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The Tainted Kidney

Charles Cullen, who may be the most prolific serial killer America has ever seen, is serving eighteen consecutive life sentences in a New Jersey penitentiary. Behind bars, he can no longer take life, yet he’s found a way to give it—in the form of an organ transplant. But no one wants to give him the chance to play God again.


The Angel of Death looks sleepy. His face shows nothing. His eyes are closed. Charles Cullen sits motionless in the wooden defendant’s chair of the Somerset County Courthouse as, hour after hour, his victims’ families take the stand. They read poems and show photographs, they weep and yell. If Cullen hears them, he doesn’t say; he never does. During his three years in custody, Cullen has never apologized or made excuses. He has never issued a statement, offered a public word, never faced the families of his victims. In fact, the only reason he’s in court today is because he wants to give away one of his kidneys.

To that end, he has cut a deal with prosecutors, agreeing to appear at his sentencing on the condition that he be allowed to donate an organ to the dying relative of a former girlfriend. To many of the families of his victims, this deal is a personal insult—the man in shackles still calling the shots, the serial-killer nurse wanting to control the fate of yet another human life. But for the families of his New Jersey victims, this is the first and last chance to confront Charles Cullen. So they are here, and they are angry.

“My only consolation is that you will die a thousand deaths in the arms of Satan,” yells the daughter of a man Cullen spiked with insulin. “I hope, with all my heart, that you are someone’s bitch in prison.”

“You are a pathetic little man,” says the woman whose mother-in-law Cullen killed with digoxin. “In prison, perhaps someone will choose to play God with Mr. Cullen, as he has played God with so many others.”

“Charles!” cries a round woman in a lime-green pantsuit. Her body shakes in rage and grief; her hands grip a photograph of her 38-year-old son, a picture taken before Charles Cullen stopped his heart. She is screaming. “Charles, why don’t you look up at me, huh? What are you, asleep?”

In fact, Charles Cullen is very much awake. His shackled hands, which look from a distance as pale and still as sleeping doves, twitch slightly in his lap, counting off silent prayers, Jesus Christ, son of God, have mercy on me, as if on invisible rosary beads; the expressionless shield of his cheek still tics when “burn in hell” hits his ear. His eyes open slightly, like a child pretending to be asleep, Cullen can see only a twilight view of the table, the cups, the stenographer with her leg crossed over the other, light shining hard off her shoes.

“The state asks for thirteen life sentences,” says the assistant prosecutor, and there is a wrinkle on Charles Cullen’s brow, a flexed cheek enunciating “thir-teen,” then the blankness returns, and there is again just what Cullen can see in front of him: the wooden table, the stack of pastel Dixie cups, a black plastic pitcher, and beyond, lit by her own little spotlight of halogen, the stenographer, her hands bouncing like puppets. And then Judge Armstrong is asking if the defendant has anything to say on his own behalf, anything at all about these horrendous crimes against man and nature, and the stenographer’s hands stop and wait. Cullen has no comment. With a rap of the gavel and screeching of chairs, it is over. Charles Cullen is hustled into a back room with men in riot gear holding automatic weapons, then he is gone, leaving behind a courtroom full of questions.

As far as the law is concerned, there isn’t much left for Cullen to say. On December 12, 2003, Cullen was brought in for one first-degree murder and one attempted murder as a critical-care nurse at Somerset Medical Center in Somerville. The next day, he shocked Somerville detectives by confessing to many more murders. Cullen told detectives that he killed the sick in order to end their suffering, but at some point, as Cullen spiked bags of IV saline in supply closets and killed patients who were not terminal, his compassion became compulsion, and when his personal life became stressful, killing became his outlet.

Exactly how many patients he murdered, we will never know: His memory of his crimes, he says, “is foggy,” and he drank heavily to make it foggier. He worked graveyard shifts in intensive-care units, largely unsupervised in a dark punctuated only by the beeps and breaths of medical machines. Many of the medical charts are missing or incomplete; the dead are now dust. His method was to overdose with drugs so common that sorting Cullen’s private death toll from the general cadence of hospital mortality is nearly impossible.

Cullen guessed that he had killed 40 people. So far, investigators have positively identified 29 victims (confirmation of a 30th victim is currently pending). It’s unlikely that the tally will ever be complete; even Cullen’s lawyer, Johnnie Mask, told prosecutors they weren’t finished. Some investigators with an intimate knowledge of the case are convinced that the real number is over 300. By that reckoning, Charles Cullen would be the biggest serial killer in American history.


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