COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — An Ohio doctor was charged with murder Wednesday in the deaths of 25 hospital patients who, authorities say, were killed with deliberate overdoses of painkillers that in many cases were administered by other medical workers on his orders.
In one of the biggest cases of its kind ever brought against an American health care professional, William Husel was accused of ordering outsize doses of the powerful painkiller fentanyl to patients who were on ventilators and receiving palliative care between 2015 and 2018.
Franklin County Prosecutor Ron O'Brien compared Husel's actions to extinguishing a dwindling candle.
"That candle, while there may be just a half an inch of wax left, if I blow that candle out, I'm causing that flame to go out sooner than it would naturally," O'Brien said.
Husel, 43, pleaded not guilty after turning himself in earlier in the day. A judge set bail at $1 million.
The doctor is the lone defendant. Authorities are not prosecuting nurses, pharmacists and others involved in the deaths, though dozens of those hospital employees have been reported to professional boards for investigation and potential disciplinary action.
Husel's lawyer said he was trying to provide "comfort care" for dying patients.
"At no time did Dr. Husel ever intend to euthanize anyone — euthanize meaning speed up death," defense attorney Richard Blake said.
The patients were going to die whether they were being treated by Husel or another physician, Blake said.
The Columbus-area Mount Carmel Health System found Husel ordered potentially fatal drug doses for 29 patients over several years, including five who might have received those drugs when there still was a chance to improve their conditions with treatment. The hospital system said six more patients got doses that were excessive but probably did not cause their deaths.
It was not immediately clear why the charges cited 25 deaths and the hospital cited 29 deaths. O'Brien said the investigation remains open and other deaths are still being reviewed.
Husel was fired in December and stripped of his medical license after concerns about his orders were brought to the attention of officials at Mount Carmel, where he had worked for five years.
Mount Carmel has said it should have investigated and taken action against Husel more quickly. It said that the doctor was not removed from patient care until four weeks after concerns about him were raised in the fall, and that three patients died during that gap after receiving excessive doses he ordered.
Police Sgt. Terry McConnell said none of the families who talked with investigators believed that what happened was "mercy treatment."
Amy Pfaff, whose mother was among the patients whose deaths prompted the charges, said she was pleased to see Husel charged but still wonders about his motives.
"Trust me, I sit many hours sitting trying to figure out why would he do this to so many people, and I just don't know," Pfaff said.
More than two dozen wrongful-death lawsuits have been filed against the doctor and the hospital system, including one by Pfaff over the October 2017 death of her mother, Beverlee Schirtzinger.
The hospital system has publicly apologized and settled some of the cases for hundreds of thousands of dollars.
All employees who had a role in administering medication to the victims have been removed from patient care as a precaution, hospital officials have said.
All told, 48 nurses and pharmacists were reported to their respective professional boards. Thirty of those employees were put on leave, and 18 no longer work there, including some who left years ago, officials said.
Records show no prior disciplinary action against Husel by the State Medical Board. The board will not disclose whether it received any complaints that did not result in action.
The allegations against Husel recalled another Ohio case involving a former nurse's aide dubbed the Angel of Death. That man, Donald Harvey, confessed in 1987 to killing 37 people, most of them hospital patients, over the span of two decades in Ohio and Kentucky.