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CRIME

Missed chances: How Germany’s killer nurse got away with 85 murders

Here's what you need to know about this extraordinary criminal case involving a man considered the most prolific serial killer in German post-war history.

Missed chances: How Germany's killer nurse got away with 85 murders
Högel on trial in Oldenburg, Lower Saxony, in April. Photo: DPA

On Thursday, a German court gave Niels Högel a life sentence – or 15 years with the possibility of extension in Germany – for 85 hospital patients he killed under his care. Why did he commit his crimes and why wasn't he caught earlier?

SEE ALSO: Life sentence given to Germany's serial killer nurse 

The accused

Born December 30th, 1976, in the North Sea coastal town of Wilhelmshaven,
Högel became a nurse, like his father, at the age of 19.

In 1999 he took a job at the main hospital in Oldenburg and transferred to a facility in neighbouring Delmenhorst in 2003.

Former colleagues described him as diligent and likeable but began to take notice of a “troubling” number of deaths in the intensive care unit on his watch.

Between 2000 and 2005, he administered medical overdoses to his victims, intentionally, so he could bring them back to life at the last moment.

Högel told the court he hoped to dazzle his colleagues with his performance. “It was the only way to feel like I was part of the team,” he said.

He was rarely successful and in 2005 was caught in the act.

Psychiatrists who have evaluated Högel, the father of an adolescent daughter, say he has a severe narcissistic disorder.

During the trial, he said he had trouble coping with the stress of the job amid chronic understaffing and that he self-medicated with painkillers.

“I wasn't cut out for this work. I should have recognized that,” said Högel.

The victims 

The known victims were aged between 34 and 96, and apparently selected at
random.

Prosecutors say their number could rise to more than 200, while a spokesman
for the families, Christian Marbach, puts the toll at closer to 300.

However, the true number may never be known because several presumed victims' bodies were cremated before they could be autopsied.

Högel surprised the court on the first day of his trial by admitting to the approximately 100 murders he is charged with, at the Delmenhorst and Oldenburg hospitals.

But he later said that he was only sure of having “manipulated” 43 patients and could not rule out responsibility for the deaths of 52 people. He denied involvement in five cases.

Högel said he had kept quiet “out of shame” and because it had taken him a long time to realize the full scope of what he had done.

“I cannot imagine that he remembers each of the people (he killed),” said Petra Klein, who runs the crime victims' support group Weisser Ring in Oldenburg.

Hospitals' culpability? 

The hospital in Oldenburg encouraged Högel to resign in late 2002, even offering him a glowing professional recommendation to ensure his departure.

Högel said his superior never explicitly said why they wanted him gone but that the request to leave made him feel as though he “had been caught”.

Despite suspicion about the mounting deaths on Högel's watch, the hospital did not open an investigation.

“Without the mistakes of some people in Oldenburg… this series of murders
by Niels Högel could have been stopped,” said Marbach, whose grandfather was one of the victims in Delmenhorst.

Colleagues and superiors at the two clinics testified in the trial that they never suspected any foul play or at least could not remember doing so.

Ten of them are currently under investigation for perjury.

Damning figures 

A police file based on statistics provided by the Delmenhorst hospital shows that between 2003 and 2004 the death rate was twice as high as in previous years.

During the same period, the use of medication for cardiac ailments soared.

And in most cases when a patient died, Högel was on duty.

The figures paint a damning picture but prosecutors only took action in
2008, ordering the exhumation of eight bodies under pressure from relatives of
alleged victims.

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CRIME

Ukrainian Holocaust survivors find safe haven in Germany

Borys Shyfrin fled as a young child, along with other members of his Jewish family, from the Nazis.

Ukrainian Holocaust survivors find safe haven in Germany

More than eight decades on, the Ukrainian Holocaust survivor has been forced from his home once more – but this time he’s found a safe haven in Germany.

Shyfrin is among a number of Ukrainian Jews who lived through the Nazi terror and have now fled to the country from which Adolf Hitler’s Third Reich launched its drive try to wipe Jews out.

He never wanted to leave Mariupol, where he had lived for decades. But Russia’s brutal assault on the Ukrainian port city made it impossible to stay.

“There was no gas, no electricity, no water whatsoever,” the 81-year-old told AFP from a care home in Frankfurt, recalling the relentless bombardment by Moscow’s forces.

“We were waiting for the authorities to come… We waited for a day, two days a week.”

Bodies of people killed by bombs and gunfire littered the streets, recalled Shyfrin, a widower who had lost contact with his only son.

“There were so many of them… no one picked them up. People got used to it – no one paid attention.”

People scraped by finding what food they could, with water supplied by a fire engine that made regular visits to his neighbourhood.

Shyfrin’s apartment was damaged during the fighting in Mariupol – defended so fiercely that it became a symbol of Ukrainian resistance – and he spent much time sheltering in the cellar of his building.

Became homeless

The elderly man eventually left Mariupol with the aid of a rabbi, who helped the local Jewish population get out of the city.

He was evacuated to Crimea, and from there, travelled on a lengthy overland journey through Russia and Belarus, eventually arriving in Warsaw, Poland.

After some weeks in Poland, a place in a care home was found in Frankfurt.

In July, he was transported to Germany in an ambulance, with the help of the Claims Conference, a Jewish organisation that has been aiding the evacuation of Ukrainian Holocaust survivors.

Shyfrin, who walks with the aid of a stick, is still processing the whirlwind of events that carried him unexpectedly to Germany.

The outbreak of war was a “very big surprise”, he said.

“I used to love (Russian President Vladimir) Putin very much,” said Shyfrin, who is a native Russian speaker, did military service in the Soviet Union, and went on to work as a radio engineer with the military.

“Now I do not know whether Putin is right to be at war with Ukraine or not – but somehow, because of this war, I have become homeless.”

Shyfrin was born in 1941, in Gomel, Belarus.

When he was just three months old, his family fled to Tajikistan to escape German Nazi forces who were occupying the region.

Many of Belarus’s Jews died during the Holocaust, in which the Nazis killed a total of six million European Jews.

In neighbouring Ukraine, the once-large Jewish community was also almost completely wiped out.

After the war, his family returned to Belarus and Shyfrin completed his studies, did military service, and settled in Ukraine, then part of the Soviet Union, in the mid-1970s.

“Traumatised”

The pensioner seemed philosophical about the twist of fate that has forced him to leave his home.

“Well, it’s not up to me,” he said, when asked about having to flee war for the second time in his life.

His most immediate concerns are more practical – such as how to access his money back home.

“I can’t even receive my honestly earned military pension,” he said.

He recently moved to a new care home run by the Jewish community, where there are more Russian speakers.

As well as helping Shyfrin on the final leg of his journey, the Claims Conference provided him with financial assistance.

It has evacuated over 90 Ukrainian Holocaust survivors to Germany since the outbreak of the conflict, a break from the organisation’s usual work of ensuring that survivors get compensation and ongoing support.

The body had long been helping to run care programmes for Holocaust victims in Ukraine.

But, as the conflict intensified, it became clear such care programmes could no longer be sustained, particularly in the east, said Ruediger Mahlo, the Conference’s representative in Germany.

“Because many of the survivors needed a lot of care and could not survive without this help, it was clear we had to try to do everything to evacuate (them),” he told AFP.

Getting them out involved huge logistical challenges, from finding ambulances in Ukraine to locating suitable care homes.

For many of the frail Holocaust survivors, it can be a struggle to grasp the fact that they have found refuge in Germany, said Mahlo.

They are fleeing to a country that “had in the past persecuted them, and done everything to kill them,” he said.

“Certainly, they are traumatised,” he said.

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