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The criminal with the trembling hands

The "porter of Gerona" spent 20 years in therapy. He has confessed to 11 murders

At the age of 25, Joan Vila Dilmé went to see a psychiatrist, obsessed with a "tremble in his hands." Obsessive behavior has plagued him for two decades. This porter from La Caritat, a nursing home in Olot (Gerona), told the doctor over and over that he was worried about how this tremble would affect others. According to him, he was even fired from his job as a waiter because of it.

But Vila's hands did not tremble when he forced at least three bedridden old women to drink caustic products. He did this during the week of October 12 to 17 to relieve them of their suffering, according to his confession. He was their caregiver. The initial forensics report says that the bodies of four individuals exhumed by court order "have evidence compatible with ingesting abrasive substances."

The killer had to be someone from the residence because it happened at night

"I put bleach in her mouth with a syringe. She didn't say anything"

Vila has confessed to murdering 11 elderly residents (nine women and two men) and has raised suspicion over another death. The killings took place over a 14 month period, as he told the judge. The death of Paquita Gironès on October 17 exposed the crimes of the Olot orderly. The 85-year-old Gironès was taken into Sant Jaume Hospital, in the city, despite Vila's reluctance: "You don't need to call an ambulance. She's dying."

There, the doctors noticed that the woman had burns on her respiratory tracts, esophagus and mouth. "After his shift was over, Vila went to the hospital to see how Mrs Gironès was doing," according to the inspection report from the Catalonian Department of Social Action and Citizenship.

After Gironès died, in terrible agony, the Catalan police opened an investigation. The doctors had alerted authorities that her death was not from natural causes. "We checked to make sure that she herself hadn't taken the poison accidentally or with suicidal intentions. But we immediately ruled out that theory when we learned that the woman was disabled," according to a source from the investigation. The killer had to be someone from the residence because it had happened at night, when the home keeps track of everyone who comes and goes.

The following day, the Catalan police interrogated around 20 employees from the hospital and the residence, including the orderly. The officers seized the tapes from the home's 28 security cameras as evidence. They showed Vila entering the cleaning closet at 8.43 pm and closing the door in a suspicious way. After a minute, he came out of the room and went down the hall to room 226, where Paquita Gironès was sleeping. Five minutes later, he appeared in the hallway once again and headed to a nearby restroom. A few seconds later, he can be seen walking towards the stairs. Ten minutes after that, a geriatric aide turned on the light before going to Gironès' room. There she found the woman, in agony. "She was on her side, with a faraway look in her eyes and her mouth half-open. Her tongue was a strange grayish color and she had a little bit of blood on her lip. I ran to get Joan Vila. He always knew what to do in cases like that," the employee, María Asunción, told the police.

All the evidence pointed to Vila. The orderly broke down and told the police that he had used a syringe to force the woman to ingest a cleaning product. The substance was found in a waste basket near the victim's room. Vila used GM6, an acidic descaling agent.

The next day, after finding out that an orderly from La Caritat had been arrested, Anna contacted the Catalan police. Her aunt, Sabina Masllorens, died five years before Paquita Gironès. Anna remembered the comment the owner of Sant Joan de Les Fonts mortuary, Gregoria Brunsó, had made to her: "Was your aunt wearing an oxygen mask when she died? She had strange purple marks on her face that we haven't even been able to hide with makeup." The man who had caused those marks had gone with his mother to the woman's wake to pay his respects to the family.

The police questioned Vila about Masllorens' death. The orderly confessed then and there to having killed her as well. "She was alone in her room, half asleep. I put bleach in her mouth with a syringe. She didn't say anything. She seemed to be suffocating. Then I called the nurse, Dolors Garcia, who said that she probably had internal bleeding. She died shortly after that."

Hours later, he confessed to the murder of Montserrat Guillamet. He killed her four days after murdering Masllorens and the day before the murder of Gironès. "I gave her bleach to drink in a plastic cup. I had to help her because she couldn't do it herself. I said, 'You'll feel better now, you'll see.' I thought I was helping her because she had lost her mind, she had vomiting spells and her body was rigid. I really felt sorry for her. She started coughing a lot, she was in agony, and it seemed like she wanted to throw up. I left and went to the cafeteria to serve dinner to other residents."

Before passing away in the Sant Jaume de Olot Hospital, surrounded by her relatives, in terrible pain, Guillamet tried to take off her oxygen mask several times. Her children wouldn't let her. Now they wonder if she was trying to tell them that Vila had forced her to drink bleach.

