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Graveyard Shift

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Salbi Asatryan was found dead in her bed. It was 4:26 a.m.

An Armenian immigrant, Asatryan, 75, had been rushed to Glendale Adventist Medical Center three days earlier, on Dec. 27, 1996. She was in acute respiratory failure and needed a nasal ventilator to help her breathe.

They put her in Critical Care, bed nine. To Bob Baker, she was “just a little old lady . . . a little barrel-chested thing, and sweet.” He was one of the respiratory therapists who treated her. She had daughters, Baker remembered, and they were often by her side. He was surprised by her death.

“She was doing better,” he’d thought. “She was improving.”

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Elmer Diwa thought so too. He was another respiratory therapist, and he had seen Asatryan shortly before 1 a.m. She was confused but awake by then--off the ventilator, able to breathe on her own.

When Baker and Diwa got off work, they liked to have a smoke and gossip before getting into their cars. This time they talked about their golf games, then got around to the woman in bed nine. In the underground parking garage, as daylight broke outside, Diwa offered an explanation for her death.

“Don’t you know about Efren and his magic syringe?”

A hospital becomes a different place at night. The visiting families go home. So do the administrators. Most of the doctors go too. That leaves the patients and the staff, alone with each other. “Lights off and quiet” is how Efren Saldivar described the graveyard shift.

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Night was when the gloom in the sickrooms matched the horrors of his mind.

Saldivar compared what he was doing to shoplifting a stick of gum. Once you’ve done it, “you don’t think about it for the rest of the day,” he said, “or ever.” He couldn’t even say how often he’d done it. He “lost count.”

Long before authorities began digging up bodies, others suspected what he was doing in the darkness. They whispered about it, even joked about it. By the time the truth reached the light of day, it was too late for many.

*

SALDIVAR WAS ONCE asked whether he became a respiratory therapist because he wanted to take care of people.

“No,” he replied. He liked the uniform.

He was born Sept. 30, 1969, in Brownsville, Texas, not far from where the Rio Grande meets the Gulf of Mexico. Raised in Mexico, his mother, Isaura Saldivar, liked to say that she “jumped across the river” when she became pregnant so her son would be a U.S. citizen. She gave birth at the home of a midwife, who signed Efren’s birth certificate with an X.

His parents, Isaura, then 20, and Alfredo, 31, followed a classic route for immigrants, heading toward jobs and a better place to raise a family. Their son was not yet 2 when they moved to the Los Angeles area and bought a wood-frame bungalow in Tujunga in the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains. The backyard had enough room for chickens.

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Efren’s father worked as a plasterer and handyman, operating out of a battered pickup. His mother also worked with her hands, as a seamstress making dresses. But she had higher aspirations for the family. A Jehovah’s Witness, she insisted that the children be raised in the faith that believed in salvation through good works and door-to-door proselytizing. She liked dressing everyone up on Sunday.

Though the couple spoke Spanish at home, their two boys grew up bilingual, picking up English from TV and from other kids in the neighborhood. The younger son, Eduardo, went by Eddie.

Childhood photos show Efren as a clean-cut boy, cherubic in his earliest years, if sad-eyed at times. His father was a wiry 5-foot-6 and his brother was slight too, but Efren was taller than average and hefty, with a soft, round face.

While he was at Pinewood Elementary School, teachers praised his “outgoing personality” and found him “pleasant” and “delightful,” although one worried that he was naive, too sheltered. He enjoyed painting and showed an aptitude for math, scoring higher than the 90th percentile on some tests.

Yet he didn’t always put his mind to his studies. He admitted that he was lazy in those lower grades. He wrote in a self-evaluation a few years later: “I never did any classwork nor homework.”

But fail? Never.

“Because I’m a goody-goody.”

In seventh grade, when he was 12, he stepped on a nail. It sliced the outside of his left foot and pushed his little toe out of alignment. He spent several weeks at County-USC Medical Center.

