The Death Shift: Exclusive Q&A with Peter Elkind

Peter Elkind is the author of the book The Death Shift, which deals with the case of Nurse Genene Jones, the LVN who killed around 40 babies in secret in Texas back in the 1960s. The hospitals she worked for ended up destroying her records after they discovered she was killing dozens of children, and she is now due to be released in 2018 due to a loophole in Texas criminal law, despite not serving her time.

Peter has also written several articles working for Texas Monthly and Fortune Magazine, as well as, two other books—Smartest Guys in the Room and Client 9.

Recently, we had the opportunity to get an interview with Peter to ask him about his career as a true crime writer, as well as, some specifics about the case that inspired the book. Below is an exclusive Q&A with Mr. Elkind:

How did you get your start as a true crime writer?

True crime rescued me from a life as a lawyer. In early 1983, after graduating from college and two years in journalism, I was living in Texas, fed up with life as a daily newspaper reporter, and planning to go to law school in the fall. But, I had a few months on my hands and accepted a freelance assignment from Nick Lemann, then executive editor of Texas Monthly (and a future editor of The New Yorker), who asked me to look into the “baby-deaths case” in San Antonio that was making front-page national news.

After four months of reporting, the tale of nurse Genene Jones became my first magazine story—about 10,000 words—and Texas Monthly offered me a fulltime job. I’ve been a writer ever since. After covering Jones’s murder trial, I completed my book about the case, called The Death Shift, in 1989.

What is the strangest/most disturbing/most surprising thing you've encountered during your true crime career?

While I wrote about a few truly bizarre true-crime stories at Texas Monthly, I’ve spent the last 18 years of my career often investigating a different kind of true crime—in the world of business, as a writer on staff at Fortune magazine. The biggest of those stories was Enron. With my colleague Bethany McLean, I co-authored a book about the company’s fraud and collapse into bankruptcy, called The Smartest Guys in the Room.

Perhaps the most striking thing I’ve encountered is how often the horrifying pattern of The Death Shift plays out, albeit without life-or-death stakes, in the world of business. What makes the Genene Jones story so chilling isn’t simply the horrifying actions of one deeply disturbed individual? It’s the failure of those who should have known better—nursing supervisors and medical-school doctors, hospital bureaucrats and lawyers—people who did know better, yet failed to stop her.

In Jones’s case, incredibly, they had direct allegations and extensive evidence (including drug tests) that she was harming sick kids and never called in the police or district attorney. Terrified of lawsuits and scandal, and in the midst of a PR campaign to upgrade their hospital’s image, they instead washed their hands of the problem by sending her off (with a good recommendation!), allowing her to murder a 15-month-old little girl and harm other children. When they learned she was harming even more kids and that an investigation was underway, the hospital administrators—instead of volunteering what they knew—resolved to maintain a “judicious silence.”

So it often is in the world of business scandal. At Enron, the company’s investment bankers and accountants and board members and lawyers knew terrible things were going on. Yet they did nothing to stop them; indeed, they aided and abetted the fraud, becoming Enron’s partners in crime. They share deeply in the blame, and the damage the scandal caused.

In the years since publishing The Death Shift, you’ve written many articles and two other books (Smartest Guys in the Room and Client 9, your account of the rise and fall of New York Governor Eliot Spitzer). The Enron and Spitzer stories were both made into documentaries. Why did you want to bring your account of nurse Genene Jones and the Texas baby murders back into print as an ebook after all these years?

Several reasons. First, I think it’s an incredibly chilling tale—a real-life horror story—that remains as troubling and relevant today as it was when I first wrote it. This story is every parent’s worst nightmare: a nurse acting not to heal children, but to hurt them. It offers a window into a deeply disturbed soul, reveals the deadly dysfunction of a medical bureaucracy, and traces the painstaking investigation and hunt for evidence (leading from the Texas Hill Country to Stockholm, Sweden) that finally brought Jones to justice.

I had extraordinary access to everyone and everything I needed to tell this story: medical records and personnel files; secret hospital reports and internal memos; and most of all, people—Jones herself, in several memorable encounters; her family members; her lovers; parents of the children she harmed; doctors and nurses she worked with (and sometimes terrorized); the hospital administrators who failed to stop her; and the larger-than-life Texas lawmen who labored to put her behind bars. I think all this makes The Death Shift a powerful, compelling tale—a book very much worth reading.

The final reason is that, under Texas law, Genene Jones—who received concurrent prison sentences of 99 and 60 years after convictions for murder and injury to a child—is now scheduled for mandatory release in early 2018, after serving about 38 years behind bars. That prospect, which has prompted a growing public campaign to try to keep her in prison by bringing new charges, has brought renewed interest in The Death Shift.

 

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Peter Elkind is editor at large at Fortune magazine and an award-winning investigative reporter. He is the co-author of the national bestseller, The Smartest Guys in the Room, about the collapse of Enron. He has also written Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer and recently re-published his first book, The Death Shift, the true-crime story of nurse Genene Jones and the Texas baby murders. Elkind has written for The New York Times Magazine, The Washington Post, and Texas Monthly, and is a former editor of the Dallas Observer. He lives in Texas.

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