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The Tainted Kidney


Cullen's lawyer, Johnnie Mask, worked to make the donation happen, but he bet Roney dinner that it wouldn't.  

The Somerset County jail is a redbrick building conveniently catty-corner to the Somerville courthouse. On the other side of the metal detector is a wall of two-way mirrored plate glass backlit by video surveillance. Beyond that is the nine-by-five-foot cell where Charles Cullen had spent the past two and a half years of his life.

The sergeant buzzes me through a series of doors into a hallway partitioned into stainless-steel booths. Guards escort Charles Cullen onto the opposite stool. We nod mutely to each other across the bulletproof divide, and take a phone.

“Hello? Hello?”

“Hello?” I say. “Can you hear me?”

“Yeah,” he says. “I can make you out.” His voice is flat and quiet. I press the plastic phone hard to my ear, and Cullen notices. “Did you get in all right?” he says, louder.

“It took two hours,” I say.

Cullen glances up, reading my expression before retreating to the corners of the glass. “That happens,” he says. He nods once. “It changes in here, week to week.”

In pictures taken soon after his arrest, Cullen looks a little like Kevin Costner or a hollowed-out George Clooney—perhaps a bit colder, yet still a handsome guy with a bad haircut. But now, in the mercury vapor lights of the Somerset jail visiting room, Cullen looks chapped and anemic. Never an eater, he has become skeletal in jail. His face seems to hang from his cheekbones like a wet sail. A crucifix dangles from a chain over his collarbone, mixing with the sprigs of graying chest hairs where his shaven neck meets his prison togs—essentially mustard-yellow versions of hospital scrubs, insulated with a layer of white flannel underwear. His eyes dart and flash like a man holding his breath, waiting to talk.

He tells me about the afternoon when Reverend Roney came to his cell, excited to tell him that he was an “excellent match” for Ernie Peckham. Cullen was happy, but his years in jail had taught him that nothing would ever be simple. “The match means the donation will happen—it’s meant to happen,” Roney told him. “Yeah,” Cullen responded. “Well, I hope the courts think that.”

Cullen knew that if word ever got out that he was trying to donate a kidney, the whole thing would probably be over right there. He needed to keep it secret; nobody could know. “I mean, it’s not like I’d want the publicity,” Cullen says. “But mostly I thought that if it got out, it would be bad for the donation. The way people think of me, they would think I was trying to do something. But someone leaked it—I think it was the D.A., but I don’t really know. And now … ” he rolls his eyes. The press was having a field day.

“I know people see me as trying to control things; they think I’m trying to get something out of it. But the idea that I was trading my appearance at sentencing for the donation are out-and-out lies,” he says. “I was told by my lawyer, Mr. Mask, that I didn’t have to appear.” He shakes his head, and almost smiles. “I mean, you know, who would want to go? All those people that you—but the donation was important. The detectives suggested that I offer to go, to speed the donation along. They said I needed to give them something. But that’s not me holding a gun to the prosecution. It’s the other way around!

“I grant that I certainly have done some very bad things—I’ve taken lives,” he says quickly. “But does that prevent me from doing something positive?” Cullen folds a pale arm tightly across his chest and studies the counter. “That’s the funny thing,” he says. “People think you’re crazy for doing something for someone else if you don’t know them personally.”

The New Jersey office of the Public Defender is two stories of red brick with handicapped spaces and shrub landscaping and 300-pound women in nightgown-size Tweety Bird T-shirts smoking menthols by the double glass doors. In the offices upstairs, there are families in sweatpants waiting under fluorescent lights and a hole in the Plexiglas where you can announce yourself by sticking your mouth in and yelling politely.

Johnnie Mask’s office is in the back. The deputy public defender looks something like an Old Testament James Earl Jones—a big man with broad leonine features and a gray Ishmael beard gone grayer over three years defending the biggest serial killer in New Jersey history.

It was a nice idea, giving a kidney, but Mask wasn’t in it for the karma. “My motives were purely selfish,” Mask says. “Charlie was absolutely intent on making this donation happen. I was worried that if he didn’t get his way, he’d mess up my case, and all my hard work would go down the drain. More work for me, more expenses for the state—there was no way I was going to let that happen.”


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