Ex-nurse to detail 2-state killing spree

Cullen to guide police to other victims' bodies

May 02, 2004|By KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

CAMDEN, N.J. - In the annals of doctors and nurses killing their patients, most have closely guarded the identities of their victims, leaving investigators and families to guess at the scope of their evil.

On the other hand, former nurse Charles Cullen, who pleaded guilty last week to 13 deaths in one county, has agreed to lead police to the rest of his estimated 30 to 40 victims.

That process will begin Wednesday, when investigators from a six-member Pennsylvania task force will sit down with Cullen in the New Jersey jail where he remains and begin documenting his two-state killing spree.

In the end, it's possible that the scene that played out last week in state Superior Court in Somerset County, N.J. - with Cullen admitting to murders before a gallery of family members - could be re-created seven more times, one for each county in which he worked.

There is no timetable for bringing an end to Cullen's account of his crimes, and no way to know how long it will take, said Vaughn L. McKoy, the director of the New Jersey Division of Criminal Justice.

Much could depend on Cullen, who appeared gaunt in court last week.

Pennsylvania State Police Capt. Scott Snyder said investigators there expect to begin talking to Cullen early Wednesday morning. The interview could last all day, with at least one and possibly several more to follow.

After his arrest in December, Cullen began listing his deeds, giving his interrogators an estimated number of victims in each county.

But no one in law enforcement has sat down with Cullen since shortly after his arrest, when Cullen was assigned a lawyer who stopped him from talking.

Last week's plea agreement, which spared Cullen the death penalty as long as he confesses all, was worked out with his attorney working as an intermediary.

Now investigators will get to meet Cullen, and prosecutors expect the process of identifying victims to be much faster with his direct cooperation.

Cullen told investigators in their original videotaped interview that there could be as many as 40 victims, but none in two of the counties he worked - Hunterdon and Morris counties, both in New Jersey.

"He threw out a number, but it was his own," McKoy said. "Maybe he over-embellished; maybe he under-embellished."

There could be even more victims in Somerset County beyond the 13 identified in court last week, McKoy said.

Investigators in each county are working to identify victims and provide documents either to refresh Cullen's memory or verify the victims he claims. Many potential victims have been dead for years, and some were cremated. Investigators will often have to rely on medical charts and records.

"He may not remember certain stuff, and he may need certain documents to refresh his recollection," McKoy said. "Or it may very well be that he'll sit down and come up with names they don't have."

If investigators find a victim that Cullen denies, they can void the plea agreement, prosecute him and seek the death penalty.

Cullen also agreed last week to plead guilty in Pennsylvania to the death of retired steelworker Ottomar Schramm, but Northampton County prosecutors might want to wait until they know whether there are more victims there and have Cullen plead to all of them at once.

Officials in Lehigh County, Pa., have said only that Cullen is suspected of "several" deaths.

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