Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Angels of Death: The Female Nurses

Hospital Phantoms

Map of Michigan
Map of Michigan

The Veteran's Administration Hospital in Ann Arbor, Michigan was the scene of a high death rate during the summer of 1975. Up to 40 patients had died from an inexplicable respiratory failure. Since the hospital was a government facility, the FBI stepped in, and by August, they confirmed that eight men had definitely died from unnatural causes. Declaring a killer was at large who was using Pavulon, they warned that until they identified this person, any patient was vulnerable.

Pavulon is a muscle relaxant derived from curare, a drug that can paralyze. It has to be delivered carefully and when not in use is kept locked up.

The investigation continued for months, with suspicion centering on two nurses from the Philippines, Lenora Perez, 31, and Filipina Narciso, 30. They were the two who were on duty each time the patients in question were stricken. Soon they were both charged with murder. Several relatives of the deceased were called as witnesses during their trials, stating that the nurses had been seen in the vicinity of the patients, and even in their rooms, during the fatal seizures.

However, coincidence and sparse circumstantial evidence made up the prosecutor's entire case, and that wasn't sufficient for convictions. No one had actually seen them administer a drug and no one could link them to the Pavulon. The judge even vacated the murder charge against Perez.

Even so, the trial for Narciso took 13 weeks, with all the guns the FBI could bring to bear. Finally, she was acquitted, although both nurses were convicted of conspiracy and poisoning. Yet the convictions were appealed and the appeals court set them aside. At a second trial, the charges were dismissed and the murders remain unsolved.

Toronto skyline
Toronto skyline

The same thing happened at the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto. From June 1980 until March the following year, there was a significant rise in infant deaths in the cardiac ward. In fact, it was alarming. Somewhere between 21 and 43 deaths occurred, which was an increase for that facility of over 600%. Most of them were suspicious.

After 20 deaths, several nurses expressed their concern. The resulting investigation did not deter whoever was behind these crimes. An autopsy on one tiny victim showed that an elevated level of digoxin, a drug for regulated heart rhythm, was in the tissues. The baby was only 27 days old. Similar deaths occurred over the next few days, and there seemed to be no way to end this spree, so the hospital called an emergency session.

The result of that was to suspend the cardiac ward nurses for three days to search their lockers and look over their work schedules. Then another baby died on the ward from digoxin overdose. None of those nurses was there.

Yet based on other nurses claiming that she made odd remarks and facial expressions, Susan Nelles was arrested and charged with four counts of murder. Twenty-four of the suspicious deaths had occurred during her shift. She was placed on leave until her trial came up.

That action didn't stop odd things from occurring back at the hospital. One nurse found propanolol capsules in her salad and another caught some on her soupspoon. That seemed to imply that Nelles was not the culprit and the "maniac" still stalked the hospital. Yet now he or she was going after the nurses.

When Nelles went to trial, 16 more murders were cited that followed the same pattern of the four with which she was accused. However, there was no evidence, and ultimately the charges were dismissed. The judge even went out of his way to insist that Nelles was an excellent nurse.

Results from examinations of 36 of the infant cases were sent to Atlanta, Georgia, to the Center for Disease Control. They noted that 18 were suspicious, and others were consistent with poisoning.

Then another baby died. Gary Murphy was six months old, and his tissues showed elevated digoxin levels. Nurses came forward to accuse Phyllis Trayner, who denied the charges. No one pursued the matter, one nurse resigned, and the final official reports left the many unsolved murders "open."

From individuals to groups, both male and female, caregivers are harming their patients.  What makes someone do such things?