Among the chilling descriptors used to describe Genene Jones during her headline-grabbing 1985 trial were “Baby-Killing Nurse” and “Angel of Death.” Convicted of one infant’s death, she was suspected of causing 40 or more babies to die on her watch. And thanks to a legal quirk, she may soon be free.
In the 1980s, the Jones saga horrified parents across America. She was a pediatric nurse who worked at facilities in San Antonio and Kerrville, Texas, from 1971 to 1984. When it became apparent that a disproportionately high number of babies was mysteriously dying on her shift in San Antonio, she resigned rather than accept an assignment that didn’t involve caring for sick infants. Problem solved, everyone thought. But that wasn’t the case.
After she took a new job in a pediatric clinic in nearby Kerrville, seven children suffered seizures in two months. It was odd coincidence, but not enough to arouse suspicion, until 1982, when an otherwise healthy 15-month-old named Chelsea McClellan died after being brought into the clinic for routine immunizations. In 2013, Chelsea’s mother recalled the horror of that day to CNN:
“[Jones] gave her her first shot in her left thigh and she immediately started gasping for air,” said Petti McClellan-Wiese. “Gave her another one, and she immediately just went limp and quit breathing.”
In the chaos of rushing Chelsea from the clinic to the hospital, Jones somehow slipped into the ambulance and gave the little girl a third shot.
McClellan-Wiese would learn later that the nurse had injected her daughter with a drug called Succinylcholine, which causes muscle relaxation and short term paralysis. It stopped Chelsea’s heart.
It would have been unimaginably stomach-turning enough if Jones’ motivation was simply an uncontrollable urge to kill babies. But she had a deeper desire driving her: making the children just sick enough for her to rush in, “play God,” and save them. She wanted attention, and she wanted everyone to view her as a hero.
There was a big, obvious flaw in this plan, because many of her victims could not be revived from the high levels of drugs Jones was recklessly injecting into their tiny bodies. She was convicted in 1985 for both Chelsea’s death and the attempted murder of another infant, but there was much speculation that she had done way more damage in her nursing career. Fearing lawsuits, bad publicity, and worse, at least one hospital where she worked shredded the records of her time there. Jones had been sentenced to 99 years in prison, so what was the point of putting any institutional reputations at risk?
Actually, those records would have come in handy right about now, thanks to a legal wrinkle that will free Jones, who’s been denied parole over the years, in 2018. She will be 67 years old. The fact that she’s reportedly in poor health hasn’t slowed the crusade to keep her behind bars.
“She’s probably going to be the first serial killer in this country’s history to be legally released,” crime-victim advocate Andy Kahan told Houston’s KHOU-TV. In 2013, CNN described the reason for Jones’ impending release as “an old Texas law designed to prevent prison overcrowding:”
The Mandatory Release law allows inmates convicted of violent crimes between 1977 and 1987 to be automatically released if their “good behavior” credit plus their time served equals their sentence. The law was changed in 1987 to exclude violent criminals, but it isn’t retroactive.
So now McClellan-Wiese and Andy Kahan, a victim’s advocate for the city of Houston, are desperately trying to find other mothers whose babies may also have been killed by Jones.
A new conviction could keep her locked up.
There’s a legal precedent for this in Texas; in 2006, a confessed serial killer named Coral Eugene Watts was convicted of additional murders on the eve of his release in 2006. The new sentence was enough to keep him imprisoned until his death from cancer in 2007.
The cold-case pursuit had a champion in Bexar County District Attorney Susan Reed, who in 2014 told a San Antonio TV station “This woman never needs to get out of prison and if she’s fixin’ to die, then she ought to do it in prison.” And though Reed (a Republican) lost her bid for re-election not long after that interview, the new DA (a Democrat named Nico LaHood) shares her point of view:
“I believe that [Jones] should pass on in prison,” LaHood told KSAT. “This is just and should happen—especially for the victims’ families that still have to live with this and have lived without their loved ones all this time.”
Just last month, LaHood gave an interview in which he explained that he was still on the case:
LaHood says when he took office in January he assigned the Jones case to his Special Crimes Unit.
He encourages any parents who think their child fell victim to Jones to call his office.
“The politics doesn’t motivate me,” says LaHood. “The attention, the media doesn’t motivate me. The fact that if this woman is responsible for taking someone’s treasure—meaning their child—away from them, I want to do everything within the law and ethics to hold her accountable and keep her behind bars.”
Top image: Genene Jones in January 1984 (AP Photo)
Lower image: Jones (center) in February 1984 (AP Photo/Ted Powers)