"I just couldn't stop, I couldn't stop it."
Cullen, born in West Orange, New Jersey, is the youngest of the nine children, two of whom later died, of a working class family. His father, who worked as a bus driver and was 58 at the time of his birth, died when he was only eight months old. His mother was a housewife. Two of his siblings died young in adulthood; Charles cared for one of them. At the mere age of nine, he tried to kill himself by drinking chemicals from a chemistry set. That was the first of his 20 attempts on his own life. On December 6, 1977, his mother died in a car accident during which one of his sisters was behind the wheel, leading to him dropping out of high school. In April the following year, he enlisted in the U.S. Navy and was assigned to the submarine corps. He served on the USS Woodrow Wilson, an attack submarine armed with Poseidon missiles, and eventually became a petty officer third class. He liked to assist the ship's doctor with vaccinations and once served a shift dressed in surgical clothing and latex gloves he had stolen from the medical cabinet. He was transferred to the USS Canopus, a supply ship, and spent the rest of his time in the Navy there. On March 30, 1984, he was medically discharged and enrolled in the Mountainside Hospital School of Nursing in Glen Ridge, New Jersey. In 1987, he married one Adrienne Taub, with whom he had two daughters.
Killings, Arrest and Incarceration
In 1988, Cullen got his first hospital job at the burn unit of the St. Barnabas Medical Center. He later told homicide detectives Dan Baldwin and Tim Braun that he committed the first of his many murders that he could remember there, the victim being one Judge John W. Yengo, Sr., who had been admitted to the hospital after suffering an allergic reaction to blood-thinning medicine. He quit working there in 1992 when the hospital management began noticing the contaminated IV bags and began working at the Warren Hospital in Phillipsburg. In January the next year, his wife filed for divorce, having reported him twice for domestic violence. Two months later, he broke into the apartment of a nurse he had dated and her son. After being arrested, he pleaded guilty to trespassing and received one year's probation. Though he wanted to quit working as a nurse, he had to continue to afford the child support he paid. In spite of his odd employment record, he had no problems finding work due to a nationwide lack of nurses. Another reason was that, at the time, there was no form of registry that kept track of nurses with mental problems. He quit his job at the Warren Hospital and began working at the intensive care/cardiac care unit of the Hunterdon Medical Center in Flemington, where he killed at least five people during his last nine months of employment. He then briefly worked at the Morristown Memorial Hospital, but was fired in August 1997 for poor performance and found a job at the Liberty Nursing and Rehabilitation Center in Allentown, Pennsylvania. As the years passed by, his debts mounted, in part because he was unable to pay his child support. In May of 1998, he finally had to file for bankruptcy.
Over the course of the next two years, Cullen worked at three different hospitals. There were no suspicions that he was a killer until a coworker of his at the St. Barnabas Hospital in Allentown, Pennsylvania found a stash of unused medications in a trash can. It was considered suspicious because the drugs had no recreational use or any value outside a hospital. Cullen was identified as the thief and was fired in June, 2002. An investigation into the many deaths that had occurred on Cullen's watch was started by the Lehigh County District Attorney's office, with some other nurses with whom Cullen had worked as witnesses. Though he had been present at over 50% of the deaths and only worked 20% of the available hours, no background check on him was done and the investigation was shut down after nine months due to a lack of evidence. Cullen then got a nursing job at the critical care unit of the Somerset Medical Center in Somerville, New Jersey. He committed most of his confirmed murders there. In 2003, his criminal behavior became increasingly apparent; he would look into the records of patients he wasn't treating and would administer to patients drugs which they had not been prescribed. In July the same year, the hospital was notified by the director of the New Jersey Poison Information and Education System that there had been some suspicious overdoses suggesting that an Angel of Death was active at the hospital, the management of which failed to report the case to the authorities before October, by which time more people had been killed by Cullen. On October 31, he was fired for lying in his job application.
On December 12, Cullen was arrested following a two-month-long investigation of him by the authorities. He was charged with the murder of Reverend Florian J. Gall and the attempted murder of Jin Kyung Han. Cullen didn't make any resistance at all and not only pleaded guilty to both counts, but confessed to several more murders during his past hospital jobs. In April and July of 2004, he confessed to a total of 29 murders and six attempted, though he admitted that he couldn't remember all of his murders. It is very possible that he has in fact killed many, many more; some place his total number of murders at over 400. He avoided the death penalty through a plea bargain with the prosecution and is currently serving a sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole at the New Jersey State Prison in Trenton, New Jersey. His killings and the fact that he was able to move from hospital to hospital without raising any suspicion also had an impact on the U.S. legal system regarding hospitals. The penalties for hospitals for failing to report suspicious fatalities became harsher, hospitals that report poor staff performance now have better legal defense options and hospital workers are now required to undergo background checks for criminal records and also to register their fingerprints.
Like a typical Angel of Death, Cullen targeted patients at hospitals at which he worked. Most of his victims were no younger than in their 60s. He killed them by poisoning their IV bags, usually with insulin, digoxin, a heart medicine, or epinephrine.
During interrogation, Cullen claimed to have killed his victims to keep them from getting "coded", a reference to "Code Blue", a hospital term for cardiac arrest. He felt that if they had, they would have become dehumanized. He also felt that the hospital managements were to blame for many of his murders, arguing that they should have stopped him from killing when they had the chance. He also claimed, like many Angels of Death, that he killed his victims in order to put them out of their suffering.
On Criminal Minds
Cullen was mentioned in Limelight by Agent Jill Morris when she says the unsub might be the most prolific serial killer in New Jersey since him. Hotch retorts by asking about some of the names of Cullen's victims, and when she doesn't know them, he remarks that in serial killer cases that receive a lot of media attention, everybody remembers the killers but not the victims.
Cullen's background and ways of escaping detection may have been used for some of the inspiration for Sara McLean, the unsub of Unforgettable. Like Cullen, Sara was a nurse whose crimes were initially never connected and went undetected for years because she constantly kept switching to different hospitals. Also, some of Sara's crimes were initially suspected on other employees.