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Thursday, August 11, 2022

Donald Harvey: America's Worst Angel of Death

     In 1975, after working briefly as a hospital orderly in Lexington, Kentucky, 23-year-old Donald Harvey took a job with the Veteran's Hospital in Cincinnati, Ohio. As the years passed, a pattern emerged. When Harvey was on duty, patients died. Finally, after ten years, and the deaths of more than 100 patients on his watch, the orderly was fired. He was terminated because several hospital workers suspected he was poisoning patients under his care. After Harvey left the medical facility the death rate plummeted. Terminating Donald Harvey turned out to be good medicine, at least at the VA hospital.

     Shortly after his firing Mr. Harvey was hired across town at Drake Memorial Hospital where the death rate began to soar. As he had done at the VA facility, Donald Harvey was murdering patients by either lacing their food with arsenic or injecting cyanide into their gastric tubes. The deaths at Drake Memorial, like those at the VA hospital, were ruled as naturally caused fatalities. While suspicions were aroused, it was hard to imagine that this friendly, helpful little man who was so charming and popular with members of his victims' families could be a stone-cold killer.

     As clever and careful as Harvey was, he made a mistake when he poisoned John Powell, a patient recovering from a motorcycle accident. Under Ohio law, victims of fatal traffic accidents must be autopsied. At Powell's autopsy an assistant detected the odor of almonds, the telltale sign of cyanide. This was fortunate because most people are unable to detect this scent. The forensic pathologist ordered toxicological tests that revealed that John Powell had died from a lethal dose of cyanide. Donald Harvey had been the last person to see Mr. Powell alive, and John Powell would be the last person he would murder.

     The Cincinnati police arrested Mr. Harvey and searched his apartment where they found jars filled with arsenic and cyanide and books on poisoning. Notwithstanding this evidence, the Hamilton County prosecutor believed that without a confession there might not be enough evidence to convince a jury of Harvey's guilt. The suspect, on the other hand, was worried that if convicted he would be sentenced to death. So the serial killer and the prosecutor struck a deal. In return for a life sentence Donald Harvey confessed to the murders he could remember. Over a period of several days he confessed to killing, in Kentucky and Ohio, 130 patients.

     When asked why had he murdered all of those helpless victims, the best answer Harvey could muster was that he must have a "screw loose." Forensic psychologists familiar with the case speculated that the murders had given Harvey, an otherwise ordinary and insignificant person, a sense of power over the lives of others. Harvey pleaded guilty to several murders and was sentenced to life.

     On March 28, 2017, Donald Harvey was found severely beaten in his cell at the Toledo Correctional Institution at Toledo, Ohio. Two days later, the 44-year-old died from his injuries. In May 2019, fellow inmate James Elliott was charged with Mr. Harvey's murder.

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