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    JUSTICE STORY: New Jersey’s ‘Angel of death’

    Nurse Charles Cullen murdered scores, perhaps hundreds, of patients in his career. This deadly angel of mercy was always able to find new victims.

    Charles Cullen, center, a former nurse who claims to have killed more than 40 patients at hospitals in New Jersey and Pennsylvania stands next to his attorney Johnnie Mask, left, in state Superior Court in Newark, N.J., Thursday, Dec. 16, 2004. Cullen pleaded guilty to killing former Jersey City Municipal Court Judge John W. Yengo Sr., in 1988.
    Charles Cullen, center, a former nurse who claims to have killed more than 40 patients at hospitals in New Jersey and Pennsylvania stands next to his attorney Johnnie Mask, left, in state Superior Court in Newark, N.J., Thursday, Dec. 16, 2004. Cullen pleaded guilty to killing former Jersey City Municipal Court Judge John W. Yengo Sr., in 1988. (MIKE DERER/ASSOCIATED PRESS)

    Over 16 years, Cullen was fired or forced to resign from at least five Pennsylvania and New Jersey hospitals. Despite coworkers' suspicions, medical errors, and investigations, no complaints ever reached the states' medical licensing boards. His record appeared unblemished when he applied for new jobs.

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    Cullen’s weapons were medicines usually used to save lives, mostly the heart drug digoxin and diabetes treatment insulin. After his arrest in December 2003, he confessed to at least 40 murders; some believe he left a trail of 400 corpses.

    Early trauma may have contributed to the creation of this monster. Born in West Orange, N.J., in 1960, his father died when Charles was an infant. Even as a child, he attempted suicide.

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    When he was 17, his mother was killed in a car accident.

    "The Good Nurse: A True Story of Medicine, Madness and Murder" by Charles Graeber (Atlantic Books)
    "The Good Nurse: A True Story of Medicine, Madness and Murder" by Charles Graeber (Atlantic Books)

    Cullen’s experience at a Montclair, N.J., hospital the night of the accident scarred him for life, wrote Charles Graeber in his book on the case, “The Good Nurse: A true story of medicine, madness, and murder.” Cullen arrived at the hospital, not knowing that his mother was dead. He asked to see her, but his request was denied. Her body had already been whisked away for cremation.

    After his mother’s death, Cullen dropped out of high school and joined the Navy, where he continued to make unsuccessful attempts on his life. After his 1984 discharge, Cullen enrolled in a New Jersey nursing school, the only male student, and he excelled.

    By 1986, he appeared stable — married and working in the burn unit at Saint Barnabas Medical Center in Livingston, N.J. Patients started to die while he was part of their care team; autopsies revealed abnormally high insulin levels in their blood.

    Hospital investigators also found that some IV bags had been intentionally contaminated with insulin. But the probes went nowhere.

    Cullen continued to work there until early 1992.

    St. Luke's Hospital in Bethlehem, Pa., where nurse Charles Cullen - the so-called Angel of Death - worked.
    St. Luke's Hospital in Bethlehem, Pa., where nurse Charles Cullen - the so-called Angel of Death - worked. (Ron Antonelli/New York Daily News)

    Later that year, he moved on to the cardiac and intensive care units at Warren Hospital in Phillipsburg, N.J. During that time, his turbulent personal life was unraveling. His wife left him, taking the couple’s two children. She cited his drinking and cruelty to her pet dogs, among other problems.

    Not long after she moved out, Cullen was arrested for harassing a female coworker. He tried to kill himself again.

    Still, despite his alarming mental problems, he continued to work at the hospital.

    Then, in August, he was accused of killing a 91-year-old breast cancer patient. Cullen gave her an injection, and within a day, she died of heart failure. Her son was in the room when Cullen said he was giving her a shot. The woman had been recovering well, but her condition declined rapidly after Cullen gave her the injection.

    For reasons that have never been explained, the medical examiner failed to test for digoxin. Police interrogated Cullen and gave him a lie detector test, which he passed, so no action was taken.

    Cullen worked at Warren until the end of 1993. He moved on to another hospital and was fired. His personal life was marked by suicide attempts and stays in mental institutions. Even his neighbors were afraid of him.

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    None of this kept him from being hired to take care of frail elderly people in a Pennsylvania nursing home. On May 8, 1998, resident Francis J. Henry went into crisis, resulting from a plunge in his blood-sugar level.

    Cullen’s supervisor told administrators that she suspected that he had given Henry an insulin overdose. She lost her job, but the nursing home kept Cullen for a few more months.

    In about 15 years, after short stints in nine hospitals or nursing homes, he landed at N.J.'s Somerset Medical Center. He was fired or forced to resign repeatedly for incompetence and drug theft and misuse and was involved in several unexplained deaths.

    Charles Cullen is escorted by Pennsylvania State Troopers into a Northampton County Court Thursday, Oct. 7, 2004, in Easton, Pa.
    Charles Cullen is escorted by Pennsylvania State Troopers into a Northampton County Court Thursday, Oct. 7, 2004, in Easton, Pa. (PETE SHAHEEN/THE MORNING CALL)

    But the reasons for his chaotic work history were never communicated from his previous workplaces to prospective employers.

    At Somerset, as with his other jobs, even if people were on the mend, they started dying when placed under Cullen’s care. One of them — Rev. Florian Gall — was brought in for a dangerously irregular heartbeat in the spring of 2003. Doctors treated him, and he improved so much there was talk of sending him home.

    Then, with no warning, Gall died of a heart attack. Examiners found the cause — dangerously high levels of digoxin in his system. An investigation showed that Cullen had been caring for Gall and that the nurse had taken digoxin from the pharmacy. The hospital alerted police.

    Family members of Charles Cullen's victims listen as the killer nurse pleaded guilty to 13 counts of murder and 2 counts of attempted murder.
    Family members of Charles Cullen's victims listen as the killer nurse pleaded guilty to 13 counts of murder and 2 counts of attempted murder. (TONY KURDZUK/SL)

    With the help of one of Cullen’s coworkers detectives got a confession from the killer, who told how he used lethal doses of drugs to do away with his victims. He was sentenced to 11 consecutive life terms, which puts him behind bars with no hope for parole for nearly 400 years.

    Families of his victims confronted him at his sentencing hearing in March 2006, and asked him why he did it. The question was met with silence.

    Charles Cullen, 45, a former nurse who pleaded guilty to killing 24 patients admitted on June 27, 2005, to killing five more people by injecting them with lethal doses of drugs, in state Superior Court in Flemington, N.J.
    Charles Cullen, 45, a former nurse who pleaded guilty to killing 24 patients admitted on June 27, 2005, to killing five more people by injecting them with lethal doses of drugs, in state Superior Court in Flemington, N.J. (PATTI SAPONE/ASSOCIATED PRESS)

    This Angel of Death, as he became known, inspired a New Jersey law that requires healthcare professionals to sound an alarm to state consumer affairs and licensing boards if they suspect workers pose a danger to patients. It’s known as the Cullen Law.

    JUSTICE STORY has been the Daily News’ exclusive take on true crime tales of murder, mystery and mayhem for nearly 100 years. Click here to read more.

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