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The Tainted Kidney


But right from the beginning, Mask saw signs that this thing might not go through. “Judge Armstrong signed the order for the blood test, but I don’t think anybody really expected he’d actually be a match for Ernie,” Mask says. “When he was, and it got into the papers, suddenly there are all these problems. The judge and the prosecutor and the victims’ families got up in arms about Cullen going into a hospital again—they figured he’d kill somebody, or probably himself. Then everyone would be cheated out of their ability to yell and scream at him.”

Mask was told that the donation was possible only after Cullen was sentenced. That was supposed to happen by December 2005, but a month later, two counties still hadn’t even finished their investigations. “That’s why on January 10, Charlie stopped cooperating with the prosecution, saying ‘Sentence me now.’ ” By breaking his plea agreement, Cullen seemed to be risking the death penalty for the donation, but really it was a tactical move by Mask. “It forced their hand. We realized that by the time they finished, Ernie might be dead.” (As of this printing, investigations in Essex and Morris counties are still open.)

They were months behind schedule, but, in theory, Cullen was about to be transported to Stony Brook Medical Center and donate his kidney side by side with Peckham. “But when [Attorney General Peter] Harvey wanted Cullen to cooperate, he was saying, you know, ‘We’ll work out the details later, but it will happen,’ ” Mask recalls. “We were counting on those promises, but he just wanted to wrap up the case before he took on his new job in the private sector.”

A few weeks later, weeks when Ernie Peckham’s condition continued to deteriorate, Mask walked by the desk of Vaughn McCoy, who was then the director of New Jersey’s Division of Criminal Justice. “I asked him what the status was. He pulled up some e-mails and said, ‘Well, apparently Stony Brook doesn’t want Mr. Cullen in their hospital.’ I tried to lean over and read it off his monitor, but he sort of blocked me.” Mask smiles joylessly. “Said it was confidential.”

By now it was February. “So what can you do? Then the old A.G. leaves, and the new attorney general’s office tells us Cullen can’t travel to New York anyway—it’s not legally feasible!” Mask shakes his head at what’s become an old joke.

“I don’t know what’s true now. We thought it would happen in January. Stony Brook keeps giving us new dates—they’re saying April now; before, it was March. And Charlie’s getting more aggravated every day. I think [allowing the] donation was always just a big dangling carrot to get Charlie to jump.” It was the only reason Cullen agreed to appear at the sentencing in New Jersey. Mask was still working toward the donation, but he’d bet Roney a dinner it would never happen.

It was a good bet, especially considering what was about to happen at Cullen’s next court appearance.

The New Jersey courts were done with Charles Cullen, but Pennsylvania still had unfinished business, and so as Ernie Peckham’s condition worsened even more, Cullen was transported west to stand trial for the six murders and three attempted murders he committed in Lehigh County, while working at the hospitals surrounding Allentown.

Allentown is a poor steel town living in the ruins of a rich one, and the downtown is a grand, ceremonial public space of imported stone and soaring columns and busted crazies rooting for cans, joined now by a small parade of families in dark, formal clothes with little blue stickers from OfficeMax gummed to their lapels to show they’re families of the victims of the Angel of Death.

In a legal sense, sentencing Cullen for his Pennsylvania crimes is perfunctory—he won’t be finished serving his New Jersey sentence until the year 2347—but for the families of patients Cullen killed here, today’s sentencing is their only chance to confront the Angel of Death with their memories and their anger. It’s also an opportunity for Cullen, a final shot at showing the world that he is, as he claims, a killer with compassion. A public demonstration of that compassion would go a long way toward saving Ernie Peckham’s life. In Pennsylvania, Cullen could do what he hadn’t done in New Jersey.

Just like the victims’ families at Cullen’s New Jersey trial, the families who fill the Allentown jury box have brought poems and speeches and photographs of the dead and are prepared to exercise their right to confront the killer. But this time, Cullen rises to speak—reciting, from memory, statements Cullen believes have been hostile to him that the judge has made to the press.


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