Wednesday, December 17, 2003

Harvey case's shock recalled



By Howard Wilkinson
The Cincinnati Enquirer

[IMAGE] Donald Harvey walks into a Hamilton County courtroom during proceedings in 1987.
(Enquirer file photo)
Charles Cullen, the New Jersey nurse arrested this week after claiming to have killed dozens of terminally ill patients, has stirred some disturbing memories for Cincinnatians.

They are memories of Donald Harvey, prisoner number A-199449 at the Warren Correctional Institution near Lebanon.

Harvey is serving four consecutive life sentences for the 25 lives he confessed to ending in the 1980s while working as a nurse's aide at the former Drake Hospital in Hartwell.

Sixteen years ago, Joe Deters and Bill Whalen, assistant Hamilton County prosecutor and defense attorney respectively, sat across the table from each other as the slight, articulate 35-year-old nurse told them, in precise detail, about the arsenic poisonings.

And, through it all, claiming he had done it to save the injured, the ill, the patients who had no hope of recovery from suffering any more.

"What (Cullen) said in New Jersey was almost identical to what Donald Harvey said 16 years ago,'' said Deters, who is now Ohio's treasurer

Cullen was charged with murder Monday. Authorities in New Jersey and Pennsylvania are investigating his claims that he killed 30-40 people at numerous hospitals where he worked as a nurse.

In the spring of 1987, Whalen took on the defense of Harvey, charged then with only one murder - that of John Powell, a man who died at Drakewhile receiving long-term care for auto accident injuries.

In 1987, the policy of the Hamilton County coroner's office was to perform autopsies on all auto accident victims. The autopsy of John Powell fell to the pathologist on duty the weekend Powell died - Dr. Lee Lehman.

When Lehman opened Powell's abdominal cavity, a strong smell hit his nose immediately - a smell that most people don't recognize, a smell that some say smells like bitter almonds.

"I don't know what bitter almonds smell like, but I know what cyanide smells like,'' said Lehman, who is now the chief deputy coroner in Montgomery County, Ohio.

Samples from Powell were analyzed and the conclusion was that he had died not of his accident injuries, but of cyanide poisoning. His death was ruled a homicide and police began unraveling the Harvey case.

Whalen recalled that in the spring of 1987, after Harvey was charged with the Powell murder, he received a telephone call from Pat Minarcin, then news anchor at WCPO (Channel 9). Minarcin told him WCPO was about to run a story saying Harvey was responsible for killing others besides Powell.

"I went straight over to the jail to talk to Donald,'' Whalen recalled. "I asked him straight out, 'Donald, did you kill anybody else?' ''

Harvey told him that, yes, he had; and when Whalen asked how many, Harvey told him he could only estimate, but thought it might be as many as 70.

"When I heard him say the word 'estimate' I knew I was in trouble,'' Whalen said.

Deters recalled the meeting with Harvey and his lawyer, calling it "weird, bizarre.''

"It was so horrendous, we simply didn't believe him at first,'' Deters said. "...None of us had ever heard of anything like this.''

Whalen worked out a much-criticized plea bargain arrangement with then-county prosecutor Arthur M. Ney Jr. in which Harvey would be spared the death penalty in exchange for pleading guilty to 21 murders. Later, Harvey confessed to four more murders at Drake.

In September 1987, he pleaded guilty in his hometown of London, Ky., to nine more murders.

Three psychiatric tests were done on Harvey at the time; all concluded that he was sane.

"The harsh reality is that there are perfectly sane people out there who kill other people,'' Deters said. "Donald Harvey was one of those.''

E-mail hwilkinson@enquirer.com




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