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Nurse Charged After Patient Deaths Claim
December 16, 2003 09:40 AM EST

SOMERVILLE, N.J. - Investigators are poring over patient records in two states after a nurse with a checkered work history claimed he killed 30 to 40 terminally ill patients to alleviate their suffering and was charged with murder.

Charles Cullen, 43, told authorities he administered drug overdoses to put "very sick" patients out of their misery over the last 16 years in nine hospitals and a nursing home in New Jersey and Pennsylvania.

"The evidence that we have indicates that may very well be the case," prosecutor Wayne Forrest said Monday.

If Cullen's contentions prove true, it would be one of the biggest hospital murder cases in recent U.S. history. In 1987, Donald Harvey, a nurse's aide, entered guilty pleas in Ohio and Kentucky to killing at least 34 people, most of them patients. He also claimed involvement in other killings.

Cullen was charged with one count each of murder and attempted murder, but more charges could follow. Cullen said he did not want a lawyer, and was held on $1 million bail.

In court Monday, Cullen stood and told the judge, "I am going to plead guilty. I don't plan to fight this."

Investigators are examining records at facilities where Cullen worked as they try to document his claims about the other killings. One body has already been exhumed to undergo toxicological tests and Forrest said other exhumations were possible.

Cullen was charged with murder in the death of the Very Rev. Florian J. Gall, a Roman Catholic vicar who died June 28 at Somerset of an unauthorized dose of digoxin, a heart medication. He was also charged with the attempted murder of a 40-year-old woman at the same Somerville hospital.

Prosecutors were notified by Somerset Medical Center officials after the hospital fired Cullen on Oct. 31. An internal review had found questionable lab results involving six of Cullen's patients.

Somerset turned over information on the six cases to the prosecutor's office, said Dr. William Cors, the hospital's chief medical officer. All six patients had "multiple, serious medical problems," Cors said.

Gall's sister, Lucille Gall, said she did not know there were questions about her brother's death until prosecutors told her there were questions about lab reports.

"I'm almost in shock. I'm a nurse, so I'm embarrassed this had to happen, and I'm also horrified," she said Tuesday on NBC's "Today." "This is something you hear on television. It doesn't happen to someone you love or know."

Cullen had a checkered career and bounced from hospital to hospital. In August 1997, he was fired from Morristown Memorial Hospital for "poor performance," a spokeswoman for the hospital's parent company said.

Cullen worked at St. Luke's Hospital in Bethlehem, Pa., from June 2000 to June 2002, and resigned amid allegations that he had at least twice hidden unopened heart and blood pressure medications in a safety bin for used needles, Lehigh County District Attorney James Martin said.

St. Luke's spokeswoman Susan Schantz said Cullen was immediately removed from contact with patients. The hospital also commissioned an independent cardiologist to review the records of 67 cardiac patients who died in the previous six months. The review turned up no evidence that any of them had been harmed.

Schantz said the hospital was never subsequently contacted by anyone checking Cullen's employment references. "Had we been asked, we would have recommended that he not be hired," she said.

Cullen had no record of complaints or any disciplinary actions in New Jersey since he obtained a nursing license in the state in 1987, according to Genene Morris, a spokeswoman for the Division of Consumer Affairs.

Cullen also was licensed to work in Pennsylvania since June 1994, according to the Pennsylvania Department of State. His license was in good standing, officials said.

In Pennsylvania, Northampton County District Attorney John Morganelli said his office is investigating whether Cullen was responsible for the death of a patient at Easton Hospital, where he worked in late 1998 and early 1999.

Sacred Heart Hospital in Allentown, Pa., said Cullen worked there for 18 days in July 2002 and was fired for having "interpersonal problems" with other employees. Hospital spokesman Chris Sodl said Cullen had no unsupervised contact with patients.

Liberty Nursing Center in Allentown, said it fired Cullen for "failure to follow company procedures" after a brief period of employment in 1998. The nursing home said that no harm came to any patients, but that state officials were alerted.

Administrators at Lehigh Valley Hospital in Bethlehem, Pa., said Cullen worked in the hospital's burn unit from December 1998 to April 2000. The hospital said it was examining burn unit patient deaths, but had found no evidence of wrongdoing.

The families of some former patients who died while Cullen was employed at their hospitals are wondering whether their loved ones were among those the former nurse said he killed.

"My mom was in there and diagnosed with a high level of digoxin," Mary Ann Jones, whose mother died at Somerset Medical Center this summer, told the Courier News of Bridgewater. "I talked to my brother and sister, and they want this investigated."

Prosecutors in Warren County reopened a 1993 investigation into the death of 91-year-old Helen Dean, who was treated for breast cancer at Warren Hospital. Her niece, Sharon Jones, told The Star-Ledger of Newark that her aunt complained that Cullen gave her an unexpected injection on the morning she was to be transferred to a nursing home. Dean died later that day.

Associated Press writer David B. Caruso contributed to this report from Philadelphia.

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