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D E A T H O N W A R D C
first of two parts
NORTHAMPTON - Her patients were weakened soldiers who had marched against Hitler, battled Tojo in the South Pacific, or risked the terror of bamboo prisons along the Ho Chi Minh Trail.
And Kristen H. Gilbert moved among the bedridden veterans with the self-confidence and verve of a spit-polish professional whose healing skills were admired by colleagues and acknowledged by superiors.
She was pretty and popular - one of the gang who made sure her hospital co-workers got bright flowers on special occasions. She eagerly joined the crew for after-hours beers at the VFW barroom just down the road.
But that was before the awful whispers began.
Before mortality rates began to climb. Before the medicine chest was secretly monitored. Before the bomb threat and the love triangle and the suicide watch.
Before the chilling nickname the doctors and nurses had hung on her behind her back - ''Angel of Death'' - stuck with painful precision.
If federal prosecutors are correct, Gilbert, 32, is a calculating predator, nothing less than a serial murderer in a white lab coat who attacked her victims at the Department of Veterans Affairs Medical Center here with needles of poison. She struck, they say, as sick veterans lay in high-tech beds provided by their grateful government.
Prosecutors say Gilbert was on duty for half of the 350 deaths that occurred on her ward for the seven years she worked at the hospital from March 1989 through February 1996. The chance of that being a coincidence, they calculate, is 1 in 100 million.
Authorities allege that Gilbert, who maintains her innocence and goes on trial next week in Springfield, used her post at a tiny intensive care unit at the end of a hallway to murder four of the veterans, and to try to kill three others. She injected them, prosecutors say, with synthetic adrenaline that converted their hearts into fatally revved up and out-of-control pumps.
If her alleged crimes are unspeakably wicked, the government's central theory for Gilbert's motive is breathtaking for its simplicity and its brutality. Gilbert, they assert, was showing off for her lover, a hospital security officer who routinely was at her side during cardiac emergencies. As patients struggled for life after her assaults, the government charges, Gilbert was playing ''footsie'' with her boyfriend. Literally.
''She liked the attention it brought,'' said Assistant US Attorney William M. Welch II, who will ask jurors to sentence Gilbert to death if they convict her of capital murder.
It is a prospect that horrifies the former nurse, whose fashionable blonde hair, good looks, and bright complexion have been surrendered to an unforgiving jailhouse regimen for the past 2 1/2 years. She is pallid, brown-haired, and slightly overweight now.
But she is not, she urgently maintains, a killer.
As she meekly offers outstretched wrists to a federal marshal holding the handcuffs that are now her only bracelets, Gilbert's eyes scan the courtroom during pretrial hearings, seemingly in shy search for faces who will believe her incapable of that evil.
''It's an unimaginable strain to be on trial for first-degree murder, let alone looking at the death penalty,'' said Gilbert's attorney, David P. Hoose. ''She has been absolutely adamant that she has done nothing wrong to any patient at the VA.''
Her patients were old, Gilbert says. They were sick. Some had weak hearts. Some had serious diseases. They died on their own. She used her needles to comfort and heal, she says. Not for murder.
''All of the people who died, died of natural causes. It's up to them to prove beyond a reasonable doubt some unnatural cause,'' said Harry L. Miles, Gilbert's other court-appointed attorney. ''And we're saying they can't do it. There's certainly no eyewitness saying that they saw her inject anybody with a substance. And there's no outright confession.''
Gilbert's journey to a well-lighted, wood-appointed federal courtroom above Springfield's downtown, where her trial will unfold starting Oct. 16, is marked by the signposts of achievement and deception, devotion and suspicion, love and infidelity.
At its terminus lies freedom, or, perhaps, an injection table at a federal penitentiary in Indiana where the executioner's poison flows from a needle.
risten Heather Strickland was born Nov. 13, 1967, in Fall River, the oldest of Richard and Claudia Strickland's two daughters. At first blush, her childhood was indistinguishable from those of other kids who grew up in the shaded suburbs of a Massachusetts well insulated from the tumult of those times.
She moved to Groton as a preteen. She rode the bus to school. She baby-sat the neighbors' kids. She watched soap operas. She was a sterling student who breezed through honors classes. She joined the Math Club and went to the prom with the smartest boy in her 1985 graduating class at Groton-Dunstable Regional High School.
