Charles Cullen (born
February 22, 1960) is a
former nurse and the most prolific
serial killer in New
Jersey history. Cullen told authorities in December 2003 that he had
murdered as many as 45 patients during the 16 years he worked at 10
hospitals in New Jersey and
Childhood and Early Life
Charles Cullen was born in
West Orange, New Jersey, the youngest of eight children in a deeply
Catholic family. His father was a bus driver and his mother stayed
at home to raise her children. Cullen's father died when Cullen was an
infant. Two of his siblings also died in adulthood. His father, Meme
Cullen raped him as a child.
Cullen described his childhood as miserable. He first attempted suicide
at the age of nine by drinking chemicals taken from a chemistry set.
This would be the first of 20 such suicide attempts throughout his life.
Later, working as a nurse, Cullen
fantasized about stealing drugs from the hospital where he worked
and using them to commit suicide. In one attempt he took a pair of
scissors and jabbed them through his head. He was rushed to the hospital
to have major surgery done.
When Cullen was 17, Cullen's mother died in an automobile accident;
his sister was at the wheel. Devastated by his mother's death, Cullen
dropped out of high school and enlisted in the
U.S. Navy in 1978. He was assigned to the
submarine corps, and served aboard the
ballistic missile sub
USS Woodrow Wilson. Cullen rose to the rank of
petty officer third class as part of the team that operated the
Already, Cullen showed signs of
mental instability. He once served a shift in a green surgical gown,
surgical mask and latex
gloves stolen from the ship's medical cabinet. He was transferred to the
USS Canopus. Cullen tried to kill himself several times over
the next few years. His last attempt led to his discharge from the Navy
in March 1984.
After leaving the Navy, Cullen attended Mountainside School of
Nursing and got a job at St. Barnabas Medical Center in
Livingston, New Jersey, in 1987. That same year he married Adrienne
Taub. The couple had two daughters.
Cullen committed his first murder on June 11, 1988. Judge
John W. Yengo Sr., had been admitted to St. Barnabas Medical Center
suffering from an
allergic reaction to a blood-thinning drug. Cullen administered a
overdose of medication intravenously. Cullen admitted to killing 11
patients at St. Barnabas, including an AIDS
patient who died after being given an overdose of insulin.
Cullen quit his job at St. Barnabas in January 1992 when hospital
authorities began investigating who might have tampered with bags of
Cullen took a job at Warren Hospital in
Phillipsburg, New Jersey, in February 1992. He murdered three
elderly women at the hospital by giving them overdoses of the heart
His final victim said that a "sneaky male nurse" had injected her as she
slept, but family members and other healthcare workers dismissed her
In January 1993, Adrienne Cullen filed for divorce.
She later filed two
domestic violence complaints against him. The divorce papers and
domestic violence complaints depicted Cullen as an
alcoholic, someone who abused pets by placing them in bowling bags
and trash cans, poured lighter fluid into other people's drinks and made
prank calls to funeral homes. Cullen had shared custody
of his daughters and moved into a
basement apartment on Shaffer Avenue in
Cullen says he wanted to quit nursing in 1993, but court-ordered
child support payments forced him to keep working.
In March 1993, he broke into a co-worker's home while she and her
young son slept, but left without waking them. Cullen then started
phoning her frequently, leaving numerous messages and following her at
work and around town. The woman filed a complaint, and Cullen
pleaded guilty to
trespassing and was placed on a year's
probation. The day after his arrest, Cullen attempted suicide. He
took two months off work, and was treated for
depression in two psychiatric facilities. He attempted suicide two
more times before the end of the year.
Cullen left Warren Hospital in December 1993 and took a job at Hunter
Medical Center in
Rarity Township, New Jersey, early the next year. Cullen worked in
the hospital's intensive care/cardiac care unit for three years. During
his first two years, Cullen claims he did not murder anyone. But
hospital records for the time period had already been destroyed at the
time of his arrest in 2003, preventing any investigation into his claims.
However, Cullen did admit to murdering five patients in the first nine
months of 1996. Once more, Cullen administered overdoses of
Cullen became a licensed nurse in Pennsylvania in 1994.
Cullen found work at Morris Memorial Hospital in
Morris, New Jersey. He was fired in August 1997 for poor performance. He
remained unemployed for six months and stopped making child-support
In October 1997, Cullen appeared in the Warren
Hospital emergency room and sought treatment for depression. He was
admitted to a psychiatric facility, but left a short time later. His
treatment had not improved his mental health. Neighbors said that he
could be found chasing cats down the street in the dead of night,
yelling or talking to himself, and making faces at people when he
thought they weren't looking.
In February 1998, Cullen was hired by Liberty Nursing
and Rehabilitation Center in Allentown, Pennsylvania. He worked in a
ward for patients who needed ventilators to breathe. In May, Cullen
filed for bankruptcy, claiming nearly $67,000 in debts. Liberty fired
Cullen in October 1998 after he was seen entering a patient's room with
syringes in his hand. The patient ended up with a broken arm, but
apparently no injections were made. Cullen was accused of giving
patients drugs at unscheduled times.
Cullen worked at Elston Hospital in Elston,
Pennsylvania, from November 1998 to March 1999. On December 30, 1998, he
murdered yet another patient with digoxin. A coroner's blood test showed
lethal amounts of dioxin in the patient's blood, but an investigation
was inconclusive and nothing pointed definitively to Cullen as the
Cullen continued to find work. A nationwide nursing
shortage made it difficult for hospitals to recruit nurses, and no
reporting mechanisms or other systems existed to identify nurses with
mental health issues or employment problems. Cullen took a job at a burn
unit at Lehigh Valley Hospital in Allentown, Pennsylvania, in March
1999. During his tenure at Lehigh Valley Hospital, Cullen murdered one
patient and attempted to murder another.
In April 1999 Cullen voluntarily resigned from Le
high Valley Hospital and took a job at St. Luke's Hospital in Bethlehem,
Pennsylvania. Cullen worked in St. Luke's cardiac care unit. Over the
next three years, he murdered five more patients and attempted to murder
In January 2000, Cullen attempted suicide again. He
put a charcoal grill in his bath tub, lit it and hoped that the carbon
monoxide gas would kill him. Neighbors smelled the smoke and called the
fire department and police. Cullen was taken to a hospital and a
psychiatric facility, but was back home the following day.
No one suspected Cullen was murdering patients at St.
Luke's Hospital until a co-worker accidentally found vials of unused
medications in a disposal bin. The drugs were not valuable outside the
hospital, and were not used by recreational drug users, so their theft
seemed curious. An investigation showed that Cullen had taken the
medication, and he was fired and escorted from the building in June
Seven St. Luke's nurses who worked with Cullen later
met with the Le high County district attorney to alert the authorities
of their suspicions that Cullen had used drugs to kill patients. They
pointed out that, between January and June 2002, Cullen had worked 20
percent of the hours on his unit but was present for nearly two-thirds
of the deaths. But investigators never looked into Cullen's past, and
the case was dropped nine months later for lack of evidence.
