The Angel of Death in the spotlight

Welcome to Tell-Tale Crimes. This column aims to provide a look at both local and national crimes and cases that are sometimes interesting, sometimes relevant, and sometimes both, from the perspective of a true crime enthusiast.  From the Black Dahlia, to the Cecil Hotel, to Richard Ramirez, Southern California is ripe with historical and current crimes that are worth a story. 

So here I am writing scary stories, both local and national, and true ones at that. Thank you for reading.

Maggie Harvey


A trip to the hospital isn’t out of the ordinary. If you’re lucky, you might only need to have a physical or a flu shot, though some people may need a few nights in the hospital to recover from an illness. Whatever the severity, any stay in a hospital has one thing in common: nurses. Those sweet, unsung heroes of the hospital room do the dirty work. They’re the ones that give us our flu shots, they let us pick out our bandaids, they hold the puke bucket with no complaints, they change the sheets, they check our vitals, and they sit and chat with us until we feel better. As someone who’s had a couple medical procedures done, I can say with confidence that, while the doctors I had were incredible, the nurses who came to check on me during my overnight stays or held my hand while I went under anesthesia will always hold a special place in my heart. 

However, like most things I write about, nurses can have a dark side. It makes sense — anyone in a position of significant power over another human being has the potential for darkness. German authorities found that darkness in Niels Högel, a German nurse who worked between 1999 – 2005. Högel was first caught in 2005 in the midst of administering unprescribed drugs to a patient, according to the BBC. He was then jailed in 2008 for attempted murder. After his actions came to light, further investigation into Högel’s work as a nurse was prompted by families of his alleged victims. In a trial between 2014 – 15, Högel was convicted of two more murders and two more attempted murders. He then received the maximum sentence of 15 years in prison. 

Killer nurse covers his face in shame at trial.   COURTESY OF  BBC.COM

Killer nurse covers his face in shame at trial. COURTESY OF BBC.COM

To clarify, if someone is sentenced to life in prison in Germany, they may apply for parole after 15 years. If the court rejects this application, the inmate may reapply after a blocking period of no longer than two years. If the court determines that the crime is too serious, an indefinite waiting period is set for parole that is longer than 15 years. According to BBC, Högel told the court that he was “honestly sorry” about the deaths of his patients, and that his choice of victim was “relatively spontaneous.”

During this 2014 – 15 trial, Högel confessed to a psychiatrist that he had killed 30 of his patients, and not just the three he had been convicted of. This prompted investigators to look into Högel’s work history. They exhumed 130 former patients, requested toxicology reports, and looked at hospital records to determine if Högel had killed more people than they had known. Once this investigation into Högel’s work was completed, investigators believed it was possible that Högel had killed at least 84 of the patients under his care through a lethal injection of drugs that would induce cardiac arrest. With further investigation, this number rose to 97, and Högel was charged with these murders on Jan. 22 of this year, according to NPR

This is what leads us to his October trial of this year. The court was expecting a fight from the nurse who had claimed to kill 30 of his patients. Instead, Högel almost immediately told the court that instead of killing just 30 people, as he had previously confessed, he had actually killed 100, three times more than what he had been charged for. According to The Guardian, when asked by the judge if what he was saying was actually true, Högel told the judge: “What I have admitted took place.” Investigators have determined that the 100 murders that Högel confessed to took place with 36 patients at a hospital in Oldenburg and 64 patients at a hospital in Delmenhorst. According to BBC, it is widely reported that once Högel was initially caught by a co-worker, management at that hospital did nothing, and Högel was allowed to work for two more days. During that time, he killed another patient. 

Prosecutors believe that Högel intentionally injected heart-stopping drugs into his patients so that he could impress his colleagues with his resuscitation skills, though that did not prove successful. Högel did not seem to have a particular type of victim that he gravitated towards — they ranged from 34 – 96 years old. One psychologist said  that they believed that the aim was to revive the patient, and not to kill them, according to  The Guardian, one psychologist said,“For [Högel], it was like a drug.”

This particular kind of killer, the one who takes on the role of caregiver only to harm those they are caring for, is not a new thing. They are called an “Angel of Death,” and they actually have several different classifications, according to the World Heritage Encyclopedia. There is the mercy killer, who believes that by killing their patient they are relieving them of a pain that was too horrible to live with; there is the sadist, who enjoys the power dynamic in being a caregiver who can watch the life draining from someone without doing anything about it; and there is the malignant hero, which is the classification that Högel fits into: a person who intentionally puts people in life-threatening situations only to “save” them, if possible, at the last second. Some believe that this classification is also a form of professional Munchausen syndrome by proxy, a syndrome where people induce illness in others for the attention that is showered upon themselves. One famous “Angel of Death” killer is Jane Toppan, a caregiver and nurse who killed at least 31 people at the end of the nineteenth century. She would administer heart-stopping amounts of opiates to her patients, and then lay close to them, and hold them as they died. 

I wonder what the thought process of Högel was during his career. I know people who are studying to be nurses, and they do it because they love helping people. They spend their time caring for others, no matter the consequences, always willing to lend a hand. I wonder if this is what Högel thought when he first started becoming a nurse. Did he want to help people? Was it his goal to make people better? If so, at what point did he wonder what it would be like to bring someone back from the brink of death? What was the breaking point, the point that he walked into a patient’s room with a syringe and a plan?