“He wanted to go down fighting”: The Good Nurse’s Amy Loughren on catching a serial killer

Written by Christobel Hastings

Christobel Hastings is Stylist’s Entertainment Editor whose specialist interests include pop culture, LGBTQ+ identity and lore.

In 2003, Amy Loughren helped expose the crimes of Charles Cullen, an American nurse believed to be the most prolific serial killer in history. With the story now the subject of a new Netflix film, she chats to Stylist’s entertainment editor Christobel Hastings about putting her life on line for the greater good.

When Amy Loughren first met nurse Charles Cullen in 2002 while working her shift at Somerset Medical Centre in New Jersey, she could tell instantly that they were going to be friends. Sweet, fun and softly spoken, he struck her as “a little bit like an underdog”, which made her want to take him under her wing. Above all, though, she could tell that their energy truly matched. The pair soon formed a close bond and, after a few months, Cullen changed his schedule so he could work alongside Loughren on every shift. 

Cullen’s appointment was a bright spot in a bleak time for Loughren, a single mother who was battling a serious heart condition alongside her demanding job in the ICU. But her new friend wasn’t quite the devoted caregiver she believed him to be. For 15 years, Cullen had moved around a number of healthcare facilities in New Jersey and Pennsylvania covertly murdering patients by administering lethal overdoses through contaminated IV bags. 

After police detectives investigating a string of mysterious deaths at Somerset Medical Centre revealed their findings to Loughren, she agreed to help expose his crimes by secretly recording conversations, and eventually persuading her former coworker to confess to the killing spree. Following his arrest in December 2003, Cullen was convicted of 29 murders and sentenced to 11 consecutive life sentences. Experts believe, however, that the real number of victims lies closer to 400, making him one of the most prolific serial killers in American history. 

The story of how Loughren helped bring Cullen to justice has now been turned into a Netflix film, The Good Nurse, starring Jessica Chastain as Loughren and Eddie Redmayne as Cullen. Inspired by Charles Graeber’s book The Good Nurse: A True Story Of Medicine, Madness, And Murder, the film paints a damning picture of the US’s profit-driven healthcare system and the bureaucratic cover-up which enabled Cullen to continue killing despite years of speculation about his wrongdoing. Unlike other salacious true crime stories, though, The Good Nurse isn’t here to centre violence. Instead, it shifts its focus to Loughren, an everyday heroine whose empathy helped stop a serial killer once and for all. 

Here, Loughren discusses the importance of compassion, putting her life on the line to catch Charles Cullen, and her determination to use her voice to give his victims the spotlight they deserve.

Eddie Redmayne and Jessica Chastain in Netflix’s The Good Nurse

CH: Take us back in time to when you were working at Somerset Medical Centre. Is it true to say that you had a close friendship with Charles Cullen?

AL: It absolutely was. And not only did we share the secret of my illness, he was one of the only people who did know that I was very sick. But also, we both had two daughters; we both had ex relationships that had gone very badly. And so we bonded in that way, that we could talk about our personal lives. And also there’s a lot of trauma bonding. When you’re at the bedside, and you’re doing things to save people’s lives, you become bonded the same way that soldiers become bonded. 

CH: Tell me about the time that the detectives first approached you about Cullen. Were they the first people to raise the idea that he was involved in the patient deaths? Or did you have suspicions about him?

AL: I would love to say that I had suspicions about him. I would love to say that it played out the way that it did in the movie, but it didn’t in real life. I understand why they did it the way that they did in the movie, because the way it did actually occur, it was so much more complicated, and you only have two hours to make this complicated story. But no, I didn’t. Everyone knew that something was happening. Charlie had already been fired. So in the movie, it’s very different. I was still working with him. I knew. And I’m glad they played it that way. Because then it brings up other conversations, because I wish I had known earlier. So I kind of get to live vicariously through this.

Amy Loughren, Jessica Chastain, Tobias Lindholm, Eddie Redmayne and Krysty Wilson-Cairns at the UK premiere of The Good Nurse during the 66th BFI London Film Festival

CH: So the detectives came to you and raised the alarm, and then asked for your involvement. Was it at that stage that you discovered he was administering different combinations of drugs and browsing patients’ records?

AL: The hospital itself was shredding everything and burying all of the evidence. And they weren’t giving the evidence to the detectives, and I had access to those records. So behind the scenes, I would go into work, I would print things out. I would be able to look at the records, I would be able to look at all of his printouts. And then we were drawing a roadmap to his murders.

The Good Nurse: Jessica Chastain as Amy Loughren

CH: At what point did you agreed to wear a wire and try to get him to confess?

AL: Charlie had gotten another job and he was about to start work again. And I called the detectives and said, “He has another job, we need to figure something out.” That was when they said, “Let’s try and get a confession out of him, let’s have you wear a wire.” We had already been recording our conversations over the phone. But at that time, we had to do something right away, because we could not let him go to another institution and harm more people.

CH: What happened when you attempted to get the confession. Did it go to plan? 

AL: In real life, I did get the confession and the wire malfunctioned. So here we were in this restaurant, and yes, I got the confession. And there was nothing on record; we had to go back in again. He was arrested that night at the restaurant. In the movie, the way that it plays out where they bring me back in to talk to him, that was real. 

CH: Did you feel scared while you were wearing the wire?

AL: I was terrified. My heart was racing out of my chest. And I was also terrified that he was going to know, because he went in for a hug, and I had a little black box at the small of my back. And he’s a brilliant man; if he had felt that, it would have been all over.

