He always made house calls

British serial killer, as 'kindly physician,' might have slain 300

January 06, 2001|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

LONDON - Even in the annals of macabre British crime, there is nothing approaching the tale of Harold Shipman, the Dr. Death of Hyde who may be the country's most prolific serial killer.

The bearded, bespectacled physician, convicted last January of 15 murders, might have killed as many as 297 people during a 24-year medical career, according to a British government-commissioned report that was released yesterday.

Dispensing death through lethal doses of diamorphine, the medical term for heroin, Shipman killed 15 elderly women patients from his practice in Hyde, a struggling old mill town of dreary brick rowhouses, steep hills and 35,000 people in an area of Greater Manchester.

Now the detailed statistical analysis, ordered in the wake of Shipman's multiple convictions, charts a trail of death behind closed doors, which has left the country shaken while cutting to the heart of the doctor-patient relationship.

`The truth is we will probably never know for sure just how many people were killed by Harold Shipman," British Health Secretary Alan Milburn said.

"Only Harold Shipman can tell us that."

Milburn added that "it beggars belief that he [Shipman] got away with it for so long."

With the respect of his patients and their families, easy access to drugs and ability to write his own death certificates, Shipman got away with murder until he got greedy and forged a will.

An audit compiled by Professor Richard Baker of the University of Leicester compared Shipman's records with those of other physicians working in the same areas.

Shipman's career was studied from 1974, when he worked in Todmorden, West Yorkshire, to his long stint in Hyde, where he began working in 1977, set up a popular solo practice in an office on the town's main street in 1992 and was arrested in 1998.

Shipman recorded 297 more deaths than similar practices over the 24-year period. More significantly, 236 of those deaths occurred at patients' homes, which according to Baker is "most likely to reflect the true number of deaths about which there should be concern."

Britain's Press Association said, "Experts behind the report were reluctant to be drawn on the exact number of Shipman's victims," but reported they acknowledged it could be as high as 345.

Shipman was 25 times more likely than other physicians to be present at a patient's death.

Death in afternoon

According to the report, "Death was more likely to occur in the afternoon."

"It is very hard to contemplate these findings without being concerned for the hurt and distress caused to people in Todmorden and Hyde," Baker told reporters. "And I feel essentially rage, as a fellow professional, that someone betrayed the trust of people who were completely dependent on him."

Britain's chief medical officer, Professor Liam Donaldson, called the findings "harrowing" and said the analysis made for "chilling reading."

Shipman, serving 15 life terms in prison, never publicly expressing remorse and refusing to cooperate with police, is unlikely to be charged with more murders, although a public inquiry into the case will be held later this year.

At a loss for motive

The case has perplexed criminologists who have sought to apply motive to the actions of Shipman, a 54-year-old father of four whose wife, Primrose, stood by his side at the trial and still visits him regularly at Frankland prison near Durham.

At the time of Shipman's conviction, the lead investigator in the case, Detective Superintendent Bernard Postles, said it appeared Shipman "just got the compulsion to kill. We looked at greed; we looked at revenge."

What made the Shipman case so horrifying was that evil appeared so banal - death served up by a seemingly kindly physician who made house calls and claimed to be there for his patients 24 hours a day, yet preyed on his elderly victims, mostly women.

Many of the victims were found sitting in their chairs, with the first of the prosecuted murders occurring March 6, 1995. Shipman finally slipped up with the murder in June 1998 of 81-year-old Kathleen Grundy. The family became suspicious because of a forged will that left her estate to Shipman.

Murder and forgery

Found guilty of 15 killings and forging the will, Shipman was sentenced by Judge Thayne Forbes, who told the impassive physician, "I have little doubt each of your victims smiled and thanked you as she submitted to your fearful administrations."

For those who might have had a relative killed by Shipman, the report brought little sense of peace.

"Because of the depths of this man, the report comes as no shock," said Jane Ashton Hibbert, whose grandmother is believed to be among Shipman's victims. "We're in no man's land. Our family wants finality. We want questions answered."

Hibbert recalled the day her 81-year-old grandmother, Hilda, died, Jan. 2, 1996. The grandmother had been complaining about rheumatism before Christmas, but didn't want to see the doctor until after the holidays, Hibbert said.

"I was with her all day from 10 in the morning to half past two," she said. "While I was out, Dr. Shipman came. When I came back, I found her in a chair and thought she was asleep."

Highly esteemed

How could Shipman have gotten away with the killing for so long?

"I just think he was held in such high esteem, especially in Hyde," Hibbert said. "He was my doctor for 23 years. There were no suspicions on my part. We thought he was just looking after us on a personal level. He was covering up for himself."

Will the town ever recover?

"We're all a bit punch-drunk with it," she said. "We just feel that it's never-ending."

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