Charles Cullen: The Truth About a Killer Nurse

Last week, we met Kristen Gilbert, a nurse at a Massachusetts V.A. hospital who killed four patients, perhaps more. This week, we examine the case of Charles Cullen, another nurse with a penchant for homicide. Cullen confessed to killing up to 40 patients in New Jersey and Pennsylvania, but the number could be much, much higher. Authorities have confirmed 29 deaths he’s responsible for.

Charles Cullen

Charles Cullen was born February 22, 1960, the youngest of eight children, in West Orange, New Jersey. His father, a bus driver, died when Charles was only seven months old. His mother died in a car accident in December 1977 when Charles was a senior in high school. He was upset with the hospital for not immediately telling him of her death and not returning her body to him. This capped a childhood that Charles himself described as “miserable,” during which he made several suicide attempts.

Charles Edmund Cullen
Charles Edmund Cullen

Cullen dropped out of high school and joined the US Navy. He passed the rigorous psychological examinations required for submarine crews and served on the submarine USS Woodrow Wilson. Although he rose to the rank of petty officer, second class, Cullen never fit in well with the rest of the crew. The Navy reassigned him to the supply ship USS Canopus, a lower-stress job. After a suicide attempt, the Navy sent him to a naval psychiatric hospital. Ultimately, Cullen received a medical discharge.

A New Career for Charles Cullen

Now out of the navy, Cullen enrolled in the Mountainside Hospital School of Nursing in Montclair, New Jersey. Apparently, this was a better fit for his class elected him its president. He graduated in 1986 and went to work in the burn unit at St. Barnabas Medical Center in Livingston, New Jersey.

St. Barnabas Medical Center, Livingston, New Jersey
St. Barnabas Medical Center, Livingston, New Jersey

During this time, Cullen met and married Adrianne Baum and they had a daughter, Shauna. All was not well, however, because Adrienne became increasingly concerned about his disturbed behavior and abuse of the family dogs.

Cullen’s time at St. Barnabas was not smooth sailing, either. He later confessed to committing his first murder there on June 11, 1988 by administering an overdose of intravenous medication. After the hospital began investigating contaminated IV bags, he left St. Barnabas. The investigation concluded that Cullen was most likely responsible for the contaminated bags.

One month after he left St. Barnabas, Cullen hired on as a nurse at Warren Hospital in Phillipsburg, New Jersey. There he murdered three elderly women patients with an overdose of digoxin, a heart medication. Before she died, the last victim reported that a “sneaky male nurse” had injected her as she slept. Unfortunately, her family and the hospital dismissed her claims as unfounded. Nineteen-ninety-three was also the year Cullen and his wife split after a contentious divorce.

Cullen’s Bizarre Behavior

In March 1993, Cullen broke into a coworker’s home while she and her young boy were asleep. He didn’t wake them, but this was the beginning of him stalking women. Before long, some of the stalking victims reported Cullen to police. He pleaded guilty to trespassing and received a year of probation. The next day, he attempted suicide again. He took two months off and received treatment for depression, but he attempted suicide two more times that year.

Suicidal or not, the killing didn’t stop. A 91-year-old cancer patient reported that Cullen, who wasn’t her assigned nurse, came into her room and gave her an injection. She died the next day, and her son insisted her death was not natural. The hospital polygraphed Cullen and several other nurses but they all passed, and the investigation went nowhere.

St. Luke's Medical Center, Bethlehem, Pennsylvania
St. Luke’s Medical Center, Bethlehem, Pennsylvania

Despite Cullen’s mental instability and the suspicious number of deaths that seemed to follow him, he was always able to find work. At the time, there was a critical shortage of nurses nationwide. Also, hospitals feared liability if they took action against him. So, Charles Cullen was able to keep on working—and killing. His resume included Hunterdon Medical Center in Flemington, New Jersey; Morristown Memorial Medical Center; Liberty Nursing and Rehabilitation Center in Allentown, Pennsylvania; Eason Hospital in Easton, Pennsylvania; Lehigh Valley Hospital in Allentown; St. Luke’s Medical Center in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania; and Somerset Medical Center in Somerville, New Jersey.

Cullen’s Killing Spree Comes to an End

In October 2003, a patient at Somerset died of low blood sugar. The hospital alerted the New Jersey State Police. That patient was Cullen’s final victim. Somerset fired him on October 31, 2003, ostensibly for lying on his job application.

Somerset Medical Center, Somerville, New Jersey (Wikipedia/Ekem)
Somerset Medical Center, Somerville, New Jersey (Wikipedia/Ekem)

One of Cullen’s coworkers, nurse Amy Loughren, became concerned about the drugs he accessed and links to his patients’ deaths. She contacted police. Authorities convinced her to wear a wire and visit him after hours. Those conversations produced enough evidence for an arrest. On December 12, 2003, police arrested Cullen at a restaurant. Charged with one murder and one attempted murder, he soon confessed to killing as many as 40 patients over his 16-year career as a nurse.

Nurse Amy Loughren helped gather evidence against Cullen
Nurse Amy Loughren helped gather evidence against Cullen

In April 2006, Charles Cullen pleaded guilty before Judge Paul W. Armstrong to killing 13 patients while employed at Somerset. He also pleaded guilty to attempting to kill two others. As part of the plea deal, authorities would not seek the death penalty if Cullen cooperated in their investigations. In May, he pleaded guilty to killing three more patients in New Jersey. Then in November 2004, he pleaded guilty to six murders and three attempted murders in Pennsylvania. In the latter hearing, he kept heckling the judge, which resulted in the court ordering him gagged and restrained.

Charles Cullen in court
Charles Cullen in court

On March 2, 2006, Judge Armstrong sentenced Cullen to eleven consecutive life sentences. On March 10, Lehigh County President Judge William H. Platt sentenced handed down six additional life sentences.

Epilogue

As of April 2022, Charles Cullen spends his time at the New Jersey State Prison in Trenton. He will be theoretically eligible for parole on June 10, 2388. Practically speaking, he will die in prison.

The New Jersey State Prison at Second and Federal Streets, Trenton
The New Jersey State Prison at Second and Federal Streets, Trenton

You can read more about the twisted career of Charles Cullen in The Angel of Death by Roger Harrington.

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