Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

ANGELS OF DEATH: THE FEMALE NURSES

Just For the Fun of It

In the past century, only two women have been executed for federal crimes.  Both took place in 1953.  In Massachusetts, where the Salem witch trials still leave a haunting residue, no woman has been executed since 1789, and most residents are against the death penalty.  Yet in March, 2001, there was some concern that, despite how they felt, the citizens of Massachusetts might have to honor a federal mandate from the District Court in Springfield to turn over one of their own to death row.  Even worse, this woman was a nurse.

Kristen Gilbert
Kristen Gilbert

Kristen Gilbert, 33, worked on Ward C of the Veteran's Affairs Medical Center in Northampton, Massachusetts.  When she was there, it seemed that too many patients died from cardiac arrest.  In 1996, three nurses came forward to report their fear that there was a killer among them.  Their concerns inspired an investigation.

Gilbert is the divorced mother of two sons, 7 and 10.  To her coworkers, she seemed normal enough, but under her care, four patients were dead and three others had succumbed mysteriously to near-fatal heart failure.  Added to that was the inexplicable shortage of epinephrine (synthetic adrenaline), a drug that stimulates the heart.  More notably, Gilbert seemed to love the excitement of an emergency when some patient's heart raced out of control.

To look into this matter, investigators exhumed the bodies.  Just as the nurses feared, a toxicology analysis found epinephrine in the tissues.  Since that drug had not been prescribed for these men, there was no reason for it to be in their bodies.

Then someone phoned a bomb threat into the hospital, and Gilbert was arrested, tried, and convicted for this apparent attempt to divert the investigation.  She served fifteen months.  She was also treated for psychiatric problems.

Digging around, the prosecutor, Assistant U.S. Attorney William M. Welch II came up with a theory: Gilbert was having an affair with a member of the hospital security, James Perrault.  Whenever there was an emergency call, he came rushing to respond.  That meant Gilbert could see him and do a little flirting.  Welch even accused her of killing one patient so she could leave early for a date.

With their affair long over, Perrault testified against her.  He said that Gilbert had actually admitted to him one day that she'd killed the patients by injection.  Added to his testimony were frightening things that the nurse said. 

Nurse Kathy Rix, suspecting something was wrong, counted the epinephrine bottles one afternoon.  There were three.  Then there was a cardiac emergency, and when she went back to see if the bottles were still there, she found none, but there were three broken containers in the needle disposal bucket.

One nurse said that she'd heard the first man who'd died cry out, "Stop! Stop! You're killing me!"  At the time, Gilbert was in his room.

Bonnie Bledsoe, another nurse, claimed that Gilbert had offered her some adrenaline when she said she suffered from asthma.  Gilbert pulled it right out of her pocket.

David P. Hoose for the defense claimed that no one had witnessed his client injecting epinephrine into the patients, and since all of them were ill, how could anyone point the finger at her?  People die in hospitals all the time.  Perrault had turned on her because of trouble they were having, not because she'd actually confessed.  In fact, she'd just been angry at him and was trying to be provocative.  He'd made more of her words than she'd intended.  As for the missing epinephrine, he blamed other nurses with drug problems, and said that the toxicology analysis on the bodies was shoddy science.  He even accused the federal prosecutor of going after his client, a white woman, to balance out the high percentage of minority men on death row.

In the end, Gilbert was convicted of three counts of first-degree murder, one count of second-degree murder, and two counts of attempted murder.

Since these crimes were committed on federal territory, the government could put her to death.  The prosecutor was certainly asking for that, with the aggravating circumstance that her victims were highly vulnerable and her attitude had been cruel and heartless. 

However, when her sentence was announced, Kristen Gilbert got life in prison.

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