For seven years, Elizabeth Tracey Mae Wettlaufer worked as a nurse in southwestern Ontario, moving between long-term care facilities to tend to the elderly and vulnerable.
It’s a job that sees death often, one that ushers ailing minds and failing bodies through their final months.
Which could explain why nobody noticed when at least eight residents in Wettlaufer’s care died during that seven-year period. They were all in their later years, between ages 75 and 96.
The son of one elderly man told the National Post that until this month, he just assumed his dad’s death was natural.
Now, authorities say it was murder.
Wettlaufer, 49, was arrested Monday and charged with killing that man’s father and seven other patients for whom she cared between the years 2007 and 2014, Canadian law enforcement announced at a news conference Tuesday. She appeared in court that morning, authorities said.
Authorities have not released a motive during the news conference, citing the ongoing investigation and impending court case. They did, however, tell reporters that the victims were “administered a drug.” They declined to comment further on what kind of drug, or whether the deadly dose came from medication already prescribed to the patients.
The investigation began on Sept. 29, when police received information that a nurse had allegedly been involved in the murder of eight patients. Police would not release the identity of the tipster, and it was unclear how the two nursing home facilities in question were identified. Police also would not say how they learned the names of the victims.
The first seven were residents at Caressant Care in Woodstock, a city of about 37,000 people located two hours southwest of Toronto. The eighth and final known victim, Arpad Horvath, lived at a different nursing home in London, Ontario, where Wettlaufer briefly worked in 2014, according to police.
In an interview with the London Free Press, Horvath’s son, also named Arpad, stated his adamant belief that his father’s death was not a mercy killing.
“He wasn’t suffering. He was a regular dementia patient,” he said of his father, who went by Art. “It’s just tragic.”
The decision to move the elder Horvath into a nursing home was not easy on his family, his son told the Free Press, but the man’s dementia had progressed.
“You don’t want to do that to your own father, but age takes over,” Horvath said of the decision to put his father in a nursing home. “He had been still living with my mom. It was tough for her. It was tough for everybody.”
Horvath told the Free Press he visited his father daily, to watch the World Cup and movies and decorate for Christmas.
Then one morning in 2014, staff found him “unresponsive.”
Art Horvath’s daughter, Susan, told a radio station she was suspicious from the start.
Her father seemed scared, she said, and something seemed off.
“I just had a feeling and I told mom,” Horvath told the station. “And then when he passed on — and how he passed on — that’s when I knew: This is not right.”
Losing their father was difficult enough, the siblings said, but having to relive it all over again has made it that much worse.
“He was my best friend,” Arpad Horwath told the Free Press. “For me, because we were so close, it’s always tough. . . But then this comes up and you dig up all the old memories and go through the whole thing over again, it’s just devastating.”
At the news conference Tuesday, police said the investigation is ongoing and that further evidence could lead to additional charges being brought against Wettlaufer. When asked why it took the nursing homes so long to recognize Wettlaufer alleged lethal behavioral patterns, authorities declined to comment but said that once they had the information in hand, appropriate actions were taken to keep the public safe from harm.
Wettlaufer handed over her nursing license the day after police received the tip, reported the Toronto Star.
She first registered as a nurse in August 1995, according to the newspaper, and is being investigated by the College of Nurses of Ontario, the regulatory body for nurses in that province.
According to a LinkedIn profile matching the information police shared about Wettlauger, the former nurse worked at Caressant Care Nursing Home in Woodstock from June 2007 to March 2014 and at Meadow Park Nursing home in London for less than a year in 2014. At both facilities, she was a charge nurse.
She studied nursing at Conestoga College in the early 1990s, according to the profile, and before that received a bachelor’s degree in counseling from London Baptist Bible College.
Friends and neighbors this week were shocked by the accusation levied against Wettlaufer.
The woman would walk her dog, Nashville, outside her apartment building in Woodstock and make friendly conversation with passersby, reported the Canadian Broadcasting Corp.
“She was a nice person, easy to talk to,” neighbor Karen Price said. “Its surprising. I don’t how somebody could do that.”
Others grew suspicious when they saw law enforcement around the woman’s apartment in recent weeks. One day, police showed up in Hazmat suits, Charlene Puffer, who lives in Wettlaufer’s building, told the Canadian Press. “It’s terrifying to know someone who supposedly killed that many people lived right near me,” she said.
Puffer emphasized, however, that the Wettlaufer said she enjoyed her job as a nurse and added that “you would never think she could do something like this.”
Murder of patients by health care professionals, while rare, is common enough to have been studied as a phenomenon. A 2006 paper cited by the Globe and Mail examined 90 criminal prosecutions. In most cases, euthanasia was deployed as a defense, with little success. The vast majority of those convicted were nurses; the others doctors or other hospital staff.
In a recent case in Germany, a nurse admitted to inducing cardiac arrests in 90 patients because he enjoyed resuscitating them.
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