''She was not hotheaded or anything like that,'' said John Moore, who lived next door to the Stricklands under a canopy of trees set back from a busy street in Groton, a picturesque New England village of handsome homes, private schools, and Colonial-era stone walls.
''She was a great kid. A cute kid,'' Moore added. ''She seemed decent and normal - pretty intelligent, sharp.''
The Moores and the Stricklands, their homes nested together off Boston Road, socialized at first. Richard Strickland was an electronics executive; his wife a homemaker and part-time teacher. Kristen watched the Moores' two children after school until their parents got home from work.
A neighborhood spat, which Moore would not discuss, soured the relationship between the two families, and one day a moving van lumbered up to the Stricklands' tidy two-story house. ''Next thing we know - boom - they're gone,'' Moore said.
Left behind were darker tales, contradictory captions for the photographs of a smiling blonde who stares with sparkling eyes from the pages of her high school yearbook.
Boyfriends would later tell investigators that Kristen was a manipulator - someone who was ''twisted but not stupid,'' capable of scary histrionics, tampering with their cars, and fits of attack in which her fingernails clawed through skin. One former boyfriend said Gilbert once left him a fake suicide note in which she claimed to have eaten glass.
Her father, years later, would tell a psychiatrist that his daughter was a habitual liar who once convinced her college roommates that her mother was an abusive drunk. It wasn't true, Richard Strickland said.
''She lied a lot,'' said Alberta Erickson, who lived across the street from the Stricklands in Groton and whose daughter was a close friend of Kristen Strickland. ''She had this blank stare as if she was trying to make things up as she went along. She was one strange girl.''
Erickson said young Kristen bragged about a distant, unsubstantiated relationship to Lizzie Borden, the Fall River femme fatale who was accused and acquitted in 1893 of the double ax murder of her father and stepmother.
Erickson's daughter, Pamela Smethurst, said her friendship with her school-bus seatmate slipped slowly away with each silly ''lie'' Kristen would tell. For instance, Smethurst said, soon after she searched fruitlessly for a favorite shirt, Kristen showed up wearing it - or its identical textile twin - and claimed it as her own.
''We used to sit and watch `General Hospital,''' said Smethurst, referring to the long-running afternoon soap opera. ''And this sounds freaky and almost made up now. But there was this one character in the show who was this evil nurse. And I remember [Kristen] said: `I like Amy.' And I said, `Oh, my God! Why would you like Amy?' And she said: `I just like Amy.'
''Amy was conniving and backstabbing and I just remember thinking: `This is kind of strange,''' Smethurst said.
Soon, Kristen would begin academic training for her own real-life professional role as a registered nurse. She enrolled at Mount Wachusett Community College and, later, at Greenfield Community College, where she studied microbiology and surgical nursing. She earned her degree in 1988. She left little lasting impression.
''We certainly don't graduate anyone we don't feel comfortable with taking care of you, or I, or any of our parents,'' said Jean A. Simmons, coordinator of Greenfield Community College's nursing program.
he Veterans Affairs Medical Center in the Leeds section of Northampton sits on 105 acres of pine-studded land known as Bear Hill. Its well-trimmed landscape sweeps 120 feet up and away from busy Route 9. A brook used to run through it.
It is the site of the old Solomon Warner Tavern, a 19th-century watering stop for the Boston-Albany stagecoaches. In 1922, President Warren G. Harding signed legislation that led to the land's clearing. Two years later, it became the VA's first psychiatric hospital.
Today the 191-bed facility is a sprawling campus of 26 red-brick colonial buildings, six miles of winding roadway, broad shade trees, and trickling fountains.
On March 6, 1989, Kristen Gilbert began her VA nursing career here in Building One, the main medical unit. Its lobby holds a glass-case display of military patches from Marine, airborne, and infantry units, proud insignias of the patients upstairs.
She worked the day shift and at night went home to her husband, Glenn Gilbert, a well-liked Northampton native, who worked then and now for a nearby optical lens firm. The couple had met at Hampton Beach, N.H., and, after a three-year courtship, married in 1988. The newlyweds lived briefly in Greenfield and Easthampton before buying a simple ranch home on a U-shaped street in the Florence section of Northampton.
