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Glendale Hospital Worker Indicted

Crime: The former respiratory therapist had confessed to killing dozens of patients before recanting. He's accused of injecting lethal drug.

October 18, 2001|PAUL LIEBERMAN and RICHARD FAUSSET | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Former Glendale respiratory therapist Efren Saldivar, the alleged "Angel of Death" who confessed to killing dozens of hospital patients and then recanted his confession, has been indicted on six counts of murder and one count of attempted murder.

In the grand jury indictment unsealed Wednesday, Saldivar, 32, who has been held without bail since his arrest Jan. 9, is accused of injecting seven patients with the paralyzing muscle relaxer Pavulon at Glendale Adventist Medical Center. Six of the patients died, from Dec. 30, 1996, to Aug. 28, 1997. The seventh, who prosecutors said was poisoned in February 1997, was revived and is in a nursing home.

That patient, Jean Coyle, 63, told The Times earlier this year that she remembered blacking out in the hospital right after Saldivar came to her bedside. Coyle, who suffers from emphysema and other ailments, was one of the witnesses called before the Los Angeles County Grand Jury during 10 days of testimony this month, Deputy Dist. Atty. Al MacKenzie said.

The indictment, which was issued by the panel Tuesday, also alleges two special circumstances--administration of poison and multiple murder--that could carry the death penalty. It's still "an open issue" whether prosecutors will seek that sentence, MacKenzie said.

Saldivar also is charged with one count of receiving stolen property, vials of the sleep-inducing drug Versed, which were found during a search of his Tujunga home.

By obtaining an indictment, prosecutors avoid a preliminary hearing, an often lengthy proceeding at which witnesses can be cross-examined by the defense.

Saldivar was informed of the indictment during a brief appearance in court Wednesday morning. Superior Court Judge Dan Thomas Oki told him to return for arraignment on the indictment Nov. 5. Saldivar pleaded not guilty at an initial arraignment after his arrest more than nine months ago.

MacKenzie said additional investigation since then had led to the new charge in the indictment, for the attempted murder of Coyle. "We're still investigating other things," he said, indicating that more counts remain possible stemming from other patient deaths.

Deputy Public Defender Verah Bradford said that she was not surprised by the indictment, but that the extra work of reviewing the grand jury records "sets us back a little bit" in bringing the case to trial.

Bradford belittled the drug possession count as a "a kind of throwaway charge," but has not disclosed the defense strategy. "We're now waiting to see what evidence was presented," she said.

Glendale police began investigating Saldivar in early 1998 after a tipster phoned the 450-bed Glendale Adventist hospital and said a respiratory therapist had "helped a patient die fast."

Called in for questioning on March 11 of that year, Saldivar told a detective and a polygraph examiner that during a five-year period, he injected lethal drugs into numerous patients to end their suffering. "It has to be 40-something. I can't believe it's more than 50," he said, according to a transcript unsealed this year.

But the respiratory therapist also said he may have contributed to "anywhere from 100 to 200" deaths overall at Glendale Adventist--where he usually worked the overnight shift--and at several other hospitals where he moonlighted. The higher total included cases in which he neglected to offer the help a patient needed, he said, such as by providing "not the greatest CPR."

Saldivar was arrested immediately after confessing, but was released two days later when authorities said they needed independent evidence to corroborate his statements. Saldivar then recanted, saying he was depressed and wanted to kill himself by getting a death sentence, so he made up stories about murdering patients.

During the long investigation that followed, a Glendale police task force focused on the 171 most recent deaths during Saldivar's shifts at Glendale Adventist, on the theory that those bodies would be the most likely to have traces of the potent muscle relaxers he was suspected of using. Twenty bodies were exhumed in 1999 and the tissue samples tested at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, where Pavulon was found in at least six bodies, prosecutors have said.

Saldivar was rearrested earlier this year while driving to a construction job in the San Fernando Valley. Having lost his respiratory care license in 1998 based on his statements to police, Saldivar had held various jobs, including one with a telephone dating service, while awaiting the results of the investigation.

Saldivar's brother, Eddie, told The Times this summer that the former respiratory therapist was managing well in a high-security wing of Los Angeles County Jail.

"Once you do enough time, it becomes almost like home," Eddie Saldivar said. "He's comfortable, it's relaxed. . . . The guards like him, and they don't abuse his room when it's time for searches and stuff."

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