Did Dr Mario Jascalevich commit murder to make his colleagues look stupid?
The panel of 18 jurors had been chosen. And on 28 February 1975, they sat together for the first day of the trial at Bergen County Superior Court, New Jersey.
It would be the first day of the second-longest trial to date in American history.
34 weeks. Or 238 days.
On the other side of the courtroom sat a man with sandy-coloured hair and thick-rimmed glasses, his expensive silk-tie fastened in the Balthus knot popular at the time. Although that morning, he’d tried to sneak into the court in disguise, wearing a strange animal-like mask.
Dr Mario Enrique Jascalevich.
Accused of murdering three of hospital patients.
But by 1975, the deaths of those three patients must have felt like ancient history to Dr Jascalevich.
He was a surgeon. And a successful one.
During his career, he’d even invented a new type of surgical stapler – an automated suturing device.
But while he’d been working as chief surgeon in New Jersey’s Riverdell Hospital in 1965, patients had started dying.
Not his patients.
The patients of other surgeons.
They’d all come in for routine procedures.
Nancy Savino was only 4 years old. She’d had appendicitis. Carl Rohrbeck was 73, he’d needed a hernia operation. And Frank Biggs, 59, had an ulcer removed.
All three had started to make a good recovery.
And then they’d died.
There were other deaths, too.
Deaths of patients who’d supposedly been doing well after routine procedures.
Twenty in total, possibly more.
One of the doctors at the hospital was suspicious. His name was Stanley Harris.
Five of his patients had died unexpectedly following successful operations.
He’d noticed that one doctor had been around at the time those five patients had died.
So Dr Harris made a bold decision.
He broke into Dr Jascalevich’s hospital locker.
And there, he found 18 vials of the poison curare, and 18 used syringes.
It seemed Mario Jascalevich had been caught red-handed.
Curare is used to paralyse a patient’s breathing muscles during surgery. But administered in larger doses, it’s fatal.
Dr Harris went to the police.
But when he was questioned, Dr Jascalevich told investigators he’d used the curare to experiment on dying dogs.
There was no real evidence against him.
Police didn’t even have a possible motive. Except for Dr Harris’s belief that Mario was killing his colleague’s patients to make the other doctors look incompetent.
Not enough to go on.
The investigation was shelved.
Enraged by Dr Harris’s accusations, Mario left Riverdell Hospital and set up his own private practice.
Only now, he was again being accused of murdering those patients.
In 1975, ten years after the case had been dropped, a journalist for the New York Times called Myron Farber started doing some investigations of his own.
He read the police reports. Saw Mario had claimed to be experimenting on dogs supplied to him by a farm in South Carolina.
But when Myron got in touch with the farm, they couldn’t find any record of sending dogs to Mario Jascalevich.
Was the doctor lying?
Before long, the New York Times was able to publish an article about the 20 or so unexplained deaths at Riverdell in 1965-6.
Because charges hadn’t been brought against him, Mario was referred to in the article only as Dr X.
The police looked at the case again.
Only now, because of technological advances over the last decade, investigators were confident they’d be able to get a conviction.
They re-examined the records, found that of the 20 patients who’d died, 5 had not officially been given any curare during their operations.
And because of advances in technology over the last ten years, forensic scientists could now, for the first time, identify curare in the blood and tissue of the human body.
If curare were found in the systems of those five patients, it would be proof of foul play.
The bodies were exhumed.
Curare was found in three of them. Tests on the fourth body were inconclusive, and the last body had deteriorated too much to be tested at all.
The three patients with unexplained, high doses of curare in their bodies at the time of death were Nancy Salvino, Carl Rohrbeck and Frank Biggs.
Dr Mario Jascalevich was arrested and charged with their deaths.
There wasn’t enough evidence to charge him with the deaths of the other patients he was suspected of killing.
But now, Mario Jascalevich was answering the three charges against him in a court of law.
He denied the charges.
Police reports filed back in 1966 supported Mario’s story about testing the curare on dogs – dog hair and animal blood had been found on the syringes taken from his locker.
But the state’s Deputy Medical Examiner testified that the patient cases he’d reviewed were consistent with them having died from deliberate curare poisoning.
The evidence was complicated and scientific.
And it took 34 weeks to hear it all.
But finally, the jury retired to consider its verdict.
Only two hours later, they’d decided.
The jury foreman stood.
‘How do you find the defendant?’ the judge asked. ‘Guilty, or not guilty?’
Mario Jascalevich was acquitted.
Two years later, an independent enquiry by the New Jersey Board of Medical Examiners found Jascalevich guilty of ‘gross malpractice or gross negligence and failure of good moral character’ for having made false entries on operation records.
His medical license was revoked. He died four years later at the age of 57 from a cerebral hemorrhage.
And the deaths at Riverdell Hospital remain unsolved to this day…