Kristen Gilbert quickly acquired a reputation as a can-do, take-charge nurse, a young woman at the center of her ward's professional and social life.
''At Christmas time, Kristen always made sure that we had like a secret Santa,'' said Karin Abderhalden, a VA nurse who worked with Gilbert. Abderhalden said Gilbert coordinated gift drives to needy families. She ran the Sunshine Fund, which sent flowers to newlyweds, new parents, and sick colleagues.
If her social skills were exceptional, so too were her nursing abilities, supervisors said.
''She readily recognizes actual or potential changes in patients' conditions,'' one of Gilbert's proficiency reports reads. ''She is highly skillful in medical emergencies. And she is calm and compassionate with the mentally compromised patient. She is routinely assigned to ICU.''
As Bernard P. LaFlam, a VA clinical nursing coordinator, put it: ''We had no problems with her nursing skills.''
As Gilbert built her $40,000-a-year career at the hospital on the hill, she and her husband started a family. Kristen switched to the overnight shift in 1990 and, late that year, the Gilberts' first child, a boy, was born. She returned from maternity leave in March 1991 and was permanently assigned to the 4 p.m. to midnight evening shift.
On Nov. 13, 1993, Glenn and Kristen celebrated the birth of their second child, another son. It was a special birthday present for the mother: Kristen turned 26 the same day, a happy coincidence that almost certainly did not escape the hospital's warm Sunshine Fund.
Only years later would investigators say they found something colder and darker at Gilbert's workplace when they compared the hours that she worked with the mortality rates of her patients.
Welch, the assistant US attorney, said that after Gilbert joined the evening shift in early 1991, its death rate tripled compared with the previous three years. The death rate on the overnight shift, which she left in late 1990, dropped back to 1988 levels, said Welch.
''So, in essence, deaths followed Gilbert as she switched from shift to shift to shift,'' said Welch in a pretrial hearing.
In the mid-1990s, however, when Gilbert was juggling duties as nurse, mother, wife, and homeowner, her co-workers were left to wonder and whisper why she seemed to be around so often when patients suddenly dropped dead.
''Things with Kristen weren't always the way they seemed,'' said Frank Bertrand, a VA nurse, who resuscitated one of the patients Gilbert allegedly tampered with. ''I don't know if she had two personalities or something that she could turn on or turn off, much like an actor playing a role.''
Miles, Gilbert's lawyer, said statistics about mortality rates shadowing his client are misleading. ''The problem with [that] evidence is that it tells you that an extremely skillful, extremely conscientious nurse can be singled out as having killed people because she acted conscientiously and competently,'' Miles said at the hearing.
ix months after Kristen Gilbert began work on the VA Medical Center's evening shift, James G. Perrault, an Army veteran of the Persian Gulf War who had been working as a department store security guard, joined the VA hospital's 11-member police force.
The Cheshire native was making $22,000 a year at the VA, $5,000 more than he had earned chasing shoplifters. The money was one thing, but, more important, the job got him one step closer to his professional goal: The legitimacy of real police work.
Perrault worked the 3-to-11 night shift, rotating two-hour stints of patrolling the hospital's six miles of winding, narrow roadways and manning its security desk. When he was on the desk, hospital regulations required that he respond to all cardiac emergencies, known as ''codes'' in hospital parlance.
Within a year he was flirting with the pretty nurse on Ward C, who, authorities say, was frequently on duty when patients in Building One's second-floor medical unit plunged into distress.
''During my rounds doing security, I stopped on the wards and I would talk to staff members,'' Perrault said. ''And Kristen and I seemed to have more in common and we talked a lot.''
It was August 1995 and Perrault, Gilbert, and other members of the hospital's evening shift would frequently stop by the VFW after work to drink beer, blow off steam.
The Michael F. Curtain Post 8006 of the Veterans of Foreign Wars is just a mile from the hospital's main entrance, a spacious barroom tucked in the rear of an old church building.
There's a big screen TV at the head of a large horseshoe bar. Twenty-ounce drafts in a frosty glass are just $1.50. A pool table sits nearby. And, from the jukebox, Garth Brooks and George Strait sing wistfully of lonesome souls and broken hearts.
