Charles Cullen and Amy Loughren were close friends and nurses together. Then, she found out he murdered 29 patients

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When Amy Loughren told her friend Charles Cullen she knew what he had done, she watched him change into someone she didn’t recognize. The two were having lunch at a restaurant in New Jersey. They were nurses, and close friends.

But that day, Loughren had a specific mission in mind. She had received word from two detectives that Cullen was suspected of having intentionally killed multiple patients. Unbeknownst to Cullen, she was wearing a wire. And she was here to help bring her friend to justice.

“When I told him I knew he had done those things, I watched him sit up,” Loughren recalls on a recent Zoom call with The Independent, 18 years after that lunch. “His posture changed. He moved his head to the side. He settled in, and he was very smug.”

Even the way he looked at her was “completely different”, with one eye “sort of [trailing] off. His voice shifted to a lower register. “And he just said, ‘I want to go down fighting,’” Loughren says.

We are speaking a week after the release of The Good Nurse, Netflix’s dramatization of Cullen’s and Loughren’s stories, in which she’s portrayed by Jessica Chastain and he’s played by Eddie Redmayne. An accompanying documentary, Capturing the Killer Nurse, featuring Loughren herself, was just released on Netflix.

The two releases mean that Loughren has spent a lot of time talking about Cullen and his impact on her life, after years of silence. For a long time, she was not allowed to talk about it. The silence was due in part because she had been a confidential informant in the lead-up to Cullen’s arrest, and civil lawsuits were still working their way through the legal system. “Until everything was all complete and done, I didn’t exist,” she says.

That silence was “very hard”, Loughren says, but it also gave her time to process those events. “I’m glad that I wasn’t always talking about it, because it really preserved my authenticity in this process,” she adds.

Loughren and Cullen met at Somerset Medical Center, where Cullen was hired in 2002. Loughren had two daughters and lived in upstate New York, from which she commuted to New Jersey. The two worked night shifts together in the critical care unit. “I was close to him in ways that normal people do not bond,” Loughren says. “When you are working side by side in life and death circumstances, you bond in the way that soldiers bond.”

The pair did not spend time together outside of the hospital, but that was only due to logistics. “If I had lived close to the hospital, I do believe [Cullen] would have been over for dinners,” Loughren says. “He would have seen my daughters and spoken to them.”

Eddie Redmayne as Charles Cullen and Jessica Chastain as Amy Loughren in the Netflix dramatization ‘The Good Nurse’

(JoJo Whilden / Netflix )

In The Good Nurse, the dramatized versions of Cullen and Loughren do see each other outside of work, a creative decision Loughren endorses: “The way that [screenwriter Krysty Wilson-Cairns] and [director Tobias Lindholm] wrote that into the film makes so much sense, because they set up a way for people to understand just how close we were.”

When nurses work together the way she and Cullen did, they get to know each other on an exceptionally deep level, Loughren notes. “You start to understand each other’s body language,” she says. “You can look across the room at each other and laugh, or make one little movement and they know exactly what you’re saying to them. And I loved that about him. I loved that he was a close colleague.”

Cullen worked for 16 years in hospitals in New Jersey and Pennsylvania before his arrest in December 2003. He eventually confessed to killing 29 patients while on the job, often by administering drug overdoses. He is currently serving multiple life sentences at the New Jersey State Prison in Trenton.

Loughren had no idea Cullen was harming patients until two detectives told her. By then, their investigation was already in full swing and Loughren stepped in to assist them. She and detectives Danny Baldwin and Tim Braun built up a rapport. Eventually, they asked her to wear a microphone while talking to Cullen in the hopes that he would own up to at least some of his crimes. That’s when Loughren sat down to lunch with Cullen.

She was under so much stress that when she later listened to the tape of her conversation with Cullen, she barely remembered any of it. But she’s still able to parse her state of mind at the time. “I needed to get him to realize that I was still his friend,” she says. “I needed him to understand that we still had that bond. I needed him to understand that I still really had that close feeling with him.”

The two had a “long conversation” before Loughren started confronting Cullen about his crimes. “I told him in no uncertain terms, ‘I know you did this, but I’m still here. I know that you harmed people, but I’m still here and I can help you. We can do this together.’”

She was “mostly afraid” when Cullen’s body language changed radically, after she told him she knew he was a murderer. “I was also heartbroken, because I could still imagine him as being this lonely person and someone who was truly alone in this world,” she says. “I was the person he was counting on to have his back, and now I’m betraying him. There were so many emotions, just so many darn emotions during that time.”

Amy Loughren and Jessica Chastain at the UK premiere of ‘The Good Nurse’ on 10 October 2022 in London

(Kate Green/Getty Images for BFI)

Looking back on that moment isn’t any easier today, she says. For years, including those during which she had to remain silent about Cullen’s case, she wrestled with two kinds of guilt; she felt she had betrayed a friend, and she missed the friendship they had built before she became aware of his crimes.

“When I realized what he was doing, I had a very hard time separating my friend Charlie from his behaviors,” she says. “… I felt like because I was still looking at him gently and compassionately, that somehow there might be something wrong with me. I still wanted him to be okay emotionally. And I struggled with that for years.”

Throughout our conversation, Loughren is honest and open, in touch with her feelings and ready to share them. While she discusses them with complexity and nuance, she is unwavering in her condemnation of Cullen and his crimes. “I think that he deserves to be behind bars,” she says. “He needs to be held accountable for his behaviors and for those murders.” Most of all, she comes off as someone who doesn’t fear judgment, but hopes for kindness.

“I had some brutal things happen to me in my own childhood, and I had to find a way to deal with that as I was growing up,” she says. “I think that is also why I was able to show [Cullen] compassion. The person who did those brutal things to me was someone I cared about and trusted. And I had to find space within myself to allow myself to still love someone who was still very, very flawed.”

Eddie Redmayne and Amy Loughren speak onstage during the SCAD Savannah Film Festival on 23 October 2022 in Savannah, Georgia

(Cindy Ord/Getty Images for SCAD)

After Loughren’s lunch with Cullen, investigators arrested him. Then, they asked her to come back and talk to him again, hoping she would elicit a full confession from him. “I was more determined than ever,” she says. “I was very determined when I was in the restaurant, [but] it was still different. It was still this sense of doing my best, seeing what I could get. When I went in the second time, I had a determination that I really didn’t understand, except that I finally was processing that he was a monster. I was finally processing that he had done monstrous things, and I needed to be the one to make sure that he never got out.”

Loughren claims the “huge investigation” that had already happened into Cullen’s crimes by that time would have already been enough to prosecute him. After investigators brought her back in front of Cullen, he spoke for hours about his crimes. He ultimately entered multiple guilty pleas.

Loughren left nursing not long after Cullen’s arrest. She now works as a hypnotist and spiritual healer. When I ask what brings her joy, she mentions meditation, travel, and spending time with her granddaughters. And when I ask her what she hopes people take away from her story, she goes back to Cullen. In a 2013 60 Minutes interview, he tried to paint himself as a mercy killer, who “thought [he] was helping” as “people [weren’t] suffering anymore.”

“He’s not a mercy killer,” Loughren says. She points to the types of medications Cullen used during his murders, which caused pain and suffering. “I want to give the victims and their families more of a voice and to allow them their moment, to say that he harmed so many families and took away the opportunity for those people to recover,” she adds. “That was not for him to make that decision.”

The Good Nurse (the dramatization starring Jessica Chastain and Eddie Redmayne) and Capturing the Killer Nurse (the accompanying documentary featuring Loughren and others) are both streaming on Netflix in the US and in the UK

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