Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Angels of Death: The Male Nurses

Other Technicians

It's not clear when the suspicious deaths began in the Glendale Adventist Medical Center near the Ventura Freeway in southern California, because the elderly frequently die of natural causes. When they're poor or have few relatives, they may die unnoticed.

Reporter Paul Lieberman for The Los Angeles Times describes the respiratory failure of a 75-year-old woman in 1996. Her name was Salbi Asatryan and she was an Armenian immigrant. She was taken to the hospital for extreme difficulty with breathing, so she went right into critical care, accompanied by her worried daughters, and was stabilized. Several respiratory therapists worked with her and felt sure that she would pull through. They expected her to soon go home. She was even breathing on her own and feeding herself. That's why everyone was surprised when three days after she'd begun to look better, she was found dead in her bed.

Efren Saldivar, 1998
Efren Saldivar, 1998

There had already been talk around the hospital about the night shift and the "magic syringe." A few workers had their suspicions about a certain respiratory therapist who was playing God. Efren Saldivar became a hospital therapist, Lieberman points out, because he "liked the uniform." The healthcare career was just something to do, and when it got burdensome, he figured out a way to lighten his load.

Saldivar had no life goals to speak of. He might go to college or enlist in the military. His plans were vague, with no real sense of direction. He didn't want to start a business or work for himself and he did not want to work around other people. As soon as he did get a job, which was in a supermarket, he acted irresponsibly. It was just a menial job with no future, but he'd steal things from the store for other guys.

The cases had been under investigation since February 1998. In March, Salvidar confessed to murdering 50 patients for "humanitarian reasons." He claimed he started killing in 1989 but stopped in 1997 because a colleague noticed morphine in his locker. At first he said that he only killed patients who looked "ready to die," but his story would eventually change. When no corroborating evidence turned up, he was released. He then recanted, saying he was not a murderer, but only a liar.

During the investigation, 20 bodies were exhumed and tissue samples were taken by the Los Angeles County Coroner's Office. Toxicological tests were done and the drug Pavulon was found in the remains. Of the six, five had not received Pavulon as part of their legitimate medical treatment prior to their deaths.

Efren Saldivar
Efren Saldivar

When Saldivar was arrested a few years later in 2001, he confessed a second time. He admitted, according to Lieberman, that he often killed just to lighten the workload during shifts that were understaffed. When he was at his wit's end, he would look at the board that listed patient names and decide, "Who do we have to get rid of?"

He admitted that he'd killed patients at other hospitals, too, where he'd worked part-time. After 60 victims, he'd lost count. He figured it was over 100. It had just been a gradual thing, an act that had bothered him a little at first but then he'd grown used to it and let it all slip from his mind. "You don't plan it," he said to the investigators. "After that, you don't think about it for the rest of the day, or ever."

He pleaded guilty to the six murders and he is serving a life sentence in prison.

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