30 December 1976
|Criminal penalty||Life imprisonment|
Span of crimes
Niels Högel (born 30 December 1976) is a German serial killer and former nurse who was sentenced to life imprisonment, initially for the murders of six patients, and later convicted of a total of eighty-five murders. Estimates of Högel's alleged victim count have increased since his first conviction; as of 2020, he was believed to have claimed 300 victims over fifteen years, making him the most prolific serial killer in the history of peacetime Germany.
Early life and education
Niels Högel was raised in the coastal town of Wilhelmshaven, Lower Saxony, in what was then West Germany. Both his grandmother and his father worked as nurses, the latter formerly being employed at the Sankt-Willehad-Hospital in Wilhelmshaven. His mother worked as a paralegal; he has an older sister. According to Högel, he had a sheltered or "protected" childhood and was not exposed to violence at home. On completing his vocational training in 1997 at the Sankt-Willehad-Hospital, Högel became a nurse and continued working there.
Högel married in 2004, the year of his daughter's birth.
Employment at the Oldenburg Clinic
From 1999 onwards, Högel was employed at the Oldenburg Clinic, stationed in its cardiac surgery intensive care unit, Ward 211. In August 2001, doctors and medical orderlies at the hospital held a meeting, which Högel attended, discussing an unusual spike in both resuscitations and deaths during the preceding months. Fifty-eight percent of these incidents were found to have occurred while Högel was on duty. After the meeting, Högel called in sick for the duration of three weeks; during that time, only two patients in Ward 211 had died, significantly fewer than had prior to his sick leave. Years later, after having been apprehended by police, Högel admitted that, at the time of the meeting, he had thought he had been found out.
Under pressure by Ward 211's head physician, Högel was transferred to the anaesthesiology ward in 2001. Soon the anaesthesiology ward's head physician became suspicious at how Högel was frequently present in emergency situations. In September 2002, the Oldenburg Clinic's head physician confronted Högel after multiple patients under his care had been found in life-threatening conditions for seemingly inexplicable reasons. It was suggested that he either resign his position at the Clinic and continue to receive full wages for another three months, or transfer to the Clinic's logistics unit where he would assist moving patients throughout the hospital.
On 10 October 2002, Högel received a reference letter issued by the Oldenburg Clinic's director of nursing. Therein, she testified to Högel's "circumspect, diligent and autonomous" work ethic, as well as to him having acted "prudently and in an objectively correct manner in critical situations". She also praised his "devotedness" and "cooperative conduct". The letter concluded with an overall assessment of Högel having completed assigned tasks "to the utmost satisfaction".
Employment at the Delmenhorst Clinic
In December 2002, Högel transferred to the Delmenhorst Clinic, where emergencies and fatalities, mostly due to arrhythmia or sudden decreases in blood pressure, began spiking whilst Högel was on duty. This led to some of Högel's coworkers distancing themselves from him. In later court proceedings, it was reported that Högel had initially been held in high regard in Delmenhorst until suspicions against him began to arise. His superiors allegedly did not act on these suspicions, even when four empty vials of gilurytmal (ajmaline) surfaced in Högel's ward, in spite of no doctor having prescribed any such medication at the time.
Investigation and convictions 2006 and 2008
On 22 June 2005, colleagues caught Högel intentionally manipulating a patient's syringe pump to improperly administer ajmaline. The incident prompted Delmenhorst police to open an investigation into Högel. Multiple coworkers of Högel's at Delmenhorst came forward to voice their suspicions that he was behind numerous complications, resuscitations and unexplained deaths at their hospital. The extensive police investigation that followed these allegations examined all deaths at the hospital between 2003 and 2005, revealing that the number of deaths at the Delmenhorst Clinic had doubled during Högel's employment there. In 2005, 73% of deaths could be connected to Högel's work schedule. These findings were subsequently forwarded to the Oldenburg district attorney's office. In December 2006, adjudicating 22 June 2005 incident, the Landgericht Oldenburg (German regional court) sentenced Högel to five years in prison and an employment ban of equal length for attempted voluntary manslaughter. A joint plaintiff appealed the verdict and a higher court subsequently reversed it. In June 2008, Högel was then given a seven-and-a-half-year prison sentence as well as a life-long employment ban.