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While there, he wrote a composition he called “Some Experiences in My Life.” He mentioned that he was sewing a canvas backpack and learning to play the oboe, but the essay was mostly about his experience in the hospital.

“My doctor inserted a long surgical steel wire lining up all the small bones of my little toe,” he reported. “The doctors inserted a needle to withdraw the infection (pus). When I came to the hospital, I was in shock. I trembled. They gave me a shot to calm me and numb my senses. My skin surface went to sleep, but under this surface I was still in pain.”

As an adult, he would describe himself the same way--as one thing on the surface and something else within.

As a kid in the hospital, he wrote: “I will be very glad to go home.”

*

THE SAME DAY Salbi Asatryan was found dead in her bed, Eleanora Schlegel arrived at Glendale Adventist.

She had been there before and liked it so much that she had asked to be taken to the 450-bed hospital that looms over the Ventura Freeway at the base of the Verdugo Mountains. Some rooms have views all the way to downtown Los Angeles, a dozen miles away.

After an ambulance dropped her off, Schlegel was “alert and coherent.” But she was 77, and she was not in good shape. She suffered from multiple sclerosis, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and, most pressingly, pneumonia.

Going to the hospital had become so routine that she sometimes did not tell her son, Larry. She figured that hospital personnel would get her breathing OK and that she would get out soon enough. Then she could tell him, and say, “Everything’s fine.”

If they could not get her breathing back to normal . . . well, she asked to be classified as a no-code, a DNR, “Do Not Resuscitate.”

It exasperated Larry Schlegel that his mother would go to the hospital without letting him know. He was someone who didn’t take family for granted.

Eleanora and her husband had adopted Larry in 1951. He was their only child.

When Larry was 12, his adoptive father dropped dead while they were hiking by a lake. Larry had to go back and tell his mom. It was only the two of them after that.

When he heard that she was at Glendale Adventist, he went to see her. He was relieved--she was not choking or struggling to talk. She was speaking of going home.

But that was not realistic. It was New Year’s Eve. Even if the doctors gave the go-ahead, Pasadena would be a zoo with the Rose Parade and Rose Bowl football game. “So we decided it would be OK if she stayed in the hospital a couple of days more,” Larry said.

They ended their visit with a toast: “Hopefully next year will be better.”

Two days later, Larry got home early to let in deliverymen bringing a new sofa and love seat. He found a message on his answering machine.

It was from the hospital, about his mother.

The morning staff had checked on her at 7:15 a.m., shortly after they arrived. She had died of “acute respiratory failure.”

Sometime during the night.

*

EFREN SALDIVAR, THE goody-goody, wanted to be bad.

When he was still in junior high, he watched enviously as older gang kids hung around outside Verdugo Hills, the nearby high school.

“I’d purposely walk by,” Saldivar would recall much later during a long evening in a police cubicle. “For three years, I would see . . . the cholos doing drugs and looking cool and being tough. I just couldn’t wait to get there. And when I finally got there, they were all gone. . . . That was like an aspiration gone down the drain.”

This was a touch of dry humor, of course. He was anything but a candidate for the gangs. He was the doughy dork who played the oboe.

He weighed 170 pounds when he reached the ninth grade, so everyone wanted to know if he would play football. Verdugo Hills High drew many bused-in students, and neighborhood kids in Tujunga were under pressure to uphold local honor. He declined. “I wasn’t into sports,” he said.

Maybe he could be one of the brains. He hung out with the good students and acted as if he got A’s along with the rest of them. In truth, he languished at about the middle of his class.

He was a Latino, but in an assimilated crowd with the likes of Will Reinhart, who was half-Puerto Rican and went on to UCLA, then returned to Verdugo Hills High to teach Advanced Placement government classes. They listened to mainstream rock, say on KROQ, not banda or hip-hop.

“We didn’t trace our ancestors to the Mayflower, but we were pretty much white kids,” Reinhart said. “He’d definitely be out there with us, on a Friday night, bowling.”

