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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Kristen Gilbert: V.A. Nurse Makes for a Rare Killer

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.

Kristen Gilbert

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.

Kristen Strickland in the Bridgewater State College yearbook
Kristen Strickland in the Bridgewater State College yearbook

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.

Kristen Gilbert
Kristen Gilbert

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.

Kristen Gilbert booking photo
Kristen Gilbert booking photo

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.

Julia Hudon and Christine Duquette, mother and sister of victim Henry Hudon
Julia Hudon and Christine Duquette, mother and sister of victim Henry Hudon

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.

Murder victim Edward Skwira
Murder victim Edward Skwira

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.”

Nancy and Jeff Cutting, wife and son of victim Kenneth Cutting
Nancy and Jeff Cutting, wife and son of victim Kenneth Cutting

Epilogue

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.

Kristen Gilbert is currently at Federal Medical Center Carswell in Forth Worth, Texas (Federal Bureau of Prisons)
Kristen Gilbert is currently at Federal Medical Center Carswell in Forth Worth, Texas (Federal Bureau of Prisons)

You can read more about Kristen Gilbert’s case in Perfect Poison by M. William Phelps.

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Dorothea Puente Finds Easy Marks for Money and Murder

After last week’s case of the heartbreaking murders Cary Stayner committed in Yosemite, we stay in California. Dorothea Puente ostensibly ran a boardinghouse in Sacramento in the 1980s. In reality, she targeted elderly people to steal their money, then killed them when the money was gone. This earned her the nickname of “The Death House Landlady.”

Dorothea Puente

Dorothea Puente was born Dorothea Helen Gray in Redlands, California in 1929. She had a rough childhood. Both her parents were abusive alcoholics and her father died of tuberculosis when Dorothea was 8. Her mother lost custody of her children two years later and died in a motorcycle accident later the same year. Dorothea and her siblings ended up in an orphanage where she claimed she was sexually abused.

An early snapshot of Dorothea Puente
An early snapshot of Dorothea Puente

Dorothea married for the first time at age 16 in 1945. Her husband, Fred McFaul, had recently returned from the Pacific Theater of World War II. Between 1945 and 1948, they had two children together. One she sent to live with relatives while she put the other up for adoption. McFaul left her in 1948.

Dorothea Puente Has Legal Troubles

Over the next three decades, Dorothea would have a series of run-ins with the law. In 1948, police in Riverside, California arrested her for buying women’s accessories with forged checks. She pled guilty to two counts of forgery and served four months in jail.

In 1962, Dorothea was arrested for owning and operating a house of prostitution that masqueraded as a bookkeeping firm. She claimed, unsuccessfully, to be staying with a friend and not knowing the place was a brothel. A court found her guilty, and she served 90 days in jail.

Dorothea Puente awaits her arraignment, November 17, 1988 (Owen Brewer/Sacramento Bee)
Dorothea Puente awaits her arraignment, November 17, 1988 (Owen Brewer/Sacramento Bee)

Following her release from the Sacramento jail, Dorothea made an effort to show herself as a resource for the down-and-out members of the community. She opened a boarding house at 1426 F Street in Sacramento. Many of her boarders were homeless and without family connections. As part of her effort to appear caring, she held Alcoholics Anonymous meetings in the house.

The house at 1426 F Street (Genaro Molina/Sacramento Bee)
The house at 1426 F Street (Genaro Molina/Sacramento Bee)

But Dorothea soon faced another legal problem. In 1978, she was charged and convicted of illegally cashing thirty-four state and federal checks belonging to her tenants. She received five years’ probation and was ordered to pay $4,000 in restitution.

Between 1952 and 1978, Dorothea married and divorced three more times. Her name changed a lot, too, although she finally settled on the name of her third husband.

The Murders Begin

Fifty-two-year-old Ruth Munroe went to live with Puente in April 1982. She soon died from an overdose of codeine and acetaminophen. Dorothea was able to convince authorities that Munroe, depressed over her husband’s terminal illness, had committed suicide.

A few weeks later, 74-year-old Malcom McKenzie accused Dorothea of drugging him and stealing his money. She was convicted and sentenced to five years in prison. While incarcerated, she began corresponding with 77-year-old Everson Gillmouth, a retiree from Oregon. When California paroled Dorothea in 1985, Gillmouth moved down from Oregon to be with her. He soon disappeared, but Dorothea continued to cash his pension checks. She even wrote letters to his family, telling them the reason he hadn’t been in touch was because he was ill.