Cullen worked for a short time at Sacred Heart
Hospital in Allentown, but did not get along with his co-workers and
In September 2002, Cullen found a job at Somerset
Medical Center in Somerset, New Jersey. Cullen worked in Somerset's
critical care unit. Cullen's depression worsened, even though he had
begun dating a local woman. Cullen murdered eight more patients and
attempted to murder another by June. Once more, his drugs of choice were
dioxin and insulin.
On June 18, 2003, Cullen attempted to murder Philip
Gregor, a patient at Somerset. Gregor survived and was discharged; he
died six months later of natural causes.
Soon afterward, the hospital's computer systems
showed that Cullen was accessing the records of patients he was not
assigned to. Co-workers were seeing him in patient's rooms. Computerized
drug-dispensing cabinets were showing that Cullen was requesting
medications that patients had not been prescribed.
The executive director of the New Jersey Poison
Information and Education System warned Somerset Medical Center
officials in July 2003 that at least four of the suspicious overdoses
indicated the possibility that an employee was killing patients. But the
hospital put off contacting authorities until October. By then, Cullen
had killed another five patients and attempted to kill a sixth.He then
proceeded to have sex with the victims
State officials penalized the hospital for failing to
report a nonfatal insulin overdose in August. The overdose had been
administered by Cullen. When Cullen's final victim died of low blood
sugar in October, the medical center alerted state authorities. An
investigation into Cullen's employment history revealed past suspicions
about his involvement with prior deaths.
Somerset Medical Center fired Cullen on October 31,
2003, for lying on his job application. Police kept him under
surveillance for several weeks until they had finished their
Arrest and Guilty Plea
Cullen was arrested on one count of murder and one
count of attempted murder at a restaurant December 14, 2003. On December
14, 2003, Cullen admitted to the murder of Rev. Florian Gall and the
attempted murder of Tin Kyushu Han, both patients at Somerset.
In April 2004, Cullen pleaded guilty in a New Jersey
court to killing 13 patients and attempting to kill two others by lethal
injection while employed at Somerset. As part of his plea agreement, he
promised to cooperate with authorities if they did not seek the death
penalty for his crimes. A month later, he pleaded guilty to the murder
of three more patients in New Jersey.
In November 2004, Cullen pleaded guilty in a
Pennsylvania court to killing six patients and trying to kill three
As of July 2005, Cullen remained in the Somerset
County Jail in New Jersey as authorities continued to investigate the
possibility of his involvement in other deaths.
Cullen is currently serving a sentence of life in
prison without parole for 30 years, to be served consecutively with his
other sentences in Pennsylvania. On March 2, 2006, Cullen was sentenced
to 11 consecutive life sentences in New Jersey, to be ineligible for
parole for 397 years. He is held at New Jersey State Prison in Trenton,
On March 10, 2006 Cullen was brought into the
courtroom of Lehigh County President Judge William Pratt for a
sentencing hearing. Cullen, who was upset with the judge, kept repeating
"Your honor, you need to step down" for 30 minutes until Platt had
Cullen gagged with cloth and duct tape. Even after being gagged Cullen
continued to try to repeat the phrase. In this hearing Pratt gave him an
additional six life sentences. In addition to other sentences pronounced
on the same day in another county, Cullen currently faces 18 life
Cullen said he administered overdoses to
patients to spare them from being "coded" -- going into cardiac or
respiratory arrest and being listed as a "Code Blue" emergency.
Cullen has told detectives that he could not bear to witness or
hear about attempts at saving a victim's life. Cullen also claims
that he gave patients overdoses so that he could end their "suffering"
and prevent hospital personnel from "de-humanizing" them.
Investigators say that he is and may have caused
patients themselves to suffer, but he appears not to realize that this
contradicts his claims of wanting to save patients from further pain and
Similarly, Cullen has told investigators that
although he often thought about murdering his victims over several days
as he witnessed their "suffering," the decision to commit murder was
performed on impulse.
He told detectives in December 2003 that he lived
most of his life in a fog, and that he had blacked out the memory of
murdering most of his victims. He said he could not recall how many of
them there were or why he had chosen them. In some cases, Cullen has
adamantly denied committing murders at a given facility. But after
reviewing medical records, he later has admitted that he was involved in
patient deaths there.
Cullen was largely able to move from facility
to facility undetected, experts say, because of lacking reporting
requirements and inadequate legal protection for employers. New
Jersey and Pennsylvania, like most states, required health care
facilities to report suspicious deaths only in the most egregious
cases, and penalties for failing to report incidents were minor.
Many states did not give investigators the legal authority to
discover where a worker had previously been employed. Employers
feared to investigate incidents or give a bad employment reference
for fear that such actions might trigger a lawsuit.
Prompted by the Cullen case, Pennsylvania, New Jersey
and 35 other states adopted new laws which encourage employers to give
honest appraisals of workers' job performance and which give employers
immunity when they provide a truthful employee appraisal. Many of the
laws, passed in 2004 and 2005, strengthen disclosure requirements for
health care facilities, bolster legal protections for health care
facilities that report improper patient care and require licensed health
care professionals to undergo criminal background checks and be
fingerprinted at their own cost.
Nurse who killed 29 sentenced to 11 life terms
New Jersey's worst serial killer escaped death
penalty after plea deal
March 2, 2006
- A nurse who killed at least 29 patients was sent to prison for the
rest of his life Thursday after his victims’ loved ones angrily branded
him “vermin,” “garbage” and a “monster” who ruined lives and shattered
their faith in the medical profession.
— one of the most prolific killers the U.S. health care industry has
ever seen — escaped the death penalty after making a deal with
prosecutors to tell them which patients he killed with hard-to-detect
He received 11
consecutive life terms at a tense and sometimes turbulent hearing in
which he came face-to-face with his victims’ families for the first
time. Wearing a bulletproof vest under his sweater, Cullen sat quietly
as relatives wept and yelled at him from a lectern about 15 feet from
where he sat
the ancient foundations of the healing professions,” Superior Court
Judge Paul Armstrong said as Cullen stood motionless, his eyes closed.
pleaded guilty to murdering 22 people in New Jersey and trying to kill
three others. He will be sentenced later for seven murders and three
attempted murders in Pennsylvania.
Career lasted 16 years
claimed to have killed up to 40 people during a career that spanned 16
years and 10 nursing homes and hospitals.
He was fired
from five nursing jobs and resigned from two others amid questions about
his performance. But he always managed to find another job, in part
because hospitals did not share their suspicions for fear of being sued.
lawmakers have since passed legislation protecting nursing homes and
hospitals from legal action when reporting disciplinary actions taken
relatives of the victims attended the sentencing, calling him “trash,”
“one pathetic little man” and “an agent from the deepest depths of Hell.”
As the family members spoke, he kept his eyes closed, frustrating some
of the relatives.
“In case he
forgot what my mother looked like, look into my eyes now,” said Richard
J. Stoecker, whose mother was murdered in 2003.
members said they wished Cullen could die as his victims did, by lethal
“I want you to
die tomorrow so that you can meet God tomorrow because guess what? There
ain’t no door out of hell, baby,” said Debra Yetter Medina, the
granddaughter of victim Mary Natoli.
to make a statement, telling the judge he had “nothing to say” and
disappointing families who had hoped to hear him explain why he
committed the crimes.
