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

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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Driver in Bavaria gets €5,000 fine for giving the finger to speed camera

A driver in Passau has been hit with a €5,000 fine because he was caught by traffic police giving the middle finger.

Driver in Bavaria gets €5,000 fine for giving the finger to speed camera

The district court of Passau sentenced the 53-year-old motorist to the fine after he was caught making the rude gesture in the direction of the speedometer last August on the A3 near the Donautal Ost service area, reported German media. 

The man was not caught speeding, however. According to traffic police who were in the speed camera vehicle at the time, another driver who had overtaken the 53-year-old was over the speed limit. 

When analysing the photo, the officers discovered the slower driver’s middle finger gesture and filed a criminal complaint.

The driver initially filed an objection against a penalty order, and the case dragged on for several months. However, he then accepted the complaint. He was sentenced to 50 ‘unit fines’ of €100 on two counts of insulting behaviour, amounting to €5,000.

READ ALSO: The German rules of the road that are hard to get your head around

In a letter to police, the man said he regretted the incident and apologised. 

Police said it was “not a petty offence”, and that the sentence could have been “even more drastic”.

People who give insults while driving can face a prison sentences of up to a year.

“Depending on the nature and manner of the incident or in the case of persons with a previous conviction, even a custodial sentence without parole may be considered for an insult,” police in Passau said. 

What does the law say?

Showing the middle finger to another road user in road traffic is an offence in Germany under Section 185 of the Criminal Code (StGB). It’s punishable by a prison sentence of up to one year or a fine.

People can file a complaint if someone shows them the middle finger in road traffic, but it usually only has a chance of success if witnesses can prove that it happened.

As well as the middle finger, it can also be an offence to verbally insult someone. 

READ ALSO: The German road signs that confuse foreigners