The Hatred That Turned Nurse Into Serial Killer
AS COLIN Norris listened to the lecture about how a nurse had been found guilty of murdering a patient with a dose of insulin, the seeds of a killing spree were sown.
The trainee nurse at Dundee University harboured a hatred of the elderly and it grew more intense each time he was sent to look after them. On many days, he simply refused to work with them and even confessed to a district nurse how much he hated dealing with geriatrics.
But it was the lecture about a 30-year-old case involving Glasgow nurse Jessie McTavish – who was jailed for life in 1974 for murdering a patient by administering an insulin overdose – that seemed to stick in his mind. McTavish had apparently been inspired by an episode of detective series A Man Called Ironside, in which a character told colleagues that insulin was untraceable.
Although McTavish successfully appealed against her conviction two years later, it is not hard to imagine that the case struck a chord with Norris as he trudged to his next placement, already disgusted at the prospect of another day in a care home.
Colleagues said his demeanour was that of a diligent, hard-working student, somebody who had abandoned a career in the travel business to take up what had been a schoolboy dream, to work in nursing.
But Norris was already armed with the knowledge needed to carry out his deadly work, having studied insulin use and learned about the management of patients with diabetes at Ninewells Hospital in Dundee.
Shortly after the pivotal lecture, he gave vent to his dislike of the elderly, telling a district nursing sister he “didn’t like working with geriatric patients”.
Finally, freed from work placements but not from his loathing of the elderly, Norris was qualified to work un-monitored, allowing him to administer his deadly injections unnoticed, until it was too late.
After graduating, he moved to Leeds in 2001, taking up a post at two hospitals, where the opportunity to put his twisted ideas into practice presented itself. Working in an orthopaedic ward at Leeds General Infirmary in May 2002, he was presented with a “test” subject for his modus operandi, who set the template for the next four victims.
Vera Wilby, 90, like his subsequent victims, had been admitted for hip surgery after a fall. She had recovered from her operation, but that didn’t stop Norris. Calculating from the start, he had targeted somebody who would “not be missed” and whose death would be written off without too much scrutiny.
He dosed her with morphine before administering the insulin, and Mrs Wilby was found barely conscious in a state of a sudden and unexplained hypoglycaemic attack. Fortunately, she survived – but only just – and Norris, despite having failed, felt confident enough to move on.
By the next time he struck, later in 2002, he had refined his technique. Doris Ludlum, 80, Bridget Bourke, 88, and Irene Crooks, 79, all died. Nobody picked up on the signs that pointed to foul play: the sudden and unexpected change in their conditions, or the unexplained missing drugs.
It is impossible to imagine how Norris rationalised his responsibilities as a nurse to preserve life and protect his charges from harm with his acts as a killer. Perhaps he felt he was releasing them from a state that he considered worse than death, relishing the power to grant life or death. As Jessie McTavish had been alleged to tell colleagues: “Doctor likes them to go quietly.”
But it was the arrogance gained by his “success” that proved to be Norris’s undoing.
Branded as “extremely arrogant” by Detective Chief Superintendent Chris Gregg, who led the investigation into his crimes, Norris felt untouchable. “His confidence was growing to such an extent he clearly felt he could kill with impunity,” he said.
Having marked Ethel Hall, 86, as his next victim, Norris could not conceal his intent, predicting to colleagues that, despite being in seemingly fine health, she would not make it through the night. He later added: “Whenever I did nights, someone always died. It was always in the morning when things go wrong – about 5:15am.”
And, as he foretold, in the early hours of 20 November, 2002, Mrs Hall took a “very serious turn for the worse” and was found choking. Sinking into a coma, she died more than two weeks later without regaining consciousness, but not before police were called in by a suspicious doctor.
Dr Emma Ward, a diabetes expert, was surprised enough by Mrs Hall’s collapse into a coma that she ordered blood tests which revealed insulin levels about 12 times the norm – and became suspicious because the patient was not diabetic, so there was no medical reason for her to be injected.
His plans unravelling in front of him and with police taking a close interest in his movements, Norris maintained his front. During questioning, he told officers he “seemed to have been unlucky over the last 12 months” but denied murdering patients.
