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Va. Beach Cop Who Attacked Rescuers Speaks Out

VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. -- The sun was just beginning to rise as Bradley Colas squeezed his eyes shut.

When he opened them, U.S. 13 stretched out before him. The Eastern Shore's tree-lined fields and weather-worn farmhouses whisked by.

He pressed hard on the accelerator of his 1999 Honda Civic.

He was in a hurry the morning of March 4. Somewhere in Philadelphia, he believed, there was evil to be vanquished.

In the predawn darkness, the rookie Virginia Beach police officer had strapped to his right hip his off-duty gun. He tucked a knife in his left pants pocket. Then he loaded his trunk with police gear and drove north, across the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel and up the Shore.

God wants to test my faith, he thought.

He flew past the mom-and-pop diners, the seafood shacks, the motels that had long since billed their last guests.

The world seemed to move at half speed as his speedometer inched up toward 100 mph - almost double the speed limit.

Again, he closed his eyes.

A few days earlier, Bradley Colas was just a 23-year-old with bronchitis.

The officer, two months out of the academy, had time before his overnight shift started at 9 p.m., so he went to his doctor and got a prescription for a common antibiotic - Biaxin. A pharmacist filled the order with a generic version, clarithromycin, and handed Colas a two-page drug-information packet.

He took the first pill and reported to work in the city's northwestern 3rd Precinct.

When he went off duty around 7 a.m., he popped the next dose.

By the time he took the fourth pill two days later, Colas suspected something wasn't right. Insomnia had set in, and the officer - normally a quiet, private person - began to feel more outgoing.

"I feel like I'm having some kind of manic episode," he told a pharmacist.

That can't be from the antibiotic, the pharmacist said, advising him to keep taking it.

Colas called the nurse at his doctor's office for a second opinion. They agreed he would take one more dose of the antibiotic and stop if the symptoms continued.

He gulped down the fifth pill. It was the last he would take.

But the episodes didn't stop as he expected. Instead, waves of hallucinations and paranoia consumed Colas. The parts of his life that were important to him - law enforcement and religion - were twisted until, after just a few days, he no longer resembled himself.

God began talking to Colas through his television, sending him messages he would scrawl in a little black notebook. At the movie theater, the officer interpreted "Act of Valor," a film about Navy SEALs, as divine instruction to protect them.

An overwhelming sense of impending doom rushed over the officer as sleepless hours ticked by. He dashed off his goodbyes on yellow sticky notes and left them around his apartment. He wasn't suicidal; he simply believed it was his time to die.

He called his brother and parents at all hours, often waking them. He hadn't slept for days, he told his father in one of the early-morning calls. Fear of spiritual warfare stopped him from turning out the lights.

From upstate New York, Craig Colas repeatedly begged his son to rest.

"If you just get to sleep, I think you're going to think more clearly," he told his son.

The car was flying up the Eastern Shore when Colas came to a bend in the road. He couldn't slow down. The car ran off the side, clipped a sign and a crape myrtle bush and stopped in a barren cornfield.

The fact that he was alive was a sign from God, Colas believed. He popped the trunk, gathered his things and phoned for a state trooper. His voice was steady and calm.

"Yeah, I need a ride," he told a dispatcher. "I got in a car accident. Um, I'm on mile marker 128 on 13 North in Hallwood. So I just need you to get a cop out here to help me out."

"You were involved in an accident?" the dispatcher asked.

"Yeah, single-car accident," he replied. "I was going too fast."

Colas repeated his location and gave the make and model of his car.

"And also, I'm a police officer, too," he added. "Just to let you know."

The dispatcher hesitated. "OK," she said. "All right, I'll go ahead and get a trooper started."

"OK, great, thank you so much," Colas said.

A handful of volunteer firefighters reached him first. Colas spotted their station number displayed on neon yellow fire engines and helmets. Four. It was his favorite number, but suddenly the symbol took on sinister qualities. In his mind, there was only one explanation: The firefighters must be demons.

Colas walked to the front of his car and unscrewed his license plate. They won't be taking down my information, he thought. Nearby residents emerged to see what was going on.

Colas demanded one of the firefighter's radios. A confrontation erupted.

He saw them notice his gun, still in its holster.

As two of the firefighters grabbed for the weapon, popping out its ammunition clip and tossing the gun and the clip into the field, Colas pulled out his knife and stabbed at them. A firefighter hit Colas on the back of the head with a helmet, opening a gash that would require stitches.

But the blow didn't slow him down. Onlookers wondered why a handful of people couldn't get the officer under control. Colas picked up his gun and fired a single shot toward the firefighters. He missed.

As the firefighters retreated onto their engine and drove away, Colas began walking north. Arriving state troopers caught up with him. Finally, he thought, his ride was here.

