense of humor-Charles loved doing Bill Clinton imitations." Adds pal Emerson Favreau, 15: "He was really funny—around me, he made teenage jokes. He said he knew some girls who liked him, but he was scared to say anything to them."
An honor student who had set his sights on the U.S. Air Force Academy, Charles was vocally patriotic. After Sept. 11 he wrote in his school journal, "Osama bin Laden's and the Taliban's days are numbered. I will feel a lot safer when they are no longer around." He also liked baseball, golf and bowling, says his mother. Above all he was enthralled by airplanes. When he was 11, Julie took him to have a spin in a Cessna at an aviation school near Atlanta, their home at the time. "When we got back," she recalls, "he said, 'This is what I want to do.' "
After the Bishops moved to Florida, Charles enrolled at National Aviation Flight School. His lesson was slated for 5 p.m. on Saturday, Jan. 5. "I was sick with a bad cold, and he spent Friday night at my mother's," says Julie. "We watched TV and he retired at about 10," Karen Johnson says. "When he got up, I fixed him French toast and he took his medication." That day, Johnson says, Charles seemed restless. As she drove him to his lesson, he phoned his mother from the car. "He said, 'I want to let you know we're on our way,' ulie says. "I said, 'I'll see you later. Have a good lesson.' That's the last time I ever talked to him."
Now, all she has left of her son are some photos, some memories and a bottomless well of sorrow. "If I'd been married to Charles, I'd be called a widow," she says. "If my parents were killed, I'd be called an orphan. There's not a word to describe losing your only child. Maybe 10 years from now it will be easier. But I don't know. I don't know."
Don Sider in Palm Harbor
Almost four months after her son Charles committed suicide, Julie Bishop cannot bring herself to clean out his room in their Palm Harbor, Fla., townhouse. "I wake up in the middle of the night, expecting him to be here," she says. "I've been numb." Untouched are the artifacts of a 15-year-old boy's fascination with flight: a photo of a World War II British Spitfire, a book of interviews with pilots, a plaque that reads, "Flying is the 2nd greatest thrill known to man. Landing is the first."