Della Sorensen: Odd Killer Poisons Eight People

Last week’s case was the tragic murder of Pegye Bechler by her husband, Eric. This week, we look at a truly bizarre case from the heartland. In Nebraska in 1925, Della Sorensen confessed to poisoning eight family members.

Della Sorensen

Della Sorensen (sometimes spelled “Sorenson”) lived in the small town of Dannebrog, Nebraska, about ten miles from Grand Island in the center of the state. Some consider Dannebrog the “Danish Capital of Nebraska” and it’s usually a peaceful place. But “peaceful” isn’t a word you would use to describe Della Sorensen. In 1918, when Della was 21, she began poisoning members of her own family. Before the murders ended in 1923, she had killed eight relatives.

Della Sorensen
Della Sorensen

The first victim was one-year-old Viola Cooper, Della’s niece. She poisoned the little girl as payback to the child’s mother, her sister-in-law, for “gossiping” about her.

The Sorensen house in Dannebrog, Nebraska (Lincoln State Journal, April 22, 1925)
The Sorensen house in Dannebrog, Nebraska (Lincoln State Journal, April 22, 1925)

A couple of years after she killed little Viola, in 1920, Della and her husband, Joseph Weldam, had an argument. Apparently, this quarrel bothered Della because she killed him shortly thereafter. Not long after that, she killed her mother-in-law, Wilhelmina. In her confession, Della pulled no punches. “[S]he was feeble and childish and a burden. I wanted to get her out of the way.” (There is some confusion about Wilhelmina’s death. Some sources report her dying in 1918, before Joseph. But Della confessed to killing her.)

Della Sorensen Shows No Remorse

With three murders under her belt, Della kept on killing. Her victims included two (maybe three) of her own children; Clifford Cooper, the four-month-old brother of Viola Cooper; Ruth Brock, the daughter of a relative; and another unnamed child.

A newspaper montage of victims (Lincoln State Journal, April 21, 1925)
A newspaper montage of victims (Lincoln State Journal, April 21, 1925)

Despite dealing death to her family, many of the victims being children, Della showed no sense of guilt or remorse. She addressed the subject in her confession when talking about her eight-year-old-daughter Minnie, who she poisoned in 1921. “After the death of my little daughter, Minnie, I had a feeling of elation and happiness.” She continued in the same vein. “Then, after I got to thinking about what I had done, I was afraid and tried to hide it. I had the same feeling after the death of every one of those I poisoned.”

At one point, Della added another thought. “I like to attend funerals. I’m happy when someone is dying.”

Della’s killing spree lasted for five years. Things went awry when she tried to poison two young relatives with strychnine-laced candy (some sources say cookies). The two children survived, and police launched an investigation. Della confessed to all eight murders on April 19, 1925.

Epilogue

Della Sorensen did not face trial for her murders. Investigators and doctors found her to be mentally ill. Instead of going to prison, she was committed to the Hastings State Hospital. She died there in 1941, age 44.

Postcard depicting the Hastings State Hospital in Hastings, Nebraska
Postcard depicting the Hastings State Hospital in Hastings, Nebraska

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Charles Schmid: Strange Misfit Makes for a Horrific Killer

Last week’s case of missing Pennsylvania mom Lori Ann Auker ended with her ex-husband’s conviction for murder. This week, we travel (virtually) to southern Arizona. There we meet Charles Schmid. The press dubbed him “The Pied Piper of Tucson.” This cutesy moniker belies the fact that Schmid killed three teenaged girls and buried them in the Arizona desert.

Charles Schmid

Charles and Katharine Schmidt adopted the baby born on July 8, 1942 when he was only one day old. They gave him his adoptive father’s name, Charles Howard Schmid, Jr. The couple owned and ran a nursing home in Tucson, Arizona. As a boy, Charles often butted heads with his father (his adoptive parents eventually divorced).

Charles Schmid in high school
Charles Schmid in high school

Intelligent and courteous, young Charles was nevertheless no standout as a student. But he did excel as an athlete, He led his high school team to a state championship in Gymnastics in 1960. He quit the team in the middle of his senior year, though. Shortly after that, the school suspended him for stealing tools from the school’s shop. Charles never went back and never graduated.

Charles Schmid, Attractive Misfit

With no job and no prospects, Schmid moved into his own place on his mother’s property. She eve gave him an allowance of $300 a month (equivalent to almost $3,000 in 2022 dollars). With that steady income and no need to work, he spent his time cruising the main street of Tucson trying to pick up girls or throwing wild parties at his place.

