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For the angel of death spread his wings on the blast, And breathed in the face of the foe as he passed; And the eyes of the sleepers waxed deadly and chill And their hearts but once heaved, and for ever grew still.
— Lord Byron
The Early Life of a Future Killer
In West Orange, New Jersey, on February 22, 1960, a local bus driver and stay-at-home mom welcomed another son to their rapidly growing brood. They named the youngest of their eight children Charles Cullen. Before he celebrated his first birthday as part of a strict Catholic family, he experienced his first tragedy when his father passed away.
According to Cullen, he had a miserable childhood. He gave reports that claimed he was 9-years old when he made his first suicide attempt. The method he used to try and accomplish this task was to take the chemicals found in his new chemistry set. This occasion would mark the first of 20 reported suicide attempts throughout his life. In one of these attempts, Cullen said he tried to kill himself by taking a pair of scissors and jabbing them into his head. As a result, paramedics rushed him to the hospital emergency department, where the staff ran him in to have surgery immediately.
Cullen reports that when he was only 17 years old, his mother died tragically in a car accident. He dropped out of school and enlisted in the U.S. Navy as a result of this event. The year was 1978. He would be assigned to serve on the USS Woodrow Wilson, one of the ballistic missile subs in the submarine corp's fleet. There he rose to the rank of Petty Officer 3rd Class as part of the ship's Poseidon missile team.
He enrolled at the Mountainside School of Nursing upon his discharge from the Navy. It wasn't long after that Cullen would get a job working for St. Barnabas Medical Center, a facility in Livingston, New Jersey. Coincidentally, that happened to be the same year he and his girlfriend Adrienne Taub got married. That occurred in 1987, not long before they started a family. That family would soon grow to be a family of four when their two daughters joined them.
The Killing Season Begins
June 11, 1988, was the first time he ever committed murder. Cullen's chosen victim was Judge John W Yengo, Sr. When Judge Yengo suffered an allergic reaction to a blood-thinning medication, he was admitted to St. Barnabas for observation. That's when Cullen injected him with a lethal dose of another drug. Later Cullen would confess to killing approximately 11 patients while he worked at St Barnabas. One of the other victims was an AIDS patient that was given an insulin overdose. He left that place of employment in January 1992 after hospital authorities launched an investigation to try and find out who was tampering with the IV bags.
Cullen went to work for Warren Hospital located in Phillipsburg, New Jersey, in February 1992. While he worked there, he claims to have murdered three older women by injecting them with lethal doses of digoxin. The last victim he killed there tried to tell her family that the 'sneaky male nurse' gave her an injection of something while she slept. Sadly, they just dismissed her claims.
A Divorce and Domestic Violence
In January 1993, Adrienne Cullen filed for divorce. She filed two complaints against her estranged husband, Charles, not long after that, for domestic violence. In these complaints, she stated that he was an alcoholic prone to animal abuse, poured lighter fluid into other people's drinks, and called funeral homes with prank calls. The result was the couple would share custody of their daughters, and he wound up moving into a basement apartment to be near them.
Cullen later claims that around the time of his divorce, he genuinely wanted to quit working in the nursing industry. However, since the courts ordered him to pay child support, he felt forced to remain employed in that profession. In March of that same year, he broke into a co-worker's house while she and her son were sleeping. He was able to get in and out of her residence without them even knowing he had been there. After that, Cullen started calling her frequently and leaving her voice messages. He also began following her around town and stalking her at work. The co-worker filed a complaint against him. He chose to plead guilty to the trespassing charge and wound up receiving one-year probation as a result. The day after he received his sentence, he attempted to commit suicide. This suicide attempt prompted Cullen to take a two-month leave of absence, at which point he received treatment for depression at two separate facilities. By the conclusion of 1993, he would attempt to commit suicide two more times.
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The Murders Shall Go On
December 1993 marked the end of Cullen's employment at Warren Hospital. He went on to get a job working for Hunterdon Medical Center in Rarity Township, New Jersey, at the beginning of the following year. For three years he was employed at that facility, he worked in the intensive and cardiac care units. He claims that for two of those years, he would remain dormant. There is no definitive way to validate his claims, as the records for this facility were destroyed before his incarceration. He does admit that between January-September 1996, he killed five patients by administering heavy doses of digoxin.
