To this day, the case of the “Angel of Death” – as child serial killer Beverley Allitt came to be known – still haunts me. It started in April 1991, when I was a detective superintendent for Lincolnshire Police, and I remember every detail like it was yesterday. I had just closed the case of a baby found buried in a back garden when a call from Grantham Hospital said they were looking into a number of suspicious deaths on a children’s ward.
In 59 days, four babies had died after being brought to Ward Four with minor complaints, such as a chest infection and gastroenteritis. A further nine had collapsed for inexplicable reasons, only to be resuscitated again. Could there be a serial killer working in the hospital?
The case captured the attention of people around the world – reporters from the US to Japan kept calling, shocked by the innocence of the victims and heartlessness of the killer. At one point I was fearful I could lose my job as I continued to push for an investigation; others were convinced nothing untoward was going on. But I wouldn’t have been able to live with myself if I hadn’t followed it through.
Recent cases bring it all back – hearing of the deaths of 17 babies at a hospital in Chester a few months ago, for which nurse Lucy Letby has been bailed pending further inquiries. The deaths of 456 patients at Gosport War Memorial Hospital, where Dr Jane Barton was last year found to have administered unnecessary and powerful opiates. It doesn’t bear thinking about what Allitt might have done on a geriatric ward, where people die all the time.
My advice to investigators is to always look very carefully at who had access to the victims, as I did in 1991. Early reports found children had collapsed nearly 30 times in total, but only three warranted further investigation.
The coroner’s report and notes taken by hospital staff indicated the other cases could be medically explained.
In the face of hostility – from parents grateful to hospital staff for resuscitating their loved ones, and members of the police and medical staff, who thought we were wasting time – I set up an incident room.
I took great interest in little Paul Crampton, a five-month-old boy who had collapsed three times in seven days. While notes suggested there was a medical explanation, I had a gut feeling that something wasn’t right.
On his fourth day in hospital, Allitt pointed out that Paul was struggling to breathe. She insisted to another nurse that they should check his insulin levels – then he collapsed. This little boy was being treated for a chest indication; there was no indication he had been given insulin.
In the incident room, we charted the staff working at the time of each collapse and found that on every occasion, Allitt was working. She was also in possession of a missing key to the fridge containing insulin. Yet circumstantial evidence would not be enough to convict.
Three weeks into the investigation we had a result. We sent a sample of Paul’s blood to an expert in insulin poisoning, Prof Vincent Marks at the University of Surrey. The results were shocking: Paul had 47,142ml of insulin in his blood. A normal reading for a child of his age is between 10 and 15ml. It was the second highest ever recorded – the first being a doctor who had intentionally died by suicide after an insulin overdose.
Finally, we had proof: someone had intended to harm children at Grantham Hospital.
On May 21, we arrested Allitt, a 22-year-old nurse who had recently graduated. She had never been in trouble before, but strange things had happened around her – when training, curtains at the nurse’s accommodation were set on fire, and faeces found in the fridge and daubed on doors. We raided her home and found a syringe, hospital pillowcase and an allocations book, which shows who is assigned to each child and when. The ward sister possessed a similar book; the pages that covered the time of the collapses on Ward Four had been ripped out.
Naively, I thought she would confess to what she had done, but she was self-assured and calm. Without a confession, we had to release her on bail. There was serious pressure for us to close down the investigation and, when a senior officer told me I was “chasing rainbows”, I worried I could be relegated to uniformed duties.
Over the summer, we looked at the staff allocated to each child at the time of their collapse or death. Allitt was always there. We found that she built a rapport with the children and their parents, earning so much trust that one family even asked her to be godmother.
On October 1991, we charged Allitt with four counts of murder, 13 of attempted murder, and 13 of grievous bodily harm. After a trial in 1993, Allitt’s lawyer suggested she suffered from Munchausen syndrome by proxy, a psychological disorder that results in people causing injury to those in their care. But that isn’t an excuse. The jury found her guilty of the incidents involving 13 children the hospital, though she was acquitted of harming with the intent to kill an old lady in a nursing home outside of Grantham, where she was moonlighting, and the brother of a friend she stayed with when on bail.
The first nurse to be convicted for murder in the UK, Allitt was sentenced to 13 life sentences, which the now 51 year old is serving concurrently at Rampton Secure Hospital. Her story is the subject of a new documentary, British Police: Our Toughest Cases, airing on Saturday.
For years after, I woke up in the middle of the night with this case running through my mind. I still find it traumatic – it’s not until you sit back that you realise how gruesome it was.
As is common in the force, we coped with black humour. After work, we would go to the pub for an hour and give one another the opportunity to just talk; investigating the deaths of defenceless children can take over your life, and not everyone was able to cope. One woman on our team succumbed to stress and left the service shortly after.
My wife has been a rock throughout. As an old school detective, I would leave for work at 7am and come home after 10pm, sometimes seven nights a week while she looked after our two sons. It’s a trauma for those at home, but we are now happily retired in Lincolnshire.
In 1993, I went to visit Allitt in prison. She admitted details to me about harming nine of the children, but refused to tell me precisely what she did. When I tried to press her on the drugs she used, she walked away. More recently, she has indicated she was behind the poisonings, too.
The parents of the children who died will live with their grief forever, and two patients have lasting effects from their injuries; Katie Phillips, whose twin sister Becky was killed, suffered brain damage. An independent inquiry found failings at the hospital, but the blame lay with Allitt.
When the first guilty verdict was announced against her, I cried with relief. There had been so many obstacles, but we got there. Sentenced to a minimum of 28 years in prison, I can’t help but think she is in the right place – I hope she is never allowed into the community for which she held such little regard again.
As told to Cara McGoogan
British Police: Our Toughest Cases continues on Quest Red on Saturday at 10pm