The Serial Killer Male Nurse Accused Of Murdering More Than 400 Patients
The first rule all medical professionals must follow is to bring no harm to their patients. Critical care nurse Charles Cullen broke that rule from the moment he became a medical professional entrusted with the lives of other human beings. Over the course of 16 years, Cullen used his power as a caretaker to kill instead of heal, earning him the moniker the Angel of Death. Despite his suspicious behavior and the concerns of staff members, Cullen rarely had difficulty finding a job, largely due to a nursing shortage.
He is the most prolific serial killer in New Jersey histor,y and while the actual number of victims is disputed, estimates run into the triple digits. The 2022 Netflix film, The Good Nurse, explores the story of the nurse who bravely helped bring Cullen to justice. It also presents Cullen in all of his complexity, being both a murderer and at times a caring friend.
- Photo: Wikmedia Commons / Fair Use
Cullen Became A Nurse in 1986 and Began Murdering People in 1988
Charles Cullen was born on February 22, 1960 in West Orange, N.J. His childhood was filled with tragedy and death - his father died when he was an infant and his mother passed when he was 16. Later on, one of his brothers overdosed in their home. After finding himself an orphan as a teenager, Cullen dropped out of high school in 1978 and joined the Navy. Many who knew him at the time remember Cullen as quiet, solitary, and a bit erratic. He struggled socially, was bullied, and even attempted to take his own life.
Due to his odd behavior and obvious mental health struggles, Cullen was discharged from the Navy in 1984. Shortly after that, he enrolled at Mountainside Hospital School of Nursing. He graduated in 1986 and began working in the first of what would be seven hospitals during his 16-year career. In 1988, while working in the Burn Unit at Saint Barnabas Medical Center, just two years into his career, he committed his known first murder. The victim was a 72-year-old Municipal Court Judge named John W. Yengo Sr., doing so with an overdose of lidocaine, an anesthetic and painkiller that can depress the respiratory and cardiovascular system. Yengo was suffering from a severe case of sunburn and was receiving treatment for it at the time.
- Photo: The Good Nurse / Netflix
He Spiked IV Bags With Dangerous Doses Of Medication
Cullen used various medications as murder tools throughout his career. Most often he used a lethal cocktail of lidocaine, a local anesthetic; insulin, a drug used to control blood sugar levels; and digoxin, a medicine used to treat irregular heartbeats. An OD of any one of those medications would be sufficient to kill a patient who was likely already struggling with their health.
Cullen used one of two methods: He would either administer the drugs directly into patients' IVs, or he would inject the drugs into bags of saline, which he'd leave in the storeroom. When fellow nurses used the tainted bags, they unknowingly delivered lethal doses of medications right into people's blood streams. The units in which Cullen worked were often intensive care units where death wasn’t uncommon. The administration of powerful drugs was also commonplace. Both these factors played a big role in allowing Cullen to literally get away with murder.
- Photo: Ekem / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY-SA 3.0
Many Hospitals Suspected Cullen of Foul Play But The Authorities Were Never Contacted
Due to the constant nursing shortage and privacy laws, Cullen had no issues relocating to new jobs. Over the years there were many instances in which hospital staff grew suspicious, but chose to rid themselves of Cullen instead of confronting him. He was fired from Saint Barnabas in 1992 after the hospital launched an internal investigation to look into the contaminated saline bags. The investigation identified Cullen as the perpetrator but allegedly didn't have enough evidence to prove it. Instead of contacting authorities or firing Cullen, St. Barnabas allowed him to simply move on to another hospital.
In 1993, he began working at Warren Hospital in Phillipsburg, NJ, where he killed at least three women with digoxin overdoses. Prior to her passing, one of the women, Helen Dean, told family members that a male nurse had injected her with something. No investigation was launched and Cullen left that location less than two years later after starting. He moved on to Hunterdon Medical Center in Flemington, NJ, where he claimed at least five more victims in a period of nine months in 1996 by administering overdoses of digoxin.
After three years at Hunterdon, Cullen left to take a job at Morristown Memorial Hospital in Morristown, NJ. He was quickly fired due to poor performance, and was unemployed for several months, until hired at Liberty Nursing and Rehabilitation in Allentown, PA, in February 1998.