Investigators dig in Dorothea Puente's back yard
Investigators dig in Dorothea Puente’s back yard

Dorothea Puente continued to take in boarders. Her parole was conditional on her staying away from the elderly and not handling government checks. However, despite her parole officers visiting the home at least fifteen times, they didn’t note any violations.

Dorothea’s Murders Come to Light

In 1988, a social worker with Volunteers of America placed Alvaro “Bert” Montoya in Puente’s boardinghouse. Montoya was a 51-year-old developmentally challenged man who suffered from schizophrenia. He had no contact with his family. The social worker took an interest in Montoya and called Dorothea regularly to check on him. The social worker thought it odd, then, when she called, and Dorothea said Bert had gone to Mexico with his brother. After a few days of Dorothea’s shifting stories, the social worker filed a missing person report.

A police officer went to the F Street boardinghouse to take a missing persons report. All the tenants confirmed Dorothea’s story that Bert had left with a relative. But one of the boarders, John Sharp, passed the officer a note scribbled on the back of an envelope. It said, “She wants me to lie to you.” He later told investigators that he didn’t know what happened to Bert, but that what Dorothea was saying was not true.

Police remove the sixth bod from 1426 F Street, November 14, 1988
Police remove the sixth bod from 1426 F Street, November 14, 1988

Detectives and her parole officer arrived at Dorothea’s boardinghouse and, with her permission, searched it. Finding nothing of significance, asked if they could dig in her yard. She agreed to this as well. The two detectives and the parole officer started digging. It wasn’t long before they discovered human remains.

The Arrest and Conviction of Dorothea Puente

Detectives took Dorothea along with her tenants in for questioning. She maintained the she had no knowledge of anybody buried in her yard. At this point, police didn’t have enough evidence to arrest Dorothea. But they did return to the F Street house with an anthropologist and a crime scene expert to continue the search.

While the search was in progress, Dorothea asked if she could go to the motel coffee shop across the street for a cup of coffee. Since she wasn’t under arrest, detectives let her go. It was a ruse. Instead of having a coffee, she fled to Los Angeles. Meanwhile, searchers discovered another body buried in the yard. They would eventually find a total of seven.

Detective John Cabrera flies Dorothea Puente back to Sacramento from Los Angeles where she fled during the search of her yard
Detective John Cabrera sits next to Dorothea Puente as they fly to Sacramento from Los Angeles where she fled during the search of her yard

Police immediately put out a BOLO on Dorothea Puente. In Los Angeles, she befriended an elderly pensioner she met in a bar, possibly her next victim. However, he recognized her from television news coverage of the case and called the TV station. They called police.

Dorothea Puente went on trial in October 1992. She faced eight charges of first-degree murder, one for the seven bodies found in her back yard and for Ruth Munroe. Prosecutors added a ninth charge when the body of a John Doe found three years earlier proved to be that of Everson Gillmouth.

The jury convicted Dorothea of first-degree murder in the cases of Dorothy Miller and Benjamin Fink, and second-degree murder in the case of Leona Carpenter. They deadlocked on the other six counts. Regardless, the first-degree convictions carried a sentence of life without parole.

Dorothea Puente, February 21, 2009 (Central California Women’s Facility)
Dorothea Puente, February 21, 2009 (Central California Women’s Facility)

Epilogue

Dorothea Puente died in the Central California Women’s Facility in Chowchilla on March 27, 2011. She was 82 years old. While she admitted cashing her victims’ checks, for the rest of her life she maintained they had all died of natural causes.

Seven of Dorothea Puente's nine victims
Seven of Dorothea Puente’s nine victims

There are many books about Dorothea Puente and her crimes. If you want to read more, you can check out Human Harvest: The Sacramento Murder Story, The Bone Garden: The Chilling True Story of a Female Serial Killer, or Disturbed Ground. There are other books as well and several true crime television shows have featured the case.

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Cary Stayner: Emerging Serial Killer Found in Yosemite

Last week’s case took us to Lake Orion, Michigan where, in 1984, Carol Ege brutally murdered Cindy Thompson. She was jealous over Cindy’s involvement with Carol’s boyfriend, Mark Davis. This week, our case takes us to Yosemite National Park. Often a destination for people trying to relax and commune with nature, it was anything but in early 1999. There, in February or March, Cary Stayner murdered a woman and two teenage girls. He killed another young woman before police caught him.

Cary Stayner

Cary Stayner had a troubling background. When he was eleven years old, pedophile Kenneth Parnell abducted Cary’s younger brother, Steven. Parnell held young Steven captive and abused him for seven years until he managed to escape. During that time Steven was missing, Cary lived with an uncle, Jesse, who he claimed molested him. In 1989, Steven died in a motorcycle accident at the age of 24. The following year, someone murdered Jesse.

