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Deaths at Hospital Roil Rural County

TIMES STAFF WRITER

In memory of their father-in-law, two women chased Orville Lynn Majors down the streets of the Vermillion County seat on Tuesday, shouting accusations that he’d killed people who were loved--retired coal miners, steel haulers and grade school teachers who’d been entrusted to his care in a small-town hospital.

The object of their fury, once a licensed practical nurse, sat shackled in the back seat of a sheriff’s car bound for the County Jail out on Route 63. Majors, 36, had just entered not-guilty pleas to six counts of murder by injection of drugs. Bulky, hawk-nosed and scraggly-haired, he was wearing the red shirt and jeans he had been arrested in the day before.

“Be a man! Tell them what you know!” yelled Marjorie Doran as the squad car turned a corner. “Tell them what you know!” echoed Carol Doran.

There are those in this rural county along the Wabash River who believe Majors was a one-man crime wave, a serial killer with a syringe. Some allege he may be responsible for as many as 100 deaths, mostly of elderly intensive-care patients, from March 1993 to March 1995--the time he worked at what was then Vermillion County Hospital in the town of Clinton to the south.

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Other Deaths Called Suspicious

The local prosecutor, Mark Greenwell, said Tuesday that he found other deaths besides the six Majors is charged in to be suspicious. State police have examined 165 cases; 15 bodies were exhumed during the investigation; 65 families have joined in a civil class-action suit contending the hospital did not properly supervise Majors.

Among the plaintiffs are the Dorans. Their husbands’ father, John Doran, was not one of the victims named in court. But he died suddenly at age 76, just after Majors administered an intravenous injection on Halloween night of 1994.

There also are plenty of others who believe Majors’ plea of innocence, an act in character with his repeated denials of wrongdoing. His supporters (and some who just wonder about the authorities) point out that investigators spent 33 months and $1.5 million--a huge amount in these parts--and may have felt pressured to come up with the arrest that came on Monday.

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The charges were brought after a Washington expert reported in November that an epidemic of death had occurred at the county hospital in the last five months of 1994 and “was located in the ICU.” One intensive-care employee was strongly associated with the increase, and that employee was Majors.

When Majors was on duty, wrote epidemiologist Steven Lamm, an intensive-care patient was nearly 43 times more likely to die than when the nurse was away. While Majors was working at Vermillion County, a death occurred every 23.1 hours. During the same period, one death occurred every 551.6 hours when he was not working.

Majors’ lawyer, I. Marshall Pinkus, scoffed at such evidence. “Not a witness . . . saw Lynn do anything wrong,” he said. “I call it . . . circumstantial suspicion.”

Something strange did appear to be going on inside the weathered concrete walls of the county hospital. In the early 1990s, deaths in the four-bed intensive care unit ranged from 24 to 31 annually. In 1994, that number jumped to 101, although admissions remained at roughly the same level. Similar hospitals elsewhere in Indiana posted no such increases, the epidemiological study found.

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No one needed a consultant back then to break the news that lots of people were dying.

Frequent lunchers at the facility’s cafeteria began to regard “code blue” calls on the intercom as a routine occurrence.

The employees at nearby Sawyer’s Flowers noticed a decided uptick in funeral-bouquet business. They remarked among themselves that more of their customers were mentioning that the one they mourned had seemed fine in the hospital and then died suddenly. But, of course, they would invariably continue, these people were old. These things happen.

Inside the hospital, one nurse questioned her own ability, agonizing aloud to a doctor about why so many patients were dying and why their deaths seemed so strange. Sudden hypertension in people with no history of high blood pressure. Respiratory failure followed by erratic heart rhythm--an order the opposite of what she would expect.

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To Nurses, Source of Trouble Clear

The night-shift nurses joked that the source of the trouble seemed clear. According to an affidavit filed by an Indiana state police detective, they took bets on which patient would die the next day, whenever Majors was scheduled.

Nurse Martha Starkey told investigators that when Majors’ shift was changed to weekends, “the deaths followed him accordingly,” the affidavit states.

