Doctors and medical professionals are taught to take care of people, but Charles Cullen was a nurse with a dark side. Known as the Angel of Death, he confessed to killing more than 40 patients — believing that he acted mercifully — but investigators believe that the real number of victims could be in the hundreds. That would make the 58-year-old the most prolific serial killer.
Oxygen's "Snapped Notorious: Prescription for Death" delves into the crimes of Charles Cullen and his complex motives.
Cullen was a nurse who worked at nine hospitals (and one nursing home) in New Jersey and Pennsylvania over the course of 16 years. He suffered from mental illness and was known for his "erratic" behavior, according to The New York Times. Charles Graeber, who penned "The Good Nurse," is the only journalist to have interviewed Cullen in prison. He noted a history of family abuse in which Cullen had a tempestuous relationship with his brother-in-law and attempted to kill him by poisoning his drink with lighter fluid. Graeber told NPR's "Fresh Air" that Cullen had narcissistic tendencies and an ego, believing that he was a hero in his work.
"What sort of a person can kill someone and be there as they die and not have it seem to really affect their day at all, or in fact affect their future behavior in any negative fashion for 16 years?" asked Graeber.
[Photo: Getty Images]
Cullen's crimes are believed to have begun in 1988. His M.O. was to sneak into patients' rooms, often at night, and to inject them with a lethal dose of drugs, like the heart medication digoxin, as The New York Times reported. The patients were mostly senior citizens. Some were in bad condition, but others were recovering. As The Morning Call reported, one victim named Michael T. Strenko was just 21. He was killed with a lethal dose of norepinephrine.
Two detectives from Somerset, New Jersey, began an investigation into patients who had strange levels of the drug digoxin in their systems. They reached out to fellow nurse, Amy Loughren, who helped crack the case. She did some digging and found that Cullen was strangely ordering drugs meant for cardiac patients, even though he worked in intensive care. He ordered large quantities of these drugs on a regular basis. She also observed, as the book "The Good Nurse" recounts, that Cullen used the hospital computer system to browse through patients that were not under his care. That was peculiar.
For instance, there was Rev. Florian Gall who had gone into cardiac arrest on June 28 and died at approximately 10:15 AM. Cullen wasn't assigned to Gall, but he had been looking at his medical chart just hours prior to his death. Gall was found with digoxin in his system.
Loughren turned over her findings, and Cullen was arrested in 2003 on one count of murder and one count of attempted murder, according to The Los Angeles Times. On March 2, 2006, he pleaded guilty to killing 29 patients and was sentenced to 11 consecutive life terms, with no chance for parole for 397 years, reported The New York Times. As part of his plea, the death penalty was taken off the table, and he agreed to cooperate with authorities. He told investigators that he had murdered to end patients' suffering and pain.
"Charlie Cullen doesn't know how many people he killed. [...] There was a large part of his life that was a fog during which he would have no ability to recall," Graeber said to NPR. "But during that fog — those fogs lasted years — he said there were probably multiples a week."
To learn more about the case, watch "Snapped Notorious: Prescription for Death" on Oxygen.
Crime Time is your destination for true crime stories from around the world, breaking crime news, and information about Oxygen's original true crime shows and documentaries. Sign up for our Crime Time Newsletter and subscribe to our true crime podcast Martinis & Murder for all the best true crime content.