Death Angels of Lainz

“Lainzer Todesengel” or “Death Angels of Lainz” is the term used in the Austrian press for four nurses from the Lainz Hospital in Vienna. The four nurses were convicted as perpetrators or accomplices in 1991 for 42 cases of culpable death, attempted murder or murder in the years 1983 to 1989. The group killed their victims with overdoses of morphine or by forcing water into the lungs. In total, they confessed to 49 murders over six years, but may have been responsible for as many as 200. Sentenced to life in prison in March 1991.

By 2008, all four of the women had been released from prison. In 2008, the Justice Ministry in Austria announced that it would release Wagner and Leidolf from prison due to good behavior. Meyer and Gruber had been released several years earlier and had assumed new identities.

Waltraud Wagner, 23, was the first to kill a patient with an overdose of morphine in 1983. She discovered in the process that she enjoyed playing God and holding the power of life and death in her hands. In 1991, Wagner was convicted of 15 murders, 17 attempts, and two counts of assault. She was sentenced to life in prison. Wagner was considered the leader of the group. In her department she was respected and feared.

Irene Leidolf, 21 year old. She had a husband at home but preferred hanging out with the girls. Leidolf received a life sentence as well, on conviction of five murders and two attempted murders .

Maria Gruber, 19 year old. Born in 1964, was a nursing school dropout and unwed mother. Gruber received 15 years respectively for manslaughter and attempted murder charges.

Stephanija Meyer, 43 year-old, “house mother” of the group. A divorced grandmother, emigrated from Yugoslavia in 1987 and wound up at Lainz, soon joining ranks with her murderous cronies. Meyer received 20 years respectively for manslaughter and attempted murder charges.

Built in 1839, Lainz General Hospital is the fourth largest medical facility in Vienna, Austria, with some 2,000 persons on staff. Pavilion V at Lainz is typically reserved for problem cases. The hospital was renamed from Krankenhaus Lainz to Krankenhaus Hietzing in 2000. The old people’s home next door was also given a different name: Plegeheim Lainz became the Geriatriezentrum am Wienerwald. This was done to undo the damaged reputation of Lainz.

The crimes took place in Pavilion V of the then Krankenhaus Lainz. Pavilion V was part of the internal medicine department. Often patients arrived with only a minimal chance of recovery. Much was demanded of the nursing aides: they were expected to do the work of trained nurses, such as administering injections. Even tasks reserved specifically for doctors landed on their shoulders. As a result, the nurses also had hardly any controlled access to medicines. At the same time, they were unprepared to deal with critically ill and helpless patients, who often experienced difficult personality changes.

Lainz Hospital

Beginning in the spring of 1983 and lasting through the early weeks of 1989, “Death” got a helping hand at Lainz. It all started when Wagner, had a 77-year-old patient who one day asked the girl to “end her suffering”. Waltraud obliged the lady with a morphine overdose, discovering in the process that she enjoyed playing God, holding the power of life and death in her hands. It didn’t take much to recruit accomplices from the night shift. Maria Gruber, 19, Ilene Leidolf, 21, and the 43-year-old Stephanija Meyer. Wagner was the “death pavilion” leader, and they planned the murders as a group. Moving from compassion to sadism, the women took out patients who merely annoyed them by soiling sheets or asking for help too often. Such people were issued their “tickets to God”. They gave their victims fatal doses of rohypnol or insulin. The group killed patients who were feeble, but many were not terminally ill. At first, these nurses killed sporadically, but by 1987, they were escalating.

Soon they had invented their own murder method: The “water cure” involved holding a patient’s head and pinched their nose, another would pour water into the victim’s mouth until they drowned in their bed. Since elderly patients frequently had fluid in their lungs, it was an agonizing death that filled the lungs, but undiscoverable as outright murder. By choosing different and unobtrusive methods, they were able to hide their actions over the years. As described by prosecutors at her trial, Wagner was the sadistic nurse of the group. Soon they were running a concentration camp, not a hospital ward. At the slightest sign of annoyance or complaint from a patient, they’d plan the patients murder for the following night. Annoyances, in Waltrauds book, included snoring, soiling the sheets, refusing medication, or buzzing the nurses station for help at inconvenient times. In such cases, Wagner would proclaim: “This one gets a ticket to God”, executing the murder herself or with help from one of her accomplices. Even with four killers working the ward, it took some time for the deadly game to accelerate. Most of the homicides linked to Wagner and company occurred after early 1987, when Mayer rounded out the team, but Waltraud remained the prime mover and head executioner for what was soon nicknamed the death pavilion.

Investigators criticized the hospital for meeting them with “a wall of silence” as they attempted to look into a suspicious 1988 death. Rumors of a killer at large on Pavilion V were widespread by 1988, and Dr. Xavier Pesendorfer, in charge of the ward, was suspended in April 1989 for failure to launch a timely investigation.

It was their own carelessness that finally stopped them. In February 1989 they were giggling over the death of elderly Julia Drapal (treated to the water cure for refusing medication and calling Wagner a common slut). Laughing over the patient’s distress and the fact that she deserved her fate when a doctor seated nearby picked up snatches of the conversation. Horrified, he went to the police, and they quickly launched an investigation. It took six weeks, but all four women were arrested on April 7, 1989.

From left to right: Stephanija Meyer, police officer, Maria Gruber, police officer, Irene Leidolf, police officer, Waltraud Wagner.

The nurses were very open at the beginning of the investigation, although they later partially retracted their confessions. The group confessed to forty-nine specific murders. Wagner allegedly claiming thirty-nine of her own. The ones who got on my nerves, she explained, were dispatched directly to a free bed with the good Lord. There was immediate speculation on a much higher body count. Indeed, as the case progressed to trial, Wagner became increasingly reluctant to discuss her role in the murders. By late 1990, she had backed off her original boast of thirty-nine victims, claiming a maximum of ten patients killed to ease their pain. 

Chancellor Franz Vranitzky was unimpressed with the turn-about, calling the Lainz murder spree the most brutal and gruesome crime in Austrias history. Nor were judge and jury sympathetic when the four defendants went to trial in March of 1991. Prosecutors failed to sell their case on forty-two counts of murder, but they proved enough to do the job. Waltraud Wagner was convicted of 15 murders, 17 attempted murders, and 2 counts of aggravated assault, drawing a sentence of life imprisonment. Irene Leidolf also got life, on conviction of 5 murders and 2 bungled attempts. Stephanija Meyer earned 15 years for a manslaughter conviction and 7 counts of attempted murder, while Maria Gruber received an identical term for 2 murder attempts.

Wagner and Leidolf were released on parole in 2008. By then, Meyer and Gruber had been at large for several years. They have since avoided contact with the public and have apparently all changed their names.

The event inspired Peter Kern in 2010 to make his film “Die Mörderschwestern”.


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