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Friday, March 31, 2017

The Stepping Hill Angel of Death Murder Case

     Deaths by homicidal poisonings that commonly do not raise suspicion and are therefore often misdiagnosed as natural fatalities involve hospital patients who are elderly or already ill. The death of an old or gravely ill person, almost by definition, is a natural death. This is why physicians, nurses, and other healthcare workers who intentionally kill patients--so-called "Angeles of Death"--get away with murdering so many victims.

     Normally, homicide by poison is not an impulsive crime. But in the hospital, or home for the elderly, it is a crime of opportunity. The angel of death has access to a variety of toxic substances and to vulnerable victims. There is no need for extensive preparation and planning. Moreover, there is no apparent or obvious motive for the homicide because these serial killers do not receive any direct personal gain from the deaths. This type of serial killer is difficult to spot because angels of death are not manifestly insane. They possess personality disorders that compel them to murder out of generalized rage, boredom, or the impulse to play God.

     As murderers, angels of death are cold-blooded, careful, and vain. Quite often their employment histories reveal they have been terminated from several healthcare jobs. When too many patients die on a nurse or orderly's watch, and the employee comes under suspicion, he or she is simply fired. Healthcare workers suspected of murdering patients also quit and get similar positions elsewhere.

     In angel of death cases the tendency among healthcare administrators is to deny the obvious and pass the problem on to the next employer. Over the years, dozens of angels of death in the U.S. and around the world have been caught, but only after large numbers of patients have been murdered. Given the nature of the crime, and the limited role forensic science plays in these cases, it is reasonable to assume that the small number of angel of death convictions represents the mere tip of a rather large homicidal iceberg.

The Stepping Hill Case

     Greater Manchester is a heavily populated metropolitan county in northwest England. Stockport, a city of 136,000, is one of the municipalities within the county. Between June 1, 2011 and July 15, 2011, three patients at Stepping HIll Hospital in Stockport died after being given saline ampoules or drips laced with insulin.

     Detectives with the Greater Manchester Police Department (GMP) determined that at least eight other patients had suffered from insulin poisoning. (Insulin is used as a treatment for diabetes, but for people without an insulin deficiency, the substance can be toxic.)

     Following the determination of how these three patients had died, armed police guards were stationed at the hospital in the event the poisoner was an outsider. To protect patients from a hospital employee, members of the staff were required to work in pairs.

     On July 20, 2011, GMP detectives arrested a 27-year-old Stepping Hill nurse named Rebecca Jane Leighton. The Chief Crown prosecutor for the region charged Leighton with three counts of criminal damage with intent to endanger life. Nurse Leighton pleaded not guilty to the charges.

     The Crown Prosecution Service, on September 2, 2011, dropped the charges against the nurse. Notwithstanding the dismissal of the case against her, the hospital fired Leighton on December 2, 2011. She appealed the discharge, but following a hearing in February 2012, she lost her case.

     On January 5, 2012, detectives with the GMP arrested 46-year-old Victorino Chua, a male nurse originally from the Philippines. Chua had been a registered nurse since 2003. He had two children and claimed to be a devout Roman Catholic. Police officers took him into custody at his home just outside of Stockport.

     Arrested as a suspect in the Stepping Hill Poisonings, but not charged, Chua was interrogated then released on bail. Pursuant to the terms of his release, he was barred from approaching any potential witnesses in the case. He also lost his right to work in healthcare.

     On March 29, 2014, the Chief Crown prosecutor charged Victorino Chua with poisoning to death 44-year-old Tracey Arden, 71-year-old Arnold Lancaster, and Derek Weaver, 83. The murder suspect was also charged with 31 counts of causing grievous bodily harm, 22 counts of attempting to cause grievous bodily harm, and 8 counts of attempting to administer poison. Chua pleaded not guilty to all charges.

     As the poison investigation progressed, GMP detectives identified eight other Stepping Hill patients killed by the insulin contaminated saline, and dozens of patients who were poisoned but survived.

     Detectives with the GMP broke the Stepping Hill murder case wide open when, in Chua's home, they found a letter in which the suspect had written: "I am an angel turned into an evil person, there's a devil in me." While not a confession, it was close enough.

     In May 2015, at the conclusion of the Chua trial, the jury found the defendant guilty of two counts of first-degree murder in the deaths of Tracey Arden and Derek Weaver. The judge later sentenced Victorino Chua to life in prison.
     

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