'We will never feel safe in a
whose father was murdered, said his family “will never feel safe in a
hospital again. We will never feel we can trust the medical profession
Stasienko of Kitty Hawk, N.C., said Cullen “will always be known as the
monster.” She held a photo of her father, Giacomino “Jack” Toto, 89, who
was murdered in 2003.
we will finally toss aside his name and face, like the garbage he is,”
said Emily Stoecker, whose mother-in-law, Eleanor, was killed.
talked of how the killings ruined marriages, careers and report cards.
“My heart, it
aches for my son,” said Mary Strenko, whose 21-year-old son was Charles
Cullen’s youngest victim. “I walk around with a hole in my heart.”
admitted to using lethal doses of medications — usually the heart
medication digoxin — to kill patients. He told authorities when he was
arrested in 2003 that he killed “very sick” patients, and described the
slayings as mercy killings.
Deaths not seen as murder
Many of the
deaths were not recognized as murders at the time, in part because many
of the victims were old or sickly. Cullen was finally caught after
officials at Somerset Medical Center in Somerville began noticing that
patients who died or nearly did had unusually high levels of digoxin in
to help investigators solve his killings. In exchange, prosecutors in
all seven counties where he worked agreed not to seek the death penalty.
Because of the
frailties of his memory and imprecise — and in some cases, destroyed —
medical records, it is unclear whether authorities have identified all
of his victims. Investigations remain open in two New Jersey counties.
have been filed against the facilities where Cullen worked.
similar cases around the country, nurse’s aide Donald Harvey pleaded
guilty in 1987 to at least 34 murders in Ohio and Kentucky and was
sentenced to life in prison, and coronary-care nurse Robert Diaz was
convicted in 1984 of killing 12 elderly patients in California with
lethal doses of heart drugs.
members said they were satisfied with Cullen’s sentence, while others
complained it will do little to end their suffering.
closure for the families. You just have to deal with it. I don’t think
there ever will be closure,” said Lucille Gall, whose brother was
murdered in 2003.
of Charles Cullen's Victims in New Jersey
Thursday, March 02, 2006
nurse Charles Cullen was to be sentenced Thursday to life in prison for
the 22 murders and three attempted murders he has admitted committing in
He has also pleaded guilty to seven murders and three
attempted murders in Pennsylvania.
Below are all Cullen's victims listed in order of
death, with names, ages, home towns, hospital involved and date of the
-John W. Yengo Sr., 72, of Jersey City, N.J., died
June 11, 1988, St. Barnabas Hospital in Livingston. He was a Jersey City
municipal judge who twice ran for mayor of his hometown
-Lucy Mugavero, 90, of Phillipsburg, N.J., died March
9, 1993, at Warren Hospital in Phillipsburg, N.J. A former garment
worker with three children and eight grandchildren, one of whom later
became the mayor of Phillipsburg and chairman of the Delaware River
Joint Toll Bridge Commission.
-Mary Natoli, 85, of Phillipsburg, N.J., died July
23, 1993, at Warren Hospital. A former silk mill worker who was
described by her family as a hardworking Italian grandmother.
-Helen Dean, 91, of Lopatcong Township, N.J., died
Sept. 1, 1993, at Warren Hospital. Dean was in the hospital for breast
cancer surgery. After her death, her son Larry vowed to find her killer
but died of cancer in 2001.
-LeRoy Sinn, 71, hometown not disclosed, died Jan.
21, 1996 at Hunterdon Medical Center. A patent attorney and a member of
a club called Gardeners of Somerset Valley. He used his legal knowledge
to help the club set up a scholarship fund.
-Earl Young, 76, hometown not disclosed, died May 31,
1996 at Hunterdon Medical Center. Young worked as stock clerk at
Flemington Cut Glass, where the owner described him as a reserved but
-Catherine Dext, 49, hometown not disclosed, died
June 9, 1996 at Hunterdon Medical Center. Dext was a supervisor at the
Edna Mahan Correctional Facility for Women in Union Township, where a
colleague described her as a low-key person who always did her job.
-Frank Mazzacco, 66, hometown not disclosed, died
June 24, 1996 at Hunterdon Medical Center. Mazzacco taught for 34 years
in public schools in Trenton and at one time served as the teachers'
-Jesse Eichlin, 81, hometown not disclosed, died July
10, 1996 at Hunterdon Medical Center. Eichlin was a farmer and carpenter
who used his skills to help build a Sunday school wing for his Franklin
-Ottomar Schramm, 78, of Bethlehem, Pa., died Dec.
30, 1998, at Easton Hospital in Easton, Pa. Described by his daughter as
a man who worked two jobs to provide for his wife and three children.
Schramm was born in Nicaragua to missionaries.
-Matthew Mattern, 22, of Shamokin, Pa., died Aug. 31,
1999, at Lehigh Valley Hospital in Salisbury Township, Pa. One of
Cullen's youngest victims who was in the hospital after being severely
burned in a car accident.
-Irene Krapf, 79, of Tamaqua, Pa., died June 22,
2001, at St. Luke's Hospital in Fountain Hill, Pa. Krapf, who had eight
children and 22 grandchildren, helped her husband run a taxi company out
of the family's home.
-William Park, 72, of Lehighton, Pa., died Nov. 8,
2001, at St. Luke's Hospital. A self-employed upholsterer and a Korean
war veteran who lived in Franklin Township.
-Samuel Spangler, 80, of Bethlehem, Pa., died Jan. 9,
2002, at St. Luke's Hospital. His son Ronald described his father as
proud family man who was a former machine operator at Stroh Brewing Co.
-Daniel George, 82, of Bethlehem, Pa., died May 5,
2002, at St. Luke's Hospital. He owned George's Foodliner in Bethelhem
and Danny's Restaurant and Lounge in Hanover Township. He had three
daughters and three grandchildren.
-Edward O'Toole, 76, of Bethlehem, Pa., died June 2,
2002, at St. Luke's Hospital. He was a Navy veteran of World War II who
worked 20 years as a district sales manager in Pennsylvania for A.O.
Smith Water Heater Co. before retiring in 1990.
-Eleanor Stoecker, 60, Bedminster, N.J., died Feb.
12, 2003, at Somerset Medical Center in Somerville, N.J. A retired
medical assistant and the mother of Philadelphia, New York and New
Jersey radio personality Zach Martin.
-Joyce E. Mangini, 74, Raritan, N.J., died Feb. 23,
2003, at Somerset Medical Center. A homemaker who loved cooking and
-Giacomino J. Toto, 89, Bridgewater, N.J., died Feb.
23, 2003, at Somerset Medical Center. Toto, known as "Jack," spent 25
years as a mechanic and operated a vegetable stand.
-John J. Shanagher, 83, Bridgewater, N.J., died March
11, 2003, at Somerset Medical Center. The World War II veteran worked as
a milkman and mail carrier. Relatives said he often spoke of helping to
liberate concentration camps in Europe.
-Dorthea K. Hoagland, 80, Middlesex, N.J., died April
6, 2003, at Somerset Medical Center. Hoagland was a homemaker.
