In this edition of True Crime Corner we have a serial killer, who made headlines in the 80s, back in the news within the last few weeks. Describing himself as an angel of death, Donald Harvey met his end in prison, when it’s believed he was assaulted by another inmate who entered his cell. What did Harvey do to find himself behind bars?
Donald Harvey was born on April 15, 1952, in Hamilton, Ohio. His family was not well off, and they later relocated to Kentucky. He suffered abuse as a child. Not unlike other serial killers, he also had head trauma when he was young and harmed animals before turning to humans. Harvey was a high school dropout who moved back to Ohio after leaving the ninth grade. He was in between jobs when he visited a sick relative in a Kentucky hospital. He spent so much time at the facility that he was offered an orderly position.
Donald Harvey killed several patients over the course of his employment before being arrested for burglary. Shortly after this incident, Harvey joined the Air Force, but was discharged after less than a year of service. The dismissal didn’t sit well with him, and he found himself in a mental health facility. The nursing assistant even attempted suicide. When his own hospital stint was over, he again found employment in the medical field where he continued murdering patients.
What eventually led to the discovery that Harvey was involved in so many deaths? Harvey tended to a man who survived a motorcycle accident, only to die eight months later in the hospital. His condition was such that his death wasn’t completely unexpected. As dictated by law, victims of vehicular incidents were subject to post-mortem examinations. When the medical examiner cut into the stomach, he was overcome by a strong odor of burnt almonds, the telling scent of cyanide. However, the poison can also have no smell to it, and even the almond stench can go undetected by some people. Cyanide works quickly to deprive the body of oxygen, particularly the heart and brain. A few of the man’s other organs contained some amounts of the toxic material, and his cause of death was revised to homicide by cyanide poisoning.
At first, the man’s family and friends were questioned. Hospital workers were asked to submit to a polygraph test, but only Harvey at first refused. His coworkers revealed that his shifts seemed to have a high number of patient deaths, so much so that it was a running joke among the staff.
Harvey was interrogated for hours before finally confessing to the murder of the accident victim. He admitted putting the poison in the man’s feeding tube, claiming he killed him because he felt sorry for him and his family. However, he did not appear to show any remorse.
Investigators searched Harvey’s home and found items consistent with the crime, including vials of cyanide and arsenic. He told the authorities that he mixed the cyanide solution at home before administering it to the victim. The search also yielded another damning piece of evidence, a notebook describing the details of the man’s death. Also written on the pages were notes describing the end of other people, more potential victims of alleged mercy killings.
Given the nature of the items discovered in the home, further investigation into other possible victims may have been warranted. However, it wasn’t until a tip from a hospital worker to a reporter that a deeper look into Harvey began. The names of the deceased provided by nurses had Harvey as a caregiver. Also, the hospital’s death count rose after Harvey started working there.
When confronted by his attorney, he confessed that there were several other murders over several years. The man in the motorcycle accident was believed to be an isolated mercy killing, but it soon appeared that he was a victim of a serial killer.
By the time Harvey was accused of murdering the man, he had several years of killing behind him. He said he ended lives out of mercy, to end the suffering of his patients, although he would also claim that anger had something to do with it. He also enjoyed control over people, playing God, determining which patients would live, and which patients would not. His first victim was in 1970, an elderly man he smothered with a pillow. He also eliminated the sick with arsenic and rat poison. He sometimes overdosed patients with their own medications, and with others he would reduce or eliminate their oxygen supply. Some people were exposed to HIV and Hepatitis.
Harvey didn’t limit his crimes to just the infirm. He also poisoned, but did not kill, his live-in lover when he suspected the man of cheating. However, he did successfully poison and kill his boyfriend’s father, but his mother survived, despite Harvey’s repeated attempts to kill her. Neighbors were also poisoned. Not even animals were immune to Harvey’s ways; apparently pets left in his charge didn’t fare well.
Harvey plead guilty to multiple murders in 1987, avoiding the death penalty, although his actual victim count is suspected to be much higher. He would essentially spend the rest of his days incarcerated. However, his own life was cut short at the age of 64, when he was found beaten in his prison cell. He succumbed to his injuries a couple days later, on March 30, 2017. Had this incident not occurred, Harvey would have been eligible for parole when he was in his 90s.
For more information on this case, Harvey’s attorney William Whalen, with Bruce Martin, wrote “Defending Donald Harvey: The Case of America’s Most Notorious Angel-of-Death Serial Killer.”