'The Lab of Last Resort' Helped Take Down a Serial Killer

A nuclear weapons lab's work was key to getting justice for Efren Saldivar's victims
By Kate Seamons,  Newser Staff
Posted Feb 18, 2024 5:31 AM CST
'The Lab of Last Resort' Helped Police Arrest a Serial Killer
   (Getty Images / Inna Dodor)

Police had a suspect, dead bodies, a confession—but what they didn't have was evidence. In a piece for Undark, Sarah Scoles dives into the case of Efren Saldivar, a California respiratory therapist whose treatment of terminally ill patients at Glendale Adventist Medical Center had raised some concerns, enough so that police brought him in for questioning in 1998. Saldivar dropped a bombshell: He said he had killed dozens using heavy doses of the paralyzing chemicals pancuronium bromide (Pavulon) and succinylcholine chloride. But absent evidence, police were forced to let him go, and Saldivar then retracted his confession. What they needed was evidence of those chemicals in the bodies of long-dead patients. A nuclear weapons lab was the unlikely partner who helped them get it.

Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory is run by the National Nuclear Security Administration and chiefly tasked with the upkeep and modernization of nuclear weapons. It's also home to the Forensic Science Center, whose research largely relates to national-security cases and whose skills have it known as "the lab of last resort." After the bodies of 20 potential victims were exhumed, the lab went to work trying to detect Pavulon, which was expected to have degraded to the point that it was all but undetectable. Scoles explains the researchers invented a new method for pulling Pavulon from tissue and managed to get positive results among six of the bodies. Saldivar was arrested and pleaded guilty to six counts of murder; he's serving life without parole. (Read the full story, which gets much more technical.)

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