Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Charles Cullen: Healthcare Serial Killer


Charles Cullen
Charles Cullen

On the nights prior to both patients suddenly going into critical conditions, a 43-year-old male nurse named Charles Cullen had ordered digoxin. Yet he'd requested it for patients under his own care, not for either of the victims. And he'd canceled the orders. There was no evidence with which to confront him, although the drug was clearly missing, and the administration had no indication that Cullen, a nurse with 16 years of experience, had ever been negligent or sloppy... or worse. They looked through other records in their search for answers.

No one was fired or laid off pending the investigation results. Yet other patients suffered from having high levels of drugs in their systems, and Steven Marcus, a toxicologist and executive director of New Jersey Poison Information and Education System, warned SMC that July that they had a poisoner on their staff. He had spotted a cluster of at least four cases. Hospital officials resisted his analysis, reports the Star-Ledger, and had even complained about Marcus to the state's health department, saying he had rushed to judgment and was pressuring them unduly. Yet he insisted that someone had to go to the police and get a forensic investigation underway.

Steven Marcus, executive director of New Jersey Poison Information and Education System
Steven Marcus, executive
director of New Jersey Poison
Information and Education

Administrators were not trying to save face so much as hoping to prevent the facility from erupting into chaos. They continued to look into the situation internally. Still, they couldn't ignore the obvious: Cullen was the common factor in these four cases, each with either a high level of insulin or digoxin, and one more of whom had died. He'd even accessed Reverend Gall's records after his death. Had he been checking something? Yet Cullen continued to work.

Then two more patients suffered similar overdoses and on October 31, after 13 months on the job, Cullen was fired. Somerset County Prosecutor Wayne Forrest had initiated his own investigation, starting with Cullen's work history. He found the man to have worked at an alarming number of healthcare organizations, including four in New Jersey, and from some he'd been fired. Forrest could only hope they weren't faced with a serial killer.

Somerset County Prosecutor Wayne Forrest
Somerset County Prosecutor Wayne

Rick Hepp, a reporter from the Newark Star-Ledger did some quick sleuthing and went to Cullen's bungalow-style home in Bethlehem, PA, and knocked on the door. Cullen answered. A seemingly quiet man, thin and pale, he had sadness in his dark eyes and looked weary. Hepp told Cullen that someone at the Center was being investigated. Cullen admitted that he was the nurse in question. 

"They've been asking a lot of questions about me at Somerset Medical Center," he stated. But he wouldn't say why he'd been fired.

Hepp discovered that, despite the investigation, Cullen was still licensed and technically able to find another job. It didn't take Hepp long to also learn that Cullen had been the subject of probes at other hospitals, including one there in his home town. It was a potentially explosive story, not just about the possible murders of patients but about continuous cover-up by healthcare agencies.  Hepp was on to something.

Even so, it was over a month from the date he was fired that Cullen was finally arrested. Among serial murder investigations, those that must trail a healthcare serial killer have among the most difficult jobs.

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