Cary Stayner mugshot at the time of his arrest
Cary Stayner mugshot at the time of his arrest

All this might make one think that Cary’s early life was a factor in his becoming a serial killer. Yet Cary told investigators after his arrest that he’d fantasized about murdering women since he was seven years old. This was long before Steven’s kidnapping or the alleged (but never proven) molestation.

Cary Stayner Murders a Woman and Two Teenagers

In February 1999, Carole Sund, 42, her 15-year-old daughter Juli, and Silvina Pelosso, 16, took a brief vacation to Yosemite National Park. Pelosso was Juli’s friend and an exchange student from Argentina. They checked into the Cedar Lodge motel in El Portal, California. After Valentine’s Day, they disappeared.

Silvina Pelosso (L) and Carole Sund (R) in Yosemite
Silvina Pelosso (L) and Carole Sund (R) in Yosemite

On March 18, 1999, someone found the burned-out shell of Carole’s rented Pontiac Gran Prix in the remote town of Long Barn, California. The next day, March 19, investigators discovered two bodies in the trunk. Both were burned beyond recognition. Through dental records, authorities identified one victim as Carole Sund and the other as Silvina Pelosso. It wasn’t until police received a map with a note saying, “We had fun with this one” that they discovered 15-year-old Juli’s body.

Investigators search the torched remains of Carole Sund's rented Pontiac (Al Golub/The Modesto Bee via AP)
Investigators search the torched remains of Carole Sund’s rented Pontiac (Al Golub/The Modesto Bee via AP)

Cedar Lodge employed Cary Stayner as a handyman since 1997. Police interviewed him along with the other motel employees. They did not consider him a suspect because he had no criminal history and nothing about his demeanor aroused suspicion. Carole Sund’s wallet turned up in Modesto, California, over 100 miles from El Portal and less than 70 miles from Long Barn. Yet this discovery did not lead to a break in the case.

Silvina Pelosso (L) and Juli Sund (R) in Yosemite
Silvina Pelosso (L) and Juli Sund (R) in Yosemite

Stayner Murders Another Woman

There was no progress in the Sund/Pelosso murders for four months. Then, in July 1999, the decapitated body of Joie Armstrong was found near Yosemite. Joie was a naturalist working for the Yosemite Institute. Witnesses reported seeing a blue International Scout parked outside her cabin. This tip eventually led police to Cary Stayner.

Joie Ruth Armstrong, Cary Stayner's fourth and final victim
Joie Ruth Armstrong, Cary Stayner’s fourth and final victim

FBI agents Jeff Rinek and John Boles found Stayner at the Laguna del Sol nudist resort in Wilson, California. They arrested him and took him to Sacramento for questioning. His interview proved to be a shocker. Not only did he confess to killing Joie Armstrong, but he also confessed to murdering Carole Sund and the two teenage girls. He further admitted to sending the note with the map that led to the discovery of Juli Sund’s body.

Joie Armstrong lived in this cabin while working in Yosemite
Joie Armstrong lived in this cabin while working in Yosemite

A Plea, A Trial, and a Conviction

Because the murder of Joie Armstrong occurred on federal land, Stayner faced trial in federal court. Instead, to avoid the death penalty, he pleaded guilty. During his sentencing hearing, Stayner suddenly broke down, burst into tears, and apologized for the murder. Joie’s mother, Lesli Armstrong, was in the courtroom and believed the apology was genuine. For this murder, Stayner received a sentence of life without parole.

Cary Strayer sent this map to police, leading to the discovery of Juli Sund's body
Cary Strayer sent this map to police, leading to the discovery of Juli Sund’s body

A California state court tried Stayner for the murders of Carole and Juli Sund and Silvina Pelosso. He pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity. However, on August 27, 2002, a jury convicted him of three counts of first-degree murder with special circumstances and one count of kidnapping. He was sentenced to death.

Epilogue

Now 60 years old, Cary Anthony Stayner remains on death row at San Quentin State Prison twenty miles north of San Francisco. Since California has not executed anyone since 2006, it is unlikely that he will face the needle anytime soon.

Cary Stayner, T-75166 in 2010
Cary Stayner, T-75166 in 2010

FBI agent Jeff Rinek, now retired, writes about the case in In the Name of The Children. The book covers Rinek’s 30-year career pursuing killers like Cary Stayner.

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