Could Saldivar pass for preppy? He blow-dried his hair to the side and wore sport shirts with long sleeves, carefully folding them halfway up his forearms. But he was “Kmart stylish,” remembered Andrew Jones, another schoolmate. “Just not that ‘there.’ . . . Off-brand shoes and stuff.”

Saldivar was among 50 seniors chosen for the Knights & Ladies club, whose motto was “service with a smile.” They organized blood drives and sang Christmas carols at an old folks home. Though he was usually a shy figure on the fringe, Saldivar did try to be noticed--often too hard. He offered lame jokes that made others laugh at him, not with him.

He had little luck with girls, often becoming obsessed with ones who were “out of his league,” friends said. Reinhart recalled several saying that he had sent them “strange love letters with unusual descriptions and fantasies.

“That would be an Efren moment,” he said.

Jones noticed how Saldivar sometimes gravitated to an “off group,” perhaps at lunch, when “you could see him entertaining two or three people you really didn’t want to be around. He did have some leadership-type skills among the bottom feeders.”

In high school, Saldivar was asked to list his plans, and he went all over the map: maybe industrial engineering, maybe working with machine tools, maybe studying math, or maybe enlisting in the military, then going to college.

This much he sensed: “I’d rather work alone because I am easily disrupted.” He saw himself as an employee, not a boss. “I won’t argue back.” “I’m never in charge.” He preferred working “with things” instead of people. If events didn’t go his way, he would not get angry, he said, but would “simply accept the fact that I was denied of something and let it be.”

He got a part-time job at a Vons supermarket and tried to impress his friends by sneaking out six-packs of a new product, super-caffeinated Jolt cola. He told classmates that he could not make graduation because of a conflict with a Vons training program in butchering. In reality, he had not completed his assignments in an English composition class.

Even after a warning that he might fail, he didn’t do all the work.

So he did fail, and he did not graduate.

It was 1987. While others went on to college, he stayed at Vons. His oldest friend began suggesting he try something else. Carlos DeLeon’s mother used to baby-sit Efren. Carlos had enrolled in a trade school in North Hollywood.

“I was happily working at Vons,” as Saldivar told it, “and he comes over, ‘Efren, Efren, want to join?’ And I would turn him down.

“The third time he came in, he showed up in uniform, you know, with stethoscope, badge and patch.

“And I go, ‘Damn, that looks cool. I’ll join whatever it is.’ ”

Saldivar entered the College of Medical and Dental Careers in May 1988, and also obtained his high school equivalency certificate. He finished his 1,200 hours of training by Feb. 10, 1989. So what if the diploma spelled his name “Efrin Saldibar.” He had a job waiting down the foothills, in Glendale, 15 minutes from home.

*

THE SAME DAY Eleanora Schlegel was found dead in her bed, Jose Alfaro Sr. arrived at the hospital.

Alfaro grew up in the Philippines, where he fought in World War II and survived the Bataan Death March, when Japanese soldiers led American and Filipino prisoners on a trek that killed thousands.

He drove a bus in the Philippines until emphysema forced his retirement. In 1992, he followed his children to the United States. The government was offering instant citizenship to Filipino veterans who had helped the Allied cause.

By 1997, Alfaro was 82 and living in a nursing home, battling pulmonary and arterial disease. When he was admitted to Glendale Adventist on Jan. 2, he had severe pneumonia. His family asked that no heroic measures be taken.

Two days later, Alfaro died. Time: 9:10 p.m.

*

SALDIVAR WAS 19 when he got his own uniform and stethoscope.

He slipped needles into patients’ arteries to be sure they had enough oxygen in their blood. He put them through exercises to get them breathing normally after they came out of anesthesia. He helped insert breathing tubes down the throats of patients in respiratory distress and adjusted the ventilators that kept others alive.

