Genene Jones: ‘Angel of Death’ PICU nurse gets life for 1981 murder of 11-month-old boy

A former Texas pediatric nurse suspected of killing up to 60 children during her career was sentenced to life in prison after pleading guilty Thursday to the 1981 murder of an 11-month-old boy in her care.

Genene Jones, 69, was scheduled to face trial next month in the murders of Joshua Earl Sawyer and four other children, all ages 2 and under, according to KSAT in San Antonio. She pleaded guilty to one count of murder in exchange for prosecutors dropping the remainder of the charges.

Jones was also charged in the deaths of Rosemary Vega, 2, Richard “Ricky” Nelson, 8 months, Patrick Zavala, 4 months, and Paul Edward Villarreal, 3 months, according to Bexar County court records.

ExploreRelated story: ‘Angel of Death’ nurse suspected of killing 40 kids indicted for murder in 35-year-old case

The plea deal requires that Jones serve at least 20 years of her life sentence before becoming eligible for parole, though she was granted credit for two years served while awaiting trial. She will be 87 years old before she again has a chance to be free.

"With this plea, the odds are she will take her last breath in prison," Bexar County prosecutor Catherine Babbitt said, according to The Associated Press.

Capital murder of a child under 10 was not an existing charge in Texas in the 1980s. Someone convicted of capital murder of a child today faces either mandatory life in prison or the death penalty.

Jones, who went to court in a blue Bexar County Jail uniform similar to the nurse’s scrubs she once wore, was silent throughout her sentencing. She needed a walker to face District Judge Frank J. Castro, who told Jones her decision to admit guilt “doesn’t come close to what you did to these families and the tragedies that you caused.”

"You took God's most precious gift, babies. Defenseless, innocent (babies)," Castro said. "I'm going to follow this agreement here that you agreed (to) with your attorney and the state. But I truly believe that your ultimate judgment is in the next life."

Though Jones had never before publicly accepted blame for any of the deaths, ProPublica reported in 2018 that testimony at a pretrial hearing indicated she confessed to a parole officer in October 1998.

"I really did kill those babies," Jones reportedly told a parole officer, according to a prosecutor's testimony.

In a 2011 letter to the Texas Board of Nursing, which had not formally revoked her nursing license in the 27 years since her murder conviction, Jones also appeared to admit to the crimes for which she was imprisoned. Her license, which was suspended in 1986, two years after her murder conviction, was ultimately suspended later in 2011.

"I look back now on what I did and agree with you now that it was heinous, that I was heinous," Jones wrote in the letter obtained by ProPublica and Texas Monthly. "My only defense is that I was not of sound mind then or any time before 1994. That is not an excuse just a fact. God, in His infinite wisdom and mercy, granted me a sound mind upon receiving Him as Lord of my life."

The plea deal also allowed Jones to get her Bible back. The book, along with an address book and other personal items, had been seized from her prison cell as evidence in the case.

"There is some handwriting of Genene Jones' in the Bible ... some references to children and to sin," Babbitt, chief of the Bexar County District Attorney's Office Major Crimes Unit, explained last fall, KSAT reported.

Rosemary Vega’s mother, Rosemary Vega Cantu, was incredulous Thursday over the issue of Jones’ Bible. Cantu addressed the serial killer during an emotional victim impact statement recorded live by local reporters.

Though Jones did not plead guilty to killing Cantu's daughter, a condition of her plea agreement was that Cantu and the families of all of the children involved in the case be allowed to speak during sentencing, Texas Monthly reported.

“I’ve waited 38 years of my life to tell you I will never forgive you,” a tearful Cantu said. “You changed my life and my family. I trusted you.”

Cantu worked in housekeeping at San Antonio's University Hospital, then known as Bexar County Hospital, at the same time Jones worked as a nurse in its pediatric intensive care unit. According to a June 2017 interview with Texas Monthly, published in collaboration with ProPublica, Cantu's duties included cleaning the rooms of the pediatric ICU where Jones ultimately cared for her daughter.

The two women knew one another.

“I trusted you with my daughter, and you would tell me, ‘It’s gonna be OK, Rosemary,’” Cantu continued, weeping.

She said her toddler daughter, who had been hospitalized for surgery related to a congenital heart defect, was not given a chance to go to school, to get married or to have children of her own.

