CHILLICOTHE, Mo. (AP) — A former respiratory therapist who worked at a northern Missouri hospital where nine people died under suspicious circumstances 20 years ago has been charged in one of the deaths.
Jennifer Anne Hall, 41, was charged last week with first-degree murder in the 2002 death of Fern Franco, who was one of nine people who died of cardiac collapse between Dec. 16, 2001, and May 18, 2002, at Hedrick Medical Center in Chillicothe, Missouri, KCUR reported.
The Livingston County Sheriff’s office said Tuesday authorities continue to search for Hall, who might be using the name Semaboye.
Hall worked as a respiratory therapist at the 49-bed hospital when the patients died. Doctors and nurses at the hospital viewed the numbers of deaths as “medically suspicious,” according to a law enforcement record supporting the probable cause for her arrest.
The case was revived after an analysis of Franco’s tissue samples found succinylcholine and morphine, which were not prescribed or ordered for her by her doctors, according to a probable cause statement by Chillicothe Police Officer Brian Schmidt.
Some staff at the hospital believed Hall was responsible because of her proximity to the stricken patients, her access to deadly pharmaceuticals, and because she notified staff of every patient’s cardiac emergency, according to the probable cause.
She was placed on administrative leave on May 21, 2002, three days after Franco’s death.
An overdose of succinylcholine causes slow suffocation. At least nine suspicious deaths and 18 suspicious medical emergencies at Hedrick Medical Center during that time period were suspected overdoses of succinylcholine or other drugs.
Hall denied involvement in the deaths during an interview with the Kansas City Star in 2015.
Matthew O’Connor, a Kansas City attorney who represented Hall in the past, said the murder charge was based on “conjecture and speculation.”
“This isn’t lawyer talk — there aren’t facts in support of it because Ms. Hall did not commit these acts,” he said.
Before she worked at Hedrick Medical Center, Hall was convicted of setting fire to Cass Medical Center in Harrisonville, Missouri, where she was hired as a respiratory therapist. She spent a year in prison before an appeals court vacated her conviction because she received ineffective counsel at trial. A jury acquitted her at a subsequent retrial.
The families of five of the nine patients who died during that period filed wrongful death lawsuits against the hospital in 2010, claiming the hospital covered up possible foul play in their relatives’ deaths. An appeal filed in 2013 alleged that employees at the hospital believed they would be fired if they raised suspicions about the deaths.
In 2019, the Missouri Supreme Court threw out the lawsuits, ruling that the families had filed their actions after the statute of limitations had run out.