Tuesday, August 13, 2013
A nurse convicted in 1984 of killing an infant and suspected of murdering dozens more will be released from prison without completing her 99 year sentence because of an expired Texas law that grants a "mandatory release" to inmates with good behavior.
On May 14, 1984 Genene Anne Jones, now 63, was sentenced for the murder of 15-month-old Chelsea McClellan in 1982 in a small-town pediatric clinic where Jones was a nurse.
"I was holding Chelsea, she was facing me, and Jones gave her the first shot in her left thigh. Immediately Chelsea had trouble breathing. Chelsea was trying to say my name, but she couldn't. I was extremely upset," Petti McClellan, the victim's mother, told ABC News.
Jones began injecting the child with a lethal dose of the muscle relaxant succinylcholine while the baby was still in her mother's arms, according to McClellan and court records.
Jones was also convicted of injuring a child in another attack in which the child survived. She was sentenced to 60 years on that conviction, but it was ordered to be served concurrently with the 99 year sentence.
Ron Sutton, the criminal prosecutor who won the murder conviction, estimates that Jones is responsible for the deaths of between 11 and 46 infants in Bexar County from 1978 and 1982.
"I was present when all the investigators were adding up the numbers and, 11 to 46... I can confirm that that's what it was," Sutton told ABC News.
For Petti McClellan those numbers are stunning.
"Just the idea of a serial killer walking free in the United States of America is the craziest thing I have ever heard of," McClellan said.
McClellan, 59, and those opposed to Jones' release are trying to find another of her alleged victims for a fresh murder prosecution in order to prevent her release.
"I truly feel it in my heart that this is something I have to do," McClellan said. "How does it make me different from her if I don't do anything?"
But their efforts are complicated by the fact that the facilities where the children died have destroyed records surrounding the infants' deaths.
"A lot of the victims' medical records and documents were shredded or disappeared from the hospital where Jones worked," Andy Kahan, a victim's advocate for the Houston mayor's office, told ABC News.
The facility, now called University Hospital, declined to comment on any aspect of the story.
Jones is scheduled to be released from prison on Feb. 24, 2018, according to the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. She will have served 35 years, about one-third of her sentence.
McClellan was meeting with Texas State senators in the early 1990s when she discovered that Jones would be scheduled for early release.
"A congressman came up to me and as I told them Chelsea's story he stopped me and asked when Genene Jones was sentenced," McClellan recalled. He then told McClellan he would be back in a minute and left.
"When he came back he looked upset and he told me, 'We have a problem'," McClellan said. "That's when he told me Genene Jones would not serve her full sentence. I couldn't believe it."
"I was stunned, sad, and so, so, angry. Probably the angriest I have been since Chelsea died. This makes no rhyme or reason. Not just for me and my family, but anybody who suffered. There were so many other victims," McClellan said.
"This is going to happen. There is nothing we can do. Nothing I can do," Petti McClellan, continued. "This has nothing to do with the parole board, the courts. Genene Jones is going to walk free."
Jones will be released because of a Texas law called Mandatory Supervision. Enacted in 1977, the law allowed all convicted criminals to be automatically released on parole after they complete a certain amount of calendar time and good conduct time, which includes participating in work and self-improvement programs, according to the Texas Department of Criminal Justice parole and mandatory release guide.
Mandatory Supervision was amended in 1987 to exclude violent criminals. But any violent criminal convicted in Texas before 1987 is still eligible for early release, according to the guide.
"Genene Jones has been eligible for parole since 1989, and every three years since 1989 her case has been renewed and parole been denied," Harry Batson, a public information officer for the Texas Board of Pardons and Parole, told ABC News.
"But mandatory release has nothing to do with parole," Batson said. "Even though she has been continually denied parole, that has no bearing on her release."
"During Jones' earlier parole hearings there was always a great deal of public outcry, people being upset that she could get out. But people forget. This happened so long ago, not that many people are aware, or care," Sutton said.
