If you were a patient at the Veterans Administration Hospital in Ann Arbor, Michigan a few years back, chances were good that you were living in constant fear.
It wasn’t out of fear of abuse at the hands of the staff, or even of succumbing to your injuries, but rather, fear that any moment you might be struck down by the same mysterious ailment affecting and killing your fellow veterans…
The Ann Arbor Veterans Administration Hospital in Ann Arbor, Michigan was built in 1953. The tall, reddish brick structure sits on a hill above the long, meandering Huron River. On average, this beautiful building is a place of healing and recuperation, but that wasn’t always the case.
In the summer of 1975, the Veterans Administration Hospital began to see a sudden and worrying spike of patients experiencing dangerous respiratory attacks. What was most disconcerting about these attacks, was not just that they took place over a full six weeks, but that 35 separate patients were stricken by them and nurses didn’t always get to them in time…
The first few cases of respiratory distress didn’t seem that out of the ordinary, but as these incidents began to increase and people began to die as a result, the hospital staff began to panic. Patients would be fine one minute and then on the verge of suffocation the next. Some of them were revived in time, but over the next six weeks, 11 of the patients afflicted died.
One staff member, Dr. Anne Hill, the Chief of Anesthesiology, soon realized that what was happening to her patients was no coincidence. More and more frequency pointed either to something environmental, which given that the staff were unaffected seemed unlikely, or foul play. Could someone have actually been intentionally poisoning their patients?
In order to prove her theory, Dr. Hill began doing some diagnostic tests on the affected patients. The tests concluded that these patients had been given the drug Pavulon, or pancuronium bromide. This synthetic equivalent of Curare, a plant derived toxin used in the blow-gun darts of some South American tribes, causes muscle paralysis: This includes the muscles used for breathing.
It now became a classic case of “whodonit.” After all, there was no way that 30-some-odd patients had just happened to be mistakenly prescribed curare and it was equally as ridiculous to think they’d ingested the stuff on their own. But doctors aren’t the police and if someone was attempting to murder patients, it was high time the authorities became involved…
An FBI investigation was launched and sure enough, they too began to uncover irrefutable evidence that the affected patients had indeed been given unauthorized injections of Pavulon through their intravenous feeding tubes. The FBI was determined to break the case and over the course of the investigation devoted over $1 million in resources to finding the culprit.
The day the FBI showed up, the poisonings ended, but the damage was already done. The following investigation was arduous and took the better part of a year before they began to find some definitive leads. It was obvious that the culprit was someone in the hospital, someone with at least a modicum of medical know-how. All that was left was to root out who it might have been…
Because Pavulon paralyzes so quickly, the agents had to determine was who was in the best position to inject the patients within the first 3 minutes of them going into respiratory arrest. This was no mean feat however, as doing so meant that they would have to reconstruct each of the dozens of different poisonings to find a consistency.
The other challenge was that there were over 750 people working in the VA hospital at the time and every single one of them had to be questioned by the agents. Their timetables had to be formulated and coordinated together. It was a detailed, confusing jigsaw puzzle, but eventually, two names emerged from the tangle…
Suspicion turned toward two Filipino nurses, Leonora Perez and Filipina Narciso. Both women happened to be working on all shifts where the unauthorized injections took place and most of them occurred in the ICU, where Filipina Narciso worked. Indeed, all but two of them happened only on days when she was on duty.
The remaining two poisonings occurred on Saturdays, which was not a regular day for Narciso, however, it just so happened that she was actually on duty for those shifts as well. After corroborating their mock schedule with the interviews of the entire hospital staff, it was determined that Narciso must have been the culprit, but was she working alone?
Leonora Perez was brought into the equation by the admission of one of the surviving victims, who had seen and identified Perez as the woman who entered his room right before he suffered his near-fatal respiratory attack. He added that she’d run off soon after as well. That identification was enough for the FBI and later that day, both nurses were taken into custody.
Despite the evidence that seemed to be piled up in front of both of them, the two nurses maintained their innocence even as they were brought in for further questioning. It was true that the evidence was circumstantial, but that didn’t stop them from indicting both of them on 10 counts of poisoning, five counts of murder, and one count of conspiracy. The case against them was plagued by other concerns as well…
The nurses’ trial was controversial and marred by accusations of racism all the way through. Indeed, the man who had identified Perez wasn’t just a veteran or a victim, he was also an unreliable, alcoholic, racist who believed that the two “slant-eyed bitches”, his colorful name for the defendants, were conspiring with other Filipino nurses to murder American veterans.
Tensions Run High
At this time, racial tensions were also running high due to high rates of immigration to the U.S. by Asian immigrants. Perez and Narciso seemed to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, so to speak. It wasn’t clear if or how they colluded to administer the poisonings, but it seemed the jury had enough to find them guilty. In 1977, the two nurses went to jail, but the story wasn’t quite over yet…
Miscarriage of Justice
In July 1977, Pacifico Marcos, president of the Philippine Medical Association and brother of Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos, spoke out in defense of the two nurses. He called the verdict against the women “a gross miscarriage of justice”. As he continued to petition for a retrial, some new evidence emerged.
News emerged of a nursing supervisor at the VA hospital in Ann Arbor who had committed suicide shortly before the trial. It was a curious circumstance to be sure, but it became even more suspect when unconfirmed reports of a very telling note began to circle around the hospital. According to the note, it was the nursing supervisor who was taking responsibility for the deaths in the summer of 75’…
Seven months after the trial, both convictions were overturned due to allegations of prosecutorial misconduct. Narciso and Perez were both released and the charges were dismissed, but the damage had already been done. The trial and the persecution ruined their lives and careers.
The case ended there, and to this day, the murders at Ann Arbor VA hospital remain unsolved. Yet, there are many who still believe that circumstantial evidence aside, Narciso and Perez are the killers and effectively got away with murder. What do you think? Were the poisonings the work of two deranged Filipino nurses working in concert? Or the work of one, sick nursing supervisor with a deadly obsession?