The story of serial killer Charles Cullen is not so disturbing for the number of people he killed or for the ways in which he murdered them, but because he was their nurse, and supposedly charged with their care and wellbeing!
Cullen was born on Feb. 22, 1960. By the time he was 18 years old, he was parentless – his father, Edmond, died before Cullen could even walk or talk, and his mother, Florence, died tragically in a car accident when he was a senior in high school, according to The New York Times. Following the death of his mother, Cullen enlisted in the Navy and served on the Woodrow Wilson submarine, but his time in the military was cut short. After relentless hazing and bullying from his shipmates, Cullen attempted suicide and was medically discharged in March of 1984.
All of these tragic events planted the seeds for the vindictive killer he would become.
Soon after leaving the Navy, Cullen graduated from Mountainside Hospital School of Nursing in 1987. He then landed a job at St. Barnabas Medical Center in Livingston, NJ, where his criminal career as an “angel of death” would begin.
Throughout his time as a nurse, Cullen served nine years at several different hospitals, most likely killing patients in all of them, but because of the way he picked his victims and the methods he used to murder them, the deaths rarely raised suspicion and were presumed to be natural causes.
Authorities know for sure that his killing spree began at Warren Hospital in Phillipsburg, NJ, his first job after being fired from St. Barnabas. At Warren, he worked in the cardiac and intensive care units, which often hold patients who are either severely ill or nearing the end of their life.
During his shifts, particularly the night shifts, which he requested because they are less supervised, Cullen would scope out elderly patients and administer lethal doses of digoxin, a medication used to treat heart conditions like atrial fibrillation and heart failure.
It is believed he claimed the lives of at least three patients at Warren, though no formal investigation was ever conducted.
That kind of a lack of accountability from the hospital administrations, as well as a lenient hiring process that merely required employment dates and a job title rather than concrete references, were key factors that allowed Cullen to carry out his murders over the span of 16 years. In addition, many of Cullen’s victims were elderly or critically ill in some way, which led to little speculation and hardly any investigations into their deaths.
How Was Cullen Finally Stopped
Cullen’s killings would have likely continued, had he not been tripped up by new technology.
In 2002, after being fired from various hospitals for “violating medical protocols,” he landed at Somerset Medical Center in Somerville, NJ. The hospital had recently implemented an electronic medical record-keeping program called “Cerner.”
Cerner tracked everything for a patient, whether it was when medication was administered or when a nurse peeked into their chart. It was through Cerner and a fellow nurse at Somerset named Amy Loughren, that an investigation into Cullen’s suspicious behavior was finally launched.
According to an excerpt from “The Good Nurse,” Loughren noticed that Cullen was ordering an abnormally large amount of medications, digoxin being one of them. When looking into the Center’s database of patients, Loughren was not only able to see Cullen’s drug orders, but she could also see his browsing history, which painted a shocking picture of his connection to at least four cases of medication errors during his short time at the Center.
The database showed that Cullen would “research” patients of other nurses he was not assigned to hours before the patient would experience some kind of medical episode.
But what finally put an end to Cullen’s killing spree was the death at Somerset of Reverend Florian Gall, who was hospitalized for a case of pneumonia. On June 28, 2003, Gall went into cardiac arrest and died of heart failure. Just hours before his death, Cullen was viewing his chart despite Gall not being his patient, and post-mortem lab tests showed that Gall had toxic digoxin levels in his system. Following an internal investigation from Somerset and information relayed to detectives from Loughren, Cullen’s operation of death was over for good!
Where Is Charles Cullen Now?
At the time of his arrest, Cullen told detectives that he had poisoned 12 to 15 people at Somerset and at least 20 or more at his many other hospital gigs. By the time of his sentencing in March of 2006, Cullen revealed that the number of his murder victims was actually closer to 40!
If it brings any solace to the souls of his victims and their few if any surviving relatives, Cullen will never see a day outside of prison walls. He was sentenced to 11 consecutive life sentences without the possibility of parole. He is currently serving his sentence at the New Jersey State Prison in Trenton.
Netflix’s latest true crime docuseries, “The Good Nurse,” is based on the actions of one of the most heinous actual serial killers the network has presented to date, check it out if you get a chance.