FSC analysis may seal 'angel's' fate
The re-arrest on Jan. 16 of Efren Saldivar, the self-proclaimed "Angel of Death" and alleged killer of the terminally ill at a Glendale hospital, could not have happened without the assistance of the Lab's Forensic Science Center and its director Brian Andresen.
Special analyses by the center gave Glendale investigators the evidence they could use to arrest Saldivar and charge him with the murders of six patients.
Saldivar, a former respiratory therapist at Glendale Adventist Medical Center, was first arrested in 1998 following an investigation based on a tip from a fellow hospital worker. He confessed to killing between 100 and 200 patients that he deemed "ready to die," but later recanted his confession, citing depression and a desire to receive the death penalty.
In his original confession, Saldivar detailed his use of two paralyzing drugs, Pavulon and succinylcholine chloride, injected into the IVs of patients. After withdrawing his confession, he was released as the investigation continued, although his therapist's license was revoked.
Andresen recalls that Michael Peat, then president of the American Academy of Forensic Sciences (AAFS), contacted him in early 1999.
"Peat was initially approached for support and he recommended the Lab's Forensic Science Center to perform the toxicology analysis on exhumed tissues," Andresen said. "Glendale police did not have the capabilities to perform this type of toxicology work."
"Peat knew that the Lab had the right combination of highly sensitive and sophisticated equipment and also the knowledge-base to handle these types of unusual samples," said Andresen. "He knew me through the AAFS, and in March 1999, I got my first outline of the case at the Glendale Taskforce Headquarters."
Of the 171 deaths at Glendale Adventist that occurred on Saldivar's shift in the last two years of his employment, the 20 "most mysterious" cases were given to the Los Angeles County coroner's office, which began exhuming the bodies during the last week of May 1999.
Andresen traveled to Los Angeles, where he assisted in the first four autopsies. He prepared and demonstrated the proper sampling equipment for the coroner's office personnel and showed them how the evidence needed to be retrieved and preserved.
"Over the next 16 weeks, the remaining exhumations and sample collections were done, and I received them here at the Lab," Andresen said.
Because succinylcholine chloride breaks down very quickly into chemicals normally found in human tissue, Andresen concentrated his testing on Pavulon, a potent, synthetic muscle relaxant often administered to patients on artificial respiration. This compound is very powerful and is usually given at very low levels. It was previously thought to dissipate quickly in the body.
"I was very surprised at first that I found anything," Andresen said. "I went in to this with a totally open mind."
After six positive hits for Pavulon, he made his preliminary presentation to the Los Angeles District Attorney's office in December 1999, after which all of his results were double-checked by their outside sources.
On Jan. 5, Deputy District Attorney Al MacKenzie and the Glendale Taskforce reviewed a final presentation at the Los Angeles Coroner's Office that outlined all of the toxicology findings and outside reviews.
"The district attorney felt it was time to act," said Andresen, "and they went ahead with the arrest, based primarily on my Pavulon findings in six patients out of the 20 exhumations."
MacKenzie commented that Andresen had invented "a new scientific protocol, which I hope will be of use in future investigations."
Overall, reflected Andresen, "It was very exciting. I applied some of the best tools and equipment for this type of work available at the Lab. Our biological toxin analysis for other similar investigations and nonproliferation activities are now all set up, should a similar need arise."
The Forensic Science Center is dedicated to teaching, developing new forensic methods of analysis, designing and building advanced laboratory and field-portable analysis hardware, and providing unique problem-solving capabilities, all combined in a security facility. The FSC provides support for a variety of investigations concerning new field collection methods, the characterization of total unknowns, firearms examinations, drug analysis, chemical fingerprinting of suspect materials, and the development of new analysis protocols.
Over the years, FSC scientists have provided forensic support to such notorious cases as the World Trade Center explosion, toxic fumes in a Riverside hospital emergency room, the UNABOMER, and the Fremont serial bomber. They also characterized a shipment from Japan, which federal agents suspected was heroin, and identified tetrodotoxin (TTX), a deadly biotoxin derived from the pufferfish.
Most recently, the FSC supported the Democratic National Convention by providing a mobile forensic laboratory capability. They are also on call for emergency analysis, such as in the case of a Livermore man who committed suicide by ingesting Malathion.
Andresen notes that although the FSC's primary mission is to support U.S. nonproliferation and counterterrorism programs, the FSC's capabilities can be used to assist law enforcement where there are special needs, such as unusual analyses or new protocols. "We're not in the business of routine police lab work, but if you've got something particularly tricky, difficult, or out of the ordinary, give us a call."