Amy Loughren, the real-life inspiration behind Netflix’s new true crime drama The Good Nurse

CH: Working with a heart condition must have put an immense strain on you. How did you cope with the pressure of your illness along with the pressure of trying to bring this person to justice?

AL: When I realised he was harming my patients, and he was harming those patients right in front of me, I was already in a situation where it was very possible that I was not going to live perhaps even another couple of years. And I thought, I can’t possibly move on to the next realm and know that I didn’t help them. Knowing what I knew risked my life to put him behind bars.

CH: You mentioned before that you didn’t get the confession when you were wearing the wire because it malfunctioned. Did you then volunteer to go into jail and get the confession from him? Or did the detectives ask you to try again?

AL: They called me two days after they arrested him. I thought it was over. I was done. I was relieved. I was like, ‘Oh thank God, we’ve got him.’ I didn’t know that the wire had malfunctioned. So they called me two days later and asked me if I would come in and talk to him and see if we could get something definitive, because even the confession with the wire, he didn’t actually say the words: I did this. And it was an absolute, he was not denying what he did. And he said he wanted to go down fighting. 

Netflix’s new film The Good Nurse explores the story of American serial killer Charles Cullen

CH: So you went into jail and you had this conversation, you wrapped your jumper around his shoulders. What do you remember of the moment when he confessed?

AL: There’s a scene where Jessica – playing me – puts a sweater over his shoulders. And that really happened. It was so complicated. The detectives had given him the impression that I was also being implicated. So he confessed in order to be my hero and to, once again, save my life. And the only reason that he is behind bars is because he really did care about me, and he genuinely wanted to make sure that I didn’t take responsibility for his crimes.

CH: You’ve said before that the kindness that was at the centre of this relationship is the reason why you elicited this confession. What are your thoughts on the film and the way that story is portrayed?

AL: Tobias [Lindholm, director of The Good Nurse] is the only person I feel that could tell this story in a way that honoured the victims, and also tell this story of this very complicated man. Yes, he’s a monster, yes, he did some terrible things; of course he’s mentally ill. But he offers a voice to the victims and the victims’ families. And he offers a voice to the nurses, and the fact that so many times when we’re dealing with criminals, we tend to judge so incredibly harshly, that we look at them in a way that we do not honour the fact that they’re not always only a monster, they always have one small bit of humanity left in there. And that’s what I went for.

Charles Cullenn at Somerset County Superior Court in New Jersey in 2004

CH: And do you remember some of the patients?

AL: I do. I do. And the guilt that I had from that, and knowing that he had done that right in front of me… I just, I couldn’t live with myself for a long time. I really, really had a lot of guilt.

CH: The film brings together many different threads, one of them being the failings of the US healthcare system. What do you make of the way the film portraysthe nursing profession and the pressures upon it?

AL: When I was watching Kim Dickens play the character of the bureaucrat, it was quintessentially what I was dealing with. They were definitely selling their souls for this capitalistic theory that these patients didn’t matter and money mattered. And they should have been held as accountable as Charles Cullen was. I do think that they portrayed the nurses as being as hardworking as they were. Watching Jessica [as me], doing CPR and knowing that even doing CPR, she is putting herself at risk. Even though that was me, I couldn’t feel the pride in that, because it was just something I did every day. So watching her do that, I felt genuine pride in what I had done.

CH: I imagine the investigation completely upended your life. What did life look like afterwards?

AL: I quit nursing for a couple of years after that, and I went on a very, very deep spiritual quest. I needed answers as to why I didn’t see a monster right in front of me. And I really, truly wanted an answer. And I’m so grateful for that. I’m so grateful for the experience. I have realised that it’s very, very hard for me to see the darkness in people. And I think that’s a gift. I think it’s a beautiful gift. And I didn’t think so at the time – 20 years ago, I didn’t think so. But I look back at her now and I think: you did OK. You did alright. 

The Good Nurse: Jessica Chastain as Amy Loughren

CH: You say in Charles Graeber’s book that you believe the fact that you cared about Charles Cullen led to the confession. Do you still operate from that viewpoint?

AL: I do, and I have used that actually to trust people more, because I feel that the closer I can be to people, I can give them a safe space for them to confess, for them to reveal their darkness. And knowing that I genuinely do not judge. And it’s not for me to judge. That doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t be held accountable. It just means that everyone has a secret. We’ve all been touched by someone in our lives that has mental illness or addictions. And still loving them is OK. It doesn’t mean we don’t understand that they’re truly flawed, but loving them is what can help them heal or help them take responsibility for what they’ve done.

CH: Would you say you’re at a stage now where you have positive takeaways from this situation?

AL: There is no possible way that Charles Cullen and I were supposed to meet. I lived three and a half hours from that hospital, I was a travel nurse. So the odds of us meeting were one in a billion. It was divinity; there was some divine intervention. He would still be killing. He has said that multiple times: the only reason that he confessed is because of our friendship. So we wouldn’t have been able to put him away without that confession.

CH: How does it feel now when people say to you that you’ve played a pivotal role in bringing one of America’s most notorious serial killers to justice? Does it still feel very surreal? 

AL: I feel that I was such a small part of that investigation. Those detectives lived that for years, they had to go through the entire investigation. And I’m such a small part of the book as well. So I think that the fascination with this, luckily, is not about Charles Cullen. Because no one wants to sensationalise the monstrous things he did. He was not a mercy killer. And the detectives wanted everyone to realise that. So for me to be a part of that, and to have a voice with this, I’m going to take full advantage of my voice to give those victims and their families the spotlight they deserve.

Images: Netflix; Getty

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