The story that would send me to jail for refusing to name confidential sources 27 years ago began with a letter: three typewritten pages that would not only change my life and the lives of others but also lead to a blistering clash between the First and Sixth Amendments of the U.S. Constitution. When the case ended, three years later, it had become a story about a reporter as much as it was a reporter's story—different from the one that sent New York Times reporter Judith Miller to jail for refusing to name a source this July, but in important ways the same.
In June 1975, when the letter arrived at the New York Times newsroom, I was a 37-year-old reporter there. An editor named Mike Levitas handed it to me. The letter was from a woman who had something very chilling to say: she had heard that the chief surgeon at a hospital had murdered 30 to 40 patients a decade earlier.
Her letter didn't name the surgeon, or the hospital. There were no clues to where this had happened, if indeed it had. But like Levitas, who had met the letter writer and didn't think she was a crank, I knew this story had to be pursued, even without her cooperation. My first job was to identify the hospital. The letter suggested that drugs might have killed the patients, so I contacted sources in the world of forensic toxicology. Fortunately, one remembered having been consulted about a "suspicious" case like this at Riverdell, a private hospital in Bergen County, New Jersey.
Over the next half year, I roamed North Jersey and other parts of the country, trying to piece together what had happened in 1965 and 1966 at the hospital (which had since closed); trying to find people who knew about the case; and trying to persuade those who were reluctant to talk to me to do so, in confidence if necessary. Ultimately, my confidential sources would provide information that was vital to getting stories about the deaths into print.
The chief surgeon at the time of the deaths, I learned, had been Mario E. Jascalevich, who had been born and raised in Argentina and trained in America. He seemed never to lose patients after surgery, but the postoperative mortality rate of a surgeon new to Riverdell was soaring. The new surgeon couldn't understand it until he, and then equally puzzled doctor-directors at the hospital, opened Jascalevich's locker on October 31, 1966. Strewn about it were 18 mostly empty vials of the alkaloid d-tubocurarine—better known as curare—and syringes, one of which was filled with fluid. Properly used, curare relaxes breathing muscles during surgery; administered without artificial respiration, it can be lethal. Shaken by the sight, Riverdell's directors took an unusual step for doctors—they went to the county prosecutor, Guy Calissi.
By the time I was poking around, Calissi had become a judge in Hackensack, the Bergen County seat. His successor as prosecutor, Joseph Woodcock, was only vaguely aware of the Riverdell investigation, and when I met him in 1975, I feigned only passing interest in it—in connection, I said, with another case I was looking at. But I was panting to see the case files.
Woodcock had them brought out of storage, and I was shown into a room with a two-way mirrored wall. I assumed I was being watched. When I finished reading the files, I agreed with a remark Calissi had made in November 1966, after questioning Riverdell's directors and Jascalevich: "Somebody is lying." And after I located Jascalevich's 1966 deposition—it was missing from the files, but a lawyer friend of one of the directors had kept a copy—I was even more certain that Calissi was right. And that it mattered.
Calissi's investigation had been conducted largely by his chief assistant, Fred Galda, who by 1975 had also become a judge. The investigation had lasted only a few weeks and was never put before a grand jury—or reported in the newspapers. When I caught up with Calissi at home, he said, "We had many suspicions" that Riverdell patients had been murdered, but "no hard evidence." When I said Galda had told me that medical experts judged the deaths to be "plausible," Calissi scoffed. "That's horsesh—t," he said. "There was something to that goddamn case, I'll tell you that."
Using names and addresses—many of them out of date—from the 1966 file, I pored over phone books, leaned on officials for death certificates, called on funeral homes and appealed to the Social Security Administration to forward my letters seeking interviews with people who might have something relevant to say. I reached out to scientists and pharmaceutical companies for arcana about muscle relaxants. Doors were slammed in my face, and telephones were slammed down in my ear. The worst moments, of course, were when I had to tell people that the death of a parent or child, awful as it may have been at the time, was actually believed to have been suspicious. No one had ever told them that.
My efforts to speak with Jascalevich came to naught. He had resigned from Riverdell after the investigation but continued to practice in New Jersey. I sent him registered letters, but all I got were the return receipts. I phoned his office, but got only his secretary. I sat in front of his office in bitter cold and waited in vain for him to appear. In his confused and confusing deposition in 1966, he had said he used the curare in experiments on "dying dogs" at a medical school in Jersey City and had brought the used vials back to the hospital, miles away in Oradell, for record-keeping.