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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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POLICE

EXPLAINED: What you need to know about gun laws in Germany

Germany is known for having some of the world’s strictest gun laws, but shooting incidents continue to cause concern.

EXPLAINED: What you need to know about gun laws in Germany

Is it difficult to get a gun in Germany?

To get a gun in Germany you firstly have to obtain a firearms ownership license (Waffenbesitzkarte) – and you may need a different one for each weapon you buy – or a license to carry (Waffenschein).

Applicants for a license must be at least 18-years-old and undergo what’s called a reliability check. This includes checking for criminal records, whether the person is an alcohol or drug addict, whether they have a mental illness or any other attributes that might make them owning a gun a potential concern for authorities.

They also have to pass a “specialised knowledge test” on guns and people younger than 25 applying for their first license must go through a psychiatric evaluation.

Crucially, applicants must also prove a specific and approved “need“ for the weapon, which is mainly limited to use by hunters, competitive marksmen, collectors and security workers – not for self-defence.

Once you have a license, you’re also limited in the number of and kinds of guns you may own, depending on what kind of license you have: Fully automatic weapons are banned for everyone, while semiautomatic firearms are banned for anything other than hunting or competitive shooting.

A revolver lies on an application for the issuance of a firearms license. Photo: picture alliance / Carsten Rehder/dpa | Carsten Rehder

How many legal guns are there in Germany? 

According to the latest figures from the Federal Ministry of the Interior, as of May 31st, 2022, there were 5.018,963 registered guns in Germany, and 946,546 gun owners entered in the National Weapons Register (NWR).

Where are the most guns in Germany?

Most legal guns are found in rural areas and are used in hunting or shooting sports. Guns are also more widespread in the western States than in the states that make up the former East Germany, where private gun ownership was extremely limited. 

READ ALSO: German prosecutors say poaching led to double police murder

What about undocumented guns in Germany?

One problem in Germany is so-called ‘old’ weapons. It’s impossible to estimate how many weapons from the two world wars are still in circulation and such antiques have appeared in a number of high-profile incidents in the last few years.

The pistol hidden in a Vienna airport by Bundeswehr officer Franco A was a Unique pistol from 1917 and the 2007 murder of a police officer in Heilbronn involved a Wehrmacht pistol. 

In 2009, around 200,000 weapons were returned in a gun amnesty, but it is still unclear how many illegal weapons are still out there.

Does Germany have a gun violence problem?

Gun crime is relatively rare in Germany, which has some of the strictest gun laws in Europe and, according to the latest figures from the Federal Criminal Police Office (BKA), gun-related crimes in Germany are decreasing.

In 2021, there were 9.8 percent fewer crimes committed with a firearm than the previous year, while the number of cases recorded by the police in which a firearm was used to threaten fell by 11.2 percent. Shots were fired in 4,074 of the total number of recorded cases, down 8.5 percent from 2021.

An armored weapons cabinet filled with long guns. Photo: picture alliance / dpa | Friso Gentsch

Despite this, there have been several mass shootings within the past two decades, which have had a big impact on public consciousness and on gun control policy. 

Between 2002 and 2009 there were three major incidents of young men carrying out shootings at their former high schools and, in 2020, a racially motivated gunman shot and killed 11 people and injured numerous others in an attack on two shisha bars in Hanau. The perpetrator was allowed to legally possess firearms, although he had previously sent letters with right-wing extremist content to authorities.

Recently there were also shootings at Heidelberg University in southwestern Germany and at a supermarket in Schwalmstadt in Hesse.

Are German gun laws about to change?

The German parliament reacted to the mass shooting incidents in the early 2000s by tightening the gun laws, and, in the wake of the Hanau attack, a new amendment is in the works, which aims to shift focus towards monitoring gun owners with extremist, right-wing views.

READ ALSO: Germany marks a year since deadly racist shooting in Hanau

In December 2021, Federal Interior Minister Nancy Faeser (SPD) announced her intention to further tighten gun laws, as part of a plan to tackle right-wing extremism.

The authorities in charge of the protection of the constitution have been warning for some time that neo-Nazis are deliberately joining shooting clubs to obtain guns and the Federal Ministry of the Interior reports that 1.500 suspected right-wing extremists among legal gun owners.

Campaigners say more needs to be done to stop gun crime. 

Dagmar Ellerbrock, a historian and expert on weapons history at the Technical University of Dresden said: “It is high time that we try to at least make it more difficult for these political groups to find their way through the shooting associations.”

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