Monday, July 6, 2009

The Serial Killler

Donald Harvey’s killing spree came to an end in 1987. It was a fluke. He’d poured cyanide into the feeding tube of a near-comatose patient who’d suffered massive brain injuries in a motorcycle accident. Ohio law dictates that anyone dying as a result of a traffic accident requires an autopsy.

In a second coincidence, the young pathologist who performed the autopsy on Harvey’s victim had training in chemistry. The assumption was the cause of death was pneumonia, a common occurrence in accident victims with major head trauma. The autopsy bore that out.

Until the stomach was opened and the rookie pathologist was overwhelmed by the smell of bitter almonds. Due to his background as a chemist, he recognized the smell immediately as cyanide. Toxicology tests were ordered and the results were conclusive. The man had not died as a result of pneumonia; he’d been poisoned.

Harvey was eventually fingered as the killer. While Harvey was in custody, an intrepid local reporter began gathering evidence that Harvey had committed more than that single murder. With pressure building, Harvey confessed that he had in fact killed more people, and was convicted of 33 murders, though the total number he dispatched was believed to be higher. Most of them were so-called “mercy killings,” but a few were of the decidedly non-merciful variety.

When a tenant living upstairs from Harvey’s lover, Carl, discovered that Carl was cheating him on a shared electric bill and threatened to call the police, Harvey poisoned him. A similar fate met a young woman who, rightly, accused Carl of embezzling money from a business where they both worked.

When Harvey began to suspect his lover was cheating on him, he poisoned him, slowly, with arsenic, not enough to kill the man, but enough to make him sick and keep him home and away from temptation.

When another lover, a married man with a wife and children, gave Harvey trouble, Harvey dispatched him as well.

On one occasion, when an elderly stroke patient threw a bedpan at Harvey, he retaliated a few days later by jamming a straightened coat hanger up the old man’s catheter, perforating both the man’s bladder and bowel. An infection set in, and the man died three days later.

They say that in the film business you get to go to all sorts of places and meet all sorts of people. This is true, because a little while ago, I met Donald Harvey.

As usual, the context was a shoot for a cable TV show about autopsies, specifically the autopsy that had led to Harvey’s arrest. We interviewed the pathologist who had caught that fateful whiff of poison, and we interviewed Harvey’s lawyer. All that left was Harvey himself.

I have to say. It feels weird to know you’re going to meet a man who killed so many people. The weirdest thing about the experience was how casual it was. We pull up at the prison, and walk into the visitor center where two jovial, constantly joking guards greet us. They ask us to sign in, and hold onto our IDs (“so we can identify the bodies later,” one quipped) then take a cursory look through our cases of equipment. (“CNN brought a whole load more ‘n this,” we learn.)

Another guard comes out with a big flatbed dolly for us and we roll inside the prison itself.

Inside we meet our media relations person, a terrific guy, who leads us to the interview room. We pass through a couple of those automated gates and go into one of the parole hearing rooms. Other than the bars on the window and the fact that every piece of furniture is bolted to the floor, the room is only remarkable because of how unremarkable it is.

We set up. I’m wondering if there are any guidelines: don’t run any cables or put any lights too close to where “Inmate Harvey,” as he is known, is going to sit in case he might decide to grab something and try to up his body count. But no one seems concerned. It’s just another shoot, except for the clanging of the big metal gates and the occasional announcements over the loudspeaker that “the count is clear.” (Prison talk for “All prisoners accounted for.”)

We’re finally ready and Inmate Harvey is brought in. No handcuffs, no leg chains, no hockey mask, no burly security guard with him (though a guard does stand ready outside the door).

As for Harvey himself, you could not ask for a more unassuming person to fill the role of serial killer. Harvey is in his 50’s, average height, average weight, average looks. The only thing remarkable about him is his quiet, delicate manner and his eyes, which are slightly crossed – the effect magnified by the thick glasses he wears. He’s very concerned with his appearance; after we put a lavaliere mic on him, running the wire down his shirt, he takes a long moment to make sure the shirt is tucked properly. As the producer applies powder to his face so his skin won’t shine on camera, he remarks, “We’d better not let the other inmates know I’ve got make-up on, or they’ll start chasing me around again, like they did when I was younger.”

We have exactly one hour with Inmate Harvey and get right to it. Our producer has no fear, asking him point blank why he killed and what it felt like to kill. I really wish I had something amazing to write about the interview, but other than the pure surrealism of sitting in a room and calmly and openly discussing the means by which Harvey disposed of his victims (“I used whatever methods were available to me at the time.”), there’s nothing much else to report.

We’d been warned that Harvey liked to fuck with people, find their weak spot and prod it like some cut-rate Hannibal Letcher. For example, sensing that a previous interviewer was homophobic, Harvey began describing his relations with some of his lovers in graphic detail, utterly freaking the guy out.

None of this is on display as we work through the list of questions. Harvey answers questions with long, rambling, self-defensive monologues that mainly argue that “he’s not the only one who did things like this,” blaming doctors and nurses for also putting patients out of their misery. As far as he was concerned, he was helping the people he killed, though I doubt the man who got the coat hanger up the catheter would agree.

The one time he shows any true remorse about what he’s done is when he tells the story of mixing cyanide to kill one of his patients. He did the work under the hood of his stove. The hood was blocked, and he sniffed some of the gas himself, throwing himself back from the work area to avoid killing himself.

Checking the vent outside, he discovered that vapors had escaped and killed a family of birds nesting near the vent outlet, including a number of babies. That, according to the man who’d taken the lives of so many people and shown almost no remorse or emotion, was “real sad.”

The only clue to Harvey’s evil is his eyes. His voice his soft, his manner is soft, but there’s something stirring behind those eyes, something vast and pulsing, a squirming horror from a Lovecraft novel.

His rambling, sometimes incoherent answers often lead the producer to ask him to rephrase. Since her questions will not be included in the interview, he needs to give his answers as complete thoughts. (The example we always give to interview subjects is: “If I ask you what your favorite color is, don’t say “red” say “my favorite color is red.”) This leads to the one truly remarkable moment in the interview:

Producer: How many people did you kill?

Harvey: (After a moment’s thought.) Eighty-seven.

Stunned silence. None of us had any idea the count was that high. But after a moment:

Producer: Okay, I need that again as a complete statement.

Harvey: Oh, I’m so sorry. I forgot. (Clears his throat, folds his hands on his knees.) I killed eighty-seven people.

Ah, showbiz!

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