Ex-hospital worker charged with murdering patient 20 years later

A former Missouri hospital worker was charged this month with the murder of a patient who died two decades ago in her care.

Jennifer Anne Hall, 41, is charged with using a lethal dose of muscle relaxer and morphine to kill Fern Franco, 75, at Hedrick Medical Center in 2002, according to Livingston County District Attorney Adam Warren.

Hall worked as a respiratory therapist at the medical center for five months from 2001 to 2002 — and during that short stint, rural Missouri Hospital saw the number of patients with sudden cardiac arrests soar.

The hospital experienced 18 “code blue” incidents of sudden cardiac arrest during Hall’s employment, compared to an average of one per year, according to an investigator.

Franco, who was among the “code blue” patients, died in his hospital bed. Eight others, including patients as young as 49 and 37, also died, while nine more survived.

Franco was being treated for pneumonia at the time and suffered a “horrifying death by suffocation” while fully conscious, according to a probable cause statement written by Chillicothe officer Brian Schmidt.

“Hall’s victim was a sick, helpless elderly woman who was dependent on Hall to care for a physical illness in a medical facility,” Schmidt wrote.

Aprille Franco, Fern’s granddaughter, holds a photo of Fern when she was young.
Aprille Franco via AP

Hospital officials at the time were alerted to concerns that Hall might be involved in the stark rise in sudden cardiac arrests, but “did everything in the world to cover it up” to avoid bad publicity, said said County Coroner Scott Lindley.

The hospital fired Hall after five months, not because of the suspicious increase in cardiac deaths, but because administrators learned of a previous arson conviction, according to his attorney. Hall was found guilty of starting a fire at another small hospital where she previously worked. She was acquitted of the crime in a retrial in 2005 after spending a year behind bars.

Criminal investigations into patient deaths were only launched two years after Warren was elected prosecutor in 2010.

Relatives of five of the deceased patients themselves sought justice in 2010 in a wrongful death lawsuit against the hospital and its new parent company, St. Luke’s Health System. However, the Missouri Supreme Court ruled that it was filed after the statute of limitations expired and dismissed the lawsuit in 2019.

Franco’s 44-year-old granddaughter, Aprille Franco, said she hopes her grandmother’s case will help bring closure to all families who have lost loved ones.

“Just for the sake of other families,” said Franco of Kansas City, Missouri. “They have been waiting for answers for 20 years. It’s up to my grandmother to find answers for them.

Hall pleaded not guilty to first degree murder on Thursday and was jailed without bond.

It is unclear whether she will face additional murder charges compared to other patients who suffered cardiac arrest under her care. The deaths of the other eight patients were considered to be of natural causes at the time.

Hall’s attorney, Matt O’Connor, said his client was innocent. He said she had no access to the drugs that killed Franco or any drugs in her role as a respiratory therapist.

With post wires

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