“I pray to God you never come out to hurt no more babies in the world,” Cantu said. “I can’t believe you’re still asking for your Bible.”

Jones had previously sought to have her Bible returned to her but was denied the request last year after the court sided with prosecutors that her writings, including personal letters, were evidence that she was competent to stand trial. Defense attorneys had argued that Jones’ mental capacity had been diminished by a series of strokes.

Joshua Sawyer’s mother, Connie Weeks, was another parent who gave a victim impact statement Thursday at Jones’ sentencing hearing. Weeks told Jones she is glad Jones will never see daylight as a free woman and would end her life “in captivity” for killing Weeks’ son.

The infant had been hospitalized for smoke inhalation following a house fire, the San Antonio Express News reported. Jones killed him Dec. 12, 1981, with a toxic injection of Dilantin, a potent anti-seizure medication.

“You should have to serve one year for every year of life you robbed from the babies that you murdered,” Weeks said. “Although that’s not possible, you should definitely serve the remainder of your life in prison for the babies’ lives that you cut short.

“So I will leave you with this: I hope for you to live a long and miserable life behind bars.”

The ‘Death Shift’

Jones, dubbed the “Angel of Death,” was suspected of killing between 40 and 60 children in her care, first in the pediatric ICU of the hospital and then at a pediatrician’s office in Kerrville, about 65 miles northwest of San Antonio. Jones was a nurse through the late 1970s and early 1980s.

Jones was already serving a 99-year sentence in the death of one of those children when she was indicted in Joshua Sawyer’s death in 2017. Jones was convicted in 1984 of giving 15-month-old Chelsea McClelland a fatal dose of the paralytic agent succinylcholine in 1982.

Chelsea McClelland stopped breathing during a routine pediatrician’s visit.

Despite her 99-year sentence in Chelsea’s death -- and a 60-year sentence she was serving for giving Rolando Santos, 4 weeks old, a near-fatal overdose of the blood thinner heparin that same year -- Jones found herself eligible for early release in March 2018 under a 1977 law that Texas legislators had passed to relieve prison overcrowding.

Bexar County prosecutors, realizing the state would be forced to release the notorious killer, launched a secret investigation into Jones' time as a nurse, and the dozens of infants who died on her shift. The new investigation began in November 2014.

She was indicted May 25, 2017, in the death of the Sawyer baby, according to Bexar County officials. A second indictment, in the Sept. 16, 1981, killing of Rosemary Vega, was handed down June 21, 2017.

Indictments in the July 3, 1981, death of Ricky Nelson and the Jan. 17, 1982, death of Patrick Zavala were handed down a week later. Both boys were injected with an unknown substance prior to their deaths, according to court records.

The fifth baby for which Jones was charged, Paul Villarreal, died Sept. 24, 1981, of a heparin overdose while recovering from elective skull surgery, according to author Peter Elkind, who wrote a book about the murders.

Jones was working the 3 to 11 p.m. shift at Bexar County Hospital in late 1981 when suspicious supervisors began privately investigating the large number of unexplained medical issues -- and deaths -- of the children being treated in the pediatric ICU unit.

The deaths were frequent enough that Jones’ co-workers, who saw the disturbing pattern, began calling her shift the “Death Shift.”

Texas Monthly reported last week that a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study done in connection with the criminal probe of Jones found that, during the 15-month "epidemic period" in which the numbers skyrocketed, patients were 10 times more likely to die on Jones' shift than on that of other nurses on the ward.

One of the hospital's internal probes into the deaths found that, between May and December 1981, 10 children had died of "sudden and unexplained" complications on Jones' watch, the magazine reported in 1983.

One of those patients was Joshua Sawyer.

Joshua was slain just three months after Rosemary Vega, who Cantu said had been hospitalized for a relatively routine surgical procedure related to a congenital heart defect.

Cantu, who was 18 when her daughter was killed, told Texas Monthly in 2017 that she saw Jones inject an unknown drug into the toddler's IV line moments before the girl went into cardiac arrest.

Prior to the injection, the girl's recovery was going well, according to documents obtained by the magazine. Before surgery, she was described as "an alert child, playing, and in no acute distress."

Her surgery went smoothly and she was taken to the pediatric ICU, where Jones was her nurse. That night, a doctor noticed that the respirator helping Rosemary breathe had been set to give her too little oxygen.

The setting had been “altered by an unknown source,” the medical records showed.