-Melvin T. Simcoe, 66, Green Brook, N.J., died May 5,
2003, at Somerset Medical Center. Simcoe was a Korean War veteran and
district manager for Bellcore of Livingston for 35 years. The father of
four retired in the early 1990s and, his wife said, enjoyed growing
-Michael T. Strenko, 21, Manville, N.J., died May 15,
2003, at Somerset Medical Center. The former high school soccer and
track team member worked packaging material for Fisher Scientific. His
family said he was proud of his physique and his booming car stereo.
-Florian J. Gall, 68, Whitehouse Station, N.J., died
June 28, 2003, at Somerset Medical Center. Gall was pastor of Our Lady
of Lourdes Roman Catholic Church in Whitehouse Station and Hunterdon
County vicar for the Diocese of Metuchen.
-Pasquale M. Napolitano, 80, Peapack-Gladstone, N.J.,
died July 13, 2003, at Somerset Medical Center. Napolitano was a World
War II veteran worked for 30 years as security manager for Village
Supermarkets of Bernardsville and Morristown.
-Christopher B. Hardgrove, 38, Somerville, N.J., died
Aug. 11, 2003, at Somerset Medical Center. He was a carpenter and father
of two daughters.
-Krishnakant Upadhyay, 70, Bridgewater, N.J., died
Sept. 20, 2003, at Somerset Medical Center.
-James R. Strickland, 83, Bowie, Md., died Sept. 23,
2003, at Somerset Medical Center. Family said he was grieving for his
wife when he was killed. He loved playing harmonica so much that one was
buried with him.
-Edward P. Zizik, 73, Three Bridges, N.J., died Oct.
21, 2003, at Somerset Medical Center. He was an electrical engineer for
30 years and also volunteered at Somerset Medical Center.
The names, ages, residence of the patients involved
and date of attempted murder, according to prosecutors:
-Stella Danielczyk, 73, of Larksville, Pa., attempted
murder in February 2000 at Lehigh Valley Hospital.
-John Gallagher, 90, of Bethlehem, Pa., attempted
murder on Feb. 8, 2001, at St. Luke's Hospital.
-Paul Galgon, 72, of Bethlehem, Pa., attempted murder
on Dec. 28, 2001, at St. Luke's Hospital.
-Jin Kyung Han, 40, Basking Ridge, N.J., attempted
murder on June 29, 2003, at Somerset Medical Center.
-Frances Agoada, 83, Franklin Township, N.J.,
attempted murder on Aug. 27, 2003, at Somerset Medical Center.
-Philip Gregor, 48, South Bound Brook, N.J.,
attempted murder at Somerset Medical Center of June 18, 2003.
The Tainted Kidney
Charles Cullen, who may be the most prolific serial
killer America has ever seen, is serving eighteen consecutive life
sentences in a New Jersey penitentiary. Behind bars, he can no longer
take life, yet he’s found a way to give it—in the form of an organ
transplant. But no one wants to give him the chance to play God again.
By Charles Graeber - NYmag.com
April 7, 2009
The Angel of Death looks sleepy. His face shows
nothing. His eyes are closed. Charles Cullen sits motionless in the
wooden defendant’s chair of the Somerset County Courthouse as, hour
after hour, his victims’ families take the stand. They read poems and
show photographs, they weep and yell. If Cullen hears them, he doesn’t
say; he never does. During his three years in custody, Cullen has never
apologized or made excuses. He has never issued a statement, offered a
public word, never faced the families of his victims. In fact, the only
reason he’s in court today is because he wants to give away one of his
To that end, he has cut a deal with prosecutors,
agreeing to appear at his sentencing on the condition that he be allowed
to donate an organ to the dying relative of a former girlfriend. To many
of the families of his victims, this deal is a personal insult—the man
in shackles still calling the shots, the serial-killer nurse wanting to
control the fate of yet another human life. But for the families of his
New Jersey victims, this is the first and last chance to confront
Charles Cullen. So they are here, and they are angry.
“My only consolation is that you will die a thousand
deaths in the arms of Satan,” yells the daughter of a man Cullen spiked
with insulin. “I hope, with all my heart, that you are someone’s bitch
“You are a pathetic little man,” says the woman whose
mother-in-law Cullen killed with digoxin. “In prison, perhaps someone
will choose to play God with Mr. Cullen, as he has played God with so
“Charles!” cries a round woman in a lime-green
pantsuit. Her body shakes in rage and grief; her hands grip a photograph
of her 38-year-old son, a picture taken before Charles Cullen stopped
his heart. She is screaming. “Charles, why don’t you look up at me, huh?
What are you, asleep?”
In fact, Charles Cullen is very much awake. His
shackled hands, which look from a distance as pale and still as sleeping
doves, twitch slightly in his lap, counting off silent prayers,
Jesus Christ, son of God, have mercy on me, as if on invisible
rosary beads; the expressionless shield of his cheek still tics when
“burn in hell” hits his ear. His eyes open slightly, like a child
pretending to be asleep, Cullen can see only a twilight view of the
table, the cups, the stenographer with her leg crossed over the other,
light shining hard off her shoes.
“The state asks for thirteen life sentences,” says
the assistant prosecutor, and there is a wrinkle on Charles Cullen’s
brow, a flexed cheek enunciating “thir-teen,” then the blankness returns,
and there is again just what Cullen can see in front of him: the wooden
table, the stack of pastel Dixie cups, a black plastic pitcher, and
beyond, lit by her own little spotlight of halogen, the stenographer,
her hands bouncing like puppets. And then Judge Armstrong is asking if
the defendant has anything to say on his own behalf, anything at all
about these horrendous crimes against man and nature, and the
stenographer’s hands stop and wait. Cullen has no comment. With a rap of
the gavel and screeching of chairs, it is over. Charles Cullen is
hustled into a back room with men in riot gear holding automatic weapons,
then he is gone, leaving behind a courtroom full of questions.
As far as the law is concerned, there isn’t much left
for Cullen to say. On December 12, 2003, Cullen was brought in for one
first-degree murder and one attempted murder as a critical-care nurse at
Somerset Medical Center in Somerville. The next day, he shocked
Somerville detectives by confessing to many more murders. Cullen told
detectives that he killed the sick in order to end their suffering, but
at some point, as Cullen spiked bags of IV saline in supply closets and
killed patients who were not terminal, his compassion became compulsion,
and when his personal life became stressful, killing became his outlet.
Exactly how many patients he murdered, we will never
know: His memory of his crimes, he says, “is foggy,” and he drank
heavily to make it foggier. He worked graveyard shifts in intensive-care
units, largely unsupervised in a dark punctuated only by the beeps and
breaths of medical machines. Many of the medical charts are missing or
incomplete; the dead are now dust. His method was to overdose with drugs
so common that sorting Cullen’s private death toll from the general
cadence of hospital mortality is nearly impossible.
Cullen guessed that he had killed 40 people. So far,
investigators have positively identified 29 victims (confirmation of a
30th victim is currently pending). It’s unlikely that the tally will
ever be complete; even Cullen’s lawyer, Johnnie Mask, told prosecutors
they weren’t finished. Some investigators with an intimate knowledge of
the case are convinced that the real number is over 300. By that
reckoning, Charles Cullen would be the biggest serial killer in American
After Cullen was arrested, New Jersey prosecutors
agreed to take the death penalty off the table in exchange for his full
cooperation. Cullen would help identify his dead, then spend the rest of
his life in prison. He was 44 years old.
