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Report Puts Number on Doctor's Toll

Britain: Inquiry finds 215 victims of Harold Shipman's needle, but no explanation.

July 20, 2002|ROBYN DIXON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

LONDON — A church bell in the British town of Hyde tolled 215 times Friday, once for each victim of the nation's worst serial killer, Dr. Harold Shipman.

The solemn chimes came on a new day of trauma for the town near Manchester: A report for the first time put an official number on Shipman's murders, providing certainty for the families of victims, many of whom had suspected foul play.

The report released Friday provides an intriguing and, at times, repellent portrait of the doctor, who was adored by patients but had few friends.

The killing spree was a betrayal of trust "unparalleled in history," said High Court Judge Janet Smith, chairwoman of the inquiry.

The man dubbed "Doctor Death" by British media killed 215 people over 23 years, with another 45 suspicious deaths, the inquiry found. But despite exhaustive investigation, one question went unanswered: Why did this persuasive and trusted family doctor murder his patients time and again?

Smith said only Shipman can solve the mystery. She sent a copy of the report to him in prison, where he is serving 15 life sentences, in hopes of triggering a response from the man who has consistently denied his guilt and refused to cooperate with police.

Smith said the way Shipman was able to kill, face the victims' relatives and walk away so lightly would have been dismissed as fanciful if described in a work of fiction.

After killing, Shipman sometimes asked the family for an item belonging to the victim: a sewing machine, which was given to him, or a budgerigar--an Australian parakeet--which was not.

"Deeply shocking though it is, the bare statement that Shipman has killed over 200 patients does not fully reflect the enormity of his crimes. As a general practitioner, Shipman was trusted implicitly by his patients and their families," Smith told a news conference Friday.

Shipman was convicted in 2000 of killing 15 people through lethal injections of heroin. Friday's report investigated 888 cases and found he killed 171 women and 44 men between 1975 and 1998. The youngest victim was a 41-year-old man, the oldest a 93-year-old woman.

In some cases, the dose of heroin he administered would have been enough to kill 360 people, the report says.

Shipman will not face further murder charges. The British government recently confirmed that he would never be released from prison, where he spends his time translating books into Braille. British law does not allow the death penalty.

The findings mean Shipman ranks alongside Colombian serial killer Pedro Lopez, who is suspected of killing 300 girls.

The closest Smith got to uncovering a motive was her suggestion that Shipman, who was addicted to the painkiller pethidine in the 1970s, also might have become addicted to killing.

The report rules out money as a motive in most of the cases.

"There does not appear to have been any overtly sadistic or erotic motivation for these crimes. In short, if one defines motive as a rational or conscious explanation for the decision to commit a crime, I think Shipman's crimes were without motive," Smith's report says.

The Shipman murders rocked Britain. Relatives of the victims angrily condemned the government's initial plans for a closed investigation, forcing the public inquiry.

The doctor enjoyed "almost celebrity status" among his patients, the report says. One victim, Florence Lewis, was so delighted to be accepted as his patient it was as if she had won the national lottery, her son once said.

But the report notes: "Many of the families of Shipman's victims report that his usually kind and sympathetic attitude disappeared when their relative had died. He would be curt and dismissive and sometimes say the most inappropriate and hurtful things."

Immediately after killing one woman in 1997, he told family members: "Well, I don't believe in keeping them going."

"Other well-marked traits of Shipman's personality were aggression, conceit, arrogance and contempt for those whom he considered to be his intellectual inferiors," the report says. "Sometimes when he had killed a patient, Shipman was caught almost red-handed. Yet he was able to invent an explanation for the death without showing any noticeable discomfiture."

Shipman's downfall came when he forged the will of his last known victim, 81-year-old Kathleen Grundy. The forgery was obvious, and police finally began to unravel the thread linking his murders.

Smith's report speculates that perhaps Shipman was so out of touch with reality that he thought himself untouchable, or perhaps he subconsciously wished to draw attention to his crimes in order to stop the killing.

"I think it likely that the conflict between whatever drove him to kill and his fear of detection must have driven him to the edge of breakdown," Smith concluded.

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