Case of Pennsylvania’s newest ‘healthcare serial killer’ highlights need for change

PITTSBURGH — The case of a local serial killer, who went undetected for years in western Pennsylvania nursing homes, is highlighting the need for more safeguards to protect patients.

Advocates for Pennsylvania’s aging population are urging lawmakers to take action following the sentencing of a former nurse, Heather Pressdee. She unnecessarily injected almost two dozen of her patients with insulin. Eighteen of those people have died. Another four are disabled, according to their family members.

>> Killer nurse pleads guilty to killing, harming care home residents with insulin

Pressdee pleaded guilty in early May and is now serving multiple life sentences.

11 Investigates has been digging for answers about how red flags were missed or ignored and why it took years to stop Pressdee.

“It’s disturbing to know that people can kill undetected,” said Chalon Young, professor at Pitt Law.

The FBI defines a serial killer as a person who kills two or more victims in separate events. There’s a subgroup coined “healthcare serial killers.”

Young said this group of killers uses vulnerabilities within the healthcare system to cover their crimes.

In Pressdee’s case, she identified exactly that.

“Working the night shift when a place is understaffed, there’s less supervision... there are fewer visitors,” Young said. “Deaths are not uncommon in nursing home, and autopsies are not routine practice.”

Pressdee’s first documented victim was Ruth Erikson at Concordia at Rebecca Residence in Allison Park. She died in December 2020. There is not another documented death until eight months later at Belair Healthcare in Lower Burrell.

But in the last four months of Pressdee’s career, six patients at Sunnyview Nursing and Rehabilitation Center in Butler died in her care.

“The pace seemed to pick up so rapidly,” Young said. “The escalation makes me question what type of serial killer we’re dealing with.”

Her theory is that Pressdee may have been a mercy killer but only at first. Then she believes Pressdee’s motives changed and became about power, power over vulnerable victims.

Her actions destroyed nearly two dozen families, but her crimes were not original.

Netflix documentary “Capturing the Killer Nurse” recounts in detail how a former intensive care unit nurse moved from hospital to hospital, in New Jersey and Pennsylvania, killing patients with drugs. Charles Cullen committed his crimes between 1984 and 2003.

There are eerie similarities between Cullen’s case and Pressdee’s, including commonalities of coworkers who spoke up about concerning behavior and the nurse’s repeated exits from jobs without facilities notifying police.

Shortly after Cullen’s arrest, New Jersey lawmakers began discussing changes to close the loopholes that helped Cullen get away with murder for years. They enacted the Cullen Law, which requires healthcare providers to report employee impairment, incompetence or misconduct that could impact patient safety to a clearinghouse, run by the state. Potential employers have access to that information.

Andy Aronson is the president and CEO of the Health Care Association of New Jersey.

“It’s very, very important that, you know, employers don’t just say, oh, you know, so and so was really weird, and there were problems, but let’s just let them go and forget about it. It’s important that they actually report that person to the clearing house so that they can be properly vetted,” Aronson said.

He said the law gives employers protection to be honest about concerns surrounding current or former employees, and that in turn, helps providers protect patients.

“It’s important to put responsible laws and responsible systems in place to provide the best protections we possibly can,” Aronson said.

He believes it is time for Pennsylvania lawmakers to take action to try to prevent a similar tragedy from happening again.

Some local lawmakers tell 11 Investigates they are now looking into the issue and studying New Jersey’s legislation. We will keep you updated on their efforts.

Download the FREE WPXI News app for breaking news alerts.

Follow Channel 11 News on Facebook and Twitter. | Watch WPXI NOW

Comments on this article