book reviews, true crime

Repost: A review of Perfect Poison: A Female Serial Killer’s Deadly Medicine by M.Willam Phelps

Here’s another reposted book review. This one originally appeared on my old blog back on September 30, 2014. I am reposting it as/is in 2020.

As regular blog readers know, I read a lot of true crime.  I find criminals fascinating, even though I hesitate to say I “enjoy” the stories about them because they always involve someone else getting hurt.  Kristen Strickland Gilbert is one fascinating criminal.  I had not heard of her before I purchased author M.William Phelps’ book, Perfect Poison: A Female Serial Killer’s Deadly Medicine.  Now that I’ve read the book, I may have to look at certain medical professionals with a more careful eye.

Who is Kristen Gilbert? 

Born in Fall River, Massachusetts on November 13, 1967, Kristen Heather Strickland is the elder daughter of Richard and Claudia Strickland.  Blessed with good looks and keen intelligence, Kristen did well in school and, in 1988, became a registered nurse.  But friends and loved ones noted that Kristen had a flair for dramatic behavior.  She would fake suicide attempts and lie excessively.  She was very manipulative.  She was also known to threaten people.  This behavior was evident from the time she was a teenager and continued into her adult years.

In 1988, Kristen Strickland married Glenn Gilbert and took his last name.  Kristen and Glenn did not have a happy or stable marriage, but they did manage to have a couple of sons with him.  She took a job at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center (VAMC) in Northampton, Massachusetts, where she was known as a competent nurse.  She was even featured in VA Practitioner, a professional nursing magazine.

Sometime around the mid 1990s, Gilbert started an affair with James Perrault, a hospital police officer.  And around that time, patients on Gilbert’s shifts started having fatal cardiac events.  Co-workers jokingly started to refer to her as the “Angel of Death”.  After her patients died, Kristen was known to leave work early for dates with Perrault.  She was also known to make odd and inappropriate comments about people.  When one man was dying and his wife was justifiably upset, Kristen remarked that the scene was “hysterical”… as in funny!  And yet, she continued to work as a nurse at the VA hospital, tending to veterans who had served their country and sometimes killing them with a little extra epinephrine.

My thoughts

First off, I am delighted that Kristen Gilbert was eventually caught and is now doing time at the Federal Medical Center in Carswell, Texas.  It scares the hell out of me that someone entrusted with safeguarding other peoples’ lives could get away with surreptitiously killing patients for so long.  Kristen Gilbert has the distinction of being one of the very few female serial killers in history.  She was convicted of claiming the lives of four men and may have been responsible for as many as 80 deaths and 300 medical emergencies.  As Phelps notes in his book, Gilbert had an incredibly high average of deaths on her shifts compared to her co-workers.  And for some reason, this aberration went unnoticed and unaddressed for a long time. 

Given her disturbing history, which was well documented before she ever donned her first nurse’s cap, I am shocked that Kristin Gilbert was able to enter the nursing profession.  Before she was a registered nurse, she was a nurse’s aide.  During that time, she deliberately scalded an eight year old boy with mental retardation.  There were records of her making violent threats against people from the time she was a teenager.  While attending nursing school at Bridgewater State University, Gilbert faked a suicide attempt and had to undergo psychiatric treatment.  Even when she was a nurse, she did some time in several psychiatric hospitals.  Why she was allowed to continue working as a registered nurse, I will never know.

Kristen Gilbert’s story is certainly interesting and disturbing, although it may make some people think twice about submitting to medical care.   VA hospitals already have a pretty bad reputation for being overcrowded and overextended.  My father and husband have always gotten decent care through them, but this tale will do nothing for the VA’s image, especially since Phelps also writes about a hospital administrator who never actually had any real training for the job and remained in that role for years. 

Phelps also covers the court case and includes photos of Gilbert and other players in this sad and scary tale of a nurse gone wrong.  Crazily enough, Gilbert’s husband, Glenn, testified on her behalf even though she tried to poison him at one point in their relationship.  Gilbert’s crimes were serious to warrant consideration of the death penalty and Glenn Gilbert asked the court to consider their sons, who would be devastated to lose their mother to the death chamber.   

I think Phelps does a good job with Kristen Gilbert’s story and I recommend his book, though it did take me awhile to finish it.  Phelps does get somewhat repetitive at times, but the story is definitely interesting and tragic.  You may never think the same way about epinephrine again.

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book reviews, true crime

Repost: Death Trap… reminds me of what might have been

This book review was originally written for I also shared it on the original Overeducated Housewife blog. It was posted February 12, 2012, and appears here “as/is”.