The Catalan police, the prosecutor Enrique Barata, and the judge of the Olot court that was trying the case, Leandro Blanco, were shocked. They were facing a possible serial killer with no clear motive. There had been no robberies or sexual assaults. Why would Vila exterminate the elderly people he was supposed to take care of? Why would he use such a cruel method? He says that he pitied them and wanted to relieve them of their suffering.

The court ordered the police to review all the deaths that had taken place in La Caritat since Vila had started working there in December 2005. Of the 59 individuals who died during that time, almost half of them, 27, passed away during Vila's shifts (weekends and holidays). This year, 12 of the 15 residents who have expired in the home did so while Vila was working. In 2009, five of the dozen deaths took place while he was on duty.

After analyzing the medical records of the residents who died this year, forensic examiners found eight suspicious cases. On November 19, the judge ordered the exhumation of their bodies. Vila ended up confessing, on November 30, that he had killed six of these eight individuals. He also admitted to murdering two of the elderly residents who had died in 2009. Days later, the judge ordered the exhumation of their bodies as well.

What was going through Vila's head? Why had he become an angel of death? People who know him don't get it. He was an ordinary adolescent. He lived in Castellfollit de la Roca, a town with a population of 1,000 in inland Gerona, with his parents, Encarnación and Ramón, modest people who worked at the local factory until it closed. Vila was an only child. At the age of 45 he still lived with his parents and was very close to his mother.

"Some kids were more self-assured and others were more withdrawn. Joan was of the latter sort," says a childhood friend of his, who asked to remain anonymous. "He was a very good person, shy and introverted. His voice was a little effeminate, but we never saw him show a preference for men or women. He never came out of the closet," she adds.

Back then, Vila was studying to be a hairdresser at a beauty school in Olot. In his free time, he would get together with local girls and practice on them. When the young people from town would go out in Olot, Vila didn't usually smoke or drink. "He was a very good-natured kid... I'm convinced that he's telling the truth when he says that he did it as an act of love. He didn't know where the limit was," says his old friend. As she sees it, Vila didn't have an easy adolescence. "He must have really had a hard time because his face was full of acne scars, and because he was confused about his sexuality. And then his dream of being a hairdresser didn't work out, either."

When he was 23 years old, Vila decided to open a beauty salon in Figueres, Tons Cabell-Moda. Before that he had done hair at another salon in Gerona, whose owner describes him as a young man who was "very demanding of himself." After working there for some time, he decided to quit. "He wanted to go to Barcelona to study and I thought it was a good idea," says his former colleague. When he got back to Gerona, he called her for advice about the business that he wanted to set up in Figueres. "I loaned him cosmetic products and helped him as much as I could." Eventually, the salon took off and Vila hired someone to give him a hand. "But two years later, he got sick of it and he closed the salon," says this woman. According to local rumors, Vila decided to close the salon, overwhelmed by an alleged scam.

At this point Vila, now 25 years old, became convinced that something was wrong with his head and decided to get help. On July 9, 1990, he went to see the psychiatrist Jordi Pujiula in Olot. He said that he had trouble retaining what he read and that he was afraid of crowds. Every month or two, he went back to see the doctor and told him about all his phobias and anxieties.

A few months later, the young man went into a tailspin. He became unstable and insecure, full of complexes because of his "homosexuality and effeminate nature." For the first time, Vila told the psychiatrist about an obsession that had been plaguing him for years: his hands supposedly trembled.

He felt lost, disoriented and caught up in a spiral of constant changes in his search for an unattainable balance in his life. Perhaps that explains why he started taking all kinds of classes, from cooking to massage to fashion design. In December 1994, he started studying to be a nurse's aide, but he ended up dropping out. This was the first time that Vila showed an interest in the world of medicine, where he would end up committing his crimes 16 years later.

But he still hadn't decided to devote his career to healthcare. First he enrolled in the Alt Empordà Hospitality School and started working all over the province, in restaurants and hotels from Roses to Olot. In his constant visits to the psychiatrist, Vila showed signs of anxiety, loss of control, insomnia, difficulty concentrating, lack of energy and asthenia. To fight it, he drank Coca-Cola, coffee, energy drinks and ginseng. He gobbled up chocolate and had a hard time controlling his weight. He ate compulsively and was worried about what other people thought of him. The tremble in his hands tortured him, and he was convinced that people around him noticed it.

