Hard-working Vienna GP Dr Franz Pesendorfer, tired and thirsty after a long day, walked into the Lausecker cellar bar, tucked away in a street behind the city's cathedral, in the early evening of September 4, 1990 and called for a drink. That was better ... Dr Pesendorfer relaxed, lit a cigarette — he found it impossible to give up — and looked round the bar. At the next table, four women in nurses' uniform were deep in conversation.
Most of the talking was being done by the dominant member of the group a dark-haired bespectacled woman in her thirties. Not intending to eavesdrop, Dr Pesendorfer could not help but hear most of the conversation. What he heard utterly appalled and horrified him. And not surprisingly: Dr Pesendorfer had accidentally stumbled on one of the biggest mass-murder rings in post-war Europe. Over 50 old people had been systematically killed by four nurses at the city's Lainz General Hospital, who, not surprisingly, called themselves the Angels of Death. Thinking that the level of conversation in the Lausecker bar would drown her words, the gang's ring-leader, 36-year-old nurse Waltraud Wagner decided to discuss their activities with her co-conspiritors Irene Leidolf, Maria Gruber and Stephanie Mayen, all enjoying a rare evening out together.
Dr Pesendorfer could hardly believe his ears when he heard Waltraud Wagner say: "None of you say very much about what we have done. Aren't you proud of the fact that we have put all those awful people out of their misery?" When the other women stayed silent, Nurse Wagner demanded: "Come on — tell me what you really think about what we've done. You must feel something about it. Don't you love the power we have?"
There was a long silence before Stephanie Mayen said: "Let's talk about something else. You never know who may be listening." But it was too late. An hour later Dr Pesendorfer had reported what he had heard to detectives at Vienna's central police station and a major investigation was launched on the activities of the huge Gothic building occupied mainly by the elderly sick. Indeed over 80 per cent of the residents of the Lainz were over 70 and suffering from incurable diseases. So when an influx of patients in their 40s and 50s arrived in Nurse Wagner's ward her instincts told her to be careful.
Her instincts were correct: five of the new arrivals were undercover detectives. But during the six weeks they were there nothing out of the ordinary happened in the hospital. The Angels of Death, alerted that they were being watched, had decided to suspend their murder spree. Finally the policemen left. A week later the murders began again. Waltraud Wagner had started her orgy of murder four years earlier, largely, she would later admit through boredom. Her first victim was Julia Drapal a star ballerina of the 1950s who by 1986 was a frail elderly patient in Lainz General Hospital's Ward Five. After a life of fame, Julia Drapal demanded attention and her constant bursts of bad temper irritated Nurse Wagner. She administered a lethal dose of insulin and two days later the tiresome patient was dead.
Julia Drapal's death, regarded as a routine fatality and accepted without comment by the duty doctor, gave Nurse Wagner a strange pleasure. She now had a taste for murder. She recruited three accomplices and before long most of the patients who entered Ward Five had little chance of survival. The Angels of Death would see to that. By 1990 at least 50 patients had been murdered in Ward Five, although Nurse Wagner had lost count of the exact number. When the undercover police moved out, the killings began again. Later Nurse Wagner would say in a statement: "I had earmarked the most likely patients. They were the ones who annoyed and insulted me and the pathetic ones who were ready to curl up and die. It was easy really.
"The doctors were never around. They didn't care what the nurses did. It had got to the point where no one ever questioned our right to administer drugs and other treatment." Nurse Wagner was the undisputed boss of Ward Five during the hours of darkness. She had worked night shifts for over four years and her dominant strong-willed manner encouraged other nurses to unquestioningly take orders from her.
Her second-in-command was Irene Leidolf, only 27, who had come to Vienna with her parents from the agricultural north of Austria. She was a shy woman who rarely joined in any of the other nurses' gossipy chats, but Waltraud Wagner liked her because she always did as she was told.
Throughout the years of wholesale murder in the hospital, the slight good-looking Irene never gave any indication that what she was doing was wrong. Her only comment to police was: "I had a family to feed and I wasn't going to put my job on the line by refusing to help Nurse Wagner." Stephanie Mayen would admit that she loved the fear she induced among the more timid patients. She also thought that the sick and dying were "tiresome and should be taught a lesson." It was Nurse Mayen who devised what became known as "the mouthwash" — forcing large quantities of water into frail patients' lungs until they died of asphyxiation.
Water in the lungs was a common cause of death among the elderly and appeared on death certificates without any comment. Nurse Wagner had complemented Stephanie Mayen on her killing technique: "It's so easy and we will never be found out." Of the four Angels of Death only Maria Gruber had any qualms about what they were doing. In her late fifties and older than the rest, Maria was appalled when she first realised what was happening in Ward Five. But eventually Waltraud Wagner was able to convince her that they were in fact doing elderly and infirm patients a favour by cutting short their miserable lives.
Two months after the disappearance of undercover detectives, murders were once again being carried out in Ward Five to victims the Angels of Death considered had lived long enough. The hard-pressed doctors were happy to sign death certificates without asking any questions. At least they were until December 1990 when a new, young and conscientious doctor, Christian Firnberg, joined the medical staff and was assigned to Ward Five. Immediately Waltraud Wagner sensed that the activities of the Angels of Death were in danger — and she was right.
No longer was the granting of death certificates merely a matter of routine. Dr Firnberg insisted on an inquiry. And when 75-year-old Karl Lanc suddenly died on December 14 after appearing to be on the road to recovery after a hernia operation, Dr Firnberg was deeply suspicious. He called Nurse Wagner to his office and told her: "This death has all the signs of insulin poisoning. Have you administered insulin to him?"
Waltraud Wagner gazed innocently at the doctor. "Certainly not. I only gave him the medicines sent from the pharmacy." But Dr Firnberg was not convinced. He ordered an autopsy. He also spoke to Dr Pesendorfer — who had never dropped his official suspicions about the women. He told Dr Firnberg: "I know they have murdered a lot of patients. We cannot let this continue. It is scandalous that these women have a free run of the hospital." In fact the Angels of Death had claimed their last victim. When the post-mortem on Karl Lanc revealed that the body was riddled with insulin, Waltraud Wagner and her three accomplices were arrested.
In March, 1991, all four were jailed after a Vienna court had been told they were responsible for at least 50 deaths of patients in their care. The prosecution described them as "monsters who had taken pleasure in destroying the lives of the weak and vulnerable who were completely at their mercy."
Wagner collapsed in court as she was jailed for life for 15 cases of murder and 17 cases of attempted murder. Leidolf was also given life for seven cases of murder and Mayen was jailed for 20 years after admitting seven attempted murders and a case of manslaughter. She too collapsed and was taken from court on a stretcher. Gruber was jailed for 15 years for two cases of attempted murder. The judge told the women: "This is the most terrible case I have ever heard. Nurses are wonderful caring people. You have utterly disgraced the name of nursing. I hope no one is in the slightest doubt that you are utterly unrepresentative of the people who care for our sick."