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Helen Dean with her husband. Her son said she was killed by a nurse's injection.

Family Crusade Brings Exhumation in Case of Suspect Nurse

Published: January 22, 2004 

Helen Dean with her husband. Her son said she was killed by a nurse's injection.Helen Dean with her husband. Her son said she was killed by a nurse's injection.

This article was reported by Richard Pérez-Peña, David Kocieniewski and Jason George and was written by Mr. Pérez-Peña.

For the first time since a nurse confessed last month to killing dozens of patients, investigators today plan to exhume the body of a possible victim, a woman whose family accused the nurse of murdering her more than a decade ago.

Members of Helen C. Dean's family say the nurse, Charles Cullen, gave her an unauthorized injection while she was a patient at Warren Hospital in Phillipsburg, N.J. The next day, Sept. 1, 1993, Mrs. Dean, who was in good condition at age 91 after surgery for breast cancer, died suddenly of heart failure.

The exhumation, scheduled to occur this morning at Fairmount Cemetery in Phillipsburg, takes place as seven counties in New Jersey and Pennsylvania, where Mr. Cullen worked at nine hospitals and a nursing home, are grappling with whether to order more bodies exhumed, and which ones. Though Mr. Cullen has admitted to killing 30 to 40 people during his career, he has not provided details and prosecutors and the police say that so far they have solid reason for suspicion in only a few cases. They say many deaths pose a quandary: investigators lack the evidence to justify digging up corpses, but exhumation may be the only way to get that evidence.

"We'll have to take it on a case-by-case basis," said John Morganelli, the district attorney of Northampton County, Pa., who said exhumations there remain a possibility.

Wayne J. Forrest, the prosecutor in Somerset County, N.J., had one body exhumed in October, that of the Rev. Florian J. Gall, the Roman Catholic priest Mr. Cullen is charged with killing last summer, but he would not say whether he expects to seek more exhumations.

The handful of similar cases around the country have run into the same trouble. In 1998, Efren Saldivar, a respiratory therapist at a California hospital, told investigators that he had killed 40 to 50 patients over many years, but not which ones. Detectives looked into deaths during just a fraction of his career and found well over 100 they considered possibly suspicious. Unable to narrow the list, they chose 20 to exhume - more or less at random, they said - and found that 6 had been poisoned.

Proving that Mr. Cullen killed Mrs. Dean became an obsession for her son, Larry A. Dean, a history professor at Harrisburg Area Community College, who died of cancer in 2001. He pestered the Warren County prosecutor and the county medical examiner, who investigated the case a decade ago but turned up no physical evidence. His cousin, Sharon Jones, recalled that Mr. Dean collected boxes of documents, saved tissue samples from his mother's autopsy in his freezer, and attempted to trace the career of Mr. Cullen as he bounced from hospital to hospital.

In 1993, an autopsy was conducted on Mrs. Dean's body, and tissue and blood samples were sent to two laboratories for tests. The laboratories checked for about 100 different drugs, but not for digoxin, the common heart medication that investigators now think was Mr. Cullen's favorite weapon.

Mr. Cullen was charged last month with killing Father Gall and attempting to kill Jin Kyung Han, a 40-year-old Basking Ridge homemaker, with large, unauthorized doses of digoxin. Ms. Han recovered but died of cancer three months later.

Dr. Isidore Mihalakis, the Warren County medical examiner, said that in the case of Mrs. Dean, "of course we'll test for digoxin, and as long as we're at it, we're going to run a complete drug screen." He said it is uncertain, at best, what kind of evidence would remain after a decade.

Mrs. Jones, Helen Dean's niece, said she and Larry Dean urged investigators back in 1993 to test for digoxin, after hearing about its effects on a television program - a contention that Dr. Mihalakis and Frank Bucsi, the acting county prosecutor, have said they could neither confirm nor refute. "There might be a little disappointment if they don't find anything, but the real disappointment is that they didn't do the proper investigative work 10 years ago," Mrs. Jones said.

 Copyright 2004 The New York Times Company

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