After midnight, near the end of a 7-hour-long police interrogation that began on December 14, 2003, Charles Cullen said, “I did not want (people) to see me as this, what I am.” Somerset County detective Timothy Braun then asked him, “What are you, Charles?” The 43-year-old nurse replied, “A man, person, who was trusted and had responsibility for a lot of people dying…I hate myself for it ’cause I don’t believe I had the right, but I couldn’t stop, I couldn’t.” No, he couldn’t, and incredibly, neither could the medical establishment stop his reign of terror at the time.
Cullen had been arrested 2 days earlier on 1 count of murder and 1 count of attempted murder of patients at Somerset Medical Center in New Jersey, where he was employed as a nurse. After 6 hours of questioning, Cullen eventually admitted to committing both crimes. Then, he confessed to killing approximately 40 other patients during the previous 16 years while working as a nurse in New Jersey and Pennsylvania hospitals. Authorities believe that the actual number of victims could be many times that.
Charles Cullen was born in West Orange, New Jersey, in 1960, and was the youngest of 8 children. His father was a bus driver who died when Cullen was an infant. Cullen describes his childhood as being miserable. He claims that his first of at least 20 attempts at suicide came at 9 years of age when he drank a concoction he created from a chemistry set. At 17, his mother was killed in a car accident while one of his sisters was at the wheel. Distraught after his mother’s death, he dropped out of high school, joined the US Navy, and served as a petty officer third class aboard a ballistic missile submarine, where he was a member of the team that operated the sub’s Poseidon missiles.
During this time, Cullen began to display evidence of mental instability, including one incident where he completed a shift while wearing a surgical gown, mask, and gloves that he had stolen from a medical cabinet. He was eventually transferred to a supply ship, where he attempted suicide several times during the next few years, and subsequently received a medical discharge in 1984. After leaving the Navy, Cullen completed his nursing education and began working at St. Barnabas Medical Center in Livingston, New Jersey, in 1987. He married Adrienne Taub that same year, and the couple eventually had 2 daughters.
Charles Cullen committed his first murder in 1988 by administering a lethal overdose of intravenous medication to a patient who had suffered an allergic reaction to a drug. Cullen would later admit to murdering 11 patients at St. Barnabas. He quit his job at St. Barnabas in 1992 when hospital authorities began an investigation into tampered bags of intravenous fluid. Cullen then took a job at Warren Hospital in Phillipsburg, New Jersey. He has admitted to killing 3 elderly women there by giving them overdoses of digoxin.
In 1993, his wife, Adrienne, filed for divorce, and later made 2 domestic violence complaints against Cullen. The divorce and domestic violence documents described Cullen as an alcoholic who stuffed pets into bowling bags and trash cans, poured lighter fluid into other people’s drinks, and made prank calls to funeral homes. Cullen says that he wanted to quit nursing at this time, but the need to make child support payments wouldn’t allow him. He supposedly attempted suicide several more times that year.
Cullen quit his position at Warren Hospital early the next year and took a job at Hunter Medical Center in Raritan Township, New Jersey, where he worked in the intensive care/cardiac care unit. He claims that he had not killed anyone during his first 2 years there, but hospital records for that period had already been destroyed by the time of his arrest in 2003, which prevented an investigation. However, Cullen did admit to killing 5 patients in his third year there by administering overdoses of digoxin.
In 1998, Cullen was working at a rehab clinic in Allentown, Pennsylvania, when he was seen entering a patient’s room with syringes in his hand. The patient ended up with a broken arm, but no injections were apparently made. Cullen was accused of providing patients with drugs at unscheduled times and was fired.
Later in 1998, while working at a hospital in Elston, Pennsylvania, he murdered another patient. A coroner’s investigation revealed a lethal amount of digoxin in the patient, but the investigation was inconclusive and no evidence pointed directly to Cullen as the killer.
In the late 1990s, there was a nationwide nursing shortage, and there were no reporting mechanisms in place to identify health care professionals with mental health issues or histories of suspicious behavior. So, Cullen continued to land nursing jobs. In 1999, he accepted a position at a burn unit in a hospital in Allentown, Pennsylvania, where he killed 1 patient and attempted to murder another. Later that year, Cullen resigned his position and was hired by St. Luke’s Hospital in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, in the cardiac care unit. He murdered 5 more patients there over the next 3 years.
