BY NICHOLAS FARRELL / DECEMBER 19, 2014 6:56 AM EST
An Italian nurse nicknamed “The Angel of Death” is in jail in Italy under investigation for the murder of up to 96 patients in the course of a single year in the hospital ward where she worked – that’s one death every three days between April 2013 and April 2014. If found guilty of killing all those patients, she will be classed one of the most prolific serial killers in history.
The dubious record is currently held by the Colombian Luis Garavito, whose victims, it was proven, were 138 children, murdered over a five-year period during the 1990s. The record for the greatest number of murders committed by a nurse is held by an American, Charles Cullen, who was given six life sentences in 2006 for the murder of 40 patients (though he was suspected of causing up to 400 deaths) in New Jersey and Pennsylvania over a 16-year period.
What makes this case especially chilling is the supposed motive: whereas some doctors or nurses who kill their patients do so for reasons of mercy – as Cullen did, or at least claimed to have done – Daniela Poggiali is believed to have killed her patients simply because they irritated her. She had also allegedly given them laxatives, which made them incontinent, and even had photographs taken of herself next to the corpse of one of her patients on her smartphone, which she posted online. In some of them, taken in January 2014 by another nurse, she is laughing and making lewd gestures next to the corpse of an old lady, who had just died in her ward. In one, she is leaning over the corpse grinning and making a thumbs-up sign. In the other, she is lying down next to the corpse with her mouth open, pointing a finger at her face as if it were a gun. “She was particularly euphoric and wanted to have a photo next to the dead body,” her colleague later told police, Il Corriere della Sera reports.
Poggiali, 42, is a passionate supporter of the Juventus football team and the music of Elton John, keen on exotic travel and gym workouts. She qualified as a nurse 17 years ago and for the last 12 has worked in the 30-bed general medicine ward at the Umberto I hospital in the small city of Lugo, between Bologna and Ravenna in the Emilia-Romagna region of Italy. She has cropped blonde hair and a number of striking tattoos. She has no children, but is dating Luigi Conficconi, a car mechanic, who is also a semi-professional soccer referee.
Hospital bosses only became suspicious of Poggiali in March 2014, after the unexplained deaths of five patients, who died in the space of a week during night shifts when she was working more or less alone on her ward. They did not call the police but moved her to day shifts in order, as they would later put it, to keep a closer eye on her. Three days later, on the morning of 8 April, another patient died: Rosa Calderoni.
The 78-year-old woman’s daughter, Manuela Alci, who was present that morning, has said she was told to leave the room while Poggiali gave medication to her mother, who had multiple health problems. Ten minutes later, Manuela was allowed back into the room and noticed that her mother’s eyes were rolling uncontrollably and that she had a glass tube inserted in her arm like a drip which, she said, had not been there before. Then, while she was holding her hand, her mother died. “She did not suffer,” Poggiali apparently assured her.
As a result, Poggiali’s bosses decided to conduct a full post-mortem on the dead patient, which showed high traces of potassium chloride in the eyeballs of the deceased. It was this discovery that would eventually lead to the nurse’s arrest; potassium chloride, which disappears from the body within 48 hours and is used in small doses to treat a number of conditions, is a key component in the lethal drug cocktail used in several states in America to execute prisoners on death row. According to investigators, an intravenous injection of neat potassium chloride had caused Calderoni to have a heart attack.
Meanwhile, however, Poggiali carried on working as normal at the Lugo hospital until July, when she was sacked after an internal inquiry found her guilty of stealing €10 from the relative of a patient and because of the photographs of her next to the dead patient, which she had posted on the internet. She is currently suing the hospital for wrongful dismissal.
On 9 October Poggiali was arrested on suspicion of murdering Calderoni. The press photos of the event show her handcuffed and smiling. Held in custody since her arrest, she has been bombarded with fan mail and received numerous marriage proposals. She denies the charges of murder, claiming that she is the victim of a grudge orchestrated by colleagues, who told police that they had been suspicious about the high number of patient deaths when she was on duty. One nurse, Sara Pausini, said in a statement: “We had for some time been talking about Poggiali and about the strange number of dead patients, even three on the same day.” According to the arrest warrant, she said: “When I went to work with her I began to count the strange number of deaths to see if it was by bad luck or something else.”
Investigators say that between April 2013 and April 2104, 96 patients died on Poggiali’s ward while she was on duty – more than double the rate of a second nurse, who worked on the same ward (45 deaths), and nearly triple the rate of a third nurse (36 deaths). While they originally suspected Poggiali of having drip-fed as many as 38 patients with potassium chloride, police are now investigating the deaths of 96 patients who were in the nurse’s care.
Investigating magistrate Alessandro Mancini says that Poggiali saw her move to the day shift as “a kind of challenge”. He told the Italian press: “We maintain that she thought she was so clever, so cunning, that she could kill in the daytime, right under everyone’s noses. She had a sense of power, which made her feel capable of doing whatever she wanted, even in the sense of taking someone’s life. She felt omnipotent like a god. This was her mistake. We believe she is sound of mind but simply took satisfaction, and real pleasure, in killing.”
In fact, Poggiali’s sense of omnipotence was so great, according to prosecutors, that on one occasion, when discussing the poor survival prospects of a patient with a doctor, she joked: “Two phials of potassium and it would all be resolved.” The nurse, however, continues to maintain her innocence while the investigation continues.