It took 20 years to arrest former respiratory therapist Jennifer Anne Hall for the murder of elderly patient Fern Franco, but a probable cause statement reveals that Hall may have murdered as many as nine patients in total, the Kansas City Star is reporting.
Hall worked at Hedrick Medical Center in Missouri between December 16, 2001 to May 21, 2002, during which time the rates of cardiac arrest, also known as “Codes” or “Code Blues”, rose alarmingly, according to the probable cause statement.
Hospital employees deemed these incidents “medically suspicious”, counting a total of eighteen “Code Blues” in the time Hall worked there, and of those eighteen, nine died “despite advanced resuscitative efforts,” the statement says. Staff’s suspicions were also raised over the fact that Hall found and reported each of the Codes, the statement says.
Fern Franco was a pneumonia patient who staff discovered deceased at 5:50 a.m. by Hall and a coworker identified only by their initials, J.A., the statement says. J.A. told police that Hall was near and even entered Franco's room with J.A. at the time of the code, the statement says. J.A. added that having a respiratory therapist join her in the room was a first while she began resuscitative efforts on the patient, declaring Franco dead at 6 a.m., according to the statement.
Franco, 75-years-old, was only given atropine and epinephrine during her resuscitation efforts, as confirmed by the supervising physician, the statement says. However, coroner Scott Lindley conducted an autopsy on Franco to obtain tissue samples, which showed the presence of succinylcholine and morphine, the statement says. Medical records and physicians treating her confirmed Franco had never been prescribed either, according to the statement.
Former Chief Medical Examiner of New York City and the chief forensic pathologist for the New York State Police also gave his opinion that Franco’s cause of death was acute succinylcholine poisoning, the statement says.
Also consulted was Dr. John P. Rice, professor of mathematics in psychiatry at Washington University School of Medicine, where he “performed a statistical analysis of the code death rates during Hall’s employment”, and he found that “Hall’s proximity to the deaths exhibited ‘a pattern that would happen less than one in a million times’”, according to the statement.
Succinylcholine is used as a muscle relaxant and anesthesia, and “for skeletal muscle relaxation during intubation, mechanical ventilation, and surgical procedures,” according to drugbank.com.
But when used to poison someone, it paralyzes muscles and the diaphragm, making the victim suffocate while being completely aware of what is happening, the statement explains. Morphine also suppresses respiration, the statement adds.
After Hall was put on administrative leave on May 18, 2002, the “Code Blue” rates at the hospital decreased back to the previous frequency of averaging one a year, the statement says.
“Hall’s victim was a sick, defenseless, elderly woman who was depending on Hall to care for her physical ailment within a medical facility,” the statement reads. Hall has never made an attempt to speak with police about her actions, nor has she ever shown remorse, the statement adds.
Charles O’Hara, an 88-year-old world War II veteran, was admitted for high temperature, vomiting, and agitation on February 2, 2002, then died two days later, CBS says in a report naming five of the alleged victims.
Coval Gann, an 82-year-old retired conservation agent, is also named in the CBS report.
David Harper was only 37-years-old when he was hospitalized with pneumonia, though he was about to be discharged before he died on March 20, 2002, CBS says.
Shirley Eller, 49, was also about to be discharged within a day after recovering from pneumonia, but she collapsed and died on March 9, 2002, CBS says.
The deaths were ruled as natural causes in the lawsuit, CBS states. But Eller’s sister found it baffling, because other than smoking, Eller was healthy, she told CBS.
The lawsuit was filed in 2010 on behalf of relatives of the five named patients, CBS reports. The Supreme Court threw it out in 2019, ruling that it the statute of limitations had run out by the time it was filed, CBS says.
St. Luke’s Health System took over operations of the hospital more than a year after the deaths, and said they are “looking forward to a final resolution of the investigation”, they said in a statement.
However, Hall’s defense attorney, Matt O’Connor, says his client had no access to any such drugs, and is being targeted because of a prior arson conviction of which she was cleared in 2005, CBS reports. The nursing staff believed Hall did have access to pharmaceuticals, according to the probable cause statement.
Hall was convicted of an arson at Cass Regional Medical Center in Harrisonville, also in Missouri, which was her former place of employment before Hedrick, CBS reports. She was later acquitted after spending a year in prison for the crime, CBS says.
O’Connor expressed exasperation over Hall being charged with the murders after the arson acquittal, according to CBS.
"To go through it once is terrible. To go through it twice is a recurring nightmare," O'Connor said.
He pointed out that Hall’s proximity to the patients seemed normal, given how small of a hospital it is, CBS says.
Hall, now 41, pleaded not guilty in May 2022 and is being held without bond, CBS reports. A preliminary hearing has been set for August, according to the Kansas City Star.