There is only one way to ensure that Jones stays in prison, authorities said.
"We need to find another case, another victim, whose death we can charge her with sufficient evidence," Andy Kahan said.
Kahan, as well as Sutton and some of Jones' former co-workers, suspect that she is responsible for the deaths of between 11 and 46 other infants who were patients at Bexar County Hospital between 1978 and 1982.
Jones was hired as a nurse in Bexar County Hospital in 1977, Cheryl Pendergraph, a nurse who worked on the same shift as Jones, told ABC News.
"I was working in the pediatric ICU of Bexar County Hospital from 1976-1981," said Pendergraph, who is now 59 and living in Houston. "I began as a clinician and eventually became a shift supervisor. Besides taking care of patients, my job was to give patient assignments to the nurses."
Pendergraph was the first nurse who worked with Jones when Jones was hired in 1977.
"Jones was assigned to my shift the first night after she was hired," Pendergraph said.
A few years later, in 1981, Pendergraph and the other nurses in the pediatric ICU noticed a significant increase in the unit's infant mortality rate.
"Our infant mortality rate was much higher in 1981 than it was in previous years," Pendergraph said. "During one of the midnight shifts the nurses and I got together. We had all noticed the increased deaths."
Pendergraph reviewed the patient logbooks and noticed what she said was a troubling pattern.
"Most of the deaths were on the 3-11 shift, which was the shift that Genene Jones worked on. And most of the infants who died were Genene's patients. She was assigned to them," Pendergraph said.
Joyce Riley was a nurse consultant who was also working at Bexar County Hospital.
"I was there from the late 70's to early 80's. My job was to oversee the Medicare and Medicaid patients and make sure they got the appropriate medical care," said Riley, who is now 65 and living in Versailles, Mo.
"There was talk within the pediatrics unit in the hospital that there were a lot of babies dying," Riley said. "And the way the babies were dying was very unusual. Granted, these children were already sick because they were in the pediatric ICU. But they would suffer from these really untoward events."
"Things like an infant burn victim all of a sudden going into a respiratory attack. These kids would suddenly bleed out or go into cardiac arrest. Their causes of death were not related to their illnesses at all," Riley said.
Like Pendergraph, Riley also looked at the pediatric unit's medical records.
"Jones' name was listed next to most of the infant patients who had suddenly died," Riley said.
Today Kahan and McClellan are trying to find one of the parents whose child may have been killed by Jones.
A Facebook group called "Victims of Genene Anne Jones" has 38 members. Joann Garza, the group's administrator, had a twin brother her family believes was killed by Jones.
Garza's brother, Joel, was taken to Bexar County Hospital after he choked on his bottle. According to Garza, Jones gave shots to her brother and two unidentified twin girls. All three children died.
"We only have a few years left to do this," Kahan said. "We just need one person to come forward."
Jones is currently being held in the Carole S. Young Medical Facility, a correctional center in Dickinson, Texas. Batson could not say whether Jones was receiving medical care, but did say that the facility was reserved for inmates needing medical attention.
William Chenault, a San Antonio-based lawyer, briefly served as Jones' court-appointed attorney.
To this day Chenault cannot say if Jones was innocent or guilty, "but the case against her was based on circumstantial evidence."
"Jones was a very intelligent woman. She loved working at that hospital. She was a very good nurse. Some said the best," Chenault said.
At the suggestion of prosecuting lawyers, Jones was evaluated by a psychologist.
"She came back perfectly normal," Chenault said.
"Jones always denied that she did anything. She said she was there to help the kids."
As Jones' attorney, Chenault worried that Jones' need to defend herself ultimately hurt her case.
"Every time the press said something negative about her, she would hold a press conference to defend herself. That would just fan the flames. But she wouldn't listen to us. She kept saying she could handle it," the lawyer said.
Genene Jones did not respond to repeated requests for comment.