Detectives checked the medical records of other patients who had died after slipping into comas when Norris was on duty. That resulted in the exhumation of Mrs Bourke’s body, but both Mrs Ludlam and Mrs Crookes were cremated, giving detectives no scope for forensic testing.
Perhaps Norris thought the lack of solid evidence connecting him to the deaths meant he would escape prosecution. But in 2005, with 7,000 statements from hospital staff, relatives and patients, and 3,000 pieces of evidence, he was charged with four counts of murder and one of attempted murder, leading to a trial that started in October last year and ended yesterday with his conviction.
As he stood emotionless in the dock of Newcastle Crown Court and heard the jury return their guilty verdict, it was difficult to fathom what was going through Norris’s mind. Did he perhaps wish he had never attended that Jessie McTavish lecture in the first place?
However, as he faces the judge for sentencing today, it will surely not be lost on him that, if and when he is ever allowed to go free, it will be as an old man.
A CATALOGUE OF DEATH
In October 2001, Colin Norris joined Leeds General Infirmary as a staff nurse. During the next 14 months he also worked on the orthopaedic ward at St James’s Hospital in the city.
On 2 May, 2002 VERA WILBY, 90, was admitted to ward 36 at LGI with a broken left hip after a fall.
Just over a fortnight later, while she was recovering from surgery, Norris administered a dose of morphine to Mrs Wilby to make her drowsy. He then administered more drugs. Ninety minutes later she was found semi-conscious with a sudden hypoglycaemic attack, but survived.
The following month, DORIS LUDLAM, 80, from Pudsey, West Yorkshire, broke her hip and was taken to ward 36.
On 25 June, Norris gave Mrs Ludlam an “unnecessary” dose of diamorphine, twice the recommended level. Norris then gave her drugs that reduced her blood sugar level before he went off shift at 7:45am. Mrs Ludlam was discovered in a coma about 40 minutes after that and died two days later.
At about the same time, BRIDGET BOURKE, 88, of Holbeck, Leeds, was admitted to the hospital with a broken right hip. After an operation complications arose, and on 21 July Norris claimed to have discovered Mrs Bourke slumped in bed.
Doctors found her to be deeply unconscious after a hypoglycaemic attack, despite not being diabetic.
She died the following day and the death certificate recorded the cause of death as being from a stroke.
But in September 2003 her body was exhumed by detectives investigating Norris and a pathologist found that she died from an insulin-induced coma.
In October 2002 IRENE CROOKES, 79, from Hunslet, Leeds, fractured her hip and was treated at St James’s Hospital. Norris treated her for several days and she seemed to be improving.
But later that month Norris found Mrs Crookes “totally unresponsive” suffering from a hypoglycaemic attack even though she was not diabetic. She died the following day.
ETHEL HALL, 86, of Calverley, Leeds, was admitted to ward 36 at LGI in November with a fracture to her hip. On 20 November she took a “very serious turn for the worse”.
On 11 December, 2002, she died of irreversible brain damage without ever regaining consciousness.
Nurse guilty of murdering four elderly patients and he was only halted by vigilance of doctor
A HOSPITAL doctor’s vigilance prevented a Glasgow nurse from continuing his killing spree, a senior police officer said last night.
Staff nurse Colin Norris will today be jailed for life after he gave lethal doses of the diabetes drug insulin to four vulnerable pensioners, who were receiving treatment at two Leeds hospitals in 2002 for hip injuries.
Dr Emma Ward, a colleague, grew suspicious after one of the women fell seriously ill while under Norris’s care and she alerted the authorities, who discovered that the nurse had already killed three times and tried to murder another patient.
The 32-year-old, from Egilsay Terrace, Glasgow, showed no emotion as he was convicted of four counts of murder and one of attempted murder at Newcastle Crown Court. Detective Chief Superintendent Chris Gregg described Norris as “extremely arrogant” and without remorse for killing Doris Ludlam, 80, Bridget Bourke, 88, Irene Crookes, 79 and Ethel Hall, 86, while he worked at the Leeds General Infirmary (LGI) and the city’s St James’s Hospital. He was also convicted of attempting to murder Vera Wilby, 90.
Mrs Hall’s son, Stuart, last night called for a public inquiry into the deaths, “so that everybody can see what has gone on”.