Last Sunday, while everyone else was watching the Super Bowl, my husband Bill and I were watching a Snapped marathon on the Oxygen channel. For those who don’t know, Snapped is a television show about women who “snap” and commit crimes. I have seen the show many times and have often been inspired to read more about the cases that are profiled. Such was the case last weekend when Snapped profiled Jessica McCord. The case was so startling to me that I had to look for a book about it. That’s how I found M. William Phelps’ true crime book Death Trap (2010). 

Who is Jessica McCord and why does she merit a book?  

In February 2002, thirty year old Alabama resident Jessica McCord was on the brink of losing custody of her two oldest daughters to her ex-husband Alan Bates and his wife, Terra. Jessica’s second husband, Jeff McCord, was a police officer in Pelham, Alabama. As an officer of the law, he was duty bound to protect and serve the public. But as Jessica McCord’s husband, he evidently felt he was also duty bound to help his wife off her pesky ex-husband who demanded access to his daughters from their marriage. 

Since her divorce from Alan Bates, Jessica McCord had refused to cooperate with court orders allowing Alan Bates visitation with their kids. She had moved the girls, taken them out of school to “homeschool” them, removed the mailbox to prevent her ex-husband from serving her with legal documents, and refused to answer the telephone when he called, wanting to speak to their kids. She wanted Alan Bates to pay child support, but he was not to influence their children, and she did everything in her power to prevent him from doing that.

Young love gone wrong 

By most accounts, Jessica McCord and Alan Bates never should have gotten together in the first place. They met in high school. Alan Bates was an honor student who loved the theater. He had a very bright future ahead of him in set design. Jessica Callis was a misfit from a broken home. Her natural father regularly beat her mother and abused the kids. When her parents divorced, Jessica found herself being used as a pawn. Nevertheless, somehow she buried the pain of her childhood by mocking those who came from good homes. She had made fun of people like Alan Bates. And then, for some weird reason, they started dating and Jessica eventually got pregnant.

Alan Bates was a fine young man who wanted to do right by his pregnant girlfriend. The two got married. Jessica dropped out of school and got her GED. Alan graduated with honors and won acceptance to the University of Montevallo to study theater. The young couple moved to the college town and tried to make a go of it. Jessica had their second daughter in 1992. Meanwhile, Alan worked non-stop to care for his family and get an education.

Jessica was displeased with being a housewife saddled with two babies. She was jealous of Alan’s “freedom” and academic accolades. She was convinced he had a girlfriend at school. Their marriage crumbled in 1994. 

Several years later, Alan met Terra Klugh, a woman with whom he was much more compatible. Even though Jessica had another child with an ex boyfriend, she was furious when Alan moved on. There was no way her daughters would have a stepmother, and Alan would have to pay for “abandoning her”. What’s more, she was determined to get married again, too. Just before Alan married Terra, Jessica married Jeff McCord, who stepped in as daddy to Jessica’s brood. She went on to have two more kids by her second husband.

Alan Bates only wanted to have a relationship with his kids, but his ex-wife made it impossible for him to be a father. When he’d finally had enough of Jessica’s blatant disregard for his rights, Alan went to court to compel her to cooperate. At the very end of his life, it looked like he’d finally prevailed. But Jessica and her husband had a nasty surprise for Alan and his second wife, Terra. M. William Phelps outlines how Jessica and Jeff McCord carried out their plan to be rid of Alan forever and the court case that put Jessica and Jeff McCord in prison.

My thoughts

I can’t say I “enjoyed” reading Death Trap, because it is a true crime book about how two innocent people were murdered trying to do the right thing. In the wake of the murders, five children lost their parents to prison or death. Three families were left to grieve for lives prematurely ended or ruined. 

However, I can say that I was fascinated by this book, mainly because my husband was once married to a woman very much like Jessica McCord. Like Alan Bates, he wanted to do the right thing. He paid child support and tried to maintain contact with his kids until it became impossible. Unlike Alan Bates, my husband never pursued his parental rights in a court of law. I don’t know that my husband’s ex would have resorted to murder, but I honestly wouldn’t put it past her if she got desperate enough. So on that level, Phelps’ book was very interesting to me.

I don’t think this book is particularly well-written. Phelps has a habit of using sentence fragments to make dramatic points. That style became annoying to me after awhile. It seemed amateurish and sensationalist. In the course of writing this tale, Phelps jumps around a bit, making it tricky to keep up with the story. He also includes a number of asides in parentheses which were distracting. The photos in the book did show up well on my Kindle, at least.


I read this book because it was the only one available about Jessica McCord’s case. Because the case was so personally relatable to me, Death Trap was well worth reading. However, I think Jessica McCord’s case would have been handled better by a different writer. I would recommend Death Trap to anyone who wants to read Jessica McCord’s story, though.  

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