'Angel of Death' nurse suspected of killing 40 kids indicted for murder in 35-year-old case

By: Crystal Bonvillian, Cox Media Group National Content Desk

Updated:

SAN ANTONIO, Texas - A former pediatric nurse serving time for killing one of her young patients nearly 35 years ago has been indicted on a new murder charge as authorities aim to keep her from being released next year. 

The new murder indictment against Genene Anne Jones, 66, accuses her of giving a lethal dose of the anti-seizure medication Dilantin to 11-month-old Joshua Sawyer in December 1981, the San Antonio Express-News reported

Jones, dubbed the “Angel of Death,” was suspected of killing between 40 and 60 of the children in her care, first in the pediatric intensive care unit of San Antonio’s charity hospital and then at a pediatrician’s office 60 miles away in Kerrville. Jones is serving a 99-year sentence for giving one of those children, 15-month-old Chelsea McClelland, a fatal dose of the paralytic succinylcholine in 1982. 

Despite that sentence -- and a 60-year sentence she is serving for giving Rolando Santos, 4 weeks old, an overdose of blood thinners that same year -- Jones is due for release in March, the Express-News reported. The convicted killer’s early release date comes under a mandatory release law Texas legislators passed to relieve prison overcrowding. 

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Texas Monthly reported that Bexar County prosecutors launched a secret investigation into Jones’ time as a nurse, and the dozens of infants who died on her shift, a few years ago when it became clear that the State of Texas would be forced to release her in 2018. The new indictment brings with it a $1 million bond.

“It’s the right thing to do,” Bexar County District Attorney Nicholas LaHood told the news magazine. “This woman is evil. Her behavior shocks the conscience of anyone with a moral compass.”

LaHood admitted that prosecuting Jones for Joshua Sawyer’s death would not be easy so many years after the alleged crime. The indictment has also prompted talk in legal circles about the fairness of bringing a murder charge against a person who will soon be legally entitled to her freedom. 

John Convery, president of the Texas Criminal Defense Lawyers Association, told Texas Monthly that the charges amount to “bringing a murder case to solve a parole problem.”

“I’m not being critical of victims,” Convery said. “I’m completely understanding of their incredible loss. But that isn’t justice, it’s revenge.”

The ‘Death Shift’

Jones first came under suspicion during a 15-month period in 1981 and 1982 in which 42 children died while undergoing treatment in the eight-bed pediatric ICU at University Hospital, then known as Bexar County Hospital. Texas Monthly reported that a total of 34 of those patients died during the 3 to 11 p.m. shift, and Jones had directly cared for 20 of them. 

Nurses voiced suspicions about Jones, but supervisors were reluctant to believe that the seemingly dedicated nurse was hurting her patients, the news magazine said. An investigation by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention documented the pattern, finding that children were 25.5 times more likely to suffer a medical emergency -- and 10.7 times more likely to die -- during Jones’ shift.

Coworkers began calling Jones’ shift the “Death Shift.”

Joshua Sawyer arrived at the pediatric ICU in early December 1981, suffering from smoke inhalation after a fire destroyed his family’s home. He was taken to the county hospital because his parents lacked insurance coverage, Texas Monthly reported. 

After suffering seizures and a cardiac arrest, Joshua was treated with Dilantin and phenobarbital, according to his medical records. By his fourth day in the ICU, the seizures had stopped and he was breathing on his own.

“I knew he was doing better,” his mother, Connie Weeks, told Texas Monthly

Weeks said that, at the urging of a friend, she left the hospital to shower, change her clothes and see a movie at a nearby theater. She told the news magazine that it was an usher who found her in the theater to tell her she was needed back at the hospital immediately.

Joshua’s heart had begun racing a few hours after Jones took over his care that day. Though doctors were able to help him through the crisis, he died the following day after suffering two more cardiac arrests. 

Jones was again on duty at the time of the baby’s death. 

Blood tests done between Joshua’s cardiac episodes, but overlooked in the chaos immediately after his death, showed more than three times the therapeutic level of Dilantin in his system, Texas Monthly reported

Hospital officials had begun taking the suspicions against Jones seriously, but were unwilling to alert the police, as the hospital was in the middle of a public relations campaign designed to make over its image, the news magazine reported. Instead of firing Jones, they replaced all of the nurses in the pediatric ICU in March 1982. 

Five months later, Jones was working at Dr. Kathleen Holland’s medical clinic in Kerrville. It was there that, over the span of a month, six of Holland’s patients stopped breathing and had to be rushed to a nearby hospital. 

One of those children was Chelsea McClelland, who died Sept. 17, 1982. The 15-month-old went into respiratory failure after Jones injected her with what were supposed to be routine immunizations. 

Jones was charged with, and later convicted of, Chelsea’s murder after tests showed she injected the toddler with succinylcholine. The powerful paralytic is typically used as part of general anesthesia for surgical patients. 

Texas Monthly reported that, although prosecution investigators recommended charges against seven top hospital and University of Texas medical school administrators, no one other than Jones was charged in the case. Prosecutors also declined to file charges against Jones in the deaths of any of the other children she was suspected of killing because they believed that the 99-year sentence would keep her in prison for the rest of her life. 

The charges related to Joshua Sawyer’s death were possible, in part, because Weeks kept her son’s medical records for more than three decades. 

“It’s all I had left of Joshua,” Weeks said. “Everything else was destroyed in the fire.”

Genene Jones seen at left in a recent Texas Department of Criminal Justice photo and at right in January 1984.
AP Photos

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