Tuesday, June 18, 2024

Cardinal Sins: ‘Angel of Death’ poisons patients

By Bryn Fawn

Hospitals are often the last line of defense against a trip to the pearly gates. Nurses and doctors are entrusted with our wellbeing to give us a rapid recovery. Yet, one nurse decided to kill instead of heal in California, giving him the nickname “Angel of Death.”

Robert Diaz was born in 1938, one of 12 siblings. He was often ill, which prevented him from attending school. Diaz later dropped out due to his ailments and joined the Marine Corps at 18. However, Diaz disappeared for six months and was promptly discharged with the reason of being unable to acclimate to military life. 

Diaz then chose to pursue his childhood dream of working in the medical field. He joined a vocational nursing program, yet insisted his relatives refer to him with the title of “doctor.” Vocational nurses do not have the same responsibilities as a registered nurse, and often work with the elderly and disabled under the watchful eye of an RN. 

Diaz jumped from one temporary nursing position to the next, and suddenly, hospitals began to notice a spike in deaths for their elderly patients. In just a few months, there were at least 30 suspicious deaths on file. 

These patients’ bodies were exhumed and autopsied. The toxicology screens showed high amounts of lidocaine, a medication often used to treat irregular heartbeats in elderly patients. A normal amount is  between 50 and 100 milligrams, but these victims had 1,000 milligrams or more. This wasn’t a simple mistake or death from natural causes.

The hunt to find the common link began, and soon it was discovered that only one nurse had been in proximity of these patients: Diaz. 

Diaz was first suspected after the death of Estel Jones at Chino Community Hospital in Chino, California. Jones’s demise was originally attributed to natural causes. However, investigators ruled it homicide after finding Diaz’s track record during his night shifts. 

The hospital was lackluster, as nurses and doctors often struggled to read monitors and doctors often did not arrive to emergencies quickly enough. Code blues, or a patient suffering cardiac arrest, were not uncommon in the hospital, especially at night. However, the hospital experienced such deaths less than once a month, but during Diaz’s employment, the body count grew to 17. 

Diaz believed himself to be an Egyptian mystic and said he could predict when a seizure was about to occur. Strangely, when these seizures were about to arise, he’d always insist on his coworkers taking a break or early lunch. 

Police investigated Diaz’s home and found numerous bottles of lidocaine. Diaz was originally charged with illegal drug possession, but the charges were later dropped. 

During the investigation, the body count grew to 50, but only 12 were undeniably homicides. His murders took place from March to April of 1981.

Nov. 24, 1981 Diaz was arrested on twelve counts of first-degree murder. Diaz’s defense requested a bench trial, or a trial in which there is no jury and the judge alone decides the ruling. Diaz was convicted of all counts and sentenced to death.

Diaz died of an unspecified illness after sitting on wCalifornia’s death row for 26 years. He never made it to the gas chamber as he was originally sentenced to. The judge who handed him the sentence died in 2006, and his wife told The Press-Enterprise, a local Californian newspaper, that he often walked along the beach to contemplate his decision. 

Diaz is not the first, nor will he be the last, angel of death in America. His case changed criminology, as there was a fight to keep the proceedings public. Diaz’s case is  now often used in other cases. 

“It was a very important case,” retired Press-Enterprise managing editor Mel Opotowsky  said to the Press-Enterprise. “It said for any criminal proceedings, even if it wasn’t a trial, the public had a constitutional right to be there, and to override that a judge had to have substantial evidence that it could cause harm to the defendant. It’s been cited hundreds of times over the years.”

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