Nurse accused in killing of Catholic vicar

Pennsylvania man quoted by prosecutor as telling of 30-40 deaths over 30 years

December 16, 2003|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

SOMERVILLE, N.J. - A nurse with a history of job dismissals was charged yesterday with killing a patient and trying to kill another with drugs at a central New Jersey hospital, and a prosecutor quoted the nurse as saying that he had killed 30 to 40 patients over 16 years "to alleviate pain and suffering."

Investigators said that the man, Charles Cullen, 43, of Bethlehem, Pa., made his startling statements about serial killings freely over the weekend. He appeared before a judge here yesterday and was held on $1 million bail after a colloquy with the court in which he seemed to throw caution aside.

"I don't want to be represented, I don't wish to contest the charges, I plead guilty," the defendant blurted out after waiving a reading of the charges: first-degree murder and first-degree attempted murder.

Judge Paul W. Armstrong of Superior Court tried to cut him off, noting that pleas were not required at a first hearing. Cullen, handcuffed and clad in a khaki prisoner's uniform, said he wanted to drop his application for a public defender.

"I don't plan to fight this," he declared, and was led away.

The case touched off widespread investigations - by nine hospitals and a nursing home in New Jersey and Pennsylvania where Cullen had worked, and by seven prosecutors in the two states. The prosecutors are expected to have bodies exhumed and to re-examine the records of hundreds of people who have died while in the nurse's care.

While prosecutors said there was no way to know whether the suspect's statements were truthful or accurate, the case appeared to hold the potential to become a gruesome paragon of its genre: serial murders by nurses, some in the name of mercy killing, that have stunned the nation from time to time.

The worst previous case in the United States was that of Donald Harvey, a nurse's aide who killed 37 people with cyanide, arsenic and suffocation over decades at hospitals in Ohio and Kentucky.

Although Cullen had been fired or forced to resign from at least three health care centers, no complaints about his competence or questions over his handling of patients and potentially lethal drugs were reported to medical licensing boards in New Jersey or Pennsylvania.

Moreover, information about his performance and the dismissals was never forwarded to his successive employers, a circumstance that enabled him to move from one hospital to another with an ease that evidently concealed a pattern of problems.

Officials noted that, even now, Cullen is fully licensed by the state nursing boards to practice in New Jersey and Pennsylvania.

Cullen, a divorced Navy veteran and the father of two children, had worked at Somerset County Medical Center in Somerville, N.J., for more than a year until his dismissal Oct. 31.

Cullen is accused of killing a critically ill Roman Catholic official, the Rev. Florian J. Gall, 68, the vicar of Hunterdon County, N.J., with an overdose of a heart medication last summer.

Cullen also is accused of the attempted murder of a 40-year- old Basking Ridge, N.J., woman who was admitted with cancer and heart disease. She nearly died in June of a toxic dose of digoxin, the same drug given to the vicar. The elevated level of the drug was detected and the woman was saved by an antidote, although she died three months later.

After an extensive investigation by the medical center and by Somerset County prosecutor Wayne J. Forrest, Cullen was arrested Friday at a restaurant in Bridgewater, N.J. Forrest said he waived his right to a lawyer during interrogations and told investigators that he had killed the vicar and had tried to kill the woman with drugs he took from a locked cart.

"According to the defendant, his motive in these cases was to alleviate patient pain and suffering," Detective Daniel Baldwin, a county investigator, told the court in an affidavit. "Defendant also stated that he was responsible for the deaths of 12 to 15 patients at the Somerset Medical Center during the time he worked there."

He added: "Defendant further related that during his 16 years as a nurse he was responsible for the deaths of a total of 30 to 40 patients at various hospitals in New Jersey and Pennsylvania by the improper administration of various medications to alleviate patient pain and suffering."

Besides the possibility of more homicide disclosures, the case raised questions for the hospitals about safeguarding of lethal drugs, about reporting serious personnel problems to state licensing authorities and future employers, and about hiring practices and the ability to get accurate records on an applicant's work history.

Between 1989 and last year, Cullen worked at St. Barnabas Medical Center in Livingston, N.J., Morristown Memorial Hospital in Morristown, N.J., and Somerset Medical Center.

All fired him, finding his work substandard, and in some cases suspicious. Somerset Medical Center fired Cullen six weeks ago after an investigation raised suspicions that he had altered the blood chemistry of six elderly patients with multiple medical problems. Four of the patients died, and all but one incident was explained.

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