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Thriller Thursday: Healthcare Serial Killers–the most frightening of all?

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.

Kentucky Murders

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.

Ohio Murders

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?

Source and pictures
Source and pictures
Source and pictures

24 comments on… “Thriller Thursday: Healthcare Serial Killers–the most frightening of all?”

  1. A prolific killer. I wouldn’t be surprised if he murdered many more than we know about. 15 people in 10 years at the Cincinnati V.A. hospital seems like a low count. Maybe the gratification just became less durable over the years and he needed more frequent victims.
    The number of people who die in hospital (and in the community) through acquired infection, medication mistakes or unknown is an ideal smokescreen for a serial killer. One of the few certain things in this life is all that lives is gonna die, and there aren’t resources for every death to be investigated. I wonder if there have been studies of mortality with this in mind?
    “Harvey spent two years unsuccessfully trying to poison his ex-boyfriend.” – had me laughing out loud, sounds like a black comedy.

    • Ruby Barnes

      Scary thing is that (avoidable) annual deaths through medical errors (in Europe about 95,000 according to WHO) are a multiple of annual deaths through road traffic accidents (in Europe about 32,000 according to TISPOL). It’s a huge number of expected deaths, so the smokescreen is there. Probably a lot more of it going on than we realise.

    • He probably did murder more than we know about. I think he was very good about choosing his time and place, which blows his whole idea of mercy killings out of the water. LOL on the ex-boyfriend. There is so much to this case it was hard to narrow it down to the pertinent points.

      As to your other comment, those are some chilling stats, especially the deaths through medical erros. I realize it happens, but still.


  2. Creepy. I can’t even begin to imagine praying on the most vulnerable of people. I would say he was born that way…no amount of love and proper raising was going to help this guy.
    I would hope that today’s hospitals are much more stringent and careful…SCARY!!!

    • And this guy is just one of many. There are even more female nurses who had similar reigns of murder. And I agree, I think (unless there is some point in his background never shared) he is one of the very rare cases of being born bad.


    • Isn’t it? I’d like to think things have change in the last couple of decades, but it’s probably still easier to commit these types of murders than we want to admit.

      Thanks for stopping by.

  3. Donald Harvey didn’t snap. It was a prolonged break. I believe it takes time for the mental and physical abilities to become a serial killer to develop. Possibly it exists in all of us but in only a few does the latent, hidden urge blossom. The majority of us never act on the fleeting almost transparent desire to kill. Let that desire arise enough times and the urge to kill is adopted as a second nature. And time hones skills.

    • I think it depends. He doesn’t have the markers of psychosis, so I would think he didn’t snap. I think his is much more of a case of nature than nurture, and he was simply wired that way.


    • Me too, especially after he was caught with so much paraphernalia. I’d like to think that by today’s standards, anyone known as an angel of death in a hospital would be investigated.


  4. I’d say he was lucky. How did he pay the $270,000? Did they sell his estate to get it? Would his estate have even been worth $270,000? What a sadist. Hope he’s having fun the pen.

    • I never could find that out. I doubt he even had an estate. Oh, I bet he’s very popular in the pen. These types of murders are seen by fellow killers as cowardly, so I’m sure he’s the you know what.


  5. If I had a loved one in the hospital I would stay with them. I’ve been in several hospitals, and have worked in two, and it’s best to keep an eye on what goes on there. Especially if the patient is a child, or incapacitated. It’s a very vulnerable position to be in.
    This guy seems to have been particularly heartless, Stacy.

    • Thanks for the advice, Cynthia. I was like that when my husband was in the hospital several years ago, and I worry about my aging parents. I don’t want them to fall through the cracks or not get the proper treatment. So far, we’ve been really lucky.

      Yes, he was. My amateur psychologist opinion (lol) is that he is a pure psychopath.


  6. Pingback: Missed Connections: Which of These Train Wrecks Needs the Most Dating Advice? | Jenny Hansen's Blog

  7. Another good reason to stay out of hospitals. wow — interesting he had a good family and yet turned out this way. just goes to show, biology will trump environment.

    • It is really interesting, and makes you wonder if there is more to his backstory. But there have been those rare cases where there is no real environmental factors. Thanks!

  8. These types of murders frighten me the most, in part because I already fear hospitals and pain, but also because you go to a hospital to get better, not get killed.

    • Me too. The one place you’re supposed to feel like everyone will take care of you, and then this kind of thing can happen. Awful.

      Thanks, Marcy.

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