Months turned to years at the Somerville jail, and
Charles Cullen’s life assumed a regularity he had rarely known as a free
man. He had his cell, his spy novels, time to exercise or shower.
Uniformed men turned the light off and on, governing day from night.
Once a week, he met with his Catholic deacon or the head chaplain, the
Reverend Kathleen Roney, and every so often, he never knew when, the
guards would escort him across the lawn to the prosecutor’s office, to
pull through the case files.
Cullen studied the scrawled medical charts, the
arrhythmic EKGs, the final flatlines, and the blood work afterward—the
primary investigator in the search for his own victims. There were new
charts nearly every week, boxes of them, covering sixteen years of death
at nine hospitals. Winter became spring and winter again, but Cullen
just kept squirreling through the files with a cup of black coffee,
getting thinner, getting it done; eventually, when the investigations
were closed and the shouting echoed out, he could take his life
sentences into a cell and disappear completely.
Then in August 2005, an envelope arrived at the
Somerville jail. By now, Cullen was inured to the interview requests and
the hate mail, even the odd “fan letter.” He never answered any of them,
of course, but this was something new—a story about a man named Ernie
Peckham, clipped with kitchen scissors from a local newspaper on Long
Island. In the margin was a note in a girlish cursive: “Can you help?”
Cullen knew about Ernie—a guy about ten years younger
than Cullen, with four kids and a wife at home and a job shaping metal
in Farmingdale. Ernie was the brother of Cullen’s estranged ex-girlfriend,
who was the mother of Cullen’s youngest child—a little girl he had never
seen. Maybe he and Ernie had said hi once at a wedding years ago; Cullen
couldn’t recall, but they weren’t friends, they weren’t even
acquaintances, they certainly weren’t close enough to share organs. But
an organ is what Ernie Peckham needed.
Doctors don’t know exactly how or when, but at some
point in 2002, Ernie contracted strep. Probably it was just a little
scratch that got infected, the sort of thing that either swells up and
goes away or takes you out for a week with a sore throat that can be
treated with a dose of antibiotics. But Ernie didn’t notice the
infection, and it spread, overloading the microscopic filters in both of
Normally, these filters would have been removing
toxins from Ernie’s blood; now they were like a sink clogged with hair.
Ernie’s body began to bloat with its own poisons, swelling his hands and
face and turning his urine the color of cocoa. By the time he saw a
doctor, his kidneys were dead. Untreated, he’d be next. Doctors could
filter Ernie’s blood three times a week with dialysis, but this was a
stopgap measure; what Ernie really needed was a new kidney.
Unfortunately, so did 60,000 other Americans. As Ernie’s health
deteriorated, the seven-year waiting list for a cadaver donor would
become a death sentence.
His only other option was to receive a kidney from a
living donor (although most everyone has two kidneys, you only need one).
The best way to match kidney with recipient is through a blood relative—but
nobody in Ernie’s family, nor any of his friends, was medically eligible
to donate. His only chance was to find the perfect stranger. But how
many people are willing to donate an organ to someone they don’t know?
Worse, the odds that Peckham would be a perfect six-for-six tissue-typed
match with any one random donor were incalculably small. Ernie Peckham
actually had a better chance of being struck by lightning.
Ernie’s mother, Pat Peckham, contacted the local
paper to run a public-interest item with Ernie’s blood type above the
hospital’s donation-hotline number. No miracle donor called.
Pat was running out of options for saving her son.
And what would it take except a stamp? So, without telling Ernie, she
clipped the article out of the paper, stuck it in an envelope to the
Somerville prison, and waited for her miracle.
The thing about miracles, you can’t really predict
what form they might take. They might come from anyone, even the serial
killer who had knocked up her daughter.
The Reverend Kathleen Roney wears rock-collection-size
birthstone rings on her fingers and Celtic charms around her clerical
collar and paint-on eyebrows that flick like conductor’s batons as she
talks. Roney started ministering to Cullen soon after his arrest. She
figured the meditation techniques of the Desert Fathers would be
appropriate for a man spending life in prison: The “Jesus Prayer” Cullen
recited through his Somerset sentencing came from one of Roney’s
Over the course of nearly three years, Roney had
gotten to know Cullen, but that didn’t mean she understood him. She
didn’t, for instance, understand why Cullen had killed so many people—but
her job wasn’t to comprehend the serial killer, only to minister to the
man. And she couldn’t quite understand why, suddenly, he was so
desperate for her help to donate a kidney; 22 years as a jail chaplain,
and nobody had ever asked for anything like it. “So that night I went to
the jail and questioned him,” she says. “To make sure I wasn’t being
Roney isn’t a big woman, but she’s blessed with the
bullhorn voice and big-girl swagger that jail work requires, and she can
turn it on when she has to. She called for Cullen, who was reading in
his cell, and she asked him: “Why this? Why now? Do you want it for fame,
or to rehabilitate your public image? Do you think you’re making some
deal with God, to save a life to wipe out the lives you took?” Or did he
hope that he might die on the operating table in some sort of passive
“The questions seemed to really hurt his feelings,”
Reverend Roney says. “But that was okay. I needed to know his heart.”
Roney said she’d think about it, and drove through
the dark to pray in front of her icons. Charles had told her he was
serious, that he wanted to see if he was a match. He wanted to donate
because he was asked, and it was good. But should she believe him? The
more she examined the question, the simpler it became. She was a
minister, a Christian, and there was a life at stake, a guy on Long
Island named Ernie. Cullen could never orchestrate a donation alone from
behind bars. He needed her help—they needed her help. How could a
compatibility test be a moral dilemma?
The hospital sent color-coded tubes for Cullen to
bleed into. She would be the blood mule; Stony Brook hospital on Long
Island would test his antigens against Ernie’s. From what she read on
the Internet, a match was an incredible long shot. But at least
everybody could say they tried.
When she asked her friends to pray with her that
weekend, she didn’t tell them what they were praying for or for whom.
“We needed to keep it secret,” she says. “And besides, could you ask
every person to pray for a serial killer?”
Every equinox, Reverend Roney and like-minded Celtic
Christians spend a week at a Druid spiritual retreat in Pennsylvania.
It’s a profound time for her, a time of dancing around bonfires and
meditating before icons and spirit-voyaging through unbounded acres of
blond American farmland. Every morning, she’d walk the hard earth
between the corn stubble, reciting her prayers, feeling the ancient
wisdom, looking for a sign. It was then that she felt the vibration.
That was her cell phone—they encourage silence at
these things, so she had it on vibrate—and right away, she knew what had
happened. And her prayer group knew, too. In fact, the whole spiritual
retreat knew what had happened; they just felt it and started to cry,
because they knew. And she thought, This is it, it’s meant to be.
She’s crying now, retelling the story over an iced
tea, ruining her mascara, remembering how Cullen was a perfect six-for-six
antigen match, a match like winning the Publisher’s Clearing House
sweepstakes, and she wipes the tears away with a Starbucks napkin.
