© 2022 St. Louis Public Radio
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
Available On Air Stations
88.5 FM KMST Rolla is currently experiencing technical difficulties.
The Midwest Newsroom is a partnership between NPR and member stations to provide investigative journalism and in-depth reporting with a focus on Iowa, Kansas, Missouri and Nebraska.

Woman charged with murder 20 years after mysterious deaths at Missouri hospital

A photo illustration showing former Missouri respiratory therapist Jennifer Hall and legal files.
Carlos Moreno photo illustration
/
KCUR
Jennifer Hall worked as a respiratory therapist at Hedrick Medical Center in Chillicothe, Missouri from Dec. 16, 2001, to May 18, 2002, when nine patients there died of cardiac collapse.

Some 20 years after a rash of unexplained patient deaths at a rural Missouri hospital, authorities in Kansas City are on the lookout for a woman who has been charged with first-degree murder in connection with one of those deaths.

Livingston County Prosecutor Adam Warren last week charged Jennifer Anne Hall, 41, with first-degree murder in the 2002 death of Fern Franco, one of nine people who died over the course of just a few months in 2002 at Hedrick Medical Center in Chillicothe, Missouri.

Hall worked as a respiratory therapist at the 49-bed hospital from Dec. 16, 2001, to May 18, 2002, when nine patients there died of cardiac collapse. The deaths of so many people from cardiac collapse, or “code blue” incidents, were viewed by doctors and nurses at the hospital as “medically suspicious,” according to a law enforcement record supporting the probable cause for her arrest.

Hall was placed on administrative leave on May 21, 2002, three days after Franco’s death.

The families of five patients who died during that period filed wrongful death lawsuits against the hospital in 2010, eight years after the deaths of their kin. They claimed they only learned of possible foul play years after the fact because the hospital had covered up what happened.

But in 2019, the Missouri Supreme Court, in a unanimous decision, ruled that the families had filed their lawsuits too late, finding that the three-year statute of limitations for filing wrongful death cases was not “tolled,” or stopped, by fraud.

The families, seeking to avoid the statute-of-limitations problem, had also filed separate fraud lawsuits against the hospital. But the Supreme Court said the families knew as far back as 2010 and 2011 that the hospital had engaged in fraudulent conduct and therefore should have filed their lawsuits earlier.

Although the families’ civil lawsuits were thrown out on statute-of-limitation grounds, there is no statute of limitations for homicide, allowing the first-degree murder charge against Hall to be brought 20 years after Fern Franco’s death. The case was revived after an analysis of Franco’s tissue samples revealed the presence of succinylcholine and morphine, neither of which was prescribed or ordered to be given by her doctors, according to a probable cause statement by Chillicothe Police Officer Brian Schmidt.

Succinylcholine, a drug that paralyzes respiratory muscles, is often given to patients prior to intubation. An overdose of succinylcholine causes slow suffocation. At least nine suspicious deaths and 18 suspicious medical emergencies at Hedrick Medical Center were suspected overdoses of succinylcholine or other drugs.

“Because of Hall’s singular proximity to stricken patients, her access to pharmaceuticals which are deadly if misused, and her discovery and method of notifying staff of every patient’s cardiac emergency, nursing staff believed Hall was responsible for the patient deaths,” Schmidt’s probable statement said.

Schmidt said that John Rice, a professor of mathematics in psychiatry at Washington University in St. Louis School of Medicine, performed a statistical analysis of code death rates while Hall worked at Hedrick and concluded that her proximity to the deaths exhibited “a pattern that would happen less than one in a million times.”

Most wanted

The Livingston County Sheriff lists Hall as one of the department’s most wanted suspects. It said Hall may be using the last name of Semaboye and was believed to be aware of the warrant for her arrest.

On Monday, no one picked up a call placed at a number listed for Hall, and the number did not accept messages. Hall denied involvement in the deaths at Hedrick Medical Center to a reporter from the Kansas City Star in a story published in 2015.

Matthew O’Connor, a Kansas City attorney who has represented Hall, said the murder charge was baseless.

“It is absolutely devastating to my client and her family and myself, frankly, to have a case that is without merit whatsoever and based on conjecture and speculation,” O’Connor said. “This isn’t lawyer talk — there aren’t facts in support of it because Ms. Hall did not commit these acts.”

Calls to Chillcothe police chief, the Livingston County sheriff and Warren the prosecutor who filed the first-degree murder charge, were not returned on Monday.

