Treasures of the Valley

Glendale Adventist Hospital and the Angel of Death – Part 3

This will wrap up the bizarre tale of Efren Saldivar, a self-professed “angel of death,” one who would ease his terminal patients into death just a little earlier than they would have naturally. After nearly 10 years of this, from 1988 to 1998, suspicions were raised enough for the police to get involved. Amazingly, Saldivar confessed. But without any evidence they couldn’t prosecute him.

The Glendale Police Dept. put together a task force to try to find enough evidence to prosecute Saldivar. They lacked any physical evidence and, with no witnesses, they at least needed victims. Saldivar had by his own admission killed either by suffocation or by administering lethal amounts of drugs to his patients. One of the drugs, a muscle relaxant called succinylcholine, breaks down in the body naturally, but another Saldivar used, Pavulon, might still be present in his victims’ buried bodies.

Now came the daunting task of digging up evidence, literally. About a thousand patients had died on Saldivar’s watch. Each case was examined and 171 looked suspicious enough to consider digging up. Of these, 54 were found to have been cremated.

Exhumation of buried bodies is always a last resort in an investigation. It’s hard on the families and doesn’t always give results. What’s more, the drug the detectives were looking for is used routinely during operations. They had to find unusual amounts of the drug in these decomposing bodies. So the detectives really did their homework and identified the 20 bodies most likely to reveal the presence of Pavulon in lethal doses.

In the summer of 1999, they began exhuming bodies. Samples were taken from livers, bladders and muscles. A new method of Pavulon detection was developed at Lawrence Livermore Labs just for this case. The first few bodies revealed nothing, and it began to look like the case would unravel. But, near the end of the 20 exhumations, they found six bodies with enough Pavulon to charge Saldivar.

In January 2001, they arrested Saldivar for six murders. Just like he did at his first arrest, he started confessing immediately. But this time his confessed motives had changed. At his first arrest he professed sympathy for patients kept alive past the point of dignity. Now he admitted that he did it out of convenience. If he had too many patients he simply picked out a few to get rid of to lighten his workload. He further told investigators he had killed other patients at other hospitals where he had worked part-time. He said he had lost count, but figured he had killed about 100 people.

This was enough to go to court with. The prosecution had, besides the Pavulon-laden bodies they had exhumed, two star witnesses. One was a fellow respiratory therapist who had allowed Saldivar access to the lethal drugs and received immunity for her testimony. The other was a troublesome patient who had called Saldivar to her room repeatedly to complain. She testified that, while he was there, she suddenly blacked out but came to later. She had apparently been very lucky.

The hospital it seems was largely blameless. Most of his victims were those who would die anyway and so there was no spike in death rates to trigger alarm. Nonetheless its personnel apologized and settled several lawsuits from the victims’ families.

Without hope of a not-guilty verdict, Efren Saldivar cut a plea deal. A guilty plea was offered to avoid the death penalty. In April 2002, Judge Lance Ito (remember him from the O.J. Simpson trial?) sentenced Saldivar to six consecutive life sentences for first-degree murder and 15 more years for attempted murder. The hard work of the Glendale police detectives had paid off and justice was, perhaps, served. Saldivar had been tripped up by the presence lethal amounts of Pavulon that had been painstakingly detected in his victims’ bodies.

Unlike his victims, Saldivar had cheated death. But here’s the ultimate irony: Had Saldivar been sentenced to death and executed, he would have died by lethal injection. The drug that would have been used to kill him? Pavulon.