Mr Gregg said: “The Leeds Teaching Hospitals Trust have been extremely supportive during our investigation and were it not for the prompt actions of one doctor, Dr Emma Ward, following the unexplained coma that beset Ethel Hall, then I am convinced that other people would have lost their lives at his hands. Within a six-month period, Norris murdered four women and attempted to murder another. His confidence was growing to such an extent, he clearly felt he could kill with impunity.”
Norris predicted Mrs Hall would die on his shift – despite her recovering well from hip surgery at the LGI after a fall. He told a colleague it was his luck that patients “always died” on his shifts.
But Dr Ward, a diabetes expert, was surprised enough by Mrs Hall’s collapse into a coma that she ordered blood tests, which revealed insulin levels around 12 times the norm – and became suspicious as the patient was not diabetic so there was no medical reason for her to have been injected.
Police were called in and detectives checked medical records of other patients who died from comas when Norris was on duty. Mrs Bourke’s body was exhumed, but Mrs Ludlam and Mrs Crookes were cremated, giving detectives no scope for testing.
West Yorkshire Police built up the case against the nurse by taking 7,000 statements from hospital staff, relatives and patients. More than 3,000 exhibits were seized in a huge investigation, which stretched to 300 binders and included complex shift patterns, hospital security and leading medical experts in a range of fields.
After more than two years of questioning, Norris was charged with the four murders. He tried to kill Mrs Wilby in the same way, but she survived the coma. She died from an unrelated cause later.
Mr Hall said last night he was “happy” with the verdict and hoped Norris would serve a lengthy jail sentence. “I just hope he isn’t let out so he can do it again,” he added.
Mr Gregg said there were similarities with the case of Harold Shipman, the GP who murdered hundreds of patients. “Nobody really knows what motivated Shipman, much the same as we don’t know what motivated Colin Norris,” he said.
The closest the prosecution came to explaining his callous crimes was to tell the jury that he did not like caring for geriatrics and that, being frail, they could be considered a burden on staff.
Mr Gregg added: “Norris is not only a dangerous criminal but cunning in his actions, choosing times to commit his crimes carefully – being either early in the morning or at weekends when he knew senior and specialist staffs were not routinely on duty.”
He hoped the verdict would offer the victims’ families “closure”. In a joint statement, they said: “We are pleased with today’s verdict, which brings to an end a lengthy investigation, which has been like a black cloud hanging over us for five long years.
“Our relatives … went into hospital to receive treatment and recover. However, due to the actions of this man, a person from whom they should have received care and been able to trust, they passed away.
“He cut short their lives and their precious time with their children, grandchildren and, in some cases, great-grandchildren.”
Despite the seriousness of the charges, Norris was on bail for much of the trial, which started in mid-October, but towards the end of it he was remanded in custody.
On one occasion, he clashed with photographers while walking into court on bail, and shoved two against a wall.
Pictures of the row were not published or shown on television for fear of influencing the jury.
Despite measures in wake of Shipman’s crimes, patients still at risk in hospitals
FRAIL elderly people are still at risk in hospitals in the UK despite the measures implemented after the case of Harold Shipman, pictured left, a leading campaign group for older people in Scotland said last night.
Following Shipman’s 15 life sentences – his killing spree was believed to be nearer 250 – an independent public inquiry recommended that coroner’s investigators were trained to “think dirty”.
Ann Ferguson, public affairs manager for Age Concern Scotland, said: “The problem is that Norris had no previous history and could get through all the screening. It’s this position of trust which gave Norris and Shipman their protection – other staff and relatives find it difficult to believe such people would act in this way. There is also the sad fact that it’s much easier to cover up the death of frail older people who are in hospital and are expected to die. The staff who stepped in and stopped Norris killing more patients are to be commended.”
But Mrs Ferguson, an expert in the mechanisms of elder abuse, said there were many instances where elderly people had no-one to intervene.
“There needs to be greater vigilance on and within the health service. I would support the implementation of a fail-safe system where every death has to be signed off, particularly where the elderly person has no relatives to protect them.
“Even where there have been relatives visiting the hospital, they can find it difficult to challenge the authorities. We have reached a situation where we need an independent advocate in hospitals to look after the welfare of elderly people.”