The Death Shift

When nurse Genene Jones was on duty in a San Antonio hospital, babies had mysterious emergencies and sometimes died. Then she moved to a Kerrville clinic, and the awful pattern began again.

One—a blue-eyed, fifteen-month-old girl named Chelsea Ann McClellan—died. And when Genene Jones left the town of Kerrville, the emergencies stopped.

Today, Genene Jones is free on a $225,000 bond from the Kerr County jail; she is scheduled to go on trial next month on a charge of murder. Ron Sutton, the burly country prosecutor for Kerr County, believes that Jones injected the seven children in Kerrville with a powerful muscle relaxant called succinylcholine chloride—which is sold by prescription under the brand name Anectine—a drug that leaves humans conscious but unable to breathe. Sutton’s grand jury has indicted Jones on one charge of murder and seven charges of inquiry to a child. In San Antonio, Bexar County district attorney Sam D. Millsap, Jr., is six months into an investigation of the mysterious deaths at Bexar County Hospital and why no one stopped them. Millsap says he is focusing his criminal investigation not only on Genene Jones but also on the Bexar County Hospital for its inaction.

This article is an account of what really happened inside Bexar County Hospital and the pediatrician’s office in Kerrville. Never, in the course of dozens of suspicious medical incidents and several lengthy investigations of them, has here been hard, irrefutable proof of what the prosecutors believe happened. No one but Genene Jones has been charged with a crime, and although Dr. Holland is the target of several private lawsuits that question her medical judgment, she will almost certainly not be indicted. And of course it remains impossible to say with certainty that the children who died were murdered. Still, it is possibly to reconstruct the precise chain of events leading to their deaths, and so to learn some sad lessons. To see those events unfold is a revelation: it shows how palpable the sense of horror in the San Antonio hospital was; how poorly the sophisticated world of big-city medicine dealt with it; and how a group of small-town doctors finally took the decisive actions that apparently brought the tragedy to an end.

Both Ron Sutton and Sam Millsap have put forth theories about the reason for the babies’ deaths. Sutton believes that in Kerrville Genene Jones tried to create medical emergencies so she and Dr. Holland would look like heroes. In a town with an elderly population, Jones was determined, Sutton believes, to create a need for a pediatric intensive care unit that she and her friends would run. Millsap’s investigators in San Antonio have wondered about mercy killing, and they contemplated and then discarded the notion of a murderous lesbian clique. They now wonder about Jones’ lust for excitement and her contempt for inexperienced doctors. In any event, all the investigators are agreed on one point: at the heart of what took place in the case of the mysterious baby deaths is the complex personality of Genene Ann Jones.


I ALWAYS CRY WHEN BABIES DIE,” said Genene Jones. “You can almost explain away an adult death. When you look at an adult die, at least you can say they’ve had a full life. When a baby dies, they’ve been cheated. They’ve been cheated out of a hell of a lot.”

I spoke with Genene Jones in May, three weeks before she was indicted and hauled off to jail. We talked in San Angelo, in a two-bedroom mobile home where she was living with three adults, three children, two cats, and a cocker spaniel named Sprout. Genene greeted me with a smile and sat down at one end of a Herculon sofa in the living room, opposite a small sign that read, “Always tell the truth no matter who it hurts.” Genene is 33 years old and five feet four. She carries twenty or thirty pounds more than she needs, even after losing weight since she became front-page news. She has hard, determined features, dominated by a large nose. Her short red-brown hair was neat that day, her makeup modest and careful. She wore purple slacks, a flowered blouse, and a gold chain around her neck. She had dressed for our meeting as though she were waiting for a Saturday night date.

In the middle of the couch, clutching Genene’s hand, was Garron Ray Turk, a pale, thin, blond-haired aide at a San Angelo nursing home. Garron is nineteen, and he is Genene’s new husband; they were married in San Angelo on April 24. He had little to say during the evening. He sat beside Genene, pecked her on the lips from time to time, and fetched more iced tea and cigarettes.

At the far end of the sofa was Debbie Sultenfuss. Debbie, 35 and also an LVN, met Genene when they were both working at Bexar County Hospital. Debbie grew up on a farm, where life moved slowly, and Genene’s fast mouth and mind quickly made an impression on her. In January 1980, shortly after they met, Debbie transferred from the pediatric floor the pediatric intensive care unit and began working the three-to-eleven shift with Genene. They became inseparable: Genene the clever teacher, Debbie the eager, if slow, pupil. Debbie began trying to act like Genene, even to dress like Genene. But she was a poor imitation. Genene displayed a sharp mind and a sharper tongue; Debbie, a six-foot, two-hundred-pound giantess, lumbered. When Genene accepted the job with Dr. Holland in Kerrville, Debbie followed and took a job at the local hospital. When Genene got in trouble, Debbie moved her mobile home to San Angelo, and they settled in together. Debbie says she and Genene shared “a sisterly love.” Genene has gone to the trouble of publicly denying that she and Debbie are lesbians, and on this evening she pounced on that subject with an angry wave at her new spouse. “Ask my husband if I’m a les,” she said. “It’s nothing but trash.”

When the six o’clock news showed Genene Jones being taken to jail, viewers saw a broken woman, silent and defeated. It was a misleading picture.

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