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The Tainted Kidney

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Prison chaplain Kathleen Roney believed the donor match between Cullen and Peckham was a sign from God.  

Over the course of nearly three years, Roney had gotten to know Cullen, but that didn’t mean she understood him. She didn’t, for instance, understand why Cullen had killed so many people—but her job wasn’t to comprehend the serial killer, only to minister to the man. And she couldn’t quite understand why, suddenly, he was so desperate for her help to donate a kidney; 22 years as a jail chaplain, and nobody had ever asked for anything like it. “So that night I went to the jail and questioned him,” she says. “To make sure I wasn’t being used.”

Roney isn’t a big woman, but she’s blessed with the bullhorn voice and big-girl swagger that jail work requires, and she can turn it on when she has to. She called for Cullen, who was reading in his cell, and she asked him: “Why this? Why now? Do you want it for fame, or to rehabilitate your public image? Do you think you’re making some deal with God, to save a life to wipe out the lives you took?” Or did he hope that he might die on the operating table in some sort of passive suicide attempt?

“The questions seemed to really hurt his feelings,” Reverend Roney says. “But that was okay. I needed to know his heart.”

Roney said she’d think about it, and drove through the dark to pray in front of her icons. Charles had told her he was serious, that he wanted to see if he was a match. He wanted to donate because he was asked, and it was good. But should she believe him? The more she examined the question, the simpler it became. She was a minister, a Christian, and there was a life at stake, a guy on Long Island named Ernie. Cullen could never orchestrate a donation alone from behind bars. He needed her help—they needed her help. How could a compatibility test be a moral dilemma?

The hospital sent color-coded tubes for Cullen to bleed into. She would be the blood mule; Stony Brook hospital on Long Island would test his antigens against Ernie’s. From what she read on the Internet, a match was an incredible long shot. But at least everybody could say they tried.

When she asked her friends to pray with her that weekend, she didn’t tell them what they were praying for or for whom. “We needed to keep it secret,” she says. “And besides, could you ask every person to pray for a serial killer?”

Every equinox, Reverend Roney and like-minded Celtic Christians spend a week at a Druid spiritual retreat in Pennsylvania. It’s a profound time for her, a time of dancing around bonfires and meditating before icons and spirit-voyaging through unbounded acres of blond American farmland. Every morning, she’d walk the hard earth between the corn stubble, reciting her prayers, feeling the ancient wisdom, looking for a sign. It was then that she felt the vibration.

That was her cell phone—they encourage silence at these things, so she had it on vibrate—and right away, she knew what had happened. And her prayer group knew, too. In fact, the whole spiritual retreat knew what had happened; they just felt it and started to cry, because they knew. And she thought, This is it, it’s meant to be.

She’s crying now, retelling the story over an iced tea, ruining her mascara, remembering how Cullen was a perfect six-for-six antigen match, a match like winning the Publisher’s Clearing House sweepstakes, and she wipes the tears away with a Starbucks napkin. “Honestly, we thought it was a miracle,” she says. There would be more tests, X-rays, cat scans, tests with machines you couldn’t send to the jail by mail. But these were trivial compared with this spotlight in the darkness, a sign of God’s larger plan.

In that halcyon moment, Reverend Roney couldn’t imagine the lost friendships of her fellow Christians; she thought it was as easy as helping Charles donate to save a dying man. It was September; if she acted fast, the kidney would be like an early Christmas present.

When Roney called Pat Peckham, Pat didn’t believe her. “Are you sure?” she asked. It was so improbable, it was so—then Pat started to scream. “Then I’m screaming, then she’s crying, then I’m crying,” Roney remembers.

Roney would have loved to have seen the look on Ernie Peckham’s face when Pat told him the news. But Pat wasn’t going to tell her son, not for a while, and she certainly wouldn’t tell him the name of the donor. As sick as Ernie was, Pat was sure Ernie wouldn’t accept a kidney if he learned it came from Charles Cullen.


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