“Honestly, we thought it was a miracle,” she says. There would be more
tests, X-rays, cat scans, tests with machines you couldn’t send to the
jail by mail. But these were trivial compared with this spotlight in the
darkness, a sign of God’s larger plan.
In that halcyon moment, Reverend Roney couldn’t
imagine the lost friendships of her fellow Christians; she thought it
was as easy as helping Charles donate to save a dying man. It was
September; if she acted fast, the kidney would be like an early
When Roney called Pat Peckham, Pat didn’t believe her.
“Are you sure?” she asked. It was so improbable, it was so—then Pat
started to scream. “Then I’m screaming, then she’s crying, then I’m
crying,” Roney remembers.
Roney would have loved to have seen the look on Ernie
Peckham’s face when Pat told him the news. But Pat wasn’t going to tell
her son, not for a while, and she certainly wouldn’t tell him the name
of the donor. As sick as Ernie was, Pat was sure Ernie wouldn’t accept a
kidney if he learned it came from Charles Cullen.
The Somerset County jail is a redbrick building
conveniently catty-corner to the Somerville courthouse. On the other
side of the metal detector is a wall of two-way mirrored plate glass
backlit by video surveillance. Beyond that is the nine-by-five-foot cell
where Charles Cullen had spent the past two and a half years of his life.
The sergeant buzzes me through a series of doors into
a hallway partitioned into stainless-steel booths. Guards escort Charles
Cullen onto the opposite stool. We nod mutely to each other across the
bulletproof divide, and take a phone.
“Hello?” I say. “Can you hear me?”
“Yeah,” he says. “I can make you out.” His voice is
flat and quiet. I press the plastic phone hard to my ear, and Cullen
notices. “Did you get in all right?” he says, louder.
“It took two hours,” I say.
Cullen glances up, reading my expression before
retreating to the corners of the glass. “That happens,” he says. He nods
once. “It changes in here, week to week.”
In pictures taken soon after his arrest, Cullen looks
a little like Kevin Costner or a hollowed-out George Clooney—perhaps a
bit colder, yet still a handsome guy with a bad haircut. But now, in the
mercury vapor lights of the Somerset jail visiting room, Cullen looks
chapped and anemic. Never an eater, he has become skeletal in jail. His
face seems to hang from his cheekbones like a wet sail. A crucifix
dangles from a chain over his collarbone, mixing with the sprigs of
graying chest hairs where his shaven neck meets his prison togs—essentially
mustard-yellow versions of hospital scrubs, insulated with a layer of
white flannel underwear. His eyes dart and flash like a man holding his
breath, waiting to talk.
He tells me about the afternoon when Reverend Roney
came to his cell, excited to tell him that he was an “excellent match”
for Ernie Peckham. Cullen was happy, but his years in jail had taught
him that nothing would ever be simple. “The match means the donation
will happen—it’s meant to happen,” Roney told him. “Yeah,” Cullen
responded. “Well, I hope the courts think that.”
Cullen knew that if word ever got out that he was
trying to donate a kidney, the whole thing would probably be over right
there. He needed to keep it secret; nobody could know. “I mean, it’s not
like I’d want the publicity,” Cullen says. “But mostly I thought that if
it got out, it would be bad for the donation. The way people think of
me, they would think I was trying to do something. But someone leaked it—I
think it was the D.A., but I don’t really know. And now … ” he rolls his
eyes. The press was having a field day.
“I know people see me as trying to control things;
they think I’m trying to get something out of it. But the idea that I
was trading my appearance at sentencing for the donation are out-and-out
lies,” he says. “I was told by my lawyer, Mr. Mask, that I didn’t have
to appear.” He shakes his head, and almost smiles. “I mean, you know,
who would want to go? All those people that you—but the donation was
important. The detectives suggested that I offer to go, to speed the
donation along. They said I needed to give them something. But that’s
not me holding a gun to the prosecution. It’s the other way around!
“I grant that I certainly have done some very bad
things—I’ve taken lives,” he says quickly. “But does that prevent me
from doing something positive?” Cullen folds a pale arm tightly across
his chest and studies the counter. “That’s the funny thing,” he says.
“People think you’re crazy for doing something for someone else if you
don’t know them personally.”
The New Jersey office of the Public Defender is two
stories of red brick with handicapped spaces and shrub landscaping and
300-pound women in nightgown-size Tweety Bird T-shirts smoking menthols
by the double glass doors. In the offices upstairs, there are families
in sweatpants waiting under fluorescent lights and a hole in the
Plexiglas where you can announce yourself by sticking your mouth in and
Johnnie Mask’s office is in the back. The deputy
public defender looks something like an Old Testament James Earl Jones—a
big man with broad leonine features and a gray Ishmael beard gone grayer
over three years defending the biggest serial killer in New Jersey
It was a nice idea, giving a kidney, but Mask wasn’t
in it for the karma. “My motives were purely selfish,” Mask says.
“Charlie was absolutely intent on making this donation happen. I was
worried that if he didn’t get his way, he’d mess up my case, and all my
hard work would go down the drain. More work for me, more expenses for
the state—there was no way I was going to let that happen.”
But right from the beginning, Mask saw signs that
this thing might not go through. “Judge Armstrong signed the order for
the blood test, but I don’t think anybody really expected he’d actually
be a match for Ernie,” Mask says. “When he was, and it got into the
papers, suddenly there are all these problems. The judge and the
prosecutor and the victims’ families got up in arms about Cullen going
into a hospital again—they figured he’d kill somebody, or probably
himself. Then everyone would be cheated out of their ability to yell and
scream at him.”
Mask was told that the donation was possible only
after Cullen was sentenced. That was supposed to happen by December
2005, but a month later, two counties still hadn’t even finished their
investigations. “That’s why on January 10, Charlie stopped cooperating
with the prosecution, saying ‘Sentence me now.’ ” By breaking his plea
agreement, Cullen seemed to be risking the death penalty for the
donation, but really it was a tactical move by Mask. “It forced their
hand. We realized that by the time they finished, Ernie might be dead.”
(As of this printing, investigations in Essex and Morris counties are
They were months behind schedule, but, in theory,
Cullen was about to be transported to Stony Brook Medical Center and
donate his kidney side by side with Peckham. “But when [Attorney General
Peter] Harvey wanted Cullen to cooperate, he was saying, you know,
‘We’ll work out the details later, but it will happen,’ ” Mask recalls.
“We were counting on those promises, but he just wanted to wrap up the
case before he took on his new job in the private sector.”
A few weeks later, weeks when Ernie Peckham’s
condition continued to deteriorate, Mask walked by the desk of Vaughn
McCoy, who was then the director of New Jersey’s Division of Criminal
Justice. “I asked him what the status was. He pulled up some e-mails and
said, ‘Well, apparently Stony Brook doesn’t want Mr. Cullen in their
hospital.’ I tried to lean over and read it off his monitor, but he sort
of blocked me.” Mask smiles joylessly. “Said it was confidential.”
By now it was February. “So what can you do? Then the
old A.G. leaves, and the new attorney general’s office tells us Cullen
can’t travel to New York anyway—it’s not legally feasible!” Mask shakes
his head at what’s become an old joke.
