WOODSTOCK, ONTARIO: Elizabeth Wettlaufer arrived for her first day of work as a nurse at the Meadow Park nursing home in 2014 with glowing references. She was well liked, they said, a “good worker” who “loved to mentor and teach.”
None revealed that Wettlaufer had been disciplined several times for incompetence, maltreatment of residents and colleagues, and medical errors. Her supervisors did not indicate that she had been fired for administering insulin to the wrong patient.
But even if her behavior had raised suspicions, no one imagined the dark truth.
Wettlaufer, 52, has admitted to intentionally injecting eight seniors in her care with fatal overdoses of insulin as she worked at multiple nursing homes and long-term care facilities in Ontario from 2007 to 2016. The murders shook public confidence in Ontario’s long-term care system.
On Wednesday, the government-appointed commissioner charged with investigating how Wettlaufer’s killing spree went undetected for so long released her chilling conclusion: No one would have discovered that Wettlaufer was Canada’s first health-care serial killer if she had not confessed to her crimes.
“The evidence in this inquiry shows that nothing would have triggered an investigation into Wettlaufer or the incidents underlying the offenses,” Commissioner Eileen E. Gillese told family members, officials and reporters here, not far from the Caressant Care nursing home where seven of Wettlaufer’s victims were slain.
“This finding is significant because it tells us that to prevent similar tragedies in the future, we cannot continue to do the same things in the same ways in the long-term care system.”
Injecting insulin into a person who doesn’t need it can cause that person’s blood sugar to drop below the normal range. Even if the deaths of Wettlaufer’s victims had been fully investigated, Gillese wrote, it is unlikely they would have produced evidence indicating her guilt.
The commissioner, an appellate court judge in Ontario, had the authority to make findings of individual misconduct. But she declined, instead blaming “systemic vulnerabilities in the long-term care system” for which there is “no simple fix.”
Gillese issued 91 nonbinding recommendations, including calls to strengthen the management of medications at long-term care homes, bolster background and reference checks for prospective employees and increase funding for nursing staff when necessary.
Mirilee Fullerton, Ontario’s minister for long-term care, said she would review the recommendations and submit a report next year detailing progress implementing them. She promised the government would set aside new funding to address systemic issues.
“Today is a solemn day, and I want to acknowledge the pain and the trauma this tragedy has caused and the impact it has had in the province,” she said. “To the families, I want to say, your loved ones mattered, they had meaning and they will make a difference.”
Helen Matheson died at Caressant Care in October 2011 at the age of 95. She was Wettlaufer’s fourth victim. Her son watched Wednesday as Gillese delivered the inquiry findings.
“All I can hope for is that what is recommended in the report becomes part of law,” John Matheson said.
Wettlaufer pleaded guilty to first-degree murder in the deaths of the eight seniors, four counts of attempted murder and two counts of aggravated assault. She is serving life in prison.
“The fact that Wettlaufer is behind bars does not mean that we are safe from health care serial killers,” Gillese wrote. “It means only that we are safe from her.”
Wettlaufer checked herself into a mental health hospital in Toronto in 2016 and began to talk about the killings with her psychiatrist. She wrote a four-page confession that prompted the hospital to contact police.
Wettlaufer detailed how she killed each of her victims to police. After her marriage fell apart in 2007, she said, she was “just angry in general . . . at my job . . . at my life.”
When she felt what she called “the red surge” come over her, she would kill. Each murder, she said, brought a feeling of “euphoria.”
The Ontario government launched its inquiry after Wettlaufer’s sentencing hearing in 2017. Over two years, the inquiry took testimony from some 50 witnesses and reviewed more than 42,000 documents.
Wettlaufer’s colleagues began sounding alarms about her from 1995 – the year she began her nursing career – and continued until 2016, when she confessed.
But the red flags weren’t enough to stop her from getting work, Gillese wrote. The age of her victims, which ranged from 75 to 96, made them easy prey; few suspected their deaths were anything but natural.
“When Wettlaufer committed the offenses, the victims were still enjoying their lives and their loved ones were still enjoying time with them,” Gillese said. “It was not mercy to harm or kill them.”
Wettlaufer was fired from her first job, at an Ontario hospital, after working while high on anti-anxiety medication that she admitted to stealing.
She killed her first victim in 2007 at the Caressant Care facility in Woodstock, 80 miles southwest of Toronto. By the time she was fired in 2014 for administering insulin to the wrong patient – not a victim – she had killed seven patients and injured four others, often as the sole nurse working at night.
Caressant Care sent a termination form outlining several complaints to Ontario’s nursing regulator, but the regulator did not investigate. The nursing home dismissed Wettlaufer with $2,000 and a recommendation letter stating that she had left for personal reasons, in part to avoid a grievance from the nurses’ union.
Neither the nursing home nor the union had a comprehensive list of Wettlaufer’s disciplinary history, Gillese wrote.
Vicki McKenna, the president of the Ontario Nurses Association, said the union has been asking for more funding for decades.
Jim Lavelle, the president and owner of Caressant Care, said he would work with lawmakers and others to address the recommendations.
Wettlaufer would go on to work at Meadows Park in London, Ontario – where she killed another patient – and other facilities.
While in prison for her crimes, Wettlaufer told prison staff that she had harmed two other residents in long-term homes. Police investigated, but did not file additional charges.
James Silcox was Wettlaufer’s first victim.
His son said Gillese did a “fantastic job,” but he was conflicted over her decision not to assign individual blame.
“The nurse’s union certainly has been running scared until today,” Daniel Silcox said. “They covered for Wettlaufer, and unfortunately, it blew up in their face.”
He said his father, who was 84 when he was murdered, was a World War II veteran who never missed a Sunday at church.
“He always wanted to leave at the time of God’s choosing, and he didn’t do that,” Silcox said. “He left at the time of Wettlaufer’s choosing, and it breaks my heart.”