Perrault knew Gilbert was a wife and a mother of two. But, he said, she hinted that her 7-year-old marriage was on the rocks. They exchanged e-mails that were seductive and funny and, increasingly, sexually charged.
''After a few weeks of just flirting back and forth, we were down at the VFW, and after the VFW closed, I walked her out to her vehicle and we had a kiss,'' Perrault said.
Autumn had come to Northampton, and Gilbert and Perrault's relationship began to blossom from flirtation and stolen kisses to a passionate, extramarital love affair.
For his part, Glenn Gilbert, who had met Perrault once during a summertime boating weekend, noticed only that his wife began preparing home-cooked meals more frequently.
Gilbert told investigators his supper began to taste funny. ''He told one witness that it was her goal to have her husband out of the house by Thanksgiving,'' prosecutors said in a pretrial motion.
They suspect that his wife was lacing his food with small doses of diuretics, a drug that increases the discharge of urine and that was allegedly available to Gilbert at work.
On Nov. 5, 1995, after feeling sick all day, Glenn Gilbert took violently ill. Late that night, his wife drove him to the emergency room at Cooley Dickinson Hospital. He was diagnosed with low potassium and glucose levels, treated, and sent home.
In another episode a week later - one that Kristen Gilbert says was nothing more than a harmless fainting spell after she tried to care for her husband - prosecutors suspect attempted murder. Glenn Gilbert, they say, gave this account:
Kristen showed up at the Gilberts's Florence home one evening on her dinner break. Unsatisfied with the care Glenn had received at Cooley Dickinson, the local civilian hospital, she said she wanted to take a blood sample herself and have it tested later at work.
The couple went into the bathroom, where Kristen Gilbert removed two syringes from a canvas bag. One needle was filled with a clear, odorless liquid. Kristen told Glenn it was saline. She wrapped a tourniquet around his arm. She told him she was going to flush his vein before drawing blood, a dangerous procedure that is not standard.
Glenn said that after the needle went in, his arm grew cold. Color drained from his arms and chest. He tried to pull away. He asked her to stop. Instead, prosecutors said Gilbert would testify that his wife ''pinned him against the wall with her hip'' and speeded up the injection. He lost consciousness and slid to the bathroom floor.
When he awoke moments later, his wife said he had fainted at the sight of the needle. Appearing flustered, she put the syringes back into the canvas bag and told her husband, ''This was not going to work.''
Gilbert's lawyers say the incident was so insignificant that Glenn never mentioned it until months later and only amid a custody dispute. It was authorities, they say, who suggested to Glenn that Kristen had murder on her mind that day.
''If it were the defendant's intent to kill her husband, one would have to wonder why she did not complete the act after he had slumped helplessly to the floor,'' Gilbert's lawyers said in a court brief.
As Glenn wondered about the condition of his food and what really took place in his bathroom that night, his wife and Perrault had arrived at a critical crossroads in their clandestine relationship.
Kristen had told Perrault - without proof - that she was being abused at home. He then issued her an ultimatum.
''We had been at the Holyoke Mall having breakfast and during breakfast I explained to her that because her husband had been abusing her, as she alleged, that if she did not leave him, I would leave her,'' Perrault said.
Kristen became upset, dissolving in tears, Perrault said. Then she made her choice.
''She immediately walked over to the pay phone down in the food court and called her husband, Glenn, up and told him she was leaving him,'' said Perrault, noting that he stood close enough to hear Kristen's end of the conversation.
''I wanted to do what I could to save the marriage at that time,'' Glenn Gilbert said. Of Perrault, he offered only this: ''I disliked his character.''
A week later, on Dec. 1, Kristen Gilbert moved out of her family's home. She left her children with her husband, and moved into a $500-a-month apartment unit in neighboring Easthampton.
Perrault, who lived nearby on the third floor of a rambling, white-shingled apartment house, helped her move out. She gave him a key to the new place.
The nurse was 28 years old. The police officer was 25.
''We enjoyed each other's company,'' Perrault said.
n 1995, Ward C at the VA was a 26-bed acute care unit on the second floor of the hospital's main building. Kristen Gilbert reported there for duty at 4 p.m. and was frequently assigned to its four-bed intensive care unit. It sat beyond swinging wooden doors at the end of a bright, well-scrubbed hallway.
