L O S A N G E L E S, Jan. 10, 2001 -- Almost three years after allegedly telling police he was the "Angel of Death," a former respiratory therapist was charged today with the murders of six hospital patients.
Efren Saldivar, 31, was accused of administering a drug used by anesthesiologists on patients who are going to be put on artificial respirators to stop them from breathing on their own, Los Angeles Deputy District Attorney Al McKenzie said today at a news conference to announce the charges.
He was ordered to be held without bail, the district attorney said.
The arrest of Saldivar on Tuesday capped a lengthy probe of dozens of deaths at Glendale Adventist Medical Center, where he worked between 1989 and 1997.
Traces of the drug pavulon were found in the tissues of six of the people who died during the time that Saldivar, who allegedly told police that he was responsible for the deaths of dozens of people, worked at the hospital, McKenzie said.
The prosecutor said the long delay between Saldivar's alleged confession in March 1998 and the arrest was necessary for police to build their case against the so-called "Angel of Death."
"The answer is there's a corpus delicti rule — basically it says that a jury can't convict a person, even though they may have said they committed a crime, we have to have independent evidence," McKenzie said.
The prosecutor refused to elaborate on what Saldivar might have said to police since his arrest, saying it was "not appropriate."
Suspect is 'Shocked and Distressed'
After the suspect was arrested on Tuesday, Police Chief Russell Siverling said investigators had an "initial inkling" that Saldivar may have killed patients at other hospitals where he moonlighted.
Saldivar, arrested as he arrived at his job as an electrician's apprentice, was held without bail.
"He's very distraught. He's very shocked and distressed," said Terry M. Goldberg, who has been representing Saldivar in a series of wrongful death lawsuits filed against him and Glendale Adventist.
Investigators have been tight-lipped about the case since it surfaced in March 1998 when the state Respiratory Care Board suspended Saldivar's license.
That month, Saldivar allegedly told police he committed dozens of mercy killings at the medical center between 1989 and 1997. He told police he considered himself the "Angel of Death."
Police said Saldivar told them he was angry at seeing terminally ill patients kept alive and killed them by injecting muscle-paralyzing drugs into their intravenous lines.
In later TV interviews, Saldivar recanted, saying he had lied because he was depressed, suicidal and wanted to be sent to death row. He was fired from the hospital and his license was revoked.
Hospital Cooperates in Investigation
Investigators reviewed the deaths of 171 patients who died while Saldivar was working at the hospital. Fifty-four cases were eliminated because bodies had been cremated.
Of the remainder, 20 deaths were determined to have been suspicious, and paralyzing drugs were found in the bodies of six.
"We found evidence to conclude that … these patients were in fact murdered," the chief said.
Hospital spokeswoman Alicia Gonzalez said officials had no comment. But the hospital issued a letter to patients and visitors from its president, Fred Manchur.
The letter said the hospital has cooperated with police and that doctors met with more than 250 families to review medical records.
"Please be assured that we have taken extraordinary precautions to protect our patients and have devoted significant resources to implementing new quality improvement policies," Manchur wrote.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.