Skip to comments.Nurse held in deaths led a troubled life
Posted on 12/18/2003 4:39:58 PM PST by Holly_P
To neighbors on the working-class Phillipsburg, N.J., street where he lived for 10 years, nurse Charles Cullen was a reclusive but pleasant man whose outward demeanor never betrayed his deep-seated troubles.
Cullen kept a tidy garden, had his two young daughters over for weekends, and said little beyond a brief hello, said Charles Cook, a retired machinist who lives down the street.
"I just thought he was an average Joe who went to work every day and came home," said Cook, 57. "He wasn't a rude guy. ... That's why the entire neighborhood is shocked about this."
Authorities in Somerset County, N.J., have charged Cullen, 43, with the murder of one patient and the attempted murder of another. Investigators said those charges had prompted Cullen's admission that he killed between 30 and 40 others during a 16-year career in critical-care nursing at 10 hospitals or nursing homes in central New Jersey and the Lehigh Valley in Pennsylvania.
As police and hospital administrators dig through Cullen's work history for evidence of harm to patients, police and court records indicate a life hurtling toward collapse:
Cullen went through a bitter divorce in the 1990s, declared bankruptcy in May 1998, was hospitalized at least three times for depression and suicide attempts in the last decade, and had been fired from four of his last seven jobs since 1997. He resigned from St. Luke's Hospital near Bethlehem, Pa., in June 2002 while under investigation by the hospital for stealing drugs. Before he was hired in September 2002 at Somerset Medical Center in Somerville, where the deaths of as many as 15 of his patients are being investigated, Cullen worked at a hospital in Allentown for 16 days before being fired.
Suspicion was directed at Cullen long before Friday, when he was arrested in the killing of the Rev. Florian J. Gall, a 68-year-old Roman Catholic priest who died June 28 after receiving an overdose of the heart medication digoxin at Somerset Medical Center.
In the attempted-murder case, Jin Kyung Han, a 40-year-old heart and cancer patient at Somerset, recovered when hospital workers gave her an antidote after a June overdose. She died Sept. 5.
In 1998, Kimberly Pepe, a registered nurse who had worked with Cullen at the Liberty Nursing Home in Allentown, was fired when administrators suspected her of giving an insulin shot to an 83-year-old man who was not diabetic. The patient died 11 days later.
Pepe filed a discrimination claim with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission alleging that Liberty administrators had ignored evidence against Cullen, who had access to the same patient. At the time, Cullen was under suspicion for stealing digoxin from the facility.
"My record is totally clean, and Charles' record, however, was under suspicion for several serious matters," Pepe said in the EEOC complaint. Her civil lawsuit against the nursing home was settled out of court. The terms of the settlement prevent her from discussing the case.
"There was evidence that if anybody was culpable, it was Cullen," Pepe's attorney, Donald Russo, said yesterday.
Cullen was later fired for "not following company policy on medication delivery," said Julie Beckert, a Liberty spokeswoman. The facility will review Cullen's records in light of the charges, she said.
Cullen's claims have sparked investigations in the seven jurisdictions where he worked, but no new charges have been filed, Somerset County Prosecutor Wayne J. Forrest said yesterday.
Cullen's admission has also spawned a wave of calls from families fearing their relatives might have died under his care. Forrest said his office had received more than 50 calls by Tuesday evening.
Some of the hospitals have called patients' families, while at least one, Hunterdon Medical Center, set up a hotline.
Cullen, who said he had killed his patients to alleviate their suffering, has signed papers to surrender his nursing license in New Jersey, the state Board of Nursing said yesterday. He is being held in the Somerset County jail, where officers have kept him under close observation. Bail has been set at $1 million.
Pennsylvania officials said they were pursuing a suspension of his license there. Officials at St. Luke's Hospital said they had reported to state nursing authorities that Cullen was suspected of stealing drugs at that hospital.
Cullen was born in West Orange, N.J., in 1960, and his tumultuous childhood preceded difficulties in adulthood. His father died when Cullen was an infant and his mother when he was in high school. The family included eight children, two of whom have also died.
Cullen quit high school and joined the Navy in 1978, after his mother died, then returned to study at Mountainside Hospital School of Nursing in Montclair, N.J., graduating in 1987.
He married Adrienne Taub and had two daughters before he and his wife separated around 1992, later divorcing. He also cared for a brother who eventually died of cancer.
Although Cullen's relatives have declined to be interviewed, and he seems to have had few friends, police in Phillipsburg knew him as a volatile and emotionally unstable man.
In 1994, Cullen filed a complaint with Phillipsburg police alleging he had received phone calls from a man threatening to kill him. Cullen told police that the calls might have been related to his "rather unfriendly divorce proceedings."
Three years later, Cullen filed a complaint against an emergency-room doctor with whom he had argued after being taken to Warren Hospital for depression. The doctor had tried to take a blood sample from Cullen in order to admit him to a psychiatric hospital. Cullen fought the procedure but eventually complied. The doctor was not charged.
According to police reports, Cullen tried to commit suicide in 2000 by plugging the air ducts in the bathroom of his basement apartment in Phillipsburg and lighting a charcoal grill. A neighbor smelled smoke and called police. Cullen was taken to a crisis center, where a case worker said she had treated Cullen for a previous suicide attempt.
Neighbors in Phillipsburg and Bethlehem, where Cullen has lived since August, described him as quiet man who rarely engaged people in conversation.
"They never made any attempt to say 'Hi,' " said Maggie Perez, who lives across the street from Cullen and a woman who might have been his girlfriend. "Their shades were always drawn."
In Phillipsburg, where he lived for 10 years before moving to Bethlehem, Cullen sometimes irked neighbors by parking in front of their driveways or neglecting to shovel snow on his walk. One neighbor said children had begun calling him "Crash" because of the dents that turned up on his car. But by and large, he kept a low profile, neighbors said.
Jean Hackett, who worked with Cullen in the burn unit at St. Barnabas Medical Center in Livingston, N.J., remembered him as funny and personable but very private.
He did not volunteer anything unless asked a direct question, "and, even then, you didn't always get a direct answer," Hackett said.
"But he was so attuned to the needs of pain," she said.
-------------------------------------------------------------------------------- Contact staff writer Oliver Prichard at 610-313-8219 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Inquirer staff writer Christine Schiavo contributed to this article, which also contains information from the Associated Press.
Yes, that and fear of libel lawsuits.
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