I could locate the following record of employment on Cullen from September 2002, when he began working for Somerset Medical Center in Somerset, New Jersey. By this time, his depression had deepened despite starting a relationship with a local woman. While working at Somerset, he had already killed eight additional patients and was well on his way to murdering the ninth by June. His drugs of choice to commit these murders were digoxin as well as insulin. On June 18, 2003, he attempted to kill a patient named Philip Gregor. Gregor would survive this murder attempt only to die six months later from natural causes.
Two Plus Two Isn't Adding Up to Four
Not long after the incident in June, hospital records would start to show that Cullen accessed records of patients that were not assigned to him. A witness saw him in the rooms of patients not assigned to his rotation. Added to that was the computerized records for the drug-dispensing cabinets started to indicate his requests for medications that doctors hadn't prescribed the patients.
Sometime in July 2003, the executive director of the New Jersey Poison Information and Education System attempted to issue a warning to Somerset Medical Center. He told the administration that the records he had on file in the case of four suspicious overdoses more than likely alluded to the possibility one of their employees was murdering patients.
Coincidentally, Cullen administered a non-fatal insulin overdose in August that the hospital failed to report. Due to this failure, state officials penalized the facility. As a result of the state-issued fine, when his final victim died from a low blood sugar incident in October, the hospital reported the death immediately. That incident launched an investigation that also took a look at Cullen's employment history which indicated past suspicious involvement with other deaths. His employment became terminated on October 31, 2003, on the grounds he falsified his application. That is when law enforcement decided to put him under surveillance until they could tie up loose ends on their investigation, which happened a few weeks later.
How to Get the Death Penalty off the Table
Cullen was eating at a restaurant on December 14, 2003, when the authorities had enough evidence to execute an arrest warrant. During his interrogation, he admitted to murdering a patient named Reverand Florian Gall and attempting to murder another patient named Tin Kyushu Han, both at Somerset. By the end of April 2004, Cullen would plead guilty to a total of 13 murders and two attempted murders, all at Somerset. He agreed to cooperate with the prosecutor's investigations if they removed the death penalty from the table. Within one month, he admitted to an additional three murders in New Jersey.
Cullen pleaded guilty to six murders and three attempted murders in Pennsylvania by November 2004. On March 2, 2006, he received a sentence to serve 11 consecutive life sentences in New Jersey. Charles Cullen will not be eligible for parole until after he has done 397 years in prison. On March 10, he stood before yet another judge and received six more life sentences. Cullen received a total of 18 life sentences.
A Killer Tells of His Motivations
When it comes to Cullen's motivations, he claims that he murdered his patients to spare them dying due to cardiac or respiratory arrest. He claims that he didn't want to hear about other doctor's attempts to save someone's life. Cullen said he only tried to end their suffering and to prevent additional medical personnel from dehumanizing them. Then in December 2003, he claimed that he had lived the majority of his life walking around in a fog, and he had blocked out any memory of killing his victims. Cullen states that he cannot recall precisely how many people he murdered or what made him choose any one patient over the other. There were times he would adamantly deny murdering a patient, and then when he was shown their medical records, he admitted responsibility.
What Were the Legal Implications if Any?
Experts who have discussed his case speculate that Cullen jumped between facilities without drawing suspicion because there was a lack of reporting requirements and inadequate protections legally for employers. During that time, New Jersey and Pennsylvania held the same reporting practices that most United States had, which only mandated reporting suspicious deaths in extreme circumstances. If, by chance, they did fail to file a report, the penalties were relatively insignificant. Not to mention employers feared legal repercussions should they give a negative employment reference.
As a direct result of Cullen's case, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and 35 other states have instituted new laws that encourage employers to give accurate job performance references. The new regulations give employers immunity from lawsuits when they give truthful employment performance history to future employers. Many of the disclosure requirements became stricter by rules passed in 2004 and 2005 regarding health care facilities. These rules protect the health facilities from improper care. Most importantly, the new regulations that have taken effect are the law that requires all licensed health care workers to undergo criminal background checks. Prospective employees must also be fingerprinted at their own expense. I, for one, am happy that these regulations are currently in place, but I also feel they should have been in place all along.