Charles Schmid
Charles Schmid

Schmid was vain and narcissistic. He dyed his hair jet black and often wore makeup to make himself look more like his idol, Elvis Presley. He attempted to compensate for his short (5’3”) height by wearing oversized cowboy boots stuffed with newspapers, rags, and flattened beer cans. As he moved from his teens into his early twenties, people his own age saw him as a creep. But 14- to 18-year-old kids admired him. By now in his early twenties, he was still hanging out with a high school crowd.

Charles Schmid Commits His First Murder

On May 31, 1964, Schmid, his girlfriend, Mary French, and another friend, John Saunders were hanging out and drinking. Schmid suddenly announced, “I want to kill a girl tonight. I think I can get away with it.” He chose 15-year-old Alleen Rowe as his victim. Alleen lived with her divorced mother and knew Mary French. Mary convinced Alleen to go on a “double date” with her, Schmid, and Saunders. Instead, they drove to an isolated spot in the desert where Schmid raped the girl and then beat her to death with a rock. French stayed in the car listening to the radio while Schmid and Saunders buried the body.

Alleen Rowe
Alleen Rowe

Alleen’s mother, Norma Rowe, reported her daughter missing but police simply assumed she was a runaway and put little, if any effort into finding her.

Two More Murders

Charles Schmid had an inexplicable ability to attract women despite his lack of prospects and dissipated lifestyle. One of those was 17-year-old Gretchen Fritz, daughter of a prominent heart surgeon and Tucson community leader. Schmid had told her about killing Alleen Rowe and, when he wanted to break up with Gretchen, she threatened to turn him in. Schmid bided his time. A few days later, on August 16, 1965, he strangled Gretchen and her 13-year-old sister, Wendy and dumped their bodies in the desert.

Murdered sisters Gretchen (L) and Wendy (R) Fritz
Murdered sisters Gretchen (L) and Wendy (R) Fritz

Despite his prominence, Dr. James Fritz had no better luck with the police than Norma Rowe had. Gretchen Fritz had been a difficult child, and one of her teachers once described her as “a psychopathic liar.” Police told the Fritzes their daughters were runaways.

Never content to keep his mouth shut, Schmid couldn’t resist telling his loner friend, Richard “Richie” Bruns about the murders. He took Bruns to see the bodies and enlisted his help in performing a hasty burial.

The Undoing of Charles Schmid

Richie Bruns didn’t say anything to authorities at first. But he’d taken a liking to Darlene Kirk, one of Schmid’s former girlfriends. Convinced that Darlene was going to be Schmid’s next victim, Richie began to hang out at her house. Darlene’s family finally called police and had Bruns arrested. He was ordered to leave town for three months, which he did, going to live with his grandmother in Columbus, Ohio. One night, he broke down and told his grandmother the whole story of the Fritz sisters’ murders. She convinced him to contact authorities in Arizona.

Richard "Richie" Bruns. In the foreground are oversized cowboy boots Charles Schmid had Bruns buy for him. Schmid stuffed the boots with rags, newspapers, and flattened beer cans to make himself appeartaller.
Richard “Richie” Bruns. In the foreground are oversized cowboy boots Charles Schmid had Bruns buy for him. Schmid stuffed the boots with rags, newspapers, and flattened beer cans to make himself appeartaller.

With Bruns’ information in hand, authorities quickly arrested Charles Schmid. On February 15, 1966, he went on trial for the murders of the Fritz sisters. The defendant was well-dressed and looked reasonably clean cut. Richie Bruns was the state’s star witness. Schmid’s attorney, William Tinney, attempted to place blame for the killings on Bruns. It didn’t work. It took the jury just over two hours to come back with a guilty verdict and a penalty of death.

Charles Schmid (R) with his lawyer, William Tinney
Charles Schmid (R) with his lawyer, William Tinney

Schmid still had to face trial for Alleen Rowe’s murder. After a postponement and involvement of high-profile attorney F. Lee Bailey, the trial began on May 10, 1967. On the second day of trial, Bailey was a no-show (he claimed to be ill). Tinney convinced Schmid to accept a plea deal and plead guilty to second degree murder. After some more legal maneuvering, Judge Roylston sentenced Schmid to fifty years to life.

Epilogue

In 1971, Arizona temporarily abolished the death penalty, which got Schmid off death row. He still had that sentence of fifty years to life though, so he tried to escape. More than once. He finally succeeded on November 11, 1972 when he and triple murderer Raymond Hudgens escaped from the Arizona State Prison in Florence. For a time, the pair held four hostages at a ranch near Tempe, Arizona before they split up. They were recaptures shortly thereafter.

