In the past thirty years, there have been over seventy-five such cases in civilized societies (half in the U.S.). No one knows how many people have been killed. A rare few enter the profession as predatory “angels of death,” but many transform into killers on the job, sometimes via benign motives. These killers do not stand out as monsters; they may even be exemplary at what they do.
— Katherine Ramsland, Inside the Minds of Serial Killers
There are quite a few healthcare serial killers: Angel of Death Genene Jones, England’s Harold Shipman, and international offender Michael Swango, but today we’re focusing on nurse’s aid Donald Harvey.
Donald Harvey is a bit of an enigma. Born in Ohio in 1952 and growing up in Booneville, Kentucky near the Appalachian Mountains, he was brought up in a loving family environment. His mother insisted her son was “always a good boy,” and his elementary teacher backed her up, stating he was a happy child and there was never “any indication of abnormality.”
Still, former classmates described Harvey as a loner and teacher’s pet. He was smart, and in high school, high grades came easily. Harvey eventually got bored and dropped out.
He moved to Ohio for a while, working in a factory, but by 1970 was back in Kentucky and off to Marymount Hospital to visit his ailing grandfather. Donald Harvey’s killing career was about to begin.
“People controlled me for 18 years, and then I controlled my own destiny. I controlled other people’s lives, whether they lived or died. I had that power to control. After I didn’t get caught for the first 15, I thought it was my right. I appointed myself judge, prosecutor and jury. So I played God.” —Donald Harvey in 1991 interview with Columbus Dispatch.
During his visits to his grandfather, Harvey became well liked by the nurses and was invited to work at the hospital as an orderly. Though not a trained medical professional, Harvey was required to spend hours alone with patients.
According to criminal psychologists, they are still unable to explain what made Harvey snap. He would later state that he considered himself an angel of death or mercy killer.
His first murder was far from a mercy killing.
Harvey described the murder in a 1997 interview with the Cincinnati Post. When he’d walked into a private room to check on a stroke victim, the patient rubbed feces in his face. Harvey lost control.
“The next thing I knew, I’d smothered him. It was like it was the last straw. I just lost it. I went in to help the man and he wants to rub that in my face.” — Donald Harvey
Harvey cleaned up his mess and notified nurses. The death was never questioned.
Three weeks later, he disconnected an elderly woman’s bedside oxygen tank. He killed more than a dozen “suffering” patients using various methods of suffocation, including plastic bags and morphine.
One patient didn’t get off so easily. He fought back and knocked Harvey out with a bedpan. Harvey made him suffer, sticking a coat hanger through his catheter. The man died from an infection.
In March 1971, Harvey got drunk and was arrested for burglary. In his inebriated state, he started chatting about the murders. He was questioned by officers, but they were unable to find enough evidence to investigate. More people would soon die at Harvey’s hands.
He paid his fine for burglary and entered the Air Force. Discharged after only a year, Harvey suffered depression and admitted himself to a hospital in Lexington, Kentucky. He was in and out of the hospital and attempted suicide at least once. He received electroshock treatments and was released.
Harvey spent the next couple of years behaving himself, but most experts believe he simply didn’t have the same opportunities to kill as before.
In 1975, Harvey moved back to Cincinnati and got a job at the V.A. hospital, working a variety of tasks: nursing assistant, housekeeping aide, cardiac-catheterization technician and autopsy assistant. He worked at night with little supervision and access to nearly all of the hospital.
Between 1975 and 1985, Harvey murdered at least 15 patients at the V.A. Hospital. He kept a diary of the crimes and took notes on each victim.
Some of his killing tactics:
- pressing a plastic bag and wet towel over the mouth and nose
- sprinkling rat poison in a patient’s dessert
- adding arsenic and cyanide to orange juice
- injecting cyanide into an intravenous tube
- injecting cyanide into a patient’s buttocks
Harvey felt invincible and took his methods to his personal life, killing a neighbor and his lover’s father. He and his lover eventually separated, and Harvey spent two years unsuccessfully trying to poison his ex-boyfriend.
In July 1985, security guards at the V.A. Hospital discovered a .38 pistol, hypodermic needles, surgical scissors, a cocaine spoon, and several other nefarious items in Harvey’s gym back. He was fined and asked to resign. The incident wasn’t noted in his work record and no investigation was opened.
Harvey starting working at Cincinnati’s Drake Memorial Hospital in 1986. Within a year, he’d murdered another 23 patients.
End of the Road
Finally, in 1997, authorities became suspicious when patient John Powell died. He’ d been in a coma for months but recently started to recover. An observant assistant coroner caught the faint scent of almonds during autopsy–an indicator of cyanide. When they learned of Donald Harvey’s hospital nickname, “Angel of Death,” because he was always around when someone died, police finally started investigating.
Harvey’s apartment provided a wealth of evidence:
- jars of cyanide and arsenic
- books on the occult and poisons
- his murder diary
He was arrested, and with the evidence piling up, Harvey decided to plea bargain in hopes of avoiding the death penalty. He eventually confessed to 70 murders in 17 years. Investigators were skeptical and had psychiatric experts test Harvey.
“This man is sane, competent, but is a compulsive killer. He builds up tension in his body, so he kills people.” —Spokesman for Cincinnati prosecutor’s office after Harvey was found sane.
On August 18, 1987, Donald Harvey pled guilty to 24 counts of aggravated murder in the state of Ohio. A 25th guilty plea a few days later garnered him four consecutive 20-life sentences. He was also fined $270,000.
In November of 1987, Donald Harvey pled guilty to 12 counts of murder at Marymount Hospital in Kentucky and sentenced to eight life terms plus 20 years.
His first chance at parole is in 2047. He’ll be 95.
In all the cases I’ve covered, this one is particularly terrifying. I’d like to think hospitals are much more stringent these days, but psychopaths are smart and adaptable. Famed psychologist Henry Lee said these are among the easiest murders to commit.
What do you think?
Was Harvey smart or lucky? Should the hospitals be held more accountable? And is he one of the rare cases of nature without nurture?