Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Charles Cullen: Healthcare Serial Killer


Cullen told law enforcement officers that he had given patients lethal doses of drugs as a way to be merciful. Yet he told them a number of other things as well that countered this claim.

Johnnie Mask hired several psychologists to do a formal assessment of Cullen. There was no need to decide on his mental state at the time of the offense for a trial, but there were other issues, such as where Cullen would spend the rest of his life. In addition, people wanted answers. Why had he done what he did? Dr. Frank Datillio from Allentown spoke to reporters at the Morning Call, indicating that he believed that Cullen had identified with the pain of his patients and had killed them as a way to relieve his own pain and depression.

Cullen with Johnny mask in court
Cullen with Johnny mask in court

Yet people with experience in the psychology of healthcare serial killers would hesitate to accept such statements at face value. There's usually much more between the lines. Many HCSKs have taken the easiest path and said their motives were about mercy, but few cases have supported that claim. Very few. It appeared more likely that, similar to others in his position, Cullen killed because he derived something from it that satisfied him. Not all of the patients were dying or in pain. Some were recovering or in no danger at all. Where was the mercy in those acts?

In the Reader's Digest, Beatrice Yorker was quoted as saying, "These people are sociopaths mostly interested in getting their own needs met. I liken them to firefighters who set fires. Often what they need is power and control or excitement and attention."

While arguments have flown back and forth over the Cullen case in terms of ultimate responsibility, it's clear that patients must depend on hospitals and clinics to spot the red flags and do something about them. Too often, these killers have been allowed to drift from one hospital to another, fired under a cloud of suspicion but rarely brought to justice until after incriminating evidence has reached shocking levels. While there's no distinct psychological type to look for, there are red flags: secretive behavior, missing medications, a preference for the night shift, spikes in unexpected deaths on a certain person's shift, and spotty past work records can be troublesome signals. Cullen had all of these. It appears to be the case that he looked for ways to kill.

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