Charles Schmid and Pima County Sheriff Waldon V. Burr searching for the desert grave of Alleen Rowe
Charles Schmid and Pima County Sheriff Waldon V. Burr searching for the desert grave of Alleen Rowe

Ever the narcissist, Schmid strutted around the prison with an attitude of superiority. This caught up with him on March 10, 1975 when two inmates attacked him with homemade shanks. Severely wounded, Schmid did not respond to surgery and died on March 30. His mother chose to have him buried in the prison cemetery, fearing his headstone in a public cemetery would attract vandals.

Legal bills for Schmid’s trials left his mother, Katharine, and her second husband virtually destitute. They ended up living in near poverty in Coolidge, Arizona.

Despite at least half a dozen teenagers knowing about the murders of Alleen Rowe and the Fritz sisters, no one came forward until Richie Bruns’ grandmother convinced him to call Tucson authorities. Bruns remained conflicted about turning in his erstwhile friend. He titled his book about his experiences I, a Squealer.

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Donald Harvey: Insider Killer Stays Hidden for Years

Last week, we saw how Shirley Allen used antifreeze to poison her husband. If you’ve watched her daughter on Evil Lives Here, you get an idea just how twisted this woman was. This week’s case involves another monster in human form, Donald Harvey. For nearly two decades, Harvey quietly killed patients in hospitals in northern Kentucky and Cincinnati, Ohio.

Donald Harvey, an Indiscriminate Killer

Born in 1952 in Butler County, Ohio near Cincinnati, Donald Harvey quit school in the ninth grade and got a job as an orderly at Marymount Hospital in London, Kentucky. He started killing soon after. He later confessed to killing at least a dozen patients in the ten months he worked there. One killing, his second, took place with a 12-year-old boy in the room.

Donald Harvey
Donald Harvey

After leaving Marymount, Harvey went to work at the Cincinnati V.A. Medical Hospital as an orderly and autopsy assistant. He continued his murders there. But he was forced to leave when he was caught stealing body parts for occult rituals.

Marymount Hospital
Marymount Hospital

The killings continued at Harvey’s next stop, Cincinnati’s Drake Memorial Hospital. Misdeeds at hospitals often escape full scrutiny. We saw that in the cases of Kristen Gilbert and Charles Cullen, the killer nurses I’ve profiled in past blogs. In Donald Harvey’s case, he was able to kill repeatedly for 17 years before authorities finally unmasked him.

Donald Harvey’s Murders Finally Come to Light

Donald Harvey may have continued killing for many more years except for a slip-up in March 1987. A man named John Powell had spent several months on life support at Drake after a motorcycle accident. When he died suddenly, the medical examiner conducted an autopsy. The autopsy showed Powell died from cyanide poisoning.

Donald Harvey in court
Donald Harvey in court

Harvey became a ‘person of interest’ after his forced resignation from the V.A. hospital came to light. When brought in for questioning, he confessed to “euthanizing” Powell with cyanide.

Television reporter Pat Minarcin from Cincinnati television station WCPO decided to investigate further. He quite reasonably assumed that Harvey hadn’t suddenly started killing at age 35. He was right. His investigative report found several nurses at Drake who had raised concerns with administrators over the increased number of deaths after Harvey joined the hospital. The hospital ordered them to keep quiet.

Pat Minarcin broke the Donald Harvey story wide open (WCPO-TV)
Pat Minarcin broke the Donald Harvey story wide open (WCPO-TV)

Minarcin soon had enough material for a half-hour on-air report. In it, he identified at least 24 deaths linked to Harvey over a four-year period.

Donald Harvey Takes a Plea Deal

Based on the evidence in the Minarcin report, Harvey’s attorney negotiated a plea deal. He offered to plead Harvey guilty to all 24 murders if prosecutors agreed not to seek the death penalty. In August 1987, he pleaded guilty to 24 counts of first-degree murder and received three concurrent life sentences.

But the justice system wasn’t done with Donald Harvey. He later pleaded guilty to nine murders at Marymount in the 1970s. He received a sentence of life plus twenty years to run concurrently with his Ohio sentences.

Donald Harvey prison mugshot (Ohio Department of Corrections)
Donald Harvey prison mugshot (Ohio Department of Corrections)

Ultimately, Donald Harvey pled guilty to 37 murders. But he confessed to killing as many as 50 people. The total number of murders is probably even higher. In his confessions, Harvey tried to claim he killed only to ease the suffering of the terminally ill. But he also admitted he killed some patients because he was angry with them.

Epilogue

On March 28, 2017, guards found Donald Harvey severely beaten in his cell at the Toledo Correctional Institution. He died on March 30. Fellow inmate James Elliot was convicted of Harvey’s murder.

You can read more about the case in Angel of Death: The Life of Serial Killer Donald Harvey. Another perspective on the case comes from Harvey’s court-appointed attorney, Bill Whalen, in Defending Donald Harvey.

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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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