Meet Kristen Heather Gilbert, a smart, accomplished RN, but a troubled soul.
In her youth, Kristen Strickland was known as a pathological liar. According to friends and neighbors, she often made the unfounded claim that she was a distant relative of the infamous ax murderer Lizzie Borden. Ex-boyfriends described Kristen as strange and controlling, eventually exhibiting a pattern of verbal and physical abuse toward them. For attention, she would fake suicide attempts, or when angry, she would tamper with her boyfriends’ cars or physically attack them, scratching them with her nails.
Nevertheless, she graduated high school 1.5 years early, with high honors, and then enrolled in a state college and majored in pre-med. Kristen got a job as a home health aide with a visiting nurses association. During her tenure there, she once scalded a retarded child with hot bathwater, burning over 60% of the boy’s body, but was never prosecuted for the incident.
In 1988, Kristen earned her degree as a registered nurse. In the same year, she met Glenn Gilbert, and the couple eloped. It was not an ideal marriage from the start; early on, during an argument, Gilbert chased her husband through the house with a butcher knife. Shortly after her marriage, she landed a job at the Veterans Administration Medical Center in Northampton, Massachusetts, working on Ward C.
In 1990, the Gilberts had their first child, a son. After returning from maternity leave, Kristin switched to the 4 PM to midnight shift on Ward C, and almost immediately, strange things began to happen. During her shift, an unusually large number of patients began dying due to cardiac arrest, tripling the rate of deaths over the previous 3 years. During each incident, Kristen’s calm and competent nursing skills shone, and she won the admiration of her fellow workers.
The couple’s marriage began to fall apart after the Gilberts’ second son was born in 1993. At that time, Kristen was developing a friendship with James Perrault, a newly hired VA Hospital security guard. He worked from 3 PM until 11 PM, and the two often went to have drinks with other workers at the end of their shifts. Any time there was a medical emergency on Ward C, James was called to the scene. In the fall of 1994, the relationship between Kristen and James moved from friendship to romance. Soon afterward, Kristen’s husband began to notice the food Kristen served him had an odd taste to it. Although nothing was ever proven, Glenn Gilbert became convinced that his wife was trying to kill him, telling friends that she wanted him dead by Thanksgiving. When James presented Kristen with an ultimatum to leave Glenn, or end their relationship, Kristen immediately left her husband and 2 sons and moved into her own apartment, and their affair blossomed.
The unusually high death rates during her shift continued. In fact, Gilbert was jokingly given the name "Angel of Death" by her co-workers because so many people died while under her care. However, there was nothing amusing to a few of the nurses on the ward. The whispers about Kristen continued, but many chose not to believe she would be involved in something as sinister as killing patients. Others were not so trusting and began to monitor drugs that could cause cardiac arrest. One such drug, epinephrine, kept coming up missing. Unofficially, Ward C was under the close eye of a handful of the nurses assigned to it. Under Gilbert’s care, 4 patients were dead and 3 others had succumbed mysteriously to near-fatal heart failure. Added to that was the inexplicable shortage of epinephrine. Although many of the patients who died were elderly and in serious condition, there were also patients who, although sick, had no history of heart problems, yet were dying of cardiac arrest. She was even accused of killing one patient so that she could leave early for a date. It got so bad that in 1996, 3 nurses came forward to report their fear that Kristen was a killer, and their concerns inspired an investigation.
Authorities interviewed all the employees on Ward C and put together a grisly motive for why the death rate had tripled. According to the prosecutors, Gilbert stole epinephrine from the hospital stock and used the drug to induce massive heart attacks in her victims. It was surmised that Kristen administered epinephrine to patients so that her lover, James, would be summoned to the ICU, where she could then be close to him, and impress him with her skills as a nurse. It also allowed her time to flirt with him, as was witnessed by several of her co-workers.
Gilbert’s behavior became unpredictable. She purchased a toy to disguise her voice and called the VA Hospital while Perrault was on duty. She told him that 3 bombs were set to go off in 2 hours in Building One of the hospital. Employees and patients, many of whom were sick and elderly, had to be evacuated. Gilbert was arrested, tried, and convicted for this apparent attempt to divert the investigation against her. She served 15 months in federal prison for falsely phoning in a bomb threat to a federal institution.
During her prison term, federal investigators exhumed several of the bodies of those who died during Gilbert’s shift at the VA Hospital. Just as the nurses feared, a toxicology analysis found epinephrine in their tissues, and since that drug had not been prescribed to any of the victims, there was no reason for it to be in their bodies. During the investigation, Gilbert was not working, and immediately, the death rate on Ward C dropped to normal. After Gilbert left the hospital, her relationship with Perrault began to dissolve. Her temperament began to get more volatile as the finger-pointing became firmly directed at her, and Perrault began to pull away. In June 1996, he decided to end the relationship. Gilbert pleaded with him to continue the relationship, to no avail. A month later, Gilbert overdosed on drugs and was admitted to a hospital psychiatric ward.
In 1998, Gilbert, age 30, was indicted for murdering 4 of her patients and attempting to kill 3 others by injecting them with epinephrine. Perrault eventually testified against his former lover, reporting that Gilbert had actually admitted to him one day that she’d killed her patients by injection. It was discovered that in the 7 years she worked at the VA Hospital, 350 deaths had occurred during her shift.
In 2001, she was found guilty of 3 counts of first-degree murder, 1 count of second-degree murder, and 2 counts of attempted murder. Because these crimes were committed on federal territory, the government could have given her the death penalty. However, she was sentenced to 4 consecutive life terms without the possibility of parole plus 20 years, and is serving her time in a federal prison in Texas.
- Killer nurse gets life. CBS News Web site. February 11, 2009. http://www.cbsnews.com/2100-201_162-281605.html.
- Kristin H. Gilbert. Dr. Mike Aamodt Web site. http://maamodt.asp.radford.edu/Psyc%20405/serial%20killers/Gilbert,%20Kristen%20-%202005.pdf.
- Serial Killer Kristen Gilbert – the investigation. About.com Crime and Punishment Web site. http://crime.about.com/od/serial/p/kristengilbert2.htm.