NEWS
10/25/2016 13:46 EDT | Updated 10/26/2017 01:12 EDT

'Another sad day in the neighbourhood' as Ontario nurse charged with 8 murders

WOODSTOCK, Ont. — Members of a southwestern Ontario community that is no stranger to tragedy expressed shock and outrage Tuesday after learning that a local nurse was accused of killing eight seniors in her care by using drugs.

Elizabeth Tracey Mae Wettlaufer, 49, of Woodstock, Ont., was charged with eight counts of first-degree murder in connection with the deaths, which police said took place between 2007 and 2014.

"The victims were administered a drug," said Det. Supt. Dave Truax of the Ontario Provincial Police. "We're not in a position at this time to comment further on the specifics of the drug as it forms part of the evidence that is now before the courts."

He would only say that a number of drugs were stored and accessible in nursing homes.

The victims have been identified as James Silcox, 84, Maurice Granat, 84, Gladys Millard, 87, Helen Matheson, 95, Mary Zurawinski, 96, Helen Young, 90, Maureen Pickering, 79, Arpad Horvath, 75.

Horvath's daughter, Susan Horvath, said she felt something was amiss before her father died.

"I'd seen my dad and the condition he was in and he had a lot of fear — he had a lot of fear — and just things about him and everything I noticed on his body and stuff, I just had a feeling and I told mom," she told radio station AM980 in London, Ont., on Tuesday. "And then when he passed on — and how he passed on — that's when I knew: This is not right."

Daniel Silcox, of Pontypool, Ont., said he found out about his father being among the alleged victims while listening to the radio Tuesday morning.

"We're living my father's death right now," Silcox told The Canadian Press. "It's horrific."

Silcox said police had told his sisters about an investigation and briefly interviewed one of them, but the family had no idea what it was about.

His father didn't like living at the home, had broken his hip at the facility, but the family otherwise had no suspicions that his death might have been a murder, Silcox said.

"We don't want him to become the poster boy of this tragedy but we would like the story out there: (He was) a wonderful man, a World War II vet, just the best father in the world."

Arpad Horvath lived at a Meadow Park facility in London, Ont., while the other seven alleged victims lived at the Caressant Care Woodstock Long-Term Care Home in Woodstock, Ont. 

Police said they believe Wettlaufer also worked at other long-term care facilities in the province. Investigators could not specify which facilities, nor would they speak to a motive.

The parking lot of the Woodstock facility happens to be where eight-year-old Victoria (Tori) Stafford was abducted in April 2009. Her disappearance and murder captured national attention and left the city of roughly 37,000 people grappling with fear and grief.

Sabrina Sabic, who worked as a student nurse's aide at the nursing home, stood near the facility with friends shortly after news of Wettlaufer's arrest broke.

"It's shocking and sad to know that this happened to so many people and it just seems with my experience there that people working there should have paid closer attention," the 17-year-old said.

Her mother, Indira Sabic, who lives across the street from the nursing home, said she's happy her daughter no longer works there, having quit in 2015.

"It's also so close to where Tori was taken," Sabic said. "It's another sad day in the neighbourhood."

As she walked by the nursing home, another resident, Stacey Adams, said she struggled to make sense of the deaths.

"It's hard to imagine. Did these people suffer? I really hope they didn't, but for this to happen so close to Tori — I just don't have words," she said.

Sam Lamb, 89, expressed shock at news of the murder charge involving Granat, a long-time friend who was an automotive body man in Tillsonburg, Ont.

"Wow," Lamb said. "But I really don't know what he died of."

Woodstock Police Chief William Renton recognized that the case might stir up distressing memories.

"It's very difficult for a community to have to endure these types of tragic incidents but the community is strong and the community will rally and we'll work together to get through it again just as we have in the other major incidents," he said.

Police said the case marks the highest death toll they have seen in the province since the 2006 massacre of the Bandidos motorcycle gang, which saw eight bikers gunned down at a southwestern Ontario farm.

Charlene Puffer, who said she lives down the hall from Wettlaufer's apartment, described her neighbour as a decent person.

"I knew something was up with all the police coming around here the past few weeks and they came one day in all their Hazmat suits," she said. "It's terrifying to know someone who supposedly killed that many people lived right near me."

Wettlaufer told Puffer she liked her job as a nurse.

"Then your mind starts going, thinking is there a body in there? And then you think, how did this go on for so long? But to look at her and know her a bit, you would never think she could do something like this," Puffer said.

News of the arrest spread to the provincial legislature, where Premier Kathleen Wynne was asked how the killings went undetected for so long.

Wynne said it would be inappropriate for her to comment on an ongoing police investigation, but she said it is an "extremely distressing and tragic, tragic thing for all of the families involved."

Police said they were first alerted to the deaths on Sept. 29 and arrested Wettlaufer on Monday.

They said she appeared in court Tuesday morning and was remanded into custody until Nov. 2. A lawyer for Wettlaufer could not immediately be reached.

The investigation is ongoing and police said more charges could be laid in the future.

Records from the College of Nurses of Ontario show Wettlaufer was first registered as a nurse in August 1995 but resigned Sept. 30 of this year. She is no longer a registered nurse.

A LinkedIn profile for someone of the same name showed an employment history that included working as a charge nurse at Caressant Care in Woodstock from 2007 to 2014, a job the page said involved assessing patients, administering medications and performing prescribed treatments.

The profile also showed a bachelor's degree in counselling from the London Baptist Bible College.

Caressant Care Nursing and Retirement Homes, which operates 15 facilities in Ontario, said Monday it is co-operating with police.

— With files from Paola Loriggio and Colin Perkel in Toronto.