For 16 years the patients at nine hospitals in the New Jersey and Pennsylvania area were prey to a nightmare. Lurking under the guise of the traditionally trusted, a murderer waited. The lurid threat was notorious serial killer Charles Cullen.
“We’ll never know how many people Charlie Cullen really killed. Charlie Cullen himself doesn’t know how many people he really killed. But he went out of his way not to know,” said Charles Graeber, journalist and author of “The Good Nurse,” an account of the life and murders of Cullen. “The trusted sources I have, which I have tested against other sources and do not have any invested interest, truly believe that the true number of deaths is in the mid three hundreds.”
While working as a nurse Cullen gave lethal doses to men and women ranging from the ages of 21 to 91. Some of his victims were dying of serious diseases while others were recovered. Some he chose and killed directly, other times he injected saline bags that were not even in use yet. He had no particular pattern; the murders were random at best. Perhaps even more perplexing, Cullen did not see himself as a killer.
“My intent was to decrease suffering in people I saw throughout my career,” Cullen said after his arrest in 2003.
Because of his viewpoint, Cullen was dubbed “The Angel of Death” by the media.
“The ones he confessed to were very specific, and he knew that was not anywhere near a complete number of deaths for which he was responsible,” Graeber said.
There are few things more terrifying than a serial killer, especially one who cannot even recognize his acts as murder. This is exactly what Charles Graeber knew he was walking into in his first interview with Charles Cullen. The man on the other side of the table was notorious for silence after his arrest. Graeber was, in fact, the first journalist to receive an interview.
“He trusted me to a certain extent, to listen to him and to not prejudge him,” Graeber said. “He saw that I was taking the time to want to tell a larger story than what had already been out in the press before he decided to speak to anyone, about a monster that had no other human qualities.”
After remaining silent for two years after his arrest the infamous Charles Cullen decided to reply to Graeber’s letter.
“The most prolific serial killer in American history was talking only to me, and I discovered there was a cover up in hospitals over 16 years,” Graeber said.
Graeber’s seven year study unearthed yet another scandal. Not only was there a serial killer loose upon innocent patients, but a serious lapse in record keeping allowed the menace to continue. “This book was a mission. That Charlie Cullen happened to speak with me and nobody else, that there are a number of people who were willing to risk a great deal to talk to me and were willing to do so because I was the one willing to take the time to try to tell the story right,” Graeber explained. “Once I was burdened with that truth, I didn’t really have a choice. I had to do right by them and right by the story.”
Graeber shows in his novel that this man cannot be viewed as only a murder, but also a doting father, a husband, a favored son and a best friend. He explains that you must know all of the components to truly understand the story.
“Nursing is the most trusted profession by Americans, but behind the uniforms, the nurses’ uniform, or the doctors’ uniform, the priest or any of it, there are real people with real problems,” he said.
Through Graeber’s hard work and dedication, we have the most clear and concise telling of the events as is possible. “The Good Nurse” has become a New York Times Best Seller and international sensation.
“The most terrifying book published this year,” Kirkus Reviews proclaimed. “It is also one of the most thoughtful. ‘The Good Nurse’ is gripping, sad, suspenseful, rhythmic and beautifully documented.”
Since the release Graeber has been featured on CNN, CBS, “60 Minutes,” BBC World News and a multitude of other interviews for the anticipating public.
Last week Graeber came to Ole Miss as a guest speaker for the Journalism 271 students.
“It really was an amazing experience to speak with such a prolific crime writer,” journalism major William Morrow said. “It was so helpful as budding journalists to speak with someone who’s been there, done that.”
Charles Graeber was born in Iowa to a long line of doctors and surgeons. Though he originally pursued a career in the medical field, Graeber seemed destined for journalism. He admits to being an exceptionally shy child and says his writing drew him out of his self-imposed shell, forcing him to interact directly through interviews and other social aspects of journalism. Soon after college he began to travel as he wrote for a multitude of papers. From joining a circus in Berlin to fishing for piranhas in the Pantanal, he seems to have lived in a way that most can only dream. After nearly getting caught up in a civil war in Cambodia, however, Graeber returned to Nantucket.
Graeber’s journalistic work soon escalated to a national audience. He received honors including the 2011 Overseas Press Club award for his work in Japan after the devastating tsunami, was nominated for multiple National Magazine Awards, an American Poet’s Prize and won a New York Press Club award for the best magazine reportage. He wrote for journalistic greats such as National Geographic, the New York Times, Vogue and Men’s Journal. Charles Graeber has ascended from wandering journalist to a writer in continuous demand.
“He doesn’t so much tell his stories as heave them like flaming Molotov cocktails that set your worldview on fire,” writer Robert Cocuzzo said in “Nantucket Magazine” last year.
Graeber will host a book reading at Square Books tonight at 5 p.m.
“I have great respect for the university and great respect for the literary traditions of that area,” Graeber said. “Coming back to Oxford is a privilege, it’s not off the map at all – it was on the map all along.”
The book will be available for purchase tonight and attendees with have the opportunity to meet Graeber.