2015 trial and confession
From January 2014 onward, the Oldenburg district attorney's office initiated another investigation into the incidents at the Delmenhorst Clinic. In September 2014, Högel was charged with three counts of murder and two counts of attempted murder. After confessing to the charges, Högel stated he had committed thirty additional murders. The patients' deaths were caused by Högel's administering ninety unauthorized injections; sixty patients were successfully resuscitated. On 28 February 2015, the Landgericht Oldenburg sentenced Högel to life in prison. The sentence became final in March 2015.
Prosecutors claim Högel acted out of boredom and the desire to show off his resuscitation skills.
Amidst mounting suspicion that Högel might be responsible for further deaths, police launched a major investigation in October 2014, after which 200 suspicious deaths were identified. From November 2014 onward, the special commission "Kardio" examined further deaths during Högel's tenure as nurse at various places of employment.
A total of 134 bodies in Germany, Poland and Turkey were exhumed and autopsied. During the three-year investigation, more than 200 cases were reevaluated. The 134 exhumed bodies were distributed across 67 different cemeteries. In many cases decomposition had progressed too far to be able to detect any traces of medication. 101 patients from Delmenhorst, who died during Högel's tenure, could not be autopsied, as their remains had been cremated. In 2015, suspected victims were exhumed in Ganderkesee and Delmenhorst. The bodies' autopsies revealed traces of heart medication.
In November 2016, authorities said they were able to prove 37 homicides attributed to Högel in Delmenhorst between December 2002 and June 2005. According to an August 2017 statement by the director of the special commission "Kardio", the "provable Oldenburg and Delmenhorst homicides [...] were only the tip of the iceberg". As Högel had been sentenced to life in prison without eligibility for parole at the time, further court cases would not alter Högel's sentence, but either find him innocent or guilty of further charges. As capital punishment is constitutionally prohibited in Germany, Högel's prior conviction had already entailed the maximum punishment of life without parole.
On 28 August 2017, police announced they had concluded that Högel was responsible for the deaths of at least 90 patients, including six for which he had already been convicted. Högel admitted to an undisclosed number of deaths but in most cases was unable to remember specific details, although he did not deny possibly being responsible. In November 2017, the total number of victims attributed to Högel was revised and increased to 106, with some suspicious deaths still under investigation. In January 2018, German prosecutors charged Högel with the murder of 97 patients and announced their intention to file charges against other hospital staff who failed to act. Prosecutors again claimed Högel wanted to impress colleagues by reviving the patients he had previously attacked.
On 28 August 2017, police said that Högel had used five different drugs, including ajmaline, sotalol, lidocaine, amiodarone and calcium chloride. Overdoses can lead to life-threatening cardiac arrhythmia and a drop in blood pressure, causing rapid physiological deterioration in patients already ill.
On 7 March 2018, the Oldenburg labour court sentenced Högel to pay 47,000 Euro in compensation, for two medical opinions and various lawyers' fees.
2018-2019 trial, life sentence and appeal
In January 2018, the Oldenburg state's attorney's office pressed charges against Högel, accusing him of having murdered 100 patients between 7 February 2000 and 24 June 2005 (four separate charges that were jointly tried). The deceased were aged between 34 and 96 years. The indictment stated that, in his position as a nurse, Högel had killed patients by administering the following substances or medication without medical indication: Potassium, Gilurytmal (Ajmaline), Sotalex (Sotalol), Xylocain (Lidocaine) and Cordarex (Amiodarone).
The main trial at Landgericht Oldenburg commenced on 30 October 2018. Due to the high number of people involved in the trial (there were 120 joint plaintiffs), it was held in the Weser-Ems-Hallen ballrooms.
The 2018-2019 court proceedings spanned a total of 24 days of trial. Out of the 100 murder charges, Högel confessed to 43 on the first day of trial, stated he could not recall 52 and denied his involvement in the five remaining deaths.
Witness and expert testimonies
Out of the thirty-two witnesses present at the trial, eight testified under oath. Three testimonies were heard in camera. Four medical experts presented the court with detailed information on the courses of the patients' diseases as well as the effects of the medication administered by Högel. Prof. Staller, a forensic expert in testimony psychology, examined the truthfulness of Högel's testimony. He concluded that Högel, although in principle both capable and willing to lie or provide false testimony, had provided the court with truthful confessions. Staller saw no indications for a false confession.
End of evidentiary hearing and final charges
The state's attorney's office moved for convictions in 97 and acquittals in three cases. The defense saw the state of evidence to be too insufficient to convict in far more instances and moved for acquittals in 31, murder convictions in 55 and attempted murder convictions in 14 cases.