The brief criminal complaint against Hall lists 34 state witnesses, all of them, with the exception of Schmidt, listed by their initials. Schmidt’s probable cause statement said the witnesses “expressed fear for their lives and the safety of their families if Hall were to discover their names and personal information.”

“During the investigation of the crime, it was discovered that Hall is exceptionally computer literate, capable of locating anyone’s personal information, and efficient at masking her on-line identity,” the statement said.

Michael Manners, a former Jackson County judge who represented the families of the deceased patients in the civil litigation, said he was unaware of the criminal charge against Hall, but he said he had heard rumblings that the investigation had been reopened.

“Once in a while you think, ‘by God, justice does prevail from time to time,’” Manners said. “Now, she is only charged with this and I’m an old judge and I know she is not guilty until she is proven guilty. But it’s good at least that the process is working to find out if she did what she is accused of doing. Because God knows we failed at the civil part of it.”

Scott Lindley, the longtime coroner in Livingston County, said he had suspected Hall’s involvement in the Hedrick Medical Center deaths.

“We got a new chief of police, Jon Maples, and we got a new prosecutor in Adam Warren and I went to both of those early on their new appointments and gave them all my information and discussed it with them,” Lindley said. “And after a while they got after the case.”

Before she was employed at Hedrick Medical Center, Hall was convicted of setting fire to Cass Medical Center in Harrisonville, Missouri, where she was hired as a respiratory therapist. She spent a year in prison before an appeals court vacated her conviction on the grounds she received ineffective counsel at trial. A jury acquitted her at a subsequent retrial.

“This case is based on the hindsight of people looking at issues in their own hospital and when Ms. Hall’s prior wrongful conviction came to their attention, they started pushing pieces toward her,” O’Connor, the lawyer who has represented Hall, said. “They’ve tried for years to find evidence and it didn’t even rise to the level of a civil case, which is a much lower standard. The Missouri Supreme Court has thrown this case out at a civil level.”

O’Connor said the case would be “nearly impossible” for the state to prove.

“And it’s real simple,” he said. “She didn’t do it.”

Hedrick Medical Center was acquired by Kansas City-based Saint Luke’s Health System in 2003. The hospital network did not immediately respond to a request for comment about the murder charge against Hall.

An 'organized scheme'

The civil lawsuits accused the hospital of engaging in an “organized scheme to systemically conceal any indication of the spike in fatalities at the hospital as well as their suspicious nature.”

Specifically, the lawsuits said the hospital coerced employees to conceal information about Hall’s alleged actions, did not request autopsies, disbanded committees formed to evaluate the code deaths and neglected to preserve evidence.

An appeal filed in 2013 described how Cal Greenlaw, a Chillicothe doctor with admitting privileges at Hedrick Medical Center, treated a patient on Feb. 18, 2002, who suffered from sudden cardiovascular collapse and whose blood sugar and insulin levels did not make sense.

Nurses told Greenlaw of two other suspicious deaths at the hospital that occurred previously, causing Greenlaw to suspect someone at the hospital was trying to kill patients.

Nearly a month later, Greenlaw heard the hospital’s director of nursing say that there was no problem at the hospital and anyone discussing it would be fired. An administrator of the hospital also told Greenlaw there was not a problem, according to the appeal.

Other nurses told hospital administrators of their belief that Hall was allegedly harming patients and were left with the impression they would be fired if they kept raising the issue, according to the appeal.

Greenlaw died in 2017. Lindley, the coroner who investigated the Hedrick Medical Center deaths, was a friend of Greenlaw’s. Lindley believes the stress from the Hedrick Medical Center ordeal contributed to his death

“It was a sad deal, he was a very brilliant guy and we were lucky he was there,” Lindley said. “He actually caught it and put a stop to it. Although he didn’t get it done very quickly because he didn’t get any cooperation.”

This story comes from the Midwest Newsroom, an investigative journalism collaboration including IPRKCUR 89.3Nebraska Public Media NewsSt. Louis Public Radio and NPR.

For more in-depth news from Iowa, Kansas, Missouri and Nebraska, we invite you to follow us on Twitter:
@NPRMidwestNews.

Steve Vockrodt is the investigative editor for the Midwest Newsroom.
As a reporter covering breaking news and legal affairs, I want to demystify often-complex legal issues in order to expose the visible and invisible ways they affect people’s lives. I cover issues of justice and equity, and seek to ensure that significant and often under-covered developments get the attention they deserve so that KCUR listeners and readers are equipped with the knowledge they need to act as better informed citizens. Email me at dan@kcur.org.

Send questions and comments about this story to feedback@stlpublicradio.org.