A 49-year-old woman once employed at two long-term care facilities in southwestern Ont. has been charged with eight counts of first-degree murder in connection with the deaths of elderly patients, police say, following a “multi-jurisdictional” homicide investigation.
In a news conference on Tuesday morning, police said the homicides occurred at nursing homes in Woodstock and London, Ont., between 2007 and 2014.
Police said "a drug was administered" to the victims, who ranged in age from 75 to 96.
Police said Elizabeth Tracey Mae Wettlaufer of Woodstock, Ont., who was employed at both facilities, appeared in court on Tuesday, and was remanded into custody.
The victims and the nursing homes where they resided were identified by police as:
- James Silcox, 84, Caressant Care – Woodstock
- Maurice Granat, 84, Caressant Care – Woodstock
- Gladys Millard, 87, Caressant Care – Woodstock
- Helen Matheson, 95, Caressant Care – Woodstock
- Mary Zurawinski, 96, Caressant Care – Woodstock
- Helen Young, 90, Caressant Care – Woodstock
- Maureen Pickering, 79, Caressant Care – Woodstock
- Arpad Horvath, 75, Meadow Park – London
Woodstock Police Chief William Renton told reporters that, while the police investigation is ongoing, authorities are “confident” that all the victims have been identified.
He added that all family members have been notified.
“On behalf of every police agency represented here today, we extend our deepest sympathies to the families of those who have suffered this tragic loss,” Renton said.
Police have not commented on any possible motives.
Prior to the police news conference, Caressant Care Woodstock Long Term Care spokesperson Lee Griffi said in a statement that the facility is “cooperating fully with police investigating the actions of a former staff member, a registered nurse.”
The nurse in question stopped working at the home approximately two and a half years ago, Griffi added.
The website for the Ontario College of Nurses says Wettlaufer is no longer licensed as a nurse and resigned on Sept. 30 -- one day after police launched their investigation.
The long-term care home remains in “regular contact” with the Ministry of Health and Long-Term care, Griffi said, explaining that their “highest priority” continues to be to provide for the “physical, social and spiritual needs” of its residents.
“We deeply regret the additional grief and stress this is imposing on the families involved,” Griffi said.
Neighbours say suspect struggled with addiction
Police released few details about Wettlaufer, but neighbours who spoke with CTV London said she went by “Beth” and was open about her struggle with addiction.
“Out of the blue she says, ‘Yeah, I got fired from one (job) for stealing medication, the other job I got fired because I was high and the patient almost died when I gave them the wrong medication,” said neighbour Wade Messenger.
Another neighbour, who declined to appear on camera, said Wettlaufer was previously admitted to rehab.
“I know she was in rehab once from narcotics. And other than that, she seemed fine, and then we found out that she had just gone to rehab again,” the neighbour said in an interview outside the Woodstock apartment.
A Facebook post from Sept. 28, 2015 published to an account that appears to belong to Wettlaufer reads: “My own voice called to me in the darkness. Other hands lifted me when I chose the light. One year ago today I woke up not dead. 365 days clean and sober.”
Neighbours added that the suspect was deeply religious and was often seen taking her dog for a walk.
“Nobody would have thought it of her,” said neighbour Charlene Puffer.
According to her LinkedIn and Facebook pages, Wettlaufer graduated from Conestoga College in 1995 with a nursing degree. From 2007 and March 2014, she worked as a charge nurse at the Woodstock nursing home. She also listed a brief stint at the London nursing home two years ago on her LinkedIn account.
Some neighbours said Wettlaufer was concerned about her job prospects and was considering moving.
“I just asked her when the move was going to happen and she said, ‘Saturday,’” Puffer said.
‘We just can’t believe it’
In an interview with CTV News Channel on Tuesday, long-term care expert Laura Tamblyn Watts expects, as the case unfolds, there will be many questions about the work history of the accused.
“How long has this person been taking care of older adults?” Tamblyn Watts said. “And have they only been taking care of older adults in long-term care facilities? So is this a case where a person may have also been engaged in other long-term care facilities, or in a home care type environment, often which is quite unregulated.”
She added it will be “interesting” to see if more families come forward “and say, ‘We’ve had care from this person or in this home.’”
A long-time friend of one of the victims said he was shocked to learn that his friend’s death may have been a murder.
“The question of course comes up … what would be the motive? And how could they possibly have the heart to murder eight people -- helpless, elderly people?” Tony Cuzzocrea, a friend of London resident Arpad Horvath, told CTV News Channel on Tuesday. “It just saddens the whole community. We just can’t believe it.”
Cuzzocrea said that Horvath, who he knew as “Arpy,” was admitted to the Meadow Park nursing home after suffering a massive stroke. His death came about two years later and surprised his friends.
“We saw that his health was going downhill, but it was shocking to hear that it was that quick,” Cuzzocrea said. “Now, I guess, it becomes obvious the reason why he died. It wasn’t due to his natural health.”
Marika Hayek, a close family friend of Horvath, said she saw him a few days before his death and didn’t suspect anything suspicious.
“Nothing, nothing, nothing,” Hayek said.
How prevalent is elder abuse?
Doris Grinspun, the CEO of the Registered Nurses’ Association of Ontario says she’s absolutely “shocked” and “horrified by what has happened.”
In an interview on CTV News Channel, Grinspun sought to assure Canadians that the cases are isolated incidents.
“Please be absolutely assured that every single registered nurse, every single nurse practitioner, every single personal support worker, and anybody that works in nursing homes, goes there every single day with the intent to do not only safe care, but quality care,” Grinspun said.
She added that, until more details about the case are revealed, “it’s difficult for us to explain how something like this could happen.”
Grinspun acknowledged that staffing challenges in nursing homes often make headlines, “but none of that excuses what happened, or justifies or explains even, what happened in this situation.
“And we need to have more details to understand more fully how it evolved the way it evolved.”
But a lawyer with the Advocacy Centre for the Elderly (ACE), a senior-focused legal clinic, said elder abuse in nursing homes “probably happens more often than we think” and suggested that more government oversight could make a difference.
“We do get a lot of reports about people who are being neglected, who have medication errors. And you have to remember that these are people who can’t speak up for themselves,” said Jane Meadus, a staff lawyer and institutional advocate for ACE.
“So we only often see the tip of the iceberg because we’re only hearing where it’s a family member or a friend who’s often complaining. People in the homes often can’t complain on their own, so we really don’t know what the actual extent of it is.”
She called on the Ontario government to carry out thorough annual inspections of nursing homes and for the province’s coroner to perform more spot inspections to weed out incidents of elder abuse that may go unreported.
“I think that people really need to be vigilant to be looking out for things, and people working in the sector really need to be looking out for the residents and be assured that they can complain and that their complaints will be heard by management and by the ministry,” Meadus said.
In the Ontario legislature on Tuesday morning, Premier Kathleen Wynne called the alleged homicides “extremely distressing.”
During question period, an MPP who represents the London area asked Wynne how the incidents went undetected for 10 years by government authorities.
Wynne said she wouldn’t comment on an ongoing police investigation, but called the case a “tragic” situation for all of the families involved.
Health Minister Eric Hoskins said residents of Ontario nursing homes should not feel unsafe.
“I want to reassure Ontarians that the safety and security of Ontarians -- including those in long-term care homes -- is my highest priority, and as the police themselves said this morning, no resident of a long-term care home needs to be concerned about their safety as a result of this investigation,” Hoskins said.
Woodstock police are asking anyone with information relevant to the ongoing investigation to contact them at 519-537-2323 or anonymously through Crime Stoppers at 416-222-TIPS.