Cullen was fired from Liberty in October of that year after colleagues saw him go into the room of a patient assigned to another nurse with multiple syringes. The elderly woman survived her encounter with Cullen, but had a broken arm afterward. It remains unclear what happened in the room. Cullen spent the years between 1998 to 2002 in Pennsylvania, where he is known to have murdered at least seven people.
Late in 2002, Cullen began working in Somerset Medical Center in New Jersey. This would be his last pit stop. Here, he killed the majority of his known victims before finally being arrested.
He Stalked And Harassed Another Nurse
Cullen's personal life was just as unstable as he was. After the breakdown of his marriage, which his ex-wife cited was due in part to “extreme cruelty,” Cullen asked a nurse by the name of Michelle Tomlinson out to dinner. Soon afterward, his behavior became erratic and obsessive toward her. According to a police report, Tomlinson said Cullen called her repeatedly, despite her requests for him to stop. He also followed her around at the hospital and attempted to give her an engagement ring.
In the early morning of March 23, 1993, Cullen broke into Tomlinson's home while she and her young son were asleep. He was subsequently arrested. He pleaded guilty to misdemeanor trespassing and received a year of probation. He once again attempted suicide a few days after his arrest, and told a police officer he was fantasizing that Tomlinson was his girlfriend.
- Photo: Creepy News / YouTube
He Was Allowed To Resign When A Hospital Realized He'd Been Stealing Drugs
In 1999, Cullen got a job at St. Luke's Hospital in Bethlehem, PA. During his three years at this medical center, he murdered at least five people. In June 2002, one his fellow nurses discovered vials of drugs for treating hypertension and abnormal heart rhythms hidden in receptacles for disposing of used syringes. St. Luke's launched an internal investigation and determined Cullen had stolen the medications, although they were baffled as to why he had been throwing away full containers of unused medicine.
Cullen refused to cooperate with the investigation, and a week after the vials were found, he was allowed to resign. After he left St. Luke's, one of his former colleagues contacted the state police to ask them to investigate Cullen and his actions during his time at the facility. However, after reviewing the case files of the nearly 70 patients who had died during stays in Cullen's wards, law enforcement didn't find the evidence needed to prosecute the serial murderer. This information was not passed on to any of Cullen's future employers.
- Photo: 60 Minutes / CBS
Cullen’s Colleague Nurse Amy Loughren Went Undercover To Help Authorities Catch Cullen
In 2002, Cullen began working at Somerset Medical Center in New Jersey. Here, he met a nurse named Amy Loughren. Loughren was in a tough place; she was a single mother of two with cardiomyopathy, a heart muscle disease. When Cullen began working with her, they quickly became friends. After discovering her illness, he became a big source of support for her, as she mentioned in an interview with People:
“He was funny. We bonded right away and became friends.”
Things changed quickly once the intensive care unit where the pair worked began experiencing a higher number of patient deaths than usual. One patient's death in particular began to signal the end for Cullen. Patient Reverend Florian Gall had been improving before he suddenly passed. Investigators approached Loughren about the case and, upon seeing the patient records, she knew something was wrong. The medication dosages on the chart didn't make sense. Furthermore, she saw documents that listed the drugs Cullen was ordering:
“There were so many withdrawals of lethal medications that you wouldn't order unless you wanted to kill someone.”
While initially hesitant, she agreed to work with the investigators. Together they formulated a plan to have Loughren wear a wire and coax a confession out of Cullen. Loughren was terrified and morally conflicted about what was going to take place. She went out to lunch with Cullen and began asking him questions about his patient care. Cullen didn’t confess altogether but according to Loughren:
“He sat straight up. The color of his eyes changed. He put a smirk on his face and said, 'I'm going to go down fighting.'”
He was arrested soon after that conversation. Even after his arrest, Loughren’s role in getting him behind bars continued. Cullen wouldn't speak to the detectives, so Loughren went down to the police station herself to attempt to get him to talk. She succeeded, and was able to get him to confess to a number of murders. The Netflix film, The Good Nurse, albeit somewhat fictional, dives into the final months leading up to Cullen's arrest and the giant role Loughren had to play in it. The film's title is a reference to Loughren.