Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Angels of Death: The Male Nurses

Healthcare Serial Killers

Shipman, Harvey & Angelo
Shipman, Harvey & Angelo

While Cullen's stated motive — mercy for seriously ill patients — may seem compassionate, other healthcare professionals convicted as killers have also made this claim, but a closer examination indicated otherwise. British physician Harold Shipman, who kindly made house calls, fed a sense of superiority as he dispatched at least 15 elderly women and maybe more than 200. A forged will was found in his home. Nurse's aide Donald Harvey, who initially admitted to 80 "mercy killings," seemed to enjoy the confessing as much as the killing. Richard Angelo, a male nurse on Long Island convicted in four deaths, said he just wanted to feel more confident. (See more on Angelo and Harvey below)

Harold Shipman
Harold Shipman

Nurses who kill perceive how to exploit the atmosphere of trust in the healthcare community and how to hasten deaths that may go unnoticed in an already vulnerable arena. In the past 30 years, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer, there have been at least three dozen such cases in civilized societies, with more suspected. Some enter the profession as "angels of death," while others transform into killers on the job.

Understandably, potential patients would like to know how to spot dangerous nurses before harm is done, but often these nurses seem like everyone else. They don't stand out. Neighbors of Cullen's just thought he was "quiet." Patients adored Dr. Shipman, even as he gently killed them.

While arguments have flown back and forth over the Cullen case in terms of ultimate responsibility, it's clear that patients must depend on hospitals and clinics to spot the red flags and do something about them. Too often, these killers have been allowed to drift from one hospital to another, fired under a cloud of suspicion but rarely brought to justice until after incriminating evidence has reached shocking levels.

Hospitals claim that if they pass on suspicions in a way that prevents someone from getting hired, they could be sued. But the hospitals where Cullen worked are discovering, says The Morning Call, that they may be sued for not doing so, and their insurance carriers are not going to cover them. Intentional acts of murder are not considered part of professional practice, say the companies. The hospitals, caught in a sort of catch-22, are on their own. If families move ahead on their threats to sue those facilities that did not voice suspicions when asked or did not warn other potential employers of Cullen, this case might become a real wake-up call.

In an article for Forensic Nurse, Kelly Pyrek indicates that since the mid-1970s, there have been 36 cases of serial murder among nurses and other healthcare workers in the U.S. A survey shows that the incidences appear to be increasing, with 14 during the 1990s and already five since 2000. (The article was written before Cullen's atrocities came to light, so that makes at least six.)

"Many experts speculate," says Pyrek, "that healthcare has contributed more serial killers than all other professions combined and that the field attracts a disproportionately high number of people with a pathological interest in life and death."

This is partly due to denial, since many people refuse to believe that someone might enter the healthcare industry with anything but the purest motives. The most susceptible patients are very young children, who can't report suspicious activity, and the elderly or very ill, who are expected to die anyway.

One of the first male nurses to come to the nation's attention was Donald Harvey.

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