A hospital can be a very scary place. Room-to-room you will find varying levels of anxiety, worry, and fear. And who can blame these patients? Though these fears may be rational in some cases, one thing everyone can agree on is that a hospital is a safe place. Built into the foundation of every hospital are the hopes of recovery and good health. The smile on a medical professional’s face is one that might as well be saying, “we’re going to make you all better.”
For many patients in Pavilion V of the Lainz Hospital in Vienna, however, their fears and hopes weren’t based on whether or not their health will improve. Their fears and hopes were focused on whether or not they’d be alive in the morning.
Starting in 1983, four nurses stationed in Pavilion V, Maria Gruber, 25, Irene Leidof, 27, Waltraud Wagner, 30, Stefanie Mayer, 50, murdered their elderly patients one-by-one. Irritated by disruptive and unruly patients, these nurses would creep into their patients’ rooms and murder patients either by lethal injection or by forcing water into their lungs.
While lethal injection of insulin and tranquilizers proved to be a simpler means of killing for the foursome, they prided themselves on their invented method of drowning their patients. One would hold the victim’s head and pinch their nose, while the other would pour water into the victim’s mouth until they drowned in their bed. It would take 45 to 60 minutes for a patient to die.
The nurses liked this method because they believed it would be easier to get away with it. Many of the patients they were handling were suffering from pulmonary edema, fluid in the lungs. Apparently, it’s very difficult to distinguish fluid from pulmonary edema and fluid from tap water.
What ultimately did these nurses in was what brings down many serial killers: pride. In 1989, while bragging about their crimes to each other, a witness overheard. This witness immediately went to the police and reported what they had heard.
Shortly after their arrest, the nurses confessed to the crimes. They had confessed to their method and their motive. One was reported to have said in an interview, “The ones who got on my nerves were dispatched directly to a free bed with the good Lord.”
Police believed that the nurses could have been responsible for as many as 300 murders over the six-year period. Investigators examined these 300 cases, exhuming bodies in order to recover any evidence. Unfortunately, due to decomposition, much of the evidence was lost.
Police were eventually able to find enough evidence from 49 patients. Gruber and Mayer were convicted of manslaughter and attempted murder and sentenced to 15 years. Leidoff and Wagner were convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison.
During the onslaught of media attention, Pavilion V was closed down. For a brief period, Lainz hospital struggled to restaff their now-controversial wing, balking press attention whenever it came. One patient’s wife angrily pushed back at one media outlet, “We have nothing to say. This is a hospital. Leave us in peace.”