Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Charles Cullen: Healthcare Serial Killer

The Making of a Killer

Reporters were quick to learn what they could about the man, and friends, relatives, and former associates were helpful in supplying details.

Cullen was the youngest of nine brothers and sisters who grew up in West Orange, New Jersey. The New York Times reported that their father was a bus driver, their mother a home-maker. Born in 1960, Cullen grew up in a working-class neighborhood, in a strongly religious Roman Catholic family. His father died when he was seven months old and his mother was in a fatal car accident while he was in high school. Two of his siblings had also died young, and he cared for one of them during the process.

In 1978, he dropped out of high school and enlisted in the Navy, serving on a nuclear submarine. (According to Alexander, he liked to help the ship's doctor give vaccinations and don surgical gowns.) When he was discharged in 1984 after two stints, he attended the Mountainside Hospital School of Nursing. By 1988, he was working at the first of many hospitals where he would stay only a short while. He got married and had two daughters, but soon was divorced over his workaholism and negligence. In 1998, says the Morning Call, he filed for bankruptcy and had a pile of debts and back payments due in child support to the tune of over $66,000. He lost his dog to the animal protection agency, and though some colleagues said he was inconsiderate of others, he claimed he felt picked on.

In 1997, signs of a troubled mind surfaced. Cullen was taken to a hospital in New Jersey because he suffered from depression. He refused to provide a blood sample and afterward filed a police report against the doctor who had insisted he have one. He ended up in serious debt to this hospital. Just over two years later, he lit coals in a bathtub, sealed off his apartment, put his dog outside, and disabled smoke detectors, to make a suicide attempt. A neighbor smelled the smoke and alerted police. When they took him in, they learned that this was not his first attempt. (Cullen was to claim during his interrogation that he'd tried killing himself some 20 times.)

An A&E broadcast in 2004 indicated that Cullen had threatened another nurse around this time whom he had dated once. Apparently after they'd gone out, he offered her an engagement ring and she turned him down. He broke into her home, ostensibly because he was concerned about her, but more likely to let her know how vulnerable she was should he decide to do something. He was arrested, and then tried to kill himself. For this incident, he drew a year's probation. He insisted that he had not intended to distress the woman.

Rick Hepp from the Star-Ledger located one of Cullen's sisters, who declined to be named, but who told him that her brother was a private man, especially regarding his mental health. "He didn't want to discuss it," she said.

Colleagues recalled him as a gentle person willing to put in extra hours. He was always ready to medicate people in pain.

As his debt mounted, he moved from one hospital to another, and at St. Luke's in Bethlehem, PA, he left in 2002 to avoid that investigation. Yet despite his spotty work record, Cullen never had trouble getting another job, probably due to the shortage of nurses.

The Morning Call wanted to know more. Reporters were aware of legal papers about Cullen during his most troublesome year, and they set about to have these released.

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