Czech's shocked by hospital killings

Hospital in Havlickuv Brod, photo: CTK

It was a news report that sent shivers down people's spines. Since last May a 30-year old nurse had killed eight people and attempted to kill at least nine more at a hospital in eastern Bohemia's Havlickuv Brod. There is no indication that his motive was euthanasia - none of the people he killed were suffering from a terminal illness and they were all expected to recover.

When thirty year old Petr Zelenka started work at the Havlickuv Brod Hospital as a nurse over six years ago he seemed like the ideal employee - devoted, enthusiastic and willing to work overtime whenever needed. In his spare time he studied to improve his knowledge of medicine, particularly his knowledge of pharmaceuticals. When in May of this year he was promoted to head nurse on night shifts he started applying his knowledge in practice. On nights when he was in charge the entire intensive care unit was in his hands - and he started injecting his victims with heparin - a blood-thinning drug causing internal bleeding when administered in large doses.

Milan Jusko who heads the investigation told the media he was certain that the nurse had not been acting as an angel of mercy:

"This had nothing to do with euthanasia - this was carefully planned, premeditated murder."

Pavel Longin,  photo: CTK
The hospital's head physician Pavel Longin says that the higher number of cases in which patients died as a result of internal hemorrhaging alerted him to the fact that something was wrong:

"We were investigating the individual cases and ascertaining who was on duty at the time. My initial suspicion was that it might be two or three nurses who were new and inexperienced and possibly prone to making mistakes. I thought we would have to watch them very carefully but instead we found that nurse Zelenka figured in every single case and that was definitely very suspect."

The hospital sacked Zelenka in September and reported the incident to the police almost a month later. The nurse, who had in the meantime began work at a hospital in a different Czech town - in Jihlava, was arrested on December 1. There is no indication that he had managed to commit any murders at his new workplace.

Hospital in Havlickuv Brod,  photo: CTK
Now, many are questioning how the perpetrator was able to get away with it the long four months - why did it take so long for the hospital and the police to act? The hospital's director has since been sacked and an investigation is underway to assess whether the police could have sped up the arrest.

Although Mr Zelenka's case is being treated as an isolated one there's no question security and procedural checks at hospitals and health facilities will now have to be increased. Health Minister Tomas Julinek:

"It's important that hospitals implement a higher number of mechanisms for repeatedly checking some processes: more controls, more people, like you have for security at airports. Like airports, hospitals are highly sensitive sites. Measures should be introduced. That also pertains to my call on hospital directors to increase accreditation in security measures several weeks ago."

But one thing is not yet clear. The motive. Zelenka's lawyer has been quoted as saying the nurse may have killed on an impulse to "test" doctors in the belief they were not good enough to discover the truth.

Police psychologist Ludmila Cirtkova describes such killers' states:

"Such people enjoy killing the helpless; those who need to rely on the help of others. They think and feel differently than the rest of us and get enjoyment from deciding over life and death. That's where they gain the most pleasure."

With eight murders and at least nine attempted murders to his name Zelenka could face anything between 15 years in prison and a life sentence. This is one area where the suspect has shown emotion: surprise that in the end he was caught.