Colas tucked his gun back into its holster and raised his hand and police badge. Then he dropped to the pavement, and let a state trooper cuff him.

The troopers were real, he reasoned. Or were they?

As crews treated Colas in an ambulance, the highway, the troopers, the demons all began to fade away.

Maybe I'm going to heaven, he thought.

For 24 hours, medication administered at the highway left Colas chemically paralyzed. When he woke in Riverside Shore Memorial Hospital, he didn't know whether what had happened on the highway had been a twisted dream or grim reality. Arrest warrants answered the question. Police had charged him with two counts of maliciously wounding rescue workers.

His thoughts raced as people moved in and out of his hospital room. None of them was real, he thought. Everyone was an imposter. Relatives sat by his bed trying to help him make sense of things.

Dr. Robert Paschall, the hospital's neurologist, ran a battery of tests on his new patient. A CT scan, MRI and EEG were all clear. So were the urine and drug tests for all substances of abuse and hallucinogenics. Colas had no history of psychological problems. The only thing Paschall could find was clarithromycin and trace amounts of alcohol from an over-the-counter cough syrup.

After 72 hours in the hospital, Colas was back to normal, Paschall determined. But did the officer suffer from a temporary drug-induced psychosis, or did he have the first in what would be a series of mental breakdowns? The neurologist couldn't tell right away.

The question wasn't easily answered in a courtroom, either.

A doctor hired by Colas' attorneys twice testified during bond hearings that the antibiotic caused Colas' actions. Cases of clarithromycin-induced psychosis were rare but documented, he said. But when the officer took the stand at his first hearing, he admitted to his actions.

Did you want to shoot the firefighters, Accomack County Commonwealth's Attorney Gary Agar asked Colas.

Yes, he answered.

Agar pressed: Did you want to kill them?

There was a moment of silence as the officer considered. In court that day, he was openly remorseful for what happened. On Lankford Highway, however, he had believed his life was in danger. How should he answer? He told the truth the best he could.

"Yes," Colas said, "I did."

Police added attempted murder and firearm charges to the list.

At the next bond hearing, the officer apologized and tried to explain his actions to a bank of firefighters sitting in the back of the courtroom:

"I want you to know, the person you saw in me on March 4 is not who I really am. I didn't know what was going on. I was convinced you were evil and trying to hurt me. I just want to apologize, and I hope in time you'll be able to forgive me."

Twice, the officer was denied bond and sent back to a solitary cell in the Accomack County Jail. In a white jumpsuit, he masked any fear with confidence. He smiled. He tried to stay positive and take his confinement one day at a time.

For nearly three months, he read books, exercised, answered letters, and even studied Spanish. Visits from his parents broke the monotony. Craig and Nancy Colas made the 900-mile round-trip drive almost every weekend to talk to their son for his allotted 15 minutes.

Doctors visited, too, a series of them hired by the prosecution and the defense. And over several months, they all arrived at the same conclusion.

"It is my opinion with reasonable medical certainty that on March 4, 2012, Mr. Bradley Colas was suffering from involuntary intoxication due to his prescribed Biaxin," one doctor wrote. "His involuntary intoxication so unsettled his mind that at the time of the crimes with which he is charged, he did not know the nature and quality of his acts or the wrongfulness of his acts."

"Clarithromycin," another wrote, "was the sole cause of reversible psychosis in Mr. Colas."

" ... He is no longer a threat to society," a third said.

In addition to their own evaluations, the doctors cited medical literature about drug-induced psychosis due to clarithromycin and more than 1,000 reported cases of the drug causing psychiatric events.

The antibiotic is one of the few that crosses the body's blood-brain barrier, explained Dr. Thomas Tsao, a psychiatrist hired by the defense. Patients who take the medication are likely to feel different immediately, he said.

Previous cases "seemed to show clearly that this drug, probably related to its very quick transport to the brain, could bring about this quick reaction, that once it's washed out of the system, it was a quick recovery, and these people returned to their normal state of mind," he testified at a hearing.

The commonwealth's attorney filed a motion to withdraw all charges against the officer. Colas was not criminally culpable for his actions, Agar said.

On June 4 - exactly three months after he floored his car up the Eastern Shore - there were no more demons, no more imposters, no more secret messages from God.

The hallucinations were long gone, but Colas still had one more challenge to face. The Virginia Beach Police Department had placed the officer - still in his 18-month probationary period - on unpaid leave after his arrest. It would take a few more weeks for the police chief to decide Colas could keep his job, transitioning him to administrative status with pay. But, for the moment, his career could wait.

At 12:45 p.m., Bradley Colas, now 24, walked out of the jail and into the sun.

His mind was clear.



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