Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

ANGELS OF DEATH: THE FEMALE NURSES

New Chapter - It Doesn't Stop

Healthcare serial killers (now referred to as HCSKs or SHCKs) have become prominent in the media over the past decade, and yet around the world nurses are still killing patients:

Vickie Dawn Jackson
Vickie Dawn Jackson

  • In July 2002, Vickie Dawn Jackson, 36, was indicted in Texas for four counts of murder at Nocona General Hospital.  Prosecutors believe that she injected lethal doses of mivacurium chloride, a muscle relaxant that temporarily stops a person from breathing, into elderly patients to end their lives.   Several vials of that drug turned up missing.  Ten bodies were exhumed to run tests and early in 2004, Jackson was indicted on three more counts of capital murder, one count of attempted murder, and one count of injury to a disabled person.  She is suspected in as many as twenty-five deaths, according to Associated Press reports.  Her trial is scheduled for October 2004.
    Christine Malèvre
    Christine Malèvre
  • Christine Malèvre was charged with the murder of seven patients in 1997 and 1998 at a lung hospital in Mantes-la-Jolie, France.  She confessed and said that she had wanted to help them to die out of compassion.  In fact, according to Reuters, she said that she had assisted around thirty patients to die, but then she reduced that number to two and claimed she had done it at their request.  Two others, she said, had been accidents.  She had written a book about her acts, called My Confessions, apparently in an attempt to bring attention to the need for euthanasia for incurable and painful diseases.  Families of her victims denied that those people had made any such request to have help ending their lives.  Malèvre was sentenced in January 2003 for six of the deaths to a prison term of ten years.  She is also permanently banned in France from working as a nurse.
    Lucy Quirina de Berk
    Lucy Quirina de Berk
  • Lucy Quirina de Berk insisted she was innocent at her trial in The Hague for the deaths of thirteen people.  The forty-one-year-old nurse was charged with eighteen counts of murder and attempted murder at four different hospitals, and was suspected in as many as thirty cases.  She was also suspected in several thefts, from stealing drugs to petty thefts of money and books about serial killers.  Her victims ranged in age from a six-month-old infant to a 91-year-old man, and the list of her suspected poisons was long.  While De Berk claimed that her love for life is too vast to end anyones, she had a history of depression and suicide attempts, and had even once advertised her own death in the papers.  Prosecutors described the former prostitute as sociopathic.  They accused her of killing patients over a period of four and a half years with lethal overdoses of medication.  She had lied under oath about her credentials, which she admitted, had falsified her school diploma, and had stolen copies of patient records.  She was also suspected of being a drug addict.  Her own brother testified against her, saying she was a good liar who was capable of killing and who had shown an unhealthy attachment to terminally ill patients.  Like Genene Jones, de Berk liked carrying dead children and preparing corpses, and after a death would draw a lot of attention to herself.  She kept diaries about her behavior and even questioned in writing whether she was a sociopath.  While she was being interrogated, she actually flirted with male detectives.  In March 2003, de Burk was convicted of the murders of three elderly women and a child and given a sentence of life in prison.  She appealed the sentence and a decision was made in June 2004. She received a life sentence for seven murder charges and three charges of attempted murder. Should she ever be freed via a pardon, she must undergo treatment for mental illness.
  • Martha U was chronicled in Paula Lampes book, The Mother Teresa Syndrome, after being convicted in 1996 of murder in the deaths of four elderly patients.  (Lampe is also detailing the de Berk case above in another book, and she offered her study for this article.)  Martha U was suspected of killing nine patients altogether.  She had worked for twenty years in a geriatric nursing home and had used insulin to overdose the patients.  In two cases, the patients apparently had angered her, one by showing anger himself and the other by throwing food at her.  Nevertheless, she insisted that she had killed to end the patients suffering.  Yet she had murdered patients who were not as ill as others in the same room.  If anything, Martha U was clearly inconsistent.  She had made statements, according to Lampe, to the effect that she could not stand people dying, and she had resuscitated one patient who could have died peacefully.  Lampe viewed her as having narcissistic personality disorder and a hero complex.  None of the patients who died were considered to have been terminally ill.  Martha U was a loner but also a compulsive helper.  Immediately upon her arrest, she confessed.
  • Lampe, living in the Netherlands, used Martha Us case to discuss the fine line between aggression and the desire to be needed.  Those caregivers with self-esteem issues and other personal needs may go over the line.  Lampe, a former nurse, said in the book that Martha U did not murder to help others but to end her own unbearable feelings of transparency.  In other words, she was satisfying her own needs rather than the needs of her patients.  The helping aspect was actually a compulsion, and that kind of addiction can lead to murder.  Referring to an FBI theory, Lampe indicated in a news report that killing gives psychopaths who have such a low self-esteem a sense of power.  That fact that they carry a secret, namely I have killed someone and nobody knows, also gives them power.

Several professionals are now attempting to devise what could be termed a prospective profile of HCSKs, hoping to devise a constellation of red flags that colleagues can become aware of and use effectively.  Lampe suggests that those nurses who seem compulsive, secretive, and consistently in the area of emergencies or Code Blues ought to be the focus of more scrutiny.  Beatrice Crofts Yorker, associate professor of psychiatric mental health nursing at Georgia State University, has collected numerous cases and noted that many involved injection of non-controlled medicationsperhaps an area of concern for hospitals.  She, along with others in law enforcement, indicate that the following signals should be taken quite seriously:

  • Statistically, there is a higher death rate when the suspected person is on shift
  • The suspect deaths were unexpected
  • The death symptoms were also not expected, given the patients illness or procedure
  • The suspected person is always available to help
  • He or she is often the last one seen with the victim
  • The suspected person has moved around from one facility to another
  • Other staff members give that person nicknames like death angel
  • The person is overly interested in the death
  • Other patients have complained about the persons treatment of them
  • The person is secretive or has a difficult time with personal relationships
  • The person has a history of some form of mental instability or depression

Identifying such people as soon as possible requires documenting patterns of behavior and finding physical evidence that links the suspected individual to the crimes.   Unfortunately, intentional killers, as well as people who become addicted to killing as the result of a mercy killing or two, have the perfect arena in which to get away with murder for long periods of time.  Hospitals are places of trust and the means to kill patients are readily available.  In addition, medical murders are not easily detected.  Stopping this phenomenon requires a sharp eye, an awareness that any care facility is vulnerable, and a desire to ensure that suspicious people be taken seriously.

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