Behind an L-shaped counter topped with yellow Formica, Gilbert monitored her patients from the nurses' station there.
In the ICU or on the medical ward at large, her job was roughly the same: check vital signs, provide medication ordered by doctors, keep her patients comfortable.
Just as her relationship with Perrault was ripening, federal authorities allege, Gilbert became a murderer on Ward C in the middle of a summer's night.
Stanley J. Jagodowski, 66, with a history of chronic heart problems, was admitted to the VAMC in late July 1995 for post-operative bowel obstructions. The Holyoke truck driver and Army veteran of the Korean War was doing well. And by Aug. 21 his doctor had recommended that he be moved from Ward C to a hospital nursing-home unit the next day.
Gilbert came on duty at 4 p.m. and began dispensing medication to all patients on the ward. Two licensed practical nurses visited Jagodowski about 8:43 that night. He was fine, they said.
''Just after leaving, one of the nurses saw Gilbert go into Jagodowski's room with a needle and a swab in her hand, under the pretext of `flushing' his intravenous line with `saline' to keep the line open,'' Assistant US Attorneys Welch and Ariane D. Vuono said in court papers.
All of Jagodowski's medications were oral tablets, they said. He needed no injections.
''[Gilbert] and Jagodowski were in the room alone when the [other] nurse heard Jagodowski yell, `Ow. It hurts. You're killing me.' As the nurse turned towards Jagodowski's room, she observed [Gilbert] exit,'' prosecutors said.
Within minutes, Jagodowski fell into cardiac arrest and died about three hours later. The prosecutors will allege at the trial that Gilbert killed him with epinephrine, a heart stimulant.
Gilbert said periodic flushing of intravenous lines is standard nursing practice. In their court filings, Gilbert's lawyers contend that Jagodowski's heart rate fluctuated from abnormally fast to abnormally slow throughout the day.
Jagodowski, they said, was not poisoned to death. He died of natural causes, and they said they have experts who will prove that to the jury.
If Jagodowski's death caused a stir on Ward C, Gilbert's co-workers kept it to themselves. The investigation that would lead to her arrest was still months away. Even today, her co-workers struggle with the idea of murder in their midst.
''Imagine having to testify against somebody who you worked closely with for a number of years on a matter like this - someone you liked and got to know and got to know their husband and their kids,'' said nurse Bertrand. ''It bothers some people quite a bit. Who would ever suspect something like this?''
If the nursing staff was in disbelief, patients and their families who saw Gilbert patrol the floors of Ward C were even more unsuspecting. She was so in control. She was so self-assured.
Amid a thicket of high-tech equipment designed to shriek, whoop, and whistle at the first sign of trouble, her presence triggered no alarms.
''She had this air about her - a very sophisticated air,'' said Christine Duquette, whose brother is one of Gilbert's alleged victims.
''She had this straight blonde hair that was ever so slightly bobbed just about the shoulder. She really was very attractive. Not overly made up. Very sophisticatedly made up. Very sophisticatedly dressed. She had a definite high-society, slightly arrogant air to her presence.
''It was just the way that she held herself.''
hristine Duquette's younger brother, Henry Hudon, was born prematurely in Holyoke on Feb. 5, 1960. But he grew into a strong, healthy boy who was full of fun and an above-average student at East Longmeadow High School. He took the postmaster's daughter to his prom; the police chief's daughter to his senior banquet.
Hudon's father was a 23-year Air Force veteran who had chased German Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, the ''Desert Fox,'' across the sands of North Africa during World War II. The son, too, eagerly enlisted in the service.
''He said, `I think I'd like to serve my country. Dad did it. Why not me?' He loved his country,'' said Julia Hudon, Henry's mother.
He was an Air Force assistant physical therapist and after basic training and stints at US air bases, Hudon was assigned to Royal Air Force Station Lakenheath, an air base 70 miles northeast of London. His superiors once named him their ''airman of the month.''
But a bizarre accident at a base pizza shop would forever change Hudon's life, triggering a downward spiral that would lead him to Kristen Gilbert's hospital ward.
The English pizza parlor was crowded. A fight broke out. An officer sitting near Hudon asked him to try to settle things down. Duquette said her brother, the would-be peacemaker, was struck in the head with a beer bottle. He went down, his head hitting the floor with enough force to detach his retina.