However flippant his reason for becoming a respiratory therapist, Saldivar learned how exhilarating the work could be. People would come in wheezing, and he’d suction their airways, administer sprays and sit beside them “talking to them, you know, while the medication takes effect and they start opening up.”

The pay wasn’t bad, either--twice the $9 an hour he had made at Vons.

He once had envisioned himself tending machines in a factory, and in a sense he was. His hospital job was punch-the-clock shift work. He didn’t mind working nights, even the graveyard shift, which went overnight to 7 a.m. That was where he settled. “Mornings for me,” he said, “are sleep.”

He once said he’d “rather work alone,” and he almost did. On graveyard, only two respiratory therapists were on duty. Their patients were everywhere in the hospital, and the two had the run of the place. An assignment board told them which patients needed what therapies, and they might treat 20 a shift.

They also helped when nurses called a Code Blue emergency, or when heart monitors or respirators signaled trouble. There were frantic nights when three people died, or more. “A lot of people died,” Saldivar said.

Other nights were uneventful--as quiet, indeed, as a graveyard.

It was a good shift for moonlighting. Saldivar got extra work at Methodist Hospital of Southern California in Arcadia, then at Glendale Memorial. He worked part time for Schaefer Ambulance Service, then at convalescent homes and Pacifica Hospital of the Valley. Some co-workers thought he was less than diligent, but he might have been simply tired. By most accounts, he was competent.

He got regular raises, thank-you notes from patients and a “Golden Cookie Award,” worth two treats in the cafeteria.

Some of his fellow respiratory therapists could see that he was smart. One RT called him a “brainiac” and marveled at how he mastered the details of diseases. She heard him talk with doctors about how certain drugs stayed in the body longer if the patient had liver failure.

Many sought his help with computers. He could install software, even grasped operating systems. “They don’t understand the difference between DOS and Windows,” Saldivar said of his colleagues. “I’m a genius in their eyes.”

He took to languages, picking up enough Tagalog to banter with the Filipino RTs and nurses, especially the women. The first words he learned were ones that made them blush. He still had not figured out how to deal with women. He tried too hard, or said the wrong thing, like boasting about “how much he was getting.” He would grow infatuated with one nurse or another, only to wind up getting nowhere or dumped.

“He was the kind of guy who, if there was a spare moment, would rub your shoulders if you were charting,” recalled Diane Jansen, a night nurse in Critical Care. “He’d be like, ‘How about if I rub your shoulders? Are you tired?’ ”

His behavior didn’t strike her as sleazy, though. She decided he was merely awkward. “He seemed at times to be a little short for words,” she said. “If he didn’t have a word, he’d just stop--and it wouldn’t come out.”

He told her he was working all those extra hours to help his family. Saldivar bought his younger brother a 1968 Mustang and assembled an engine for it, a Cobra 351. He was getting a car for his mother too, a little blue Ford. For himself? Just a Honda Civic.

He and Jansen went to the movies. “I wouldn’t call it dating,” she said. “He would, like, drive me to the airport. It makes it sound like I was using him, but he was more than willing.”

Indeed, he was unfailingly helpful. “I had a blind cat, and I would leave town for ski trips or holiday vacations, and he would watch my cat,” she said.

“One day, my neighbor said, ‘What’s up with the guy who puts on the white suit and the mask and the gloves to go into your apartment?’

“I asked Efren, and he said, ‘I’m deathly allergic to cats.’

“That’s the kind of guy he was. He would probably step out in front of a train to keep you from getting hurt.”

On graveyard, Saldivar took his “lunch” from midnight to 12:30 a.m., and he had another break between 2 and 2:30 a.m., when he could take a nap if he wanted.

Or he could roam the halls.

“It would not stand out in anybody’s memory,” he said. “On certain shifts, at certain times . . . there’s not--nobody walking around. . . . There’s no way to know who’s walking down this hallway here and into a room.

“So you come into the room, and go back out. . . .”

