I found this case to be exceptionally chilling because of the killer’s modus operandi and his temperament. While he was interviewed, the killer was emotionless, yet pleasant and matter-of-fact as he detailed his numerous, sordid crimes. He looked and acted like a calm, ordinary man yet he told a tale of horrific murders.
Ohio – Cincinnati – 6′ foot tall, 43-year-old John Powell was a good-looking man who worked as a plumber. One day, he kissed Patricia, his wife and three kids good-bye, and set off for work on his motorcycle. It was a rather rainy day and roads were slippery. A car nearby went out of control, causing a severe accident. He hit the brakes to avoid hitting a pick-up truck and lost control of the bike. Severe head trauma put Powell in Drake Memorial Hospital where he remained on a respirator for 8 months. John’s loyal wife never left his side. Alas, during that time, Powell suffered continual bouts of pneumonia. No matter what doctors did, they couldn’t seem to beat it and finally Powell succumbed to the illness. Under Ohio law, a motorcycle accidental always merits an autopsy. Good thing.
Rookie pathologist Dr. Lehman conducted a Saturday morning autopsy. There must be more pleasant ways to spend a Saturday. After reading the accident report, Lehman figured this autopsy would be pretty standard. Of course, that’s always a warning sign. After cutting into Powell’s chest cavity, Lehman saw tremendous scarring on Powell’s lungs. Yep. That was pneumonia alright. However, thorough young fellow that he was, Lehman continued with the autopsy, opening the stomach. After the first incision, the smell of bitter almonds filled the room and nearly knocked Lehman out. Bitter almonds? Uh-oh. That’s cyanide, most definitely not a symptom of pneumonia. The odor is almost painful to the nose. Actually, it was lucky Lehman smelled bitter almonds. Some people can’t. It’s a genetic thing. We’ll say no more about that family tree.
Hmm. Now what? Lehman already had a cause of death, pneumonia. However, now the case had turned into a possible cyanide poisoning. Could the almond smell come from medication? Almond-flavored food? Lehman took fluid samples and sent them to toxicology. Lehman’s first speculation had been right. Powell died of cyanide poisoning. 1 mg was all it took. It doesn’t take much to kill someone with cyanide, especially a person with a comprised immune system. At least it’s a merciful way to go.
Now Lehman didn’t file an accidental death report. This was murder. Cincinnati Homicide launched a full-scale investigation. The first question they had to ask: who stood to benefit from Powell’s murder? Hm. Patricia Powell came to the forefront. Had she been draining money from the family’s life savings and needed to replace it? She could have taken out an insurance policy on her husband. Naturally, she denied it but detectives persuaded her to take a lie detector test. Guess what? She passed.
Now what? Detectives investigated plumbing clients, motorcycle friends, and anyone else they could find. All were cleared. Creepy thought, but those with the closest contact to Powell during his sick months were the medical staff. Police began to take polygraphs from all the nurses and medical assistants in the ward. One male nursing technician phoned in “sick”: Donald Harvey. As it would happen, Harvey was a regular for Powell’s care. Police picked him up for questioning.
On Saturday March 7, 1987, in a calm manner just before they strapped him up to the polygraph machine, Harvey admitted right away, “I killed John Powell.” (25:48) It was easy, he said. He injected cyanide “into the G-tube.” He told police the cyanide was “crystal“, like a “coarse sugar.” Harvey was completely relaxed. He spoke as pleasantly with detectives as if they were discussing the weather instead of cyanide 101. “I remember fixing it with water that morning and shaking it up and dissolving it. It turns brown after it’s dissolved. Had it in a little vial and I only had about maybe 45 seconds. So I went in and I just poured it into the gastrointestinal tube and I went back out.” Police could almost see his chest swell with pride. A job well done, he seemed to be saying.
Harvey was detained at the Hamilton County Justice Centre. Harvey explained sensibly to his court-appointed attorney, William Whalen, that he was “just a mercy killer…because [Powell] was in pain, he would break out in a cold sweat. I was jut thinking about, he won’t get any better. I just thought what I was doing was right.” Perhaps Harvey did believe he was an Angel of Death? While working at Drake, Harvey had indeed acquired the nickname The Angel of Death’, but it was because he always seemed to be nearby when a patient died”. Homicide investigators went to Harvey’s house and discovered yet another bizarre twist to his story. He had lied about where the cyanide had come from. He had arsenic and cyanide stashed in his cupboard at home. “About 30 pounds of it,” Harvey later admitted quite cheerfully.