In October 1999, a desperate Vila sought help from a new psychiatrist, Dr Josep Torrell Llauradó. Now 34 years old, he had panic attacks and very low self-esteem; he was easily influenced and obsessive. He had never been in a romantic relationship. During his many sessions with this doctor, often accompanied by his mother, the patient talked about his professional instability, although he admitted that he liked to go from job to job.

The following year he worked at a pizzeria in Empuriabrava, a housing development in the coastal town of Castelló d'Empúries. Vila frequented the area in the summer, where he has a 20-square-meter apartment in a giant 17-story building. There, unlike in the suffocating atmosphere of his hometown, he could show his true colors. A cook who worked with him remembers that he used to frequent a gay club in a nearby industrial park.

The tremble in his hands continued to obsess him. Over and over, he told Dr Torrell that his hands sweat and shake all the time. The psychiatrist prescribed tranquilizers to help him relax. Despite Vila's perception, people who know him say that they don't remember his hands ever trembling. But he was convinced they did; he even thought that he was fired from an Olot restaurant because the manager thought that he couldn't be a waiter if his hands trembled.

In May 2005, Vila had his first contact with the elderly. He was hired to work at El Mirador de Banyoles, a small private residence. Its director, Jaume Caules, never suspected anything untoward. The day Vila quit to take a job at La Caritat, Caules told him that he was welcome to come back whenever he wanted.

One of his colleagues remembers that he was the residents' favorite. "Juanito isn't here today?" they'd ask when Vila wasn't on duty. "When we'd all go home, he'd stay after his shift, ironing clothes so the residents would be smart the next day. He always said that he'd like to go to the Third World to help people. He was someone you could trust; one of us."

While working at La Caritat, he continued to have anxiety attacks. His obsession with the tremble in his hands lead him to seek treatment at an acupuncture center. He was still tired, depressed and had difficulty concentrating. For the first time ever Vila, the good kid who was always eager to help everybody, was irritable. He even got into a few arguments with his colleagues. These episodes of rage took place in the fall of 2009, after he had already murdered Rosa Babures and Francisca Matilde, according to the orderly's confession.

Vila, who first said that he killed three elderly residents with caustic products, then told the judge that with the rest of his victims, he used a cocktail of barbiturates (in six cases) and insulin injections (in two of them). The preliminarily forensic report suggests that this is a lie. In four of the eight suspicious deaths, there are indications that the individuals could have been poisoned by some kind of abrasive product.

One of the more recent crimes to which the orderly has confessed is the murder of 88-year-old Francisca Matilde Fiol, who died on October 19, 2009. The medical examiners still haven't determined the cause of her death. Her daughter, María Dolores, told the police that on that day, she noticed a clear, foul-smelling liquid coming out of her mother's mouth, which later turned thick and dark. Was it the poison that the orderly had used to kill the woman? Vila told the judge that he helped the woman die by giving her insulin when the two of them were alone in her room. She passed away hours later at Sant Jaume Hospital in Olot.

How could a man like Vila, a well-liked man who had been receiving psychiatric treatment for 20 years, become a serial killer, without anyone realizing that he was a time bomb? According to Vicente Garrido, a professor of criminology at the University of Valencia, "people like this feel a kind of imbalance, a turbulence that keeps them from leading a normal life, and they kill to regain control." Compulsion is a characteristic trait of serial killers, says Garrido. This, in his opinion, is compatible with the anxiety-depression disorder with obsessive tendencies that his psychiatrist diagnosed him with. "They're different from your conventional serial killer. These people are working when they kill. They might not do it otherwise. For them, the possibility of ending people's lives seems extremely easy," says Garrido. Their goal is "to gain control of their lives, to feel a sensation of domination, almost as if it were a drug."

The orderly's lawyer, Carles Monguilod, has asked the judge to have psychiatric experts examine his client. On December 2, the judge ordered two expert medical examiners to draw up a report to determine "his psycho-pathological state, possible personality disorders, any anomalies in the cognitive, volitive and/or affective areas and finally, a possible psychopathic profile" of the defendant. Meanwhile, the homicide unit is continuing its investigation as it waits for the contents of several pen drives and the two computers that were confiscated in Vila's home. They also took medical robes, shoes and other articles of clothing to determine if there are traces of toxic products on them. Depending on the results of the autopsies, the judge will decide whether or not to exhume more bodies.