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Hospital Worker Says He Killed Up to 50

Inquiry: Self-proclaimed 'angel of death' told police he ended lives of the seriously ill at Glendale Adventist. Task force is continuing investigation, but is so far unable to corroborate the claims.

March 28, 1998|BUCK WARGO DONNA HUFFAKER and JULIE MARQUIS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

A law enforcement task force is investigating claims that a respiratory therapist who proclaimed himself an "angel of death" killed as many as 50 seriously ill patients over nine years at Glendale Adventist Medical Center by depriving them of oxygen or administering lethal injections.

But police said Friday that they were powerless to charge the man, Efren Saldivar of Tujunga, after his alleged March 11 confession because they had no corroborating evidence that a crime has been committed.

Saldivar's brother told a reporter he has left the area and will not be back for a month. The brother, who would not give his name, would not say where the therapist had gone.

As of Friday, officials said, the 450-bed hospital had suspended its entire 44-member respiratory care services department with pay to allow police to more effectively conduct their investigation and to calm public fears. Outside therapists have been brought in to take their place temporarily.

"The whole basis of our investigation is to prove what [Efren Saldivar] stated to us is in fact truth," said Glendale Police Sgt. Rick Young. "Legally, we did everything we could do to hold him. Regrettably, we had to release him."

Young called the case "a rumor we are trying to substantiate" but said, "No one has said, 'Here is a body' and how the person died. We don't have that yet."

But Young acknowledged the possibility that patients' bodies might have to be exhumed and said "all deaths" at the hospital would be probed. Police said they have set up a task force of six investigators working full time at the hospital, poring through medical records of patients.

Saldivar, who was detained for 48 hours but not arrested, told police that he caused "between 40 and 50 deaths" by lethal injections of the muscle relaxant drugs Pavulon or succinylcholine chloride, or by decreasing the oxygen supply of patients who were on a ventilator, according to documents released by state licensing authorities Friday.

The documents recapping Saldivar's interview with police were prepared by attorneys for state licensing authorities, who suspended Saldivar's license March 13. They will attempt to revoke his license at a hearing Tuesday.

"It's absolutely chilling to me, he [allegedly] used drugs and on other occasions did it by blocking the oxygen," Respiratory Care Board Executive Officer Cathleen McCoy said. "Unfortunately, those would be slow and agonizing deaths."

Saldivar told police he killed patients who were unconscious, had do-not-resuscitate orders and "looked like they were ready to die," according to the documents. Asked if he considered himself "an angel of death," he replied, "Yes," the documents say.

Saldivar said "he prided himself in having a very ethical criteria as to how to pick victims," the documents said.

"We don't know that anything wrong happened," said Mark Newmyer, vice president of marketing at Adventist Health-Southern California, at a news conference hastily called by the hospital Friday night. He suggested that anyone who made such a confession "could be crazy."

"There has not been any suspicion of wrongdoing" in the past, he said.

The hospital fired Saldivar March 6.

The suspension of the hospital's respiratory staff "is to assure existing patients that they can be 100% confident that there is no possibility that patients are in jeopardy now and in the future," Newmyer said.

Three unidentified employees from the respiratory care department were suspended two weeks ago on the advice of the Glendale Police Department because "some red flags came up," Young said. He did not elaborate except to say: "If we strongly thought they were a suspect, they would probably be fired right now."

In his confession, Saldivar said he "felt encouraged" by other therapists at the hospital who would sometimes give him room numbers of patients who needed lethal injections.

Saldivar is known to have worked at at least three other hospitals--Glendale Memorial, Pacifica and the former Thompson Memorial Hospital, now called Vencor Hospital of Burbank. Spokespeople at each institution denied knowing anything about him.

Young said the investigation is focusing on Glendale Adventist, but will expand if necessary.

Young said the investigation will take two months or longer to complete. He said it is difficult to prove patients who were about to die have been murdered.

"You can understand our frustration," Young said. "We are looking at people who were on the brink of dying and had a no-resuscitate order on their chart." Respiratory care practitioners help patients with breathing problems, including maintaining equipment to administer oxygen and administering medications as ordered by physicians.

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