*

JEAN COYLE WAS an exception. Usually RTs could not recall patients’ names. They came and went in a blur. But who could forget a patient who was always pushing her bedside button?

“My mom would stand out,” said Michelle Elmore, Coyle’s daughter. “She’s kind of a complainer. ‘I need a breathing treatment. I need this. I need that.’ ”

Perhaps Coyle had earned the right to complain. She had raised four children on her own while working, most recently as a “self-employed house cleaner"--a maid. Then she developed emphysema. It kept her in a wheelchair, and she was in and out of Glendale Adventist dozens of times. Now she was back, in February 1997, pushing the button by her bed.

Down in the RT department, Saldivar would say: “She’s calling again?”

Sometimes she merely wanted company. Coyle liked the RTs. “They were all nice,” she said. She knew many of them, from the “Filipino guys” to “Ursula,” who often worked graveyard with Saldivar. Coyle remembered Efren because he talked about his family and because of his size, a little over 6 feet and by now more than 220 pounds, maybe 250. The roundness of his face was accentuated by oval, wire-rim eyeglasses.

Although it was dark, she couldn’t mistake the figure that approached her bed during the early morning of Feb. 26.

Then, she recalled, “I blacked out.”

Her daughter got a call that night. “They said, ‘Your mom, she’s turned blue. But she’s OK now. Don’t worry.’ ”

Neither mother nor daughter gave the episode a second thought. Coyle had gone to the edge before, and might well again. Elmore was just thankful that her mother was alive.

*

THEY LIKED TO PLAY.

Respiratory therapists--day or night--were like high school kids. They could be grinds. They could be cutups. They formed cliques and rivalries.

Saldivar fell in with the cutups. They might use syringes as water pistols, or drop their pants and moon each other.

The RTs worked out of a cluster of rooms on the second floor of the hospital. It was their world apart, with locker rooms for men and women, a lounge and laboratories, offices for their bosses, a “dirty room” for used implements and a large report room with the assignment board.

Saldivar used the board to play pranks. He knew that Bob Baker relished working the tough cases in Critical Care, so he would move Baker’s name, putting it next to patients at all ends of the hospital.

Baker was still mulling over what to do about what his smoking buddy Elmer Diwa had said in the garage, months earlier, about Saldivar’s “magic syringe.”

Diwa was a friend of Saldivar’s. Why would he say such a thing about a friend? “I was wondering, ‘Is this BS, or is this the truth?’ ” Baker said.

He had been on the job 18 years and had learned a few lessons. One was, “There’s a lot of loose talk around the hospital. . . . People joke about things.” Another was, “You don’t report all gossip.”

He couldn’t even remember the name of the patient who had gotten them talking, just that she was found dead in bed nine of the Critical Care Unit on a busy night around Christmas 1996 when they’d had to call in a third therapist--Efren Saldivar--for half a shift of overtime.

But Baker could not distance himself from death. His first wife was diagnosed with terminal cancer when she was just 19, and pregnant. Their son was delivered by caesarean section days before she died. When he decided to get into health care shortly after, it wasn’t because of the uniform.

In April 1997, Baker finally told his boss about the magic syringe.

John Bechthold, head of the pulmonary department, knew what he had to do--tell his own bosses. But that’s about all that was easy.

It was no secret that Baker and Saldivar did not get along. Sometimes Saldivar called Baker “Bob Bozo.” And Baker’s opinion of Saldivar? “Everyone knows I think he’s a jerk and a spaz.”

Now one was accusing the other of murder.

Bechthold and another supervisor kept an eye on Saldivar for a few weeks. They also tallied the deaths on his shifts over a year or so and compared them to the number of deaths at other times. As best they could see, there was “nothing unusual.”

Saldivar was never even told of the “magic syringe” rumor. He just kept working graveyard.

*

MYRTLE BROWER, WHO was mentally retarded, was supposed to die at home, surrounded by her family, who had cared for her for 84 years.

