A German nurse convicted in 2015 of killing two people with heart medication overdoses is now suspected in the deaths of dozens more during a grisly spree more than a decade ago, police said Monday.
Niels Hoegel, who is serving a life sentence, is now believed by police to have killed 84 patients and possibly many more who died under mysterious circumstances during his shifts at two hospitals in the northwestern towns of Oldenburg and Delmenhorst. He worked there between 1999 and 2005.
If convicted of the additional deaths, Hoegel, 40, would be Germany's worst mass murderer in postwar history — a claim that he reportedly boasted about in prison.
"There's no end in sight to the horror," said Oldenburg police chief Johann Kuehme at a news conference, adding that the three-year investigation into additional suspicious deaths would continue. "The evidence that we've collected so far is shocking enough, indeed it is beyond imagination. The killings we've been able to confirm are only the tip of the iceberg."
Kuehme said the corpses of about 100 patients found dead on Hoegel's watch at the two hospitals near Bremen were exhumed from different cemeteries and traces of the medications were found — leading to 84 additional suspected cases.
Hoegel was finally stopped in 2005 when another nurse caught him injecting a patient with an overdose of a drug that can cause heart failure or circulatory collapse. The patient survived.
He was arrested and first convicted in 2008 of attempted murder in that case — and sentenced to 7 ½ years. Media coverage of that trial prompted a woman to tell police she suspected her mother may have also fallen victim to Hoegel. Police exhumed several corpses and found traces of the drug in five of them, including the woman's mother.
Hoegel said during his second trial in 2015 that he had injected the overdoses into about 90 patients at the Delmenhorst hospital because he enjoyed the "euphoric" feeling of sometimes being able to resuscitate them and being seen as a hero at his intensive care station.
In 2015 he was convicted of two murders, two attempted murders and bodily harm. He told the court then that he thought he was responsible for 30 deaths. Prosecutors in 2016 estimated the total to be at least 33.
Fellow inmates told authorities that Hoegel had told them that he started killing patients to relieve them of their suffering and, later, out of boredom. One inmate said Hoegel had said he stopped counting after the list reached 50. State prosecutor Daniela Schiereck-Bohlemann said Hoegel had admitted to 30 cases, naming the patients he killed.
"I'm the greatest mass murderer in postwar history," Hoegel once reportedly told a fellow inmate, according to German media reports.
A total of 411 patients died at the two hospitals during the years that Hoegel worked there, including 321 who were found dead during his shifts or right after. Many were elderly; some were in their 40s and 50s.
There is no capital punishment in Germany. Prosecutors are expected to put Hoegel on trial again for the additional killings, but there is no provision under German law for consecutive sentences so there will not be any change to his life sentence.
Kuehme, the Oldenburg police chief, criticized hospital authorities for failing to take any action against Hoegel, who was even given a letter of reference from the Oldenburg hospital when he left. Prosecutors are pursuing criminal charges of negligence against two former senior doctors at the hospitals.
"If the people in charge at the time, especially at the Oldenburg hospital but also later at the Delmenhorst hospital, had not been so reluctant to alert the authorities, murders could have been prevented," Kuehme said. He added that officials at the Oldenburg hospital in particular had been aware of "the irregularities" on Hoegel's shifts.
Kirschbaum is a special correspondent.