Scarred by evil, haunted by what-ifs

Murder: A respected doctor is convicted of killing 15 women, and a town searches its soul over how such horrors could have happened.

February 06, 2000|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

HYDE, England -- John Shaw kept the list and kept quiet.

After all, who would take the word of a burly taxi driver over that of a revered doctor? Who would believe that Hyde harbored a Doctor Death, possibly the most prolific serial killer in modern British history?

But by January 1994, Shaw was growing concerned as his steadiest customers, Hyde's elderly women, were dying off. The only link in the chain of death was the name of their doctor, Harold Shipman.

Over the next four years, Shaw wrestled with his conscience and compiled the names of customers who were alive and well one day and dead the next.

He got to 24.

"I was going to go to Shipman myself," he says. "But I was frightened of being wrong."

Now, Shaw is haunted because he was right.

In this old working-class mill town of 35,000 on the outskirts of Manchester, nearly everybody knows somebody who was paid a final house call by Shipman.

Hyde was rocked Monday when a jury found Shipman guilty of killing 15 female patients with injections of diamorphine, the clinical name of heroin. The presiding judge gave Shipman 15 life sentences and recommended he remain behind bars for the rest of his life for killings between March 1995 and June 1998.

Until the guilty verdicts came in, some people here believed in the innocence of the doctor, who set up his own office on the town's modest main street in 1992, after 15 years in a larger practice,

Support for Shipman gave way to the realization that a popular family doctor, whom thousands had trusted with their lives, was a killer.

Nobody knows what sparked the killings or when they began. Nobody is sure how many people Shipman killed during his 28-year career.

Police have investigated 141 cases involving Shipman. Virtually all the cases involve elderly women.

The killings and their aftermath reached into nearly every layer of the community, even to the jail known as Strangeways, where Shipman is being held. Two guards received leaves because Shipman is suspected in their mothers' deaths.

This area of Greater Manchester has been subjected to notorious killings before. The infamous Moors Murderers, Ian Brady and Myra Hindley, who lived in nearby Hattersley, shocked Britain in the 1960s with a crime wave in which they tortured and killed children.

Preying on the elderly

The Shipman case was different.

He preyed on elderly women who lived alone.

He used his position as a respected doctor to persuade relatives of his victims that his decisions in treatment and after death should not be disputed. He had a ready explanation for why he was present or nearby when many of the deaths occurred. He signed the death certificates and provided a quick cause of death -- a stroke here, a coronary thrombosis there. He was insistent that a post-mortem was unnecessary.

If not for clumsily forging the will of his last victim, Shipman might never have been caught.

Some have suggested that he killed for power, to play God. Others say he simply enjoyed it. Detectives ruled out greed as a factor, even though he attempted to forge the will.

People here are wondering how this could have happened.

"There are a lot of ifs," says the Rev. Denis Maher, a Roman Catholic priest at 3,500-member St. Paul's Church. He was a witness at the exhumations of five of his parishioners killed by Shipman.

"If only people had courage to report him," he says. "The ultimate responsibility lies with ourselves. We put doctors in this position, giving them a power and a trust they don't have to earn. When you have so much power, it's bound to be abused."

Shipman doesn't look especially evil or powerful. He is compact and middle-aged, with a gray beard, oversized wire-rim glasses and thinning hair.

A seemingly ordinary life

He lived what seemed an ordinary life in Mottram, sharing with his wife, Primrose, a squat, two-story townhouse on a nondescript street.

But the 54-year-old father of four, who professed his innocence, was adept at hiding his dark side.

Some here have attempted to link the killings to Shipman's witnessing the slow and agonizing death from lung cancer of his 43-year-old mother, Vera. Then 17, this son of a Nottingham truck driver saw his mother given doses of diamorphine to ease her pain.

Others have pointed to his stint as a young doctor in Todmorden, where he became hooked on a painkiller pethidine and forged 70 prescriptions to feed his habit. In 1976, he was fined by a court and left the medical profession for nearly two years.

He arrived in Hyde in the autumn of 1977 and joined a large practice, Donneybrook, where he worked for 15 years. In 1992, he opened his single-doctor practice on Market Street, setting up shop near a pharmacy and boosting his patient list to 3,600.

Shipman made many house calls and said he was there for his patients 24 hours a day.

The beginning

The first of the known killings occurred March 6, 1995, when 81-year-old Maria West, a retired shopkeeper, was killed at her home while a friend was in the next room.

A familiar pattern of death followed.

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