She had never grown beyond the capacity of a 10-year-old, and she lived with her parents until they died. Then she was taken in by her older sister, Thelma Wheeler, and her husband, Chet, in Van Nuys. They looked after her for 50 years, although it was not easy having a child around in an adult’s body. Into middle age, they would dress Myrtle up when relatives came over, only to have her get dirty playing hide-and-seek with the kids.

Chet died first. Then Thelma got cancer. When she was told at age 87 that she was dying, her concern was for her sister. By then, Myrtle was bedridden herself, after several strokes.

Thelma did not want Myrtle sent to an institution.

“She said, ‘This is Myrtle’s home. She spent her whole life here, and I want her to die here,’ ” recalled the sisters’ great-niece, Vickie Lowery, who promised to see that the wish was carried out.

On Aug. 2, 1997, Thelma died.

Two weeks afterward, Myrtle was taken to Glendale Adventist. It wasn’t an emergency. Her great-niece thought her ingrown toenails should be removed, as well as some of her teeth. In addition, a psychiatrist thought antidepressants might help her. They did.

Then Myrtle had another stroke. By Aug. 28, she was on oxygen. Lowery had her classified “no code” and stayed with her into the night, singing hymns and lullabies and reading Scripture to her.

Then Lowery left.

“A couple of hours later, I get the phone call.” Myrtle had died. It was 5:12 a.m., not yet sunup.

*

THERE WERE MANY deaths--four more that night alone. Occasionally, a crude piece of artwork appeared on the assignment board. It was a cartoon-like face with Xs for eyes, a mouth turned into a frown and an elongated tongue hanging out.

Another one bit the dust. Graveyard humor.

Saldivar insisted that others had drawn the faces first, and he only copied them. He did find it a crackup, though, much like watching “The Munsters” and “The Addams Family” on TV.

“Morbid humor,” he said, “was always pretty funny to me.”

When he started at the hospital, he enjoyed the joking of a veteran RT, who would end shifts by announcing, “ ‘Oh, these three patients are no more . . . no more therapies for us.’

“And I go, ‘Hey, you killed ‘em off.’ ”

Someone else would tease the older RT, “You’ve got the magic touch.”

Soon enough, they were teasing Saldivar.

Jhun Tana, a fellow respiratory therapist, recalled how a member of the crew would ask, “ ‘Oh, is Efren on tonight?’

“And I’m like, ‘Oh, no, he’s off.’

“And they said, ‘Oh, good, you know, because, uh, he’s a jinx.’ ”

One of the women noticed how Saldivar would walk past the Filipino RTs and say, “Patay!” “Patay!"--Tagalog for “dead.” Outsiders wouldn’t understand.

Their joking was not all that the RTs reserved for their little world.

“We have discussions,” Tana said later. “I mean, we look at the board, and we say, ‘OK, this person’s been here for a long time.’ . . . It’s probably--well, what’s the right word?--horrible. You know, I mean saying that, ‘OK, well, you know, this patient needs to die.’

“It’s nearly impossible not to have that conversation.”

On went those conversations, along with the joking, “Hey, Efren, did you go visit this patient?”

Saldivar didn’t mind.

“I’ve always been such a good boy, I wanted to think of myself as a bad boy,” he would later confess. “So this was like the prophecy that, eventually, I guess, became true.”

*

THEY STUMBLED ONTO the drugs during a Thursday graveyard.

Saldivar had the night off. Baker was working it with Tana, and they were pulling a practical joke on Kim Gardemann. One pried open Gardemann’s locker with a screwdriver, while the other slid in a coat hanger to spring the latch. They took everything out and booby-trapped it.

When Gardemann came to work in the morning and opened the locker, a slingshot would spew pancake batter onto his chest.

They booby-trapped the bathroom as well, so water would spritz up when he turned on the faucet. They put more water atop the towels. When he reached up for one, he’d get soaked again.

