A homosexual and self-styled occultist, Don Harvey attached himself to the medical profession at age 18, working as an orderly at Marymount Hospital in London, Kentucky, from May 1970 through March 1971. In 1987, Harvey would confess to killing off at least a dozen patients in his 10 months on the job, smothering two with pillows and hooking 10 others up to nearempty oxygen tanks, all in an effort to “ease their suffering.” Arrested for burglary on March 31, he pled guilty to a reduced charge of petty theft the next day, escaping with a $50 fine. The judge recommended psychiatric treatment for his “troubled condition,” but Harvey chose the U.S. Air Force instead, serving 10 months in uniform before he was prematurely discharged in March 1972, on unspecified grounds.
Back home in Kentucky, Harvey was twice committed to the Veteran’s Administration Medical Center in Lexington, from July 16 to August 25 and again from September 17 to October 17. His mother ascribed the committals to mental disorders, with Harvey kept in restraints, and his lawyers would later refer to a bungled suicide attempt. The recipient of 21 electroshocktherapy treatments, Harvey emerged from the VA hospital with no visible improvement in his morbid condition.
Concealing his record, Harvey found work as a parttime nurse’s aide at Cardinal Hill Hospital in Lexington between February and August 1973. In June he added a second nursing job, at Lexington’s Good Samaritan Hospital, remaining in that position through January 1974. (One of his lovers in Lexington, Harvey later said, was a local mortician’s assistant who also enjoyed having sex with corpses after visiting hours at the funeral home.) Between August 1974 and September 1975 he worked first as a telephone operator in Lexington, then moved on to a job as a clerk at St. Luke’s Hospital in Fort Thomas, Kentucky. He kept his killing urge in check somehow, but it became increasingly difficult to manage, finally driving him away from home, across the state line to Cincinnati, Ohio.
From September 1975 through July 1985, Harvey held a variety of jobs at the Cincinnati VA Medical Center, working as a nursing assistant, a housekeeping aide, a cardiac-catheterization technician, and an autopsy assistant. In the latter position, he sometimes stole tissue samples from the hospital morgue, taking them home “for study.” On the side, he murdered at least 15 patients, supplementing his previous methods with an occasional dose of poison, once joking with ward nurses after a patient’s death that “I got rid of that one for you.” Nor were Harvey’s victims limited to suffering patients. Fuming at neighbor Diane Alexander after a quarrel, he laced her beverage with hepatitis serum, nearly killing her before the infection was diagnosed and treated by physicians.
On July 18, 1985, Harvey was caught leaving work with a suspicious satchel: inside, security guards found a .38-caliber pistol, hypodermic needles, surgical scissors and gloves, a cocaine spoon, two books of occult lore, and a biography of serial killer Charles Sobhraj. Cited by federal agents for bringing a weapon into the VA facility, Harvey was fined $50 and forced to resign from his job.
Seven months later, in February 1986, Harvey was hired as a part-time nurse’s aide at Cincinnati’s Drake Memorial Hospital, later working his way up to a fulltime position. In 13 months, before his ultimate arrest, he murdered at least 23 more patients, disconnecting life-support equipment or injecting them with mixtures of arsenic, cyanide, and a petroleum-based cleanser. Some of the hospital victims, he later admitted, were chosen “by magic,” with Harvey chanting over stolen locks of hair or fingernail clippings, arranged on a makeshift altar at his home. Outside of work, he sometimes practiced on his live-in lover, one Carl Hoeweler, poisoning Hoeweler after an argument, then nursing him back to health. Carl’s parents were also poisoned, the father surviving, while Hoeweler’s mother died. On March 7, 1987, patient John Powell’s death was ruled a homicide, autopsy results detecting lethal doses of cyanide in his system. Donald Harvey was arrested in April, charged with one count of aggravated murder, and held under $200,000 bond when he filed a plea of not guilty by reason of insanity. By August 11, he had confessed a total of 33 slayings, and bond was revoked two days later, with new charges filed.
As Harvey played the numbers game with prosecutors, adding victims to the tune of 52, then 80-plus, his mental state was questioned, and psychiatric tests were performed and scrutinized by experts. A spokesman for the Cincinnati prosecutor’s office said, “This man is sane, competent, but is a compulsive killer. He builds up tension in his body, so he kills people.” Harvey, for his part, insisted that most of the murders were “mercy” killings, while admitting that some—including attacks on friends and acquaintances outside of work— had been done “out of spite.” In televised interviews, Donald discussed his fascination with black magic, pointedly refusing to discuss his views on Satanism, but authorities were treated to a sketch of his makeshift altar.
On August 18, 1987, Harvey pled guilty in Cincinnati on 24 counts of aggravated murder, four counts of attempted murder, and one count of felonious assault. A 25th murder plea, added four days later, earned him a total of four consecutive life sentences, requiring Harvey to serve at least 80 years before he is considered for parole. (For good measure, the court also levied $270,000 in fines against Harvey, with no realistic hope of collecting a penny.)
Moving on to Kentucky, Harvey confessed to a dozen Marymount slayings on September 7, 1987, entering a formal guilty plea on nine counts of murder that November. In breaking John Wayne Gacy’s record for accumulated victims, Harvey earned another eight life terms plus 20 years, but he was still not finished. Back in Cincinnati during February 1988, he entered guilty pleas on three more homicides and three attempted murders, drawing three life sentences plus three terms of seven to 25 years on the latter charges. With 37 confirmed murder victims (and confessions nearly tripling that body count), Harvey holds the official record as America’s most prolific serial killer.