In January 2000, Cullen attempted suicide again. He lit a charcoal grill in his bath tub, in the hopes that the carbon monoxide would sufficate him. However, neighbors smelled the smoke and called the fire department. Cullen was taken to a psychiatric facility, but was back home the following day.
In 2002, vials of unused medications were discovered in a disposal bin by a co-worker at St. Luke’s. An investigation revealed that Cullen had stolen the drugs, and he was fired in June. Soon after, 7 of his coworkers met with the Lehigh County district attorney to voice their suspicions that Cullen had killed patients at the hospital. They noted that in the first half of 2002, Cullen had worked one-fifth of the hours on his unit but was present for nearly two-thirds of the deaths that occurred there. Unfortunately, investigators never looked into Cullen’s work history, and the case was dropped 9 months later for lack of evidence.
Cullen found a new job at Somerset Medical Center in Somerset, New Jersey, in September 2002, where he worked in the critical care unit. He has admitted to murdering 8 patients there via overdoses of his drugs of choice: digoxin and insulin. In the summer of 2003, the hospital’s computer systems revealed that Cullen was accessing the records of patients who were not his, and other employees repeatedly saw him in the rooms of patients to whom he was not assigned. In addition, Cullen was found to be manipulating computerized drug-dispensing cabinets to access medications that had not been prescribed.
In July 2003, the New Jersey Poison Information and Education System warned officials at Somerset Medical Center that at least 4 suspicious overdoses at Somerset Medical Center indicated the possibility that patients were being murdered by an employee. However, the hospital put off informing authorities for 3 months. By then, Cullen had murdered another 5 patients.
In August 2003, the hospital was penalized by state officials for failure to report a nonfatal insulin overdose that Cullen had administered. After Cullen’s final victim died of low blood sugar in October, the hospital mercifully alerted state authorities. Their investigation into Cullen’s history revealed past suspicions about his involvement with questionable deaths. Somerset Medical Center fired Cullen in October for lying on his job application. Cullen was kept under surveillance by police while they performed their investigation, and he was arrested on December 12th.
Two days after his arrest, and 6 hours into the interrogation, Cullen began to tell 2 Somerset County detectives about his 16-year career of carnage. He claimed that he murdered patients to spare them from being “coded” because he could not bear to witness, or hear about, attempts at saving a patient’s life. He also claimed that he overdosed patients to end their suffering; however, many of his patients were not terminally ill and were scheduled for release. He appeared to be unaware of his contradictory statements. He told investigators that he would observe patients suffering for several days while thinking about murdering them, but that the decision to commit each murder was impulsive. He said that he could not recall how many victims there were or the reasons why he had chosen them. Cullen would adamantly deny committing any murders at certain hospitals, but then after being shown medical records, hewould admit that he was involved in the patient deaths there.
In a New Jersey court in April 2004, Cullen pleaded guilty to killing 13 patients and attempting to kill 2 others while working at Somerset Medical Center. As part of his plea agreement, he promised to cooperate with authorities if they did not seek the death penalty. In May, he pleaded guilty to the murder of 3 additional patients in New Jersey. In November, Cullen pleaded guilty to killing 6 patients and attempting to kill 3 others in Pennsylvania. On March 2, 2006, Cullen was sentenced to 11 consecutive life sentences in New Jersey, and was deemed ineligible for parole for 397 years. Currently, he is incarcerated at New Jersey State Prison in Trenton.
Cullen had been able to move freely from hospital to hospital because of the lack of requirements to report on suspicious behavior by health care workers. New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and most other states required health care facilities to report suspicious deaths in only the most egregious cases, and the penalties for failing to report incidents were relatively minor. Many states did not provide investigators with the legal authority to discover a worker’s employment history. Institutions were afraid to investigate incidents or give a poor employment reference for fear that a lawsuit might be filed. According to detectives, as well as Cullen himself, several hospitals he worked at suspected he was harming or killing patients, but they neglected to take the appropriate actions.
New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and 35 other states have since adopted laws that encourage employers to provide honest appraisals of health care workers’ job performances and that give employers immunity when they truthfully appraise an employee. The laws make disclosure requirements for health care facilities stronger, add legal protections for facilities that report the improper care of patients, and necessitate that licensed health care professionals undergo criminal background checks and fingerprinting.
According to Essex County Chief Assistant Prosecutor Norman Menz: “There is evil in this world and sometimes there is no explanation for this evil. In the many hours I have spent with Mr. Cullen, I have gotten no explanation. There is a deeper evil involved.”
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