Then Baker thought: Why not get two for the price of one?

Why not open Saldivar’s locker too, and put Gardemann’s gear in there? So they forced open the locker and piled in Gardemann’s clothes. They did it so fast, Baker said, that he did not notice what was inside.

The Gardemann part of the prank worked.

But Saldivar was off the next three nights, and Baker began feeling guilty. Sunday night, paired this time with Elmer Diwa, his smoking buddy, he broke into Saldivar’s locker a second time to retrieve Gardemann’s things. “That’s when we noticed the bag,” Baker said.

It hung from a hook, and it didn’t contain Saldivar’s usual herbal supplements, or vitamins, or the dietary aids he took to lose weight. It bulged with drugs. Among them were vials of morphine.

An RT would never be authorized to have a narcotic like that. Baker wondered if Saldivar was using it to get high.

Then he looked at the top shelf. It was at eye level. On the left was an empty syringe. On the right were two vials.

He recognized the orangish label.

Succinylcholine chloride. “Succs,” the RTs called it. Doctors and nurses injected it to keep patients from biting or gagging when they had to insert a breathing tube down their throats.

It suppressed breathing. It paralyzed the patient.

It was then, Baker said, that it hit him. “This is all probably true.”

But what to do? He could get into trouble for breaking into the lockers. He could be fired. So could the RTs who’d helped him. Then he thought: “Look what they did with the original information I gave them.”

So he would not tell the bosses what he had seen.

Nobody told them, even as word spread among the RTs. It was hard to keep a great prank like that secret. Inevitably, Saldivar heard what had happened.

Jhun Tana said Saldivar confronted him in the “dirty room.”

“I was washing my hands or whatever. . . . He said, ‘Hey, Jhun. Um, when you opened my locker, who else was there?’

“Well, ‘Bob and I was there.’

“And he said, ‘Who else was in there?’ Just like--kind of like kept insisting. ‘Who else was there?’ ”

In their world, Saldivar was not the one who had explaining to do. Tana recalled: “I said, ‘I’m sorry we opened your locker. . . . I just said, ‘Well, I’m sorry.’ ”

*

SALDIVAR HAD ONCE tried seeing a psychiatrist.

“I’m always depressed,” he would say later. “Any time somebody comes in my face, I put a happy face on: ‘Hey, what’s up?’ and this and that, you know? But that’s basically a show.’ ”

He found himself moping, locking himself in his room. He was no kid, now closer to 30 than 20, but he still lived with his parents. They would be outside puttering, Alfredo, with his lined laborer’s face, tending the chickens, and Isaura in the yard with a shovel, digging out weeds. And he would be in his room, smaller than some people’s closets, playing on the Internet, using fake names. He had his own TV and a VCR and dozens of videotapes under his bed that he hoped his mother would never see.

He had been so neat in high school, but now his shirt bunched around his belly. His hair was mussed. He had a double chin. He tried the fen-phen diet drugs to lose weight. He bought a bicycle, fancy shorts, gloves and a helmet. He would pedal a couple of laps around the park, then stop and eat a candy bar.

Sometimes the RTs went out for breakfast. Diwa watched Saldivar order four or five eggs and chicken-fried steak.

“Don’t you think that thing gonna kill you?” Diwa asked.

“I don’t care,” Saldivar replied.

He thought he was going to marry one nurse, but she moved away. He told his brother he was thinking of driving his car off a cliff and leaving him his computer.

“Ain’t no girl worth it,” Eddie replied.

Saldivar’s psychiatrist prescribed Zoloft, an antidepressant.

“It helped,” Saldivar said. So did smoking pot.

Yet there was something about misery. It wasn’t exactly a friend, but it was a companion. “I missed it,” he said. “It was--I carried it for such a long time, and being miserable--I missed it. I can’t explain it.”

So he stopped taking the drug that made his misery go away.

*

HE DID FEEL better with Ursula.

