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'Angel of Death' Held in 6 Glendale Fatalities

January 10, 2001|PAUL LIEBERMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Almost three years after respiratory therapist Efren Saldivar told authorities he was an "angel of death" who had killed as many as 50 patients, the former Glendale hospital worker was arrested Tuesday and accused of murdering at least six people under his care.

Glendale Police Chief Russell Siverling said that six murder counts will be filed today against Saldivar, 31. The charges are based on the discovery by Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory of paralyzing drugs in the bodies of patients who died at Glendale Adventist Medical Center. The six were among 20 patients whose bodies were exhumed as part of a painstaking investigation set off by Saldivar's own 1998 statements.

Police did not publicly disclose the names of the alleged victims, but informed relatives. One victim, 77-year-old Eleanora Schlegel of Pasadena, was on the verge of leaving the hospital, police told relatives.

Siverling suggested that the case could grow, saying police could continue to investigate other deaths at Glendale Adventist and have had an "initial inkling" that Saldivar may have killed patients at other hospitals where he worked part time.

Siverling would not identify the drug found in the six bodies, but detectives told families of several victims that it was Pavulon, a muscle relaxant that suppresses natural breathing.

"We believe we have found the truth, as disturbing as it is," Siverling said in announcing that Saldivar had been arrested without incident at 5:45 a.m. as he drove to a construction job in the San Fernando Valley from the home he shares with his parents in the foothills of Tujunga.

Glendale Police Sgt. Rick Young said Saldivar was "very sullen, very quiet" when his car was stopped at the Balboa Boulevard offramp of the Ronald Reagan Freeway in Granada Hills.

"He's very distraught. He's very shocked and distressed," said Woodland Hills attorney Terry M. Goldberg, who has been representing Saldivar in a series of wrongful death lawsuits filed against the former respiratory therapist and against Glendale Adventist.

Saldivar Could Face Death Penalty

In 1998, after his alleged confession, Saldivar was arrested and held for two days. At the time, he said he had killed 40 to 50 patients over a five-year period with Pavulon and succinylcholine chloride, another drug that stops natural breathing. But he was released because prosecutors said they needed independent evidence to corroborate his statement.

Saldivar retracted his story soon after, saying he had concocted it because he was depressed and wanted to get the death sentence.

The pudgy, bespectacled hospital worker now could, in fact, be eligible for the death chamber--and lethal injection.

By midmorning Tuesday, Goldberg and Saldivar's mother had arrived at the Glendale police station. Isaura Saldivar, 52, appeared somber and refused to comment.

Goldberg was angry that he was not allowed to see his client until 10:40 a.m., nearly five hours after the arrest.

Because police would have been required to inform Saldivar of his Miranda rights to remain silent and see his attorney, the long time alone with detectives raised the possibility that he had, once again, chosen to give a statement.

Saldivar was initially held without bail in Glendale City Jail. Later in the day, after complaining of chest pains, he was diagnosed with high blood pressure and was transferred to County-USC Medical Center's jail ward for observation, a Glendale police spokesman said.

His arraignment is scheduled for Thursday in Glendale.

The key evidence against him so far was developed at the Livermore lab near Oakland, which authorities reportedly chose in part to head off potential defense attacks on the credibility of police laboratory findings.

The choice of the Livermore lab was one of several ways in which the three-year investigation into Saldivar was shaped by prosecutors' experience with Los Angeles' highest-profile murder case--the trial of O.J. Simpson.

In that case, Simpson's attorneys, led by Johnnie L. Cochran Jr., devastated the prosecution case in large part by focusing on flaws in how Los Angeles police and coroner's officials handled evidence.

The deputy district attorney assigned for more than two years to Saldivar's case, Brian Kelberg, is a medical expert who presented much of the technical testimony at Simpson's 1995 trial.

Officials did not "want this to go as the O.J. Simpson case," Glendale's city manager, Jim Starbird, said early last year.

To develop the independent evidence Kelberg said would be necessary to charge Saldivar, police and prosecutors studied the files of 171 patients who died during Saldivar's shifts in the last two years he worked at the hospital. After 54 were eliminated because the bodies had been cremated, a physician consultant helped review the other 117 deaths to determine which were most suspicious.

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