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July 8, 2013

Local woman helped catch murderer

Amy Ridgway to appear on "Katie" today

By Denise Richardson Staff Writer
The Daily Star

---- — Amy Ridgway of Oneonta helped stop a serial killer.

While a nurse at Somerset Medical Center in Somerville, N.J., in 2003, she became a confidential informant to help detectives capture Charles Cullen, a colleague and friend who killed dozens of patients during a 16-year career.

Ridgway said she became an informant and is speaking about the case to give a voice to patient victims and in defense of the nursing profession.

At 3 p.m. today, Ridgway will appear on the nationally syndicated television show, “Katie.” “I Stopped A Serial Killer!” airs locally on WUTR, channel 7, in the Oneonta area. Tim Braun, a detective from the case, also is interviewed by host Katie Couric on the program.

Cullen, who was sentenced in 2006, is serving multiple life terms at the New Jersey state prison in Trenton, according to the Associated Press. He claimed to have killed 40 hospital and nursing home patients during his nursing career, but some experts said the victim tally was higher, with estimates numbering into the hundreds. 

A prosecutor said Cullen was driven by a compulsion to kill and wasn’t an “angel of death” administering mercy killings. Some patients he killed had been on a road to recovery, the prosecutor said.

Ridgway’s identity was revealed in “The Good Nurse: A True Story of Medicine, Madness and Murder,” a book by Charles Graeber published this year by Twelve/Hachette Book Group.

“The book really gets it right,” Ridgway said. She has been promoting the book and interviewed for other media reports, including “60 Minutes,” a segment she said will be broadcast again this summer.

Ridgway, whose maiden name was Park, spent most of her childhood growing up in Norwich and was Norwich High School homecoming queen in 1983. She attended St. Elizabeth College of Nursing in Utica, graduating in 1988.

She became a travel nurse and met Cullen while working weekend shifts at Somerset Medical Center. They became friends. Nurses sometimes aren’t nice to each other, she said, and she sensed Cullen was an underdog.

“He was so shy, and I’m very very drawn to shy people,” Ridgway said during an interview at The Daily Star office Saturday. Cullen had a sardonic wit and was always there to help her with patients, she said.

“He was an awesome teammate,” Ridgway said. She was upset when he was fired in autumn 2003, a development followed by suspicions at the hospital that he had stolen drugs or administered the wrong medication.

“It never occurred to me it was murder,” she said. She later asked herself, “How did I not see? How did I not know?”

“The Good Nurse” offers insights into Cullen’s character, details his career at multiple hospital and presents responses by hospitals and the medical community to his behavior. Graeber also shares stories of victims and their families.  

The book covers the criminal investigation and how Ridgway, then known as Amy Loughren, worked with Somerset County detectives Tim Braun and Danny Baldwin, who were investigating deaths of some patients with suspicious levels of the drug digoxin. As “Agent Amy,” she helped with the probe into Cullen’s actions and use of the computerized Pyxis MedStations, a system to distribute drugs, and the Cerner PowerChart, which stored patient records.

Detectives interviewed all the nurses at Somerset Medical Center with a hospital representative present, Ridgway said. When the hospital representative left during her interview, Baldwin secretly showed her Pyxis computer records documenting Cullen’s activities.

The moment was a turning point for Ridgway.

“I knew he was a murderer,” she said.

Ridgway said she wonders if Cullen’s true character was that of a serial killer — and the underdog, a pretense.

She also wondered if he had hurt any of her patients, she said, and in time figured out from reviewing hospital documents that he had murdered at least one woman in her care.

The woman had trouble with a defibrillator, and Cullen injected her with lidocaine, Ridgway said. Later, a resident refused to sign off on the use of lidocaine because the patient’s allergy to the drug was listed on her chart.

When the resident asked her who administered the lidocaine, she replied that she had, thinking that Cullen had made a mistake, Ridgway said. Later Cullen told her “don’t ever cover for me,” she said.

During the criminal investigation, she wore a wire to record her conversation Dec. 13, 2003, when she and Cullen met at a restaurant.

“I told him I knew he was murdering people,’’ Ridgway said. Cullen’s face became pasty, his voice changed and he became “hard, angry” and no longer was “my friend, Charlie,” she said.

“It was the eeriest moment of my entire life,” she said.

She wanted to take him to police but he refused, saying “I want to go down fighting,” she said, and they left separately. Ridgway said she went out the front door and “kind of collapsed” into the arms of Baldwin. Cullen subsequently was arrested.

Authorities held Cullen, Ridgway said, but the case was circumstantial and they needed a confession. Two or three days later, Ridgway said Braun arranged for her to go to the Somerset County prosecutor’s office. Cullen didn’t want to confess, she said, but she explained to him that withholding his story would mean dragging his family and her through a trial. 

“He talked,” she said Saturday. “The rest is history.”

Ridgway, 48, said she is studying to become a nurse practitioner and plans to resume employment at a travel nurse later this summer. She hasn’t been paid for her media interviews or promotion of Graeber’s book, she said, citing as her motivation a chance to give balance to a story that otherwise might focus on a serial killer.

“Nurses all over the world are doing the right thing,” she said.

Graeber, in his acknowledgment, said Ridgway’s “time, energy and bravery made every difference.”