Ursula Anderson had landed on graveyard with him in 1995. They were paired about two times a week, for 12-hour shifts. She was petite and exotic, part Native American. She dressed primly, like an Avon lady. She had two kids at home.

They couldn’t lock the doors of the department. But in the middle of the night, who was going to barge in? They began their affair in 1997.

When “Urs” was around, patients didn’t concern Saldivar as much. “I preferred spending time with her,” he said.

When she asked about a rumor that Bob Baker had found drugs in his locker, he had an explanation: Baker had planted them.

“Bob doesn’t like me,” Saldivar said. “He thinks I did something to his patient.”

Saldivar and Anderson sometimes saw each other outside the hospital too. Many of the RTs socialized on the outside. Some went to a golf range together. Others went fishing. One had a boat. Sometimes they simply went out for drinks, like co-workers in any office. They would make small talk and dance and maybe get drunk.

A few times, Ursula brought along an old friend and introduced him around. He looked nothing like the hospital crowd. His face was puffy, lined beyond his 30-some years. He wore his jet-black hair in the style of a ‘50s greaser, curled into a pompadour. Sometimes he dressed in black, with a military dog tag hanging from his neck. He was barrel-chested, thick all over. He looked in his element in a bar, like he’d been in a bar fight or two.

His name was Grant Brossus, and he had been in bar fights--he killed a man in one. He had done time. Not for the killing--that was self-defense. Cocaine was his bugaboo, and alcohol. He had a taste for White Russians, whose placid surface of cream hid a potent blend of vodka and Kahlua.

He was the first to say, “I’m a terrible witness.”

All he had was barroom gossip. He wasn’t even sure where he’d heard it, though he guessed it was at Q’s, a sports bar in Pasadena. He vaguely remembered playing pool there the night Ursula Anderson blurted out something about one of the fellows at the hospital.

Brossus could not even recall the man’s name. Only this stayed with him: “A remark was made like, ‘Somebody in the hospital’s playing Dr. Kevorkian.’

“I was like, ‘What?’

“ ‘Yeah, there’s terminally ill patients, and they’re putting them under.’

“I’m like, '. . . Is that something that the patients ask for?’

“And then she just totally backed up. You know, it must have been the way I worded it, or something, that scared her off.”

That was all he had, a few words over drinks, quickly retracted. He too had to mull it over, for weeks or months--he wasn’t sure how long.

Then he had a “brilliant idea.”

A hospital would appreciate knowing that it might have one of those “Angels of Death” on the loose. He figured that it would be especially appreciative if given the opportunity to handle the matter on its own. With no publicity, no police. Absolutely no police.

That had to be worth something, right? Maybe, say, $50,000.

If it sounded a bit like blackmail, well, what’s illegal about a reward? “An enterprising proposition” was how he put it.

On Feb. 16, 1998, Brossus called Glendale Adventist Medical Center and asked for the person in charge--nobody else would do. He had information to share.

It had been more than a year since the sweet Armenian woman was found dead in bed nine and 10 months since Bob Baker told his boss about Efren’s magic syringe.

“The truth is a strange thing,” Brossus would marvel much later, after he saw what he had set in motion--he, Grant Brossus, an ex-con just looking to make a buck.

His call put the cops he wanted no part of on the trail of the respiratory therapist he couldn’t name.

*

Tomorrow: The Investigation

ABOUT THIS SERIES

This series is based on interviews with more than 100 people, including police investigators, people who knew or worked with Efren Saldivar and relatives of his victims. The Times also reviewed more than 2,000 pages of court and investigative records, including witness statements, police search warrants and grand jury proceedings. The quotations in the story are drawn from Times interviews or from transcripts of police questioning of Saldivar and other personnel from Glendale Adventist Medical Center. Staff writer Richard Fausset assisted with the reporting.

ON THE WEB

Video interviews, photos, court documents and other materials related to the Efren Saldivar case are available on the Web at: latimes.com/angelofdeath.


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