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GRAVEYARD SHIFT

Digging Deep for 'Angel's' Terrible Toll

Glendale police endured nightmares and exhumed 20 bodies to find out what Efren Saldivar had been doing in the dark. 'Prepare to fail,' an expert warned.

April 29, 2002|PAUL LIEBERMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A lieutenant told John McKillop, "Chief wants to see us."

McKillop was the sergeant of robbery-homicide. He hated "friend of chief" cases. They never did you any good.

There were three visitors in Chief Russell Siverling's office, led by a man nervously rubbing his head. The visitors were executives from Glendale Adventist Medical Center. The nervous one, Dave Nelson, had taken a call two weeks earlier from a man who identified himself only as "Grant." The caller said a "lady friend" at the hospital knew a respiratory therapist who had "helped a patient die fast."

Maybe it was patients. Grant had been sketchy. He refused to name his lady friend, and he could not identify the killer. He suggested someone read him a list of the respiratory therapists--perhaps he'd recall the name. He left a pager number.

A hospital official beeped Grant the next day and read him the ledger of RTs, all 38 of them. He thought "Efren" sounded familiar.

Under other circumstances, the hospital might have written off the flaky caller. He admitted that he hoped to make money off his tip, even though his sponsor in Alcoholics Anonymous warned him that "smacks of blackmail." During other calls, about the only new tidbit he gave them was his last name, Brossus.

But hospital officials could not dismiss him. The year before, one of their own employees had alerted a supervisor to a rumor that a respiratory therapist on the graveyard shift, Efren Saldivar, was wielding a "magic syringe."

McKillop wanted to ask, "Why didn't you call us then?" Instead he said, "Here's what we do."

Minutes later, he was back at his desk, dialing a pager--and it did not belong to Grant Brossus.

On that afternoon--March 2, 1998--McKillop was about to get an education in a distinct breed of medical killer. "Angels of Death," they were called. People often saw them as agents of mercy. But McKillop would learn that there was nothing heavenly about these quiet executioners or how they often got away with murder for so long. It would take luck, nightmares and four years for him to get his "angel."

*

A PAGER VIBRATED on the hip of Glendale's top detective, Will Currie. He was on a witness stand. He peeked down and saw that the call was from his former partner. McKillop was his sergeant now, but he'd have to wait.

They'd always been an odd pairing.

McKillop, 36, carried himself with the swagger of a former basketball point guard used to controlling the action, or trying to. He wore his dark hair slicked back and had piercing eyes with an edge of impatience. Raised by a single mother in Queens, N.Y., he saved his Halloween candy as a kid so he could sell it. By the time he switched coasts and joined the Glendale Police Department, he was still an operator. While other cops scrounged guard jobs on the side, McKillop started his own special events business, providing security, tents and red carpets for movie premieres.

Currie, on the other hand, was a sad-eyed man of 40 who spoke haltingly in an accent that was hard to place. He was from South Africa, where he had been a ranger at a game reserve, showing tourists lions and rhinos, until he followed one guest, a long-legged blond, to California. Their marriage didn't last, but Currie found a career when he bought a "how-to" book the day before a police civil service exam.

Now his Glendale colleagues marveled at how he used the play-dumb demeanor of TV's Columbo. Currie once told a Pizza Hut robber it was "too bad" how those newfangled security cameras could see through a ski mask. The fellow went for it and said, "OK, I was there. . . ."

Currie finished testifying against a Brand Boulevard slasher and called from the courthouse.

"Get your ass in here," McKillop said.

Next, they enlisted Investigator Tony Futia, who was 6 foot 3, bench-pressed 400 pounds and had a night law degree. Futia couldn't understand why his colleagues seemed so excited. When he ran a background check on Grant Brossus, he found arrests going back 15 years for burglary, grand theft and transporting cocaine. The hospital's tipster had done time at Folsom and Corcoran state prisons.

They tracked him down at his father's house. Brossus did not invite them in. The whole business about patients being killed had been a misunderstanding, he said. He'd heard wrong. "No disrespect," he said, and shut the door.

Next was Brossus' "lady friend," who supposedly knew the killer. Administrators at Glendale Adventist had guessed she was Ursula Anderson, who often worked graveyard shifts with Saldivar. Currie and Futia found her at the hospital, which overlooks the Ventura Freeway at the base of the Verdugo Mountains.

"Grant made it up," she said.

A few nights later, they returned to see Bob Baker, the respiratory therapist who had reported the "magic syringe" rumor to a supervisor a year before. Baker insisted they meet outside in the dark. He kept looking side to side. Did he want to talk in the car? No, he said, "I'm a little claustrophobic."

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