Whalen hopped back over to the Justice Centre for another chat with his bizarre client. Whalen asked his client if he had killed anyone else. Oh, yes. Whalen figured maybe 2 or 3. Whalen figured mighty low. Harvey didn’t blink an eye when he told him. “70.” Harvey was discovered as the first – and most prolific – medical serial killer in America. It wasn’t only hospital patients he killed.
Other Murders and Attempt Murders
When Harvey suspected his lover Carl Hoeweler of infidelity, he poisoned Hoeweler’s food with arsenic so he would be too ill to leave their apartment. In January 1984, Hoeweler broke off the relationship with Harvey. Harvey was angry at the rejection and spent the next two years trying to kill Hoeweler with his poisonous concoctions. Two years? Clearly, Harvey enjoyed watching his former lover suffer from the poisoning. Harvey also tried to kill a female friend of Hoeweler as a way to get his revenge. He poisoned two of his neighbors after a fight with them, sickening one named Howeler, and killing one, named Helen Metzger. He also killed Hoeweler’s father Henry, with arsenic after they too fought.
Before he obtained work at Drake Memorial Hospital, Harvey worked for several years at Drake V.A. Hospital. While leaving work on July 18, 1985, security guards noticed Harvey acting suspiciously. They searched a gym bag he was carrying and discovered a .38-caliber pistol, hypodermic needles, surgical scissors and gloves, a cocaine spoon, various medical texts, two occult books, and a biography of serial killer Charles Sobhraj. Harvey was permitted to quietly resign from his job rather than being fired. Darn. That might have thrown a cog in Harvey’s poisonous wheel.
The DA ordered the county to exhume 10 bodies buried in various cemeteries in the city for medical examination. Harvey wasn’t exaggerating. He really had gone on a successful killing spree. Harvey’s father Ken Rischetelli, insisted that his son was brought up in a loving family environment. David Andrews, principal of the elementary school Harvey attended, reiterated McKinney’s comments: “Donnie was a very special child to me. He was always clean and well dressed with his hair trimmed, arriving to school on the most beautiful golf cart I’ve ever seen in my life. I remember he used to call me Principal Biggun’. He was a happy child, very sociable and well-liked by the other children.”
But former classmates described him as a loner and a teacher’s pet. He rarely participated in extracurricular activities. Harvey wasn’t the most popular boy in class but he wasn’t hated. either. No one seemed to know him very well.
The Plea Bargain With a lump in his throat, Whalen returned to the DA’s office and managed to secure a plea bargain: Harvey would escape the death sentence and instead serve 3 life sentences, plus three terms of seven to 25 years, for the 24 murders he would detail for the prosecution. Two years later, the investigation into the remaining deaths was closed after investigators determined that there was not enough evidence to pursue them. It took 12 hours for Harvey to meticulously relate his 17-year killing history to the prosecution. Names, dates and even patient numbers were solid in his memory. The grocery list was sinister: strychnine (a really nasty one), adhesive cleaner, cyanide, insulin, turning off ventilators, injecting people with HIV, morphine, arsenic, plastic bags (suffocation), pillows (they left marks). It turned out his motive wasn’t to function as a mercy killer. No one kills that many people “out of mercy.” He wanted to be featured in the Guinness Book of World Records. Seriously. After a number of years in prison, Harvey admitted that many of the murders were due to anger at the victims.
In a 1991 interview with a reporter from the Columbus Dispatch, Harvey gave what he believed to be a satisfactory explanation for the killings.
“Why did you kill?”
“Well, people controlled me for 18 years, and then I controlled my own destiny. I controlled other people’s lives, whether they lived or died. I had that power to control.”
“What right did you have to decide that?”
“After I didn’t get caught for the first 15, I thought it was my right. I appointed myself judge, prosecutor and jury. So I played God.”
Killing was easy for Harvey. He worked in a place where people died on a daily basis. He used poisons that acted very quickly and he kept a low profile. His advice for aspiring serial killers? “Just be nice and polite, I guess.” Harvey actually believes he will be released from prison one day. “I’m only doing 3 twenties…[untrue – he is forgetting the additional 3 terms of 7 to 25 years]…Let’s say I’m 85 when I get out of prison. I can’t say yes or no if I would continue to kill patients or not, because I don’t know. Who knows?” In 1993 The Associated Press listed the five most prolific American serial killers. Donald Harvey was rated number one, followed by John Wayne Gacy, Patrick Kearney, Bruce Davis and Dean Corll. Personally I would have had Ted Bundy at the top of the list. Had it not been for a new pathologist who refused to perform a perfunctory autopsy on a murder victim, Donald Harvey would still be killing today. Harvey’s first scheduled parole hearing is set for 2047. He will be 95.