“I don’t know what’s true now. We thought it would
happen in January. Stony Brook keeps giving us new dates—they’re saying
April now; before, it was March. And Charlie’s getting more aggravated
every day. I think [allowing the] donation was always just a big
dangling carrot to get Charlie to jump.” It was the only reason Cullen
agreed to appear at the sentencing in New Jersey. Mask was still working
toward the donation, but he’d bet Roney a dinner it would never happen.
It was a good bet, especially considering what was
about to happen at Cullen’s next court appearance.
The New Jersey courts were done with Charles Cullen,
but Pennsylvania still had unfinished business, and so as Ernie
Peckham’s condition worsened even more, Cullen was transported west to
stand trial for the six murders and three attempted murders he committed
in Lehigh County, while working at the hospitals surrounding Allentown.
Allentown is a poor steel town living in the ruins of
a rich one, and the downtown is a grand, ceremonial public space of
imported stone and soaring columns and busted crazies rooting for cans,
joined now by a small parade of families in dark, formal clothes with
little blue stickers from OfficeMax gummed to their lapels to show
they’re families of the victims of the Angel of Death.
In a legal sense, sentencing Cullen for his
Pennsylvania crimes is perfunctory—he won’t be finished serving his New
Jersey sentence until the year 2347—but for the families of patients
Cullen killed here, today’s sentencing is their only chance to confront
the Angel of Death with their memories and their anger. It’s also an
opportunity for Cullen, a final shot at showing the world that he is, as
he claims, a killer with compassion. A public demonstration of that
compassion would go a long way toward saving Ernie Peckham’s life. In
Pennsylvania, Cullen could do what he hadn’t done in New Jersey.
Just like the victims’ families at Cullen’s New
Jersey trial, the families who fill the Allentown jury box have brought
poems and speeches and photographs of the dead and are prepared to
exercise their right to confront the killer. But this time, Cullen rises
to speak—reciting, from memory, statements Cullen believes have been
hostile to him that the judge has made to the press.
“And for this reason, your honor,” Cullen says, “you
need to step down.”
Judge William Platt is not amused. “Your motion to
recuse is denied,” he says.
“No, no, your honor,” Cullen insists. “You need—you
need to step down. Your honor, you need to step down.”
“If you continue this, I will gag and manacle you,”
the judge warns.
Cullen shouts over him. “Your honor, you need to step
down!” he says. “Your honor, you need to step down! Your honor…”
The high marble walls make this court a beautiful
room but a terrible courtroom, amplifying and distorting all sound.
Cullen fills this room. The families wait as Cullen gets to speed-shouting
his statement ten times, 30, 40. He’s not going to stop, and now the
court officers are on him.
They pull a spit mask over his head—a mesh veil that
keeps a prisoner from hawking loogies on his captors—but the noise
continues. They wrap the spit mask with a towel and screw it behind his
head and now Cullen sounds like a man screaming into a pillow. The
families of the victims try to read. “You are a total waste of a human
body.” “You are the worst kind of monster, a son of the devil.” But soon
the sergeant’s hands begin to cramp, and chorus by chorus, Cullen’s
voice gets clearer. Judge Platt nods, and the sergeant produces a roll
of duct tape the size of a dinner plate, and tapes a big cartoonish
X over Cullen’s lips, which does nothing. And so the victims read
their personal statements, and Cullen screams his, like a nightmarish
version of “Row, Row, Row Your Boat.”
“If my grandmother was alive right now, she’s say to
you, ‘I hope you rot in hell, you sick son of a bitch.’”
“Your honor, you must step down. Your honor, you must
“Six more life sentences, served concurrently with
those already handed down.”
“Must step down. Your honor, you must…”
And with a final “Such that you will remain in prison
for the rest of your natural life,” the court officers frog-march Cullen—bound,
gagged, duct-taped—into a waiting elevator. He is still chanting when
the doors close. The silence that follows is terrible, too.
Afterward, the families huddle in the hallway, shaken
and unsatisfied. “I think he intentionally meant disrespect to everyone
in that courtroom,” says Julie Sanders, a friend of one of Cullen’s
victims. Sanders stabs her finger toward the hole in the air where
Cullen had been. “He says he is a compassionate man, that he wants to
donate a kidney to save someone’s life. I needed to say something to him:
Where’s the compassion now? Does he know what he’s done to our lives?”
Now what Mask and Roney had wasn’t a legal problem—they
had a court order authorizing the donation from Judge Armstrong—it was
bigger. “Basically, there’s not a lot of goodwill toward Charlie Cullen
among the citizens of New Jersey,” Mask says. “Nobody wants to seem to
be kowtowing to a serial killer’s requests. Some of the families see his
donation request as a slap in the face. It’s like he’s asking them for a
After the scene at Allentown, Cullen’s kidney was
simply too hot to handle. Roney would call the D.A.’s office, which told
her to call the New Jersey Department of Corrections, who’d tell her to
call the hospital. Months passed with no answers, no schedule, no
deadline. If the donation was going to proceed, there were state and
private institutions to coordinate, insurances to interface. The
Corrections Department would need to guard Cullen in the hospital,
against escape and vigilantes and, because he had already attempted
suicide multiple times, Cullen himself. The only ones with real
deadlines were Cullen and Ernie. Cullen’s donor test was valid for only
a year; Ernie might not even survive that long.
And then there was the kidney, which would need to
travel 125 miles from Cullen’s hospital in New Jersey to Peckham’s
hospital on Long Island fast enough to keep it viable. Depending on
traffic, that could be a bitch of a drive. A construction snarl or a
fender bender or even a Hamptons rush hour could imperil Ernie’s life,
but who was going to pay for a helicopter?
Ironing out the details would require a lot of hard,
unpaid work by a great number of people, but at this point, Cullen was
the last guy anyone wanted to do a favor for. That’s how they saw it, a
favor to Cullen, not a way to save another man’s life. “It’s his choice,
he’s a grown man, but realistically, the stuff he does in front of the
victims’ families isn’t winning him any points either,” Mask says.
“And Charlie doesn’t really feel bad about any of
this. He’s concerned how it affects his kids, but he doesn’t feel bad.
And Charlie’s not the kind of guy to fake it,” says Mask. “It makes some
people feel like he’s getting away with something.” Prison was supposed
to take away his options. And yet there he was, still making demands.
After Allentown, his final sentencing, Cullen was
shackled in the back of a windowless van. He was met at the Trenton
prison by guards in riot gear. They strip-searched him, gave him prison
clothes, and led him to the psych ward, where they took the clothes away
and strip-searched him for a second time. He was handed a disposable
gown like medical patients wear, but it was made from the stuff they
wrap around new TV sets, and he was put into a padded room for a 72-hour
observation period. The gown shredded after the first day. He tried not
to listen to the “time for your insulin” comments from the guards,
focusing instead on Psalm 25: “My enemies are many, they hate me.
Deliver me, let me not be ashamed.” Then he was given clothes again and
moved into DD Block, where he was to serve his now eighteen life
sentences, and where I visit him again.
From the Trenton River Line train, the prison appears
as a block of brick and razor wire across the highway from a McDonald’s.