The toddler stabilized throughout the next day but suffered the first of three episodes of cardiac arrest around 5:30 p.m., again on Jones' shift. Cantu said in 2017 that she was sitting at her daughter's bedside when Jones injected something she said would "help (her) baby rest," Texas Monthly reported.

“After she walked out, not two minutes later, my daughter started turning purple,” Cantu said. “The monitors went off; people started running. She was doing good until Genene injected her. Then she started getting the code blue.”

She was left with irreversible brain damage and was removed from life support by her parents.

At the time, hospital officials could not definitively prove Jones was harming the children.

"This association of Nurse Jones with the deaths of the 10 children could be coincidental. However, negligence or wrongdoing cannot be excluded," a hospital report obtained by Texas Monthly read.

The magazine reported that by the time that report was written, however, Jones was no longer at the hospital. Hospital administrators were unwilling to fire her or get law enforcement agencies involved, but the doctors caring for the hospital’s sickest children refused to allow Jones back into the PICU.

Instead, the hospital phased licensed vocational nurses, including Jones, out of the ICU and replaced them with registered nurses, the magazine reported. Offered a position elsewhere in the hospital, Jones declined and moved on.

The rampant and mysterious medical crises at the hospital stopped. They soon picked up again at the Kerrville pediatric practice of Dr. Kathleen Holland, who hired Jones after she left the hospital -- with a letter of recommendation from her supervisors.

In a one-month span, seven of Holland's patients had eight separate medical emergencies in her office in which they stopped breathing, Texas Monthly reported. One of those children, Chelsea McClellan, died.

Holland became suspicious of Jones after finding puncture marks in a vial of succinylcholine in the office’s store of medications. The drug was later tested and found to have been diluted with another clear substance so the vial would appear full.

Only Holland and Jones had access to the drugs.

Chelsea’s body was exhumed in May 1983, at which time tests showed signs of succinylcholine in her system. It was the McClellan murder that put Jones behind bars in 1984.

‘A cold-blooded monster’

Several of the parents at last week's hearing credited Chelsea's mother, Petti McClellan-Wiese, with pushing investigators to reinvestigate the case against Jones before she could be released from prison. McClellan-Wiese, who they described as their champion, died June 11 at the age of 64, according to her obituary.

McClellan-Wiese's daughter, Kylie McClellan, stepped in to support the women at Thursday's hearing, the Express News reported. She also spoke on behalf of Hope Zavala Pacheco, Patrick Zavala's mother, who could not make the hearing.

"Forty years have gone by since you took my baby's life and I hate you for that," Kylie McClellan read from a prepared statement written by Pacheco. "I've often wondered how a person can sleep at night after taking someone's baby's life. You must have a very large, black heart. At this point, I'm not saying that I forgive you, but there's only one person you must answer to, and that is God.

“I don’t wish you death, but I do want you to stay locked up for the remainder of your days. I feel like a big burden has been lifted off my shoulder, finding justice for our babies.”

McClellan-Wiese was not the only parent of the murdered children to die before seeing Jones sentenced to additional prison time.

Paul Villarreal's mother, Juanita Villarreal, died in December, scarcely a month before she would have faced her son's killer in court one more time. KSAT in San Antonio reported that Juanita Villarreal, 64, died of complications of pneumonia.

Villarreal's daughter, Melissa Luna, stood up on behalf of her mother and brother, as well as on behalf of the family of Ricky Nelson, who the Express News reported has no living relatives.

“Neither one of them made it to their first birthday because you made a decision to take their lives,” Luna told Jones of the two infant boys. “You wanted to see how many times you could bring them back, as if you thought that you were God himself.”

Luna told Jones her mother feared over the decades that Jones would someday be released and be able to again target helpless children.

“You’re too much of a cold-blooded monster to begin to empathize and realize what hell these mothers have been through, having to live and go on without their children,” Luna said.

She said she always wondered what her relationship with her brother would have been like but said she would never know. She vowed to keep both his memory and that of Ricky Nelson alive for the rest of her own life.

“And now, just like my mom knew, just like all these mothers knew that their children were murdered and that they didn’t just suddenly die, the whole world will know they were right,” Luna said. “They will also know the coward that you are for taking all those innocent lives.

“I can leave here with a smile on my face, because although my brother is in a box, I know you will take your last pathetic breath in one, too, and you’ll never be able to hurt children again.”

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