From last week’s “Death House Landlady” in California, Dorothea Puente, this week’s case is across the continent in Massachusetts. In the early 1990s, registered nurse Kristen Gilbert murdered at least four patients at a Veterans Administration hospital. Authorities suspect there were many more.
Kirsten Gilbert was born Kristen Heather Strickland in Fall River, Massachusetts (home of the infamous Lizzie Borden). Her home life growing up was remarkable only for its normalcy; her dad worked, and her mother was a homemaker. Although Kristen was a gifted student, she had a darker side. Friends said she could be manipulative and tended to lie a lot.
As a student at Bridgewater State College (now Bridgewater State University) in 1984, Kristen suffered several psychiatric episodes. In these episodes, she made violent threats against herself and others. College officials ordered her into psychiatric treatment. After that, she transferred to Mount Wachusett Community College, graduating from there with a nursing diploma in 1988. She became a registered nurse and, later in 1988, married Glenn Gilbert.
Kristen Gilbert at the V.A. Hospital
In 1989, the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Northampton, Massachusetts hired Kristen as a nurse. Other nurses noticed a high number of deaths when Kristen worked but failed to conclude there was anything was improper. Instead, they jokingly called her “The Angel of Death” which, in hindsight, seems insensitive and inappropriate.
The hospital assigned Kristen to the night shift. It was then that she began an extramarital affair with James Perrault. Perrault was a Gulf War veteran and a security guard at the hospital. As the affair flourished, her marriage to Glenn Gilbert collapsed. Several incidents occurred where it seemed, to Glenn anyway, that Kristen was trying to poison him.
Meanwhile, Kristen continued to be at the center of a statistically unlikely number of deaths at the hospital. By February 1996, the apparent coincidences became too much for some nurses. They reported concerns about an increasing number of cardiac deaths at the hospital and a corresponding decrease in the supply of epinephrine. An investigation followed.
Trouble Brewing for Kristen Gilbert
Kristen left the V.A. hospital in 1996. That fall, she checked herself into psychiatric hospitals seven times, staying a few days each time. During one of those stays, she allegedly confessed some of her murders to Perrault. After her release from the psychiatric hospital, she learned Perrault was cooperating with authorities. Bizarrely, she called in a bomb threat to the hospital hoping to derail the investigation.
In January 1998, Kristen found herself on trial for calling in the bomb threat to VAMC Northampton. She was convicted in April of that year and served fifteen months in prison.
Kristen Gilbert on Trial for Murder
Kristen Gilbert went on trial in November 2000 for the murders of four patients and the attempted murder of two others. Prosecutors speculated she killed the patients so she could impress her then-boyfriend, Perrault, with her nursing skills. Other staff observed both engaging in inappropriate behavior during some of the emergencies. Perrault testified against Kristen, telling the jury about her telephoned confessions during one of her hospital stays.
In March 2001, the jury returned six guilty verdicts: three for first-degree murder, one for second-degree murder, and two for attempted murder. Now they would have to decide Kristen’s fate. Although Massachusetts abolished the death penalty in 1984, Kristen’s crimes occurred on federal property. This meant the jury could sentence her to death under federal law. Death by lethal injection would have been ironic since Kristen killed her victims by injecting them with epinephrin, causing fatal heart attacks.
After deliberating for two days, the jury could not unanimously agree on the death penalty. A judge later sentenced her to four consecutive terms of life imprisonment with no chance for parole, plus twenty years. The family of victim Henry Hudon had hoped for the death penalty. Nancy Cutting, widow of victim Kenneth Cutting was content to see her “sit in jail.”
Kristen Gilbert’s known victims were veterans Stanley Jagodowski, 66; Henry Hudon, 35; Kenneth Cutting, 41; and Edward Skwira, 69.
Kristen dropped her appeal for a new trial after learning that prosecutors could seek the death penalty in a retrial. She currently (2022) resides in the Federal Medical Center Carswell in Fort Worth, Texas.
You can read more about Kristen Gilbert’s case in Perfect Poison by M. William Phelps.
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