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Harold Shipman

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Patients dying at a high rate

The local undertaker noticed that Dr Shipman’s patients seemed to be dying at an unusually high rate, and exhibited similar poses in death; most were fully clothed and usually sitting up or reclining on a sofa. He was concerned enough to approach Shipman about this directly, who reassured him that there was nothing to be worried about. Later, another medical colleague, Dr Susan Booth, also found the similarity disturbing and the local coroner’s office were alerted. They in turn contacted the police.
A covert investigation followed but Shipman was cleared, as it appeared that his records were in order. The inquiry failed to contact the General Medical Council, or check criminal records, which would have yielded evidence of Shipman’s previous record. Later, a more thorough investigation revealed that Shipman altered the medical records of his patients to corroborate their causes of death.

Hiding behind his status as a caring, family doctor, it is almost impossible to establish exactly when Shipman began killing his patients, or indeed exactly how many died at his hands, and his denial of all charges did nothing to assist the authorities. Indeed, his killing spree was only brought to an end thanks to the determination of Angela Woodruff, the daughter of one of his victims, who refused to accept the explanations given for her mother’s death.
Kathleen Grundy, an active, wealthy 81-year-old widow, was found dead in her home on 24 June 1998, following an earlier visit by Shipman. Woodruff was advised by Shipman that an autopsy was not required, and Kathleen Grundy was buried in accordance with her daughter’s wishes.
Woodruff was a solicitor, and had always handled her mother’s affairs, so it was with some surprise that she discovered that another will existed, leaving the bulk of her mother’s estate to Dr Shipman. Woodruff was convinced the document was a forgery and that Shipman had murdered her mother, forging the will to benefit from her death. She alerted the local police, where Detective Superintendent Bernard Postles quickly came to the same conclusion on examination of the evidence.
Kathleen Grundy’s body was exhumed, and a post-mortem revealed that she had died of a morphine overdose, administered within three hours of her death, precisely within the timeframe of Shipman’s visit to her. Shipman’s home was raided, yielding medical records, an odd collection of jewellery, and an old typewriter which proved to be the instrument upon which Grundy’s forged will had been produced.
It was immediately apparent to the police, from the medical records seized, that the case would extend further than the single death in question, and priority was given to those deaths it would be most productive to investigate, namely victims who had not been cremated, and who had died following a home visit by Shipman, which were given priority.
Shipman had urged families to cremate their relatives in a large number of cases, stressing that no further investigation of their deaths was necessary, even in instances where these relatives had died of causes previously unknown to the families. In situations where they did raise questions, Shipman would provide computerised medical notes that corroborated his cause of death pronouncements.
Police later established that Shipman would, in most cases, alter these medical notes directly after killing the patient, to ensure that his account matched the historical records. What Shipman had failed to grasp was that each alteration of the records would be time stamped by the computer, enabling police to ascertain exactly which records had been altered.
Following extensive investigations, which included numerous exhumations and autopsies, the police charged Shipman with 15 individual counts of murder on 7 September 1998, as well as one count of forgery.