The Medical Murder Club

4 serial killer nurses from Austria.

Posted Jun 14, 2012

As the United States grapples with the recent conviction and sentencing of healthcare serial killer Kimberly Saenz, it’s oddly comforting that we aren’t the only country who’s been the victim of medical murderers.  

The Killer Nurses of Lainz

In 1983, a 77 year old patient at Lainz Hospital in Vienna, Austria begged 23 year old nurse’s aide Waltraud Wagner to end her suffering. Not only did Nurse Wagner oblige, she developed a taste for it.  In fact, what started out as a mercy killing soon blossomed in to a murder club as she quickly recruited 3 other nurse's aides to assist her in her deadly deeds, and quickly expanded her patient selection from the suffering to the annoying (refusing medication, snoring, bedwetting) and complaining (for example, buzzing the nurse’s station at inconvenient times).

Not only did their patient selection criteria expand, so did their methods. While they started out with morphine, they quickly discovered that this was a rather boring method of murder; why not come up with something more exciting? Thus was born the “water cure,” a group effort that required one person to pinch the victim’s nose, another to depress the tongue, and the third to pour water down the patient’s throat until s/he drowned.

Suspicion but No Investigation

It should be hard to believe that this murder spree went on for six years, but if you’re familiar with other healthcare serial killers, it will come as no surprise. One of the most alarming facts about this relatively rare phenomenon is that it is extremely difficult to detect.

This, of course, is due to a number of factors; death is expected in a hospital setting, the victims are almost always among the most vulnerable (the elderly, seriously ill, babies), and the killers are both knowledgeable and skilled in medical procedures. This helps them evade detection.  And, of course, there’s the ugly reality that hospitals worry about liability, their reputation, and other mercenary factors should a serial killer come to light.

The Lainz Group:  Anomaly or Part of a Pattern?

The Lainz “club” had both similarities and differences in comparison to other healthcare serial killers.  Most killer nurses work alone, although this is not the first time killer nurses have worked in tandem.  Like many serial killer nurses, this group worked the night shift, a time when it’s easy to fly below the radar.  Also, the “mercy killing” defense (I was just doing it to relieve pain) was used in an attempt to justify murder attempted, a common ploy with healthcare killers who murder the elderly.

While it’s almost impossible to tease out motives for any murder, “playing God” seemed to be a prime reward for this group, particularly for the ring leader, Wartraud Wagner.  This brings to mind other narcissistic healthcare murderers like Dr. Harold Shipman or Efren Saldivar, who took special pleasure in deciding the fate of troublesome patients.  Other motives of healthcare serial killers, such as the Mother Theresa syndrome (the need to create an emergency to be a “hero”) or the profit motive (let’s free up those beds for more lucrative patients) did not appear to be a factor with this group.

Waltraud Wagner:  The Ringleader

It’s hard to find information on Waltraud Wagner’s early life.  She was born in a rural village in Austria and was one of six children.  Like many nurses, she assumed a caretaking role early in life.  Not only did she look after the house while her mother was working the fields, by age 12 she was taking care of her grandmother, who suffered from open sores on her legs.  She wasn’t a great student; she had to repeat a grade in primary school and flunked out of a two year nursing program when she couldn’t pass anatomy.  Owing the shortage of nurses, though, she was able to get a job as an assistant nurse.

What this means in terms of her later killing career is unclear.  Did she resent having to take care of an elderly grandmother at such a young age? Did she lack nurturance in a family with so many children and so few resources, and, if so, did this make it hard for her to empathize with her patients?  I wish I knew.

What did strike me, in reading a description of her personality, was the similarity in how she was described in comparison to another notorious health care killer, Jane Toppan.  Both were described as popular with physicians, jolly under any circumstances, and a leader in terms of patient care.  Both were also able to instill confidence in their patients and, at least in terms of Waltraud’s case, other nurse assistants.

The Death Ward

By all accounts, work in Pavilion V at the Lainz hospital was brutal.  Ward D was a death ward even before the “murder club” got started; it was reserved for the elderly, the terminal, and the hopeless.  Too many patients and not enough nurses contributed to a work environment that encouraged staff to perform duties outside their capabilities.  Nurse’s aides like Wagner and her murderous partners had the least amount of power and the most amount of work.  We don’t know whether this work environment was a motive for murder, be we do know it contributed to the length of time the murderers got away with it.

The Bottom Line

We have a ways to go before we understand what combination of personality, life experiences, and environmental stressors lead to serial murder in a healthcare setting. Until we have greater insight, we’ve got to get better at vigilance.

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