Sentencing and appeal
On 6 June 2019, the court in Oldenburg sentenced Högel to life imprisonment. Taking prior convictions into account, the court determined Högel's "severe gravity of guilt", a German legal term which significantly increases the respective sentence's severity and precludes a chance of early release after serving 15 years. He was found guilty on 85 separate murder charges and not guilty on 15 further murder charges.
Media and public access
A total of 80 seats were provided to media representatives and an additional 118 seats for the general public. Contrary to prior trials under high public and media attention, public interest did not decline, but rose as the trial progressed. On the first day of trial, numerous seats had remained empty. The number of attendees increased significantly throughout the trial, peaking at approximately 190 spectators and 25 media representatives.
Prospective further trials
The court decided that a further pending indictment against four employees of the Delmenhorst Clinic would be tried once Högel's verdict was final. Only then would he be obligated to testify at the trial against those employees, because until he had received a final verdict he still had the right to refuse testimony, and he had stated that he wished to exert that right.
Aftermath, criticism and legislative changes
Scrutinizing investigatory vigour
Following Högel's conviction in April 2015, the Oldenburg state's attorney's office pressed obstruction of justice charges against a former Oldenburg chief prosecutor. He had allegedly not acted on conclusive evidence incriminating Högel, thereby protracting investigations. The district court dismissed the case. The Oldenburg state's attorney's office's official objection to the court's decision to dismiss was subsequently finally dismissed by the Oberlandesgericht Oldenburg at a higher judicial level.
Affected clinics react
After the 2015 sentence became valid, both the Delmenhorst Clinic (now Josef-Hospital Delmenhorst) and the Oldenburg Clinic stated their intention to compensate the victims' relatives. In July 2015, both clinics announced plans to become the first clinics in Germany to introduce a process termed 'qualified necropsy', involving an additional coroner. The introduction of this two-man-rule aims at preventing unnatural causes of death owing to criminal actions going unnoticed.
- "Niels Högel: German ex-nurse convicted of killing 85 patients". BBC News. 6 June 2019. Retrieved 7 October 2019.
- "German nurse given second life sentence for murder of 85 patients". The Guardian. 6 June 2019.
- Eddy, Melissa (10 May 2019). "Hundreds of Bodies, One Nurse: German Serial Killer Leaves as Many Questions as Victims". The New York Times. Retrieved 12 May 2019.
- Online, FOCUS. "Niels Högel tötete 100 Menschen: "Da saß heute der kleine, verletzliche Massenmörder"". FOCUS Online (in German). Retrieved 8 October 2019.
- Ramm, Wiebke (30 October 2018). "Prozess gegen Patientenmörder Högel: Mord aus Langeweile". Spiegel Online. Retrieved 8 October 2019.
- Rising, David (6 June 2019). "85 patient murders: Germany's worst serial killer, nurse Niels Hoegel, gets life sentence". USA Today. Associated Press. Retrieved 6 July 2019.
- Gude, Hubert; Hackenbroch, Veronika; Jüttner, Julia (13 April 2018). "Krankenpfleger Niels Högel: Der Jahrhundertmörder". Spiegel Online. Retrieved 9 October 2019.
- Nordwest-Zeitung (27 November 2014). "Krankenhausmorde: "Es gab doch gar keine Anzeichen"". nwzonline.de (in German). Retrieved 8 October 2019.
- Nordwest-Zeitung (29 August 2017). "Klinikmorde Im Nordwesten: Polizisten am Rand der Sprachlosigkeit". nwzonline.de (in German). Retrieved 8 October 2019.
- Such patient transportation services are usually jobs performed by assistant staff without a degree.
- Nordwest-Zeitung (24 June 2016). "Klinikum Oldenburg: Gutes Zeugnis für Mörder Högel trotz Verdachts". nwzonline.de (in German). Retrieved 8 October 2019.
- NDR. "Högel: Zeugin beklagt Maulkorb durch Klinik". ndr.de (in German). Retrieved 8 October 2019.
- "Warum stoppte niemand Niels Högel?". live.nwzonline.de. Retrieved 8 October 2019.
- NDR. "Nachrichten aus Oldenburg und Ostfriesland". ndr.de (in German). Retrieved 8 October 2019.
- "German nurse suspected of murdering at least 90 patients". The Guardian. 28 August 2017. Retrieved 28 August 2017.
