GLENDALE — Prosecutors charged a former respiratory therapist Wednesday with murdering six elderly hospital patients whose exhumed bodies were found to contain evidence of a common but dangerous drug that stops breathing.
The case against Efren Saldivar, 31, included two special circumstances – poisoning and multiple murder – which could lead to the death penalty or life in prison without possibility of parole if he is convicted.
Saldivar, who once called himself the “Angel of Death” and then recanted, had been under suspicion since early 1998 in deaths at Glendale Adventist Medical Center.
“After years of hard work, the combined efforts of both the Glendale Police Department and the district attorney’s office have paid off in the filing of charges against Efren Saldivar,” Los Angeles County District Attorney Steve Cooley said.
Saldivar was arrested by Glendale police on Tuesday and was held without bail. Arraignment was scheduled for Thursday in Glendale Superior Court. Prosecutors said they will decide whether to seek the death penalty after the preliminary hearing.
The victims died between Dec. 30, 1996, and Aug. 28, 1997. They were identified as Salbi Asatryan, 75, Eleanora Schlegel, 77, Jose Alfaro, 82, Luina Schidlowski, 87, Balbino Castro, 87, and Myrtle Brower, 84.
Toxicological testing showed the drug Pavulon in the remains of all six and it was not part of legitimate treatment of five of those patients, Cooley said at his Los Angeles office.
Deputy District Attorney Al MacKenzie said Pavulon is frequently used in hospitals to stop the normal breathing of patients who are put on artificial respiratory devices.
“If you’re going to do surgery, you’re going to put the person on an artificial breathing device,” MacKenzie said. “If you give the person the drug Pavulon and don’t create an artificial means to breathe, they die.”
The complaint also alleges one count of receiving stolen property, the drug Versed. A source familiar with the case said that Versed, used to induce sleep in patients but can be fatal if too much is used, was recently found at Saldivar’s home.
Glendale Adventist officials commented on the case at a hospital news conference. “We have no idea how Saldivar got Pavulon,” spokesman Mark Newmyer said. “We find it hard to believe that a licensed medical professional could do such a thing.”
Newmyer said the hospital has implemented strict regulations, including keeping drugs such as Pavulon locked up, using a computer to record every detail of the usage of patient ventilators, and accounting for all unused medications after emergencies.
Attorney Terry M. Goldberg, who represents Saldivar in a half-dozen wrongful-death lawsuits, said his client is indigent and will need a public defender in the criminal case.
Goldberg said the arrest came as he was preparing a motion seeking dismissal of the lawsuits because the families suing Saldivar had failed to show he was responsible. The attorney said he expects the civil suits to be stayed until the criminal case is ended.
“Unfortunately in society we judge people before all sides are heard. I hope people will be patient in ferreting out the truth in this case,” Goldberg said at his office.
Newmyer said there were four lawsuits pending against the hospital and two of the four patients involved were among the six named as murder victims. He would not identify them.
Early in the investigation the hospital suspended 38 people in the respiratory care department, fired four in addition to Saldivar and let most return to work. Newmyer continued to refuse comment on what prompted the four other firings.
Hospital board Chairman Robert Carmen said it had been difficult to wait for the results of the investigation.
“Our journey to find the truth is coming to a close and to all those affected, I can say, we feel their pain,” Carmen said.
Cooley said the long delay in arresting Saldivar was not unusual in cases with such complex evidence. He said similar cases have taken three to four years to develop.
A toxicology team assembled to evaluate evidence from the exhumations included Dr. Brian D. Andresen, of the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, an expert in analysis of Pavulon.
MacKenzie, who has tried other high-profile cases with complex scientific evidence, has been working with Deputy District Attorney Brian Kelberg, who was a key witness in O.J. Simpson’s murder trial and heads the prosecutor’s medical-legal section.
The hospital probe began in February 1998. Police said that a month later Saldivar told investigators he committed dozens of mercy killings at Glendale Adventist between 1989 and 1997 and that he considered himself the “Angel of Death.”
Police said Saldivar told them he was angry at seeing terminally ill patients kept alive.
Saldivar was in custody only briefly at that time because police lacked evidence. He later said in interviews that he lied to police because he was depressed, suicidal and wanted to be sent to death row.
Police looked into 171 deaths that occurred while Saldivar worked at the hospital. Fifty-four were eliminated because the bodies were cremated. Eventually the probe focused on 20 deaths that raised suspicions.
AP Special Correspondent Linda Deutsch contributed to this report.