Another minute’s walk past the front gate gets you to a security
check-in with a metal detector and a uniformed guard. After a pat-down,
you’re buzzed through three bolted steel doors and into a guarded
hallway partitioned into steel booths. I find Cullen waiting in the
third one, waving a little hello. We nod mutely across the bulletproof
divide, and plug in our phones. There is static, then breath.
Cullen and I had been communicating through letters
for nearly a year, and I had learned a lot about the man—his accidental
entry into nursing school and his first job scrubbing dead skin from
burn victims, the depressions and suicide attempts and marital problems,
his drinking and his hospitals and his sixteen-year murder spree. But
even knowing the facts, I was still unable to fully connect the mild man
across the glass with the serial killer and his monstrous crimes.
I tell him that some of the families of his victims
are against the kidney donation, that they see it as special treatment
for a serial killer, and nothing more. “I’m trying to get something? I’m
in prison, I can’t control—there’s nothing to bargain for—no island off
the coast of New Jersey that they send you to torture you, no Guantánamo
Bay. All I can do is sit in a cell. And I know that New Jersey doesn’t
make license plates anymore, so what would the families rather I did,
just sit and watch TV?”
Cullen is indignant at a system that he said was
willing to sacrifice an Ernie Peckham to punish a Charles Cullen. Saving
a relative stranger’s life is undoubtedly heroic—would you give
up a kidney?
Of course, heroic compassion is easier to talk about
than mass murder. I can admire Cullen for the one and hate him for the
other, but I have no idea how to connect the two—they seemed to be the
actions of two very different men. And so I ask him: Is it any wonder
people question your motives? You’re in prison for having taken dozens
of lives, and yet now you’re fighting to save one. It seems …
Cullen is only a foot away, on the other side of the
glass, but I cannot decipher his expression. Then he glances to the side
of the glass, as if reading there, and slowly begins to speak.
“If you’re asking if I knew what I was doing was
wrong,” he says, “I saw that I was stopping pain, removing pain. I saw
it as shortening the duration of the pain, ending pain. Sometimes the
pain was patients who were suffering and terminal; sometimes it was the
pain of families being ripped apart; sometimes it was the lives of
patients that would only be tied up in an endless series of procedures
and complications and pain.
“But if you’re asking—well, I knew that it was
illegal,” Cullen says. “And that it wasn’t my choice to make. But it’s
how I thought about it. I felt compelled to do what I did. I didn’t see
it as bad. I did know it was illegal.”
Cullen is looking at the table but not looking at it.
I don’t know what he sees. “But, if you’re asking, when I was asked to
donate a kidney, I felt that I did what I would normally do, in any
circumstance. To be helpful. It was something that I could do. It was
something that was needed. I was asked to do it, and it’s possible. And
I felt compelled to, because I could do it and I was asked to.”
I don’t know what I expected from his answer.
Ultimately, the only answer to the question of “why” is, simply, “because.”
Cullen did what he felt he needed to, or wanted to, or could; at some
point, they had become the same thing. In such a tyranny, bad and good
don’t figure. It’s a simple answer, but it’s the only one that makes
Cullen fixes me with a look, then takes his glance
away, as if to study my response in private. “I know a lot of people
find it surprising that someone like me would want to do this, donate.
But for me, it’s totally consistent. For me, as a nurse, it’s what I
would do, what I would have always done. It’s who I am. But if you need
to wonder why I should, or why someone like me would, well, it really
depends on how you think of people. And what you think people are
As it happens, it was a Tuesday when the waiting
ended. They came for Cullen in the night, guards with keys and handcuffs.
He was going to the prison’s medical center at St. Francis hospital. If
they knew why, they wouldn’t say. They gave him the paper gown again,
drew his blood, cuffed him to the bed. The television in the corner was
always on, local news, Oprah. A day passed, and he thought, Here we go
again. He had only fourteen more days before his donor tests expired,
but this wasn’t the donation. It was something else.
The guards came again in the morning. They were
taking him downstairs; they didn’t say why. He was instructed to respond
only to direct questions. He was told that Charles Cullen was not his
name. His name was now Jonny Quest. The doctor called him Mr. Quest. It
was a security measure, but also someone’s idea of a joke. Cullen
thought it was funny. “It could have been worse,” he said later. “Saddam
Hussein or something.”
They gave him something to relax him, Valium, he
thinks; they wouldn’t say. It made him woozy. They gave him forms to
sign. He held the pen, unsure of which name to use. “Use the one you’re
supposed to,” the doctor said. He’d watched the cartoons as a kid, he
remembered the handsome blond boy and his adventures, a helpful boy with
skills, full of potential. He signed the paper “Jonny Quest.” It wasn’t
legally binding, of course, so they gave him another form that he was to
sign “Charles Cullen, a.k.a. Jonny Quest.” The nurse looked away when he
did this. It was supposed to be a secret. Then they gave him another
shot, and now he was feeling kinda gone.
An hour later, Jonny Quest’s kidney was tucked into a
cooler and readied for its journey. It would have been crazy to risk
traffic, so it likely flew via a Life Star helicopter, northeast from
Trenton, keeping Manhattan on its left, banking up Long Island. That day
the traffic far below was heavy with Hamptons weekenders, a line of
lights leading past the massive Stony Brook medical complex, lit on the
dark hillside like Bilbao under construction.
I parked in the C lot. On weekend nights, hospitals
are usually busy only after the bars close and usually only in the
emergency room. At 8 p.m., the main lobby was as quiet as a dead
department store. A guard read yesterday’s newspaper again; the gift
shop was just Mylar balloons in darkness. Surgery is on the fourth floor,
with the burn unit and radiology. The kidney took the back elevator; I
took the front.
In the surgical waiting room, the TV is always on,
approximating normality for the families camped there, the children and
their mothers holding each other, the men clutching Dunkin’ Donuts cups.
This TV played the movie Freaky Friday, two people switching bodies and
identities and, it being Hollywood and Disney at that, coming closer
together as a result. But that was just a movie. For transplants, parts
are parts. You take what you can get to survive.
And so, while Jamie Lee Curtis and Lindsay Lohan had
their first mother-daughter argument about whose life was more difficult,
Ernie Peckham lay face up on a table, anesthetized and encircled by
masked strangers in disposable blue clothes. Some traced a curved
incision through the fat of his abdomen, others parted the draped
muscles of his belly wall with cool steel clamps. Johnny Quest’s kidney
was about the size of a surgeon’s hand, a quivering bean shape mottled
in yellowish fat that nested neatly into the half-shell of Peckham’s
pelvis. A stump of renal artery, pruned only hours before from its
owner’s aortal stalk, was patched into Ernie’s blood supply with 5-0
suture wire; vein was stitched to vein. And later, as Jamie Lee and
Lindsay, back in their own bodies again, smiled knowingly at each other
across a climactic concert scene, a surgical clamp was removed from an
external iliac artery, and Jonny Quest’s kidney swelled pink with
oxygenated blood, alive again—Ernie Peckham’s kidney now.
Underneath the xenon lamps, this medical miracle
didn’t look like much more than cauterized gristle in a blue paper hole.
It showed nothing of the millions of tiny tubules stacked inside its
medulla, or the arterial branches, as infinite as crystals in frost,
that would filter his blood as a brain filters choices, sorting bad from
good as well as humanly possible.