- Nordwest-Zeitung (10 March 2015). "Pfleger-Prozess: Mordurteil gegen Niels Högel ist rechtskräftig". nwzonline.de (in German). Retrieved 8 October 2019.
- "Nurse 'killed patients because he was bored'". The Local. 12 September 2014. Retrieved 28 August 2017.
- "Ex-Krankenpfleger: Zahl der möglichen Mordopfer von Niels H. auf 24 gestiegen". Spiegel Online. 13 April 2016. Retrieved 8 October 2019.
- Zeitung, Süddeutsche. "Niels Högel - Geschichte einer beispiellosen Mordserie". Süddeutsche.de (in German). Retrieved 8 October 2019.
- Ruddat, Marthe (30 October 2018). "Krankenpfleger Niels Högel vor Gericht: Tatwaffen Sotalex und Gilurytmal". Die Tageszeitung: taz (in German). ISSN 0931-9085. Retrieved 8 October 2019.
- Nordwest-Zeitung (26 August 2017). "Serienmörder Niels Högel: Soko Kardio zieht Bilanz". nwzonline.de (in German). Retrieved 8 October 2019.
- Nordwest-Zeitung (16 July 2015). "Serienmörder Niels Högel: Wohl zehn weitere Opfer des Ex-Pflegers entdeckt". nwzonline.de (in German). Retrieved 8 October 2019.
- Fiedler, Jan Eric. "Zahl der Opfer auf 37 gestiegen: Fall Niels H.: Anklagen gegen sechs Klinikmitarbeiter". noz.de. Retrieved 8 October 2019.
- Zeitung, Süddeutsche. "Niels Högel hat mindestens 84 Menschen getötet". Süddeutsche.de (in German). Retrieved 8 October 2019.
- "Police press release on investigation (German)". German police. 28 August 2017. Retrieved 28 August 2017.
- "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 22 January 2018. Retrieved 22 January 2018.CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
- "Niels Högel: German ex-nurse admits killing 100 patients". BBC News. 30 October 2018. Retrieved 30 October 2018.
- Oltermann, Philip (28 August 2017). "German nurse suspected of murdering at least 90 patients". the Guardian. Retrieved 30 October 2018.
- Zeitung, Süddeutsche. "Todespfleger Niels Högel zu Schadenersatz verurteilt". Süddeutsche.de (in German). Retrieved 8 October 2019.
- "Strafverfahren gegen Niels Högel - ein Überblick | Landgericht Oldenburg". landgericht-oldenburg.niedersachsen.de. Retrieved 9 October 2019.
- Hasse, Kai. "Delmenhorster Morde: Angehörige bereiten sich auf Högel-Prozess vor". noz.de. Retrieved 9 October 2019.
- Nordwest-Zeitung (11 September 2018). "Klinikmorde in Oldenburg Und Delmenhorst: Landgericht bereitet Nebenkläger auf Mega-Prozess vor". nwzonline.de (in German). Retrieved 9 October 2019.
- Nordwest-Zeitung (30 October 2018). "Niels Högel: Geständnis im Prozess in Oldenburg". nwzonline.de (in German). Retrieved 9 October 2019.
- "ZAB - Zentrum für Aussagepsychologie Berlin". aussagepsychologie-berlin.de. Retrieved 9 October 2019.
- "German killer nurse sentenced to life for murdering patients". DW. 6 June 2019.
- "Mordurteil gegen Niels Högel ist rechtskräftig". Zeit Online (in German). 11 September 2020.
- "Ex-Oberstaatsanwalt im Fall Niels H. angeklagt | NDR.de - Nachrichten - Niedersachsen - Oldenburg/Ostfriesland". 20 April 2015. Archived from the original on 20 April 2015. Retrieved 9 October 2019.
- Nordwest-Zeitung (1 September 2015). "Klinikmorde in Oldenburg: Kein Prozess gegen Ex-Oberstaatsanwalt". nwzonline.de (in German). Retrieved 9 October 2019.
- Nordwest-Zeitung (4 December 2015). "Klinikmorde in Delmenhorst: Kein Prozess gegen ehemaligen Högel-Ermittler". nwzonline.de (in German). Retrieved 9 October 2019.
- NDR. "Nachrichten aus Oldenburg und Ostfriesland". ndr.de (in German). Retrieved 18 October 2019.
- "Delmenhorster Krankenhäuser führen qualifizierte Leichenschau ein". WESER-KURIER (in German). 14 July 2015. Retrieved 18 October 2019.