Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Angels of Death: The Male Nurses

A Wake-up Call

Donald Harvey in court
Donald Harvey in court

By the time he was 18, Donald Harvey was working in the medical profession as an orderly. From May 1970 to March of the following year, he worked at Marymount hospital in London Kentucky. He noticed people who seemed to be suffering, so, according to him in interviews, he decided to do something about it. His method was to smother. He might use a pillow or he might use a near-empty oxygen tank. Over the course of his stint there at the hospital, he killed at least a dozen people. On a tape located by A&E Special reports for a 2004 broadcast, "Angel of Death," he methodically describes in chilling detachment exactly how he worked.

Then Harvey was arrested for burglary, for which he was fined, and he left that job for the Air Force. After a year, he was discharged and soon he was committed to a hospital himself and placed in restraints. He received numerous electroshock treatments and finally emerged to try to get work again.

Cincinnati VA Medical Center
Cincinnati VA Medical Center

He became a nurse's aid at Cardinal Hill Hospital in Lexington, Kentucky and at Good Samaritan. Then he moved on to the Cincinnati VA Medical center in Ohio. This job he held onto for nearly ten years, working variously as a nursing assistant, housekeeper and autopsy assistant. (One of his former lovers had been a mortuary assistant who enjoyed having sex after hours with corpses.)

Sometimes Harvey stole tissue samples and took them home. Some say he practiced occult rituals with the human flesh. Whatever he was doing, he certainly renewed his urge to kill, taking the lives of about 15 patients, but adding poison to his arsenal of death methods. He even joked about it at time.

Charles Sobhraj
Charles Sobhraj

Then in 1985, he was caught with a pistol in the facility and forced to resign. At the time, he was reading a paperback biography of another serial killer, Charles Sobhraj, possibly to get ideas. He went right to work as a nurse's aid in Drake Memorial Hospital. There he killed at least 23 more patients by injecting them with different lethal substances like arsenic, cyanide, and petroleum-based cleansers before his arrest in April 1987. Some victims were chosen by occult means, as Harvey chanted over fingernails or hair that he placed on a homemade altar.

Harvey also poisoned people outside the hospital. An argument with a neighbor inspired him to lace her drink and she nearly died. He poisoned a lover, whom he then nursed back to health, but whose parents weren't so lucky. The man's mother died by Harvey's hand, and the father became critically ill.

It was the death of a patient named John Powell that finally brought Harvey down. During his autopsy, the physician detected high levels of cyanide, and the death was ruled a homicide. Harvey was arrested, but he pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity. Then he confessed to killing 33 people, then 52, then more than 80. He claimed that most were mercy killings.

A psychiatrist who examined him said that not only was he was legally sane, he was a compulsive killer, murdering to relieve tension.

On August 18, 1987, in a Cincinnati courtroom, Donald Harvey pled guilty to 24 counts of murder and four counts of attempted murder. Then he added another murder plea, all of which got him a huge fine and four consecutive life sentences.

Then in Kentucky, he admitted to 12 more murders, but entered a guilty plea on only nine of them. There he got eight life terms, plus 20 years.

Yet he wasn't finished. In Cincinnati again, he confessed to three more killings and three attempts to murder. That amounted to 37 official murder victims in total, which gave him the U.S. record to that date (and still holding, pending the Cullen investigation) as having the most confirmed victims of any healthcare serial killer in America.

It wasn't long before another homicidal male nurse popped up.

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