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Serial killers come in all forms; your cute old neighbor next door, serial killer couples, and even your own kids. But perhaps the most chilling are those who are meant to help save lives, but instead purposefully end them. In the hands of medical personnel, we all like to feel we’re in the comforting aid of those who know exactly what to do at just the right time. But occasionally, a few faulty seeds seep through the cracks, and the end result can be dark, chilling, and more than we’d like to believe, fatal.
Let’s explore some of the depraved and horrific acts committed by a scary, two-faced breed: serial killer nurses.
The Lainz Angels of Death
Collectively known as the Lainz Angels of Death, these four Austrian nurses confessed to murdering 48 of their elderly patients throughout the 1980s, with police claiming that they could be responsible for as many as 200 homicides. Soon after Waltraud Wagner purposefully put to rest her first patient in 1983 with an overdose of morphine, she rounded up three other nurses in Geriatriezentrum am Wienerwald, a nursing home in Lainz, Vienna, to begin drowning their patients in their beds. They thought of it as their own proprietary method of killing. They’d flood their patients’ lungs with water, orally, while one nurse held the patient’s nose shut.
The deaths went unnoticed for some time, as lung fluid is common among more elderly patients. This is exactly what they had planned. However, the acts were eventually uncovered, and these serial killer nurses were all sentenced to prison. Since 2008, however, all four nurses have been released on good behavior, with the Austrian government giving all four women brand new identities, against much outrage from Austrian citizens. The nursing home is now permanently closed.
Charles Cullen is considered by many to be one of the most prolific serial killer nurses, if not the deadliest American serial killer in US history. After being arrested in 2003, he admitted to investigators that he estimated he had killed between 30-40 patients across 10 separate healthcare facilities over a period of 16 years. Investigators, however, believe he was responsible for many, many more.
Working graveyard shifts in multiple intensive care units, he was able to covertly put to rest patient after patient with overdoses of medications such as insulin, epinephrine, and his favorite and most utilized medicine, digoxin, a heart medication. In 2006, Cullen was sentenced to life for 18 consecutive life sentences, unable to get parole until the year 2403.
Vickie Dawn Jackson
In the small, 38-bed Nocona General Hospital in Montague County, Texas, 34-year-old Nurse Jackson was stealthily administering lethal doses of mivacurium, a muscle relaxant, to 10 of the hospital’s patients under the radar. These were quickly ruled out not to be mercy killings, because many of the patients were in fairly good health, some ready to leave the hospital days later. This serial killer nurse no contest to her actions in 2001 and is currently serving life in prison.
Sonya Caleffi, a mentally unstable Italian nurse, confessed to the murders of five of her own in care, as well and the attempted murders of 2 of her other patients in the early 2000s, leading to a 20-year prison sentence ordered in 2007. A personal diary found in her possession detailed her views of feeling undervalued and insignificant, leading her to kill many of her patients through oxygen injections into their veins, causing death by embolism and respiratory failure.
Although convicted of only five murders, this serial killer nurse's diary revealed that 22 patients had died under her watch. All her lawyer could pony up as a justification for her actions was that Sonya injected the oxygen to make them ill and then she would proceed to bring them back to health, heroically saving them.
“Jolly” Jane Toppan
It was her obvious obsession and fascination with autopsies at Cambridge Hospital that had the rest of the hospital’s medical staff bothered. This contradicted her previously friendly and outgoing personality when she had started her training at the hospital in 1885. Her colleagues nicknamed her “Jolly Jane” for this very reason, not too much earlier.
Carelessly experimenting with high doses of morphine and atropine on her patients, she would weave them in and out of consciousness, occasionally getting into bed with them, and even kissing and caressing them. She later remarked to officials that she found those acts “sexually thrilling,” and being so intimately close with her patients on the brink of death made her feel alive.
Her acts of indecency soon extended into patients in her private care, as well as those present in her personal life, including her foster sister whom she killed with the pesticide strychnine. By 1902, she had confessed to 31 murders. Later found not guilty by reasons of insanity, she was committed to the Taunton Insane Hospital, in Taunton, Massachusetts. She died in August 1938, at 84 years of age.
District Attorney Nicholas LaHood remarked, “She is pure evil…” This statement, along with the suspicion that Genene Jones killed as many as 60 children during her time working as a pediatric nurse from the late 70s into the early 80s, comes directly from the Bexar County district attorney’s office in San Antonio, Texas.
She was only convicted of two murders, both involving lethal injections of medications to infants: one homicide using Dilantin, an anti-seizure medication, and another with a powerful muscle relaxant. She’s currently serving life in prison.
Robert Diaz, a coronary care nurse in Perris, California, got his rocks off by injecting more-than-lethal doses of the heart drug, lidocaine, to his hospital’s patients. His vile spree as a serial killer nurse was short, but toxic, with Diaz killing 12 patients over an only 12-day period.
After extremely high doses of the drug were found spread through the victims’ cadavers and a record of Robert having been on shift during the exact time of each of the patient’s deaths, he was arrested and his home was searched. Officials found vials of lidocaine that were filled at a concentration of 10 times of what was marked on the glass. He was consequently sentenced to 12 death sentences, one for each of his victims. He later died on death row in 2011.
German nurse and thrill-seeking serial killer Niels Höegel said he wanted to break up a “boring routine” by killing 30 patients with lethal doses of heart medication, as he admitted to officials. Although in prison since 2008, in early 2018, Höegel was charged with 97 further counts of murder. We thankfully won’t have to worry about him being bored in the open world ever again.
When Ms. Gilbert joined the medical staff at the Northampton VA Medical Center, other medical personnel noticed an increase in deaths due to cardiac arrests as well as a decrease in the hospital’s supply of epinephrine, which Gilbert was using to overdose her patients.
As a police investigation began, Gilbert called in a bomb threat hoping to thwart the investigation. It was ironically the bomb threat that brought her into the middle of a trial, but the hospital’s evidence slowly trickled in. Gilbert was eventually convicted of four counts of murder and two counts of attempted murder. She is currently serving four life sentences, plus 20 years in Fort Worth, Texas.
Hired for the night shift at the Glendale Adventist Medical Center as a respiratory therapist, Efren was able to inject his patients with pancuronium, used to stop their breathing. Other drugs possibly used are morphine and suxamethonium chloride, as they were found in his medical locker, housed in fresh syringes.
How serial killers choose their victims is often researched, investigated, and included in criminal cases. Efren chose his victims based on how close they were to death, as patients who were unconscious or teetering on their lifeline would make it more difficult to detect his participation on the dead bodies. After several exhumations of bodies and finding extremely high levels of pancuronium in the cadavers, This serial killer nurse eventually pleaded guilty to six murders and is now serving life without parole in California.