Hudon was in a coma for three weeks. And when he emerged, he was a different person. He grew argumentative and emotional. His hands shook. He heard voices. He couldn't keep a job. He was sent home. Hudon was diagnosed as paranoid-schizophrenic.
''Whatever the voices were telling him, he was always afraid,'' Duquette said.
For the next 10 years, the state of Hudon's mental health rode a medical see-saw. He'd take his pills. They'd work for a while. And then, every eight or nine months, he'd arrive back at Northampton's VA hospital for a new medication adjustment. He could be there 10 days to three weeks.
Frequently, once the new medication kicked in, Hudon would leave unannounced, walk to the bottom of Old Bear Hill, and take the bus back to his West Springfield apartment.
And that's what he did on Dec. 7, 1995. Noticing their patient had left prematurely, hospital officials called Hudon's mother, who, familiar with the routine by now, met her son at his apartment. She brought him groceries.
f Henry Hudon was feeling better mentally that day, he was still a sick man. The flu was going around Northampton. And he had a bad case of it. Stricken with vomiting and diarrhea, Hudon asked his mother to bring him back to the hospital the next day.
It was Dec. 8, a sunny but cold Friday. Julia Hudon said she told her son to tell the hospital he took some pills or alcohol, to make sure he wasn't turned away because of a space crunch.
Sure enough, when he arrived Henry Hudon told the admitting nurse that he'd taken 50 red pills and drank a 12-pack of beer.
Instead of the psychiatric ward he had grown accustomed to, this time the hospital directed Hudon to Ward C. They wanted to settle his stomach so he could keep his psychiatric medication down. He checked into the ICU unit at 2 p.m.
And then Henry Hudon began to scream.
''You can't leave me here! You can't leave me in this building!'' Duquette said, reconstructing her brother's pleas. ''People are dying around here for no reason!''
When his mother asked Hudon why he was so afraid, he replied: ''The patients are talking about it. The staff is talking about it. The staff is talking to the patients about it.''
But Hudon was a sick man. He was delusional. He routinely saw demons where none existed.
Convinced that his outburst was the natural byproduct of his recent medication change - just this month's version of his latest paranoia - his mother sought to soothe her son.
''So they called an orderly over who's known my brother through the years - his name is Rich - and he started reassuring my brother,'' Duquette said.
''He was calming him down, saying: `Henry, you know I'm here. You know nothing is going to happen to you. You're going to be better. You're going to be over in Ward 7 and I'll go see you tomorrow. You've just got the flu. What makes you think you're going to die?'''
It is not clear what Hudon knew or what he heard. Perhaps his screams were the unsubstantiated rantings of a man whose mind was too troubled and whose spirit was too weak.
Or perhaps they were sparked by the hospital grapevine, which by then had begun chattering about what investigators would later confirm: Medical emergencies and deaths were rising sharply on Ward C in 1995. And scores of vials of a concentrated strength of epinephrine, for which there was no authorized use on Ward C, were beginning to disappear from the ward medicine cabinets.
''I know I'm a nut,'' Hudon implored his mother. ''But I'm your son. Can't you believe me just this one time? I don't want to die here!''
Julia Hudon, sitting on the sofa of her daughter's home in Florence, not too far from where Kristen Gilbert once lived with her family, wipes away tears as she recalls her final moments with her son on Ward C.
''He told me, `The VA will own my soul.' And I said, `Henry, you've received all your sacraments. God owns your soul. They'll never own your soul, honey.' And he said, `Don't leave me here, mama. I don't want to die.'
''And I'll never forget it. I looked into his face as he sat in that wheelchair. They put his little belongings in a black trash bag. I made the nurse put a little piece of tape on it that said: `Henry Hudon.' I'll see him there for as long as I live.
''And every day I go to the cemetery I tell him, `I'm sorry I brought you up there.'''
At 4:45 p.m. Julia Hudon walked out of the VA Medical Center and into the dark chill of an early winter afternoon.
Kristen Gilbert had been on duty for 45 minutes.
And now she and Henry Hudon were alone in the intensive care unit at the end of the hall.
ran on page A01
of the Boston
Globe on 10/8/2000.