To many patients and their families, he seemed kind and sympathetic. He was trusted to work alone in the intensive care unit. Older female patients in particular loved his solicitous manner.

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In April 1994, when Majors stuck a syringe into Dorothea Hixon’s IV tube, he followed up by kissing his patient on the forehead, brushing back her hair and crooning, “It’s all right, punkin. Everything is going to be all right now, punkin,” her daughter, Paula Holdaway, recalled in an interview with police.

Within a minute, the affidavit says, Hixon rolled her eyes and died.

She was 80 years old. She had been hospitalized for an accumulation of fluid in her lungs, not for the first time. Her family doctor had ordered her transferred to intensive care for better monitoring.

Why would Holdaway suspect anything ill of Majors, who’d patted her on the arm as he emptied the syringe into her mother, who had reassured her she wasn’t in the way?

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Court documents only hint at possible motives.

One is drugs. In July 1994, the affidavit says, co-workers noticed a personality change in Majors. A friend quoted by police said Majors carried syringes intact in their packaging and opened them to inject himself with methamphetamines. Tony Towell, a heating and cooling businessman, is quoted as saying that he was installing a furnace at a business owned by Majors in January 1995, when his customer offered to sell him “a heart stimulant” that was “powerful stuff” and could be mixed with methamphetamine.

In July 1994, co-workers told police, Majors appeared to grow much more irritable, especially if asked to do something he didn’t want to, or if he was criticized.

They told police that Majors criticized various patients’ families as “whiners,” “white trash” and “dirt.” Michael Hoevet, an employee conducting a safety inspection of the ICU, recalled for police a November day in 1994 when Majors was on duty alone there. When asked what he was doing, Majors replied: “I’m waiting for the woman to die.”

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Two former friends told investigators that he had been saying for years that he hated old people. “They should all be gassed,” one quoted Majors as saying sometime during the mid-1980s.

How the investigation began is likewise a matter of dispute. Some say it was kicked off after an anonymous letter to the Indiana State Nursing Board. Others say the hospital noticed the increase in deaths in Majors’ presence and alerted Clinton police, who then called in state detectives.

Everyone agrees, however, that the case proceeded painstakingly slowly. The nursing board suspended Majors’ license for five years for overstepping his authority, but sidestepped the question of deaths.

The state police moved a team into a Clinton storefront office. Ten medical specialists from Indianapolis, Jamestown, Ind., and Madison, Ky., helped review records. Federal grants were applied for and received.

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All the while, Majors steadfastly maintained he could never kill anyone, telling one local paper that to take a life would be like playing God. He confronted accusing families on Montel Williams’ and Phil Donahue’s television talk shows.

Search Warrants Turned Up Drugs

Search warrants were served, and investigators found potassium chloride and evidence of epinephrine possession among Majors’ homes and vehicles. Those drugs, the medical reviewers told investigators, could have caused several of the mysterious deaths.

“It became our job to sort through which cases we had that were the strongest,” Greenwell said. “Not every death was suspicious. But I’m not saying that means we have six and only six murders.”

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As for more charges, “I’m never gonna shut any door,” he added.

Russell Firestone Jr. hopes his father will be added to the list. The senior Firestone was 73 when he broke a hip. The doctor said the patient was doing fine and should stay at the hospital for two weeks of rehabilitative therapy.

Then, one day, the son said, he sat in his father’s room as Majors read out falling heart rate numbers. “There were no machines, no IVs, nothing but him and a stethoscope.” His father’s eyes were rolling from side to side.

Suddenly, Firestone said, “Lynn Majors injected my daddy in the heart.” He did it with a syringe taken from a white box he carried.

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Instead of discarding the syringe in a hospital container, Firestone said, Majors replaced it in his box. When Firestone and another nurse asked what the shot was for, Majors left the room, the son said.

When Majors returned, Firestone added, he said: “Who do you need to call? Your dad’s dead.”


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