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Her dad died at the hands of a serial killer in Cincinnati. Now, she wants others to learn more about his life

Holly Brians Ragusa and mom
Posted at 10:39 PM, Dec 22, 2022

CINCINNATI — A teenaged Holly Brians Ragusa would write consistently in her journal, but there is a year or more span when the words just wouldn't come. At least, not until she addressed a letter 'To my dad's killer.'

"I wrote ... promising that I would dig into this story to better understand everything involved with it," she said. "And I had to reconcile the fact that his actions were what they were and I could only change myself."

Brians Ragusa's new book, published in November, is that promise fulfilled. It's called "Met the End" and details a teenager's trauma and search for understanding and the truth. She calls it a true-crime survival memoir.

"I think the impetus behind writing this story was to remember all that he was and that he isn't often remembered in this story," she said. "He saved lives by his death and — by the nose of a coroner, he literally stopped the deaths of other people."

Donald Harvey ultimately pleaded guilty to killing her dad, John Powell, in 1987. He would confess to killing at least 36 others who were, in some way, in his care. He became the Cincinnati serial killer called the "Angel of Death."

"My dad was cool," Brians Ragusa said. "He rode motorcycles, he had a bevy of friends who would go camping on weekends and go to the Daytona Bike Show once a year."

John Powell
John Powell before his death in 1987. Provided.

Powell grew up in Sedamsville and was raising his family in Delhi Hills. He was a plumber and welder for General Electric. But he suffered brain injuries in a motorcycle accident the year prior and was recovering at the then-county-owned Drake Memorial Hospital. He was in ward B100, under the care of an orderly named Donald Harvey.

"I remember just being at dad’s side, reading to him talking to him and rubbing his hand, and I remember thinking he wasn’t going to make it — that was an overriding thought," she said. "And then he did."

Her dad was improving well, moving and acknowledging them, and they were even preparing for him to come home to continue his recovery.

"He was wheeling himself around Drake Hospital," she said. "They called him their miracle patient."

Drake employees at the time told WCPO Powell was their "pride and joy, he was like our baby."

But, he kept getting sick with what appeared to be respiratory problems. He'd be moved to University Hospital, recover, return to Drake, and backslide again.

As much as his death was a surprise, Brians Ragusa said, it was also a relief from his pain.

"[This was] a man who cried two days before he died, knowing he was going," she said. "Nobody knew why he was going and he couldn’t tell us."

Some Drake employees raised concerns about the number of deaths happening in that ward that year as patients who were no longer critically sick were dying.

Cincy's notorious 'Angel of Death' hospitalized

Donald Harvey, called the "Angel of Death," pleaded guilty to poisoning 24 patients at Cincinnati's Drake Hospital between 1986 and 1987.

But it took John Powell's autopsy to spot a serial killer. The coroner conducting the autopsy noticed a white liquid in Powell's stomach and smelled cyanide — something not everyone's nose can pick up. That launched an investigation leading to Harvey, who initially confessed to a 'mercy killing.'

"To find out that one of them was responsible and later to find out that all of them were ultimately complicit, let's just say trust in the medical system was a struggle after that," Brians Ragusa said.

A WCPO investigation into Powell's death and questions about death rates reopened a criminal investigation, leading to Harvey's arrest and prosecution.

That kind of tragedy and pain caused rifts in Brians Ragusa's family and trauma for her. Her family endured relentless questioning and, ultimately, a trial they sat through, which Brians Ragusa said still sticks with her. So does that turbulent teenage year or two.

She writes in her book:

During my 15th and 16th years, as I struggled to make sense of what had happened, avoidance was an easier choice but it made me easy to upset and quick to anger and turmoil boiled beneath my surface for months, eating me through the holidays.
Holly Brians Ragusa

"I remember so many feelings at once," she said. "There's no justice served after a murder, there's accountability and even then, that's not enough."

Harvey died after he was beaten in prison in 2017. It's what sparked Brians Ragusa's desire to write the book and tell her story — a nearly five-year process.

Met the End book
Holly Brians Ragusa wrote 'Met the End' to honor the memory of her father, John Powell, and share her experience as a true crime survivor.

Her book is as much about her life as it is about her father's life. It deals with other personal trauma and struggle. And themes of survival. In it, Brians Ragusa highlights the local organization Parents of Murdered Children, which helped her heal.

"I will look for this story to do some good," she said. "It certainly has done some good for me."

"Met the End" is available for purchase now. Downtown's Mercantile Library is hosting an event with Holly Brians Ragusa on Jan. 19.

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