Charles Cullen: Healthcare Serial Killer
Suspicions in PA
Cullen fully expected to get the death penalty, but in a quick turnabout less than a week after his arraignment, he accepted a public defender, Johnnie Mask, who subsequently said Cullen might offer names in exchange for taking the death penalty off the table. Both PA and NJ had to agree to the terms — all or nothing. He bartered for his client's life with information for families needing closure about their loved ones who had been under Cullen's care.
Yet before Mask stepped in, Cullen had already spent seven hours telling the New Jersey State police about his methods and motives. The Star-Ledger eventually acquired the transcript and printed it. Even as Cullen was talking that day, other detectives were busy putting his record together and contacting institutions in Pennsylvania, such as Lehigh Valley Hospital in Allentown and St. Luke's in Bethlehem, to ask what they knew about their former employee.
And as the story got out to the public, for some it sparked a note of horrified recognition.
In 1999, the Northampton County coroner, Zachary Lysek, had told several officials that he believed there might be an "angel of death" operating at Easton Hospital. He had examined the death circumstances of a 78-year-old patient, Ottomar Schramm, and he'd been fairly certain the man had been murdered. Schramm had succumbed to a fatal dose of digoxin, but his condition had not warranted getting the drug. While Lysek could not prove where Schramm had received the medication, since he'd come to the hospital from a nursing home, he was certain that someone had administered it with evil intent. He requested an internal investigation at the hospital, based on reports from one of Schramm's relatives about who had been near the patient (Cullen, with a needle), and it was conducted, but it was inconclusive. Lysek was frustrated. In his gut, he knew that something was amiss. But Cullen was already gone. He'd moved on to St. Luke's, in nearby Bethlehem.
Then in 2002, Lysek heard from a nurse at St. Luke's about suspicious behavior by one of her fellow nurses, Charles Cullen, and he'd contacted that county's DA. It turned out that seven St. Luke's nurses had done their own detective work and were now collectively prepared to warn hospital administrators and the state police about Cullen. They believed he was killing patients, because in June 2002 they had found opened and unopened packages of drugs improperly placed in a bin, and had seen Cullen leaving the rooms of patients who then expired. There had also been spikes in Code Blues on his shifts.
Cullen was pressured about this so he resigned and moved on. The state hired a pathologist, Dr. Isadore Mihalakis, to make a comprehensive investigation, but in March 2003, says the Morning Call, he issued a report indicating that after reviewing 67 cases, he had no proof of criminal activity "in which prosecution was the appropriate course of action." The hospital administrators did notify the PA Board of Nursing about Cullen's unprofessional conduct, with no identifiable result. Still, no bodies had been exhumed for an exhaustive analysis, few autopsies had been performed for the records, and no one had interviewed Cullen. By then, he was already at work at Somerset Medical Center (having lasted only 18 days at another institution near Allentown).
He eventually admitted his part in the death of the Easton Hospital patient, Omar Schramm, as well as patients at St. Luke's.
Another man who had suspected Cullen and had tried years earlier to get investigators interested was Larry Dean, the son of Helen Dean. But he didn't hear the story as it grew into national news in 2003. By that time, he'd died.