Ex-em­ployee pleads guilty in 7 VA deaths

Nurs­ing as­sis­tant gave vets lethal in­sulin doses

USA TODAY US Edition - - FRONT PAGE - Kris­tine Phillips

WASH­ING­TON – A for­mer nurs­ing as­sis­tant pleaded guilty Tues­day to fed­eral mur­der charges in con­nec­tion with a string of in­sulin deaths at a vet­er­ans hospi­tal in West Vir­ginia.

Fed­eral pros­e­cu­tors say Reta Mays in­jected lethal doses of in­sulin into eight vet­er­ans at the Louis A. John­son VA Med­i­cal Cen­ter in ru­ral Clarks­burg, caus­ing their blood sugar lev­els to drop to dan­ger­ously low lev­els. Seven died shortly af­ter.

The 46-year-old was charged with seven counts of sec­ond-de­gree mur­der and one count of as­sault with in­tent to com­mit mur­der, ac­cord­ing to charg­ing doc­u­ments un­sealed Tues­day. She faces life im­pris­on­ment. Her at­tor­neys did not re­spond to re­quests for com­ment.

“Noth­ing we have done will bring your loved ones back,” Bill Pow­ell, U.S. at­tor­ney in West Vir­ginia, said at a press con­fer­ence. “But we do hope that the work of these agents and pros­e­cu­tors hon­ored the mem­ory of your loved ones in a way that they so justly de­served and, in some small fash­ion, as­suage the an­guish you

have suf­fered.”

The de­vel­op­ment comes two years af­ter a crim­i­nal in­ves­ti­ga­tion into sus­pi­cious deaths of 10 vet­er­ans at the hospi­tal be­gan. All pa­tients were el­derly vet­er­ans stay­ing in the hospi­tal’s sur­gi­cal unit, known as Ward 3A. All suf­fered un­ex­plained drops in their blood sugar lev­els.

Mays be­gan work­ing at the hospi­tal five years ago and was as­signed to work the night shift in Ward 3A. As a nurs­ing as­sis­tant, Mays was re­spon­si­ble for, among other things, act­ing as a oneon-one sit­ter for pa­tients, check­ing vi­tal signs and test­ing blood sugar lev­els, but she was not qual­i­fied to ad­min­is­ter med­i­ca­tion, in­clud­ing in­sulin.

Her mo­tive re­mains un­clear. USA TODAY re­ported in Oc­to­ber that hospi­tal staff missed op­por­tu­ni­ties to fig­ure out what was hap­pen­ing, which may have risked vet­er­ans’ lives and lim­ited ev­i­dence in the probe. The hospi­tal didn’t ad­e­quately track in­sulin, and there were no sur­veil­lance cam­eras on the ward, ac­cord­ing to em­ploy­ees.

By the time a doc­tor alerted hospi­tal su­per­vi­sors of the deaths in June 2018, at least eight pa­tients had died un­der sus­pi­cious cir­cum­stances. Sev­eral had been em­balmed and buried, de­stroy­ing po­ten­tial ev­i­dence. One vet­eran had been cre­mated. Many of the bod­ies had to be ex­humed for a med­i­cal ex­am­iner to per­form au­top­sies.

Mays ap­peared in court for a plea hear­ing Tues­day, re­peat­edly say­ing

“Yes, sir” to the judge’s ques­tions, in­clud­ing whether she un­der­stood the terms of her plea deal. At times, her body shook and her voice trem­bled be­neath the white mask she was wear­ing.

Michael Missal, in­spec­tor gen­eral for the Depart­ment of Vet­eran Af­fairs, said his agency is con­duct­ing an in­ves­ti­ga­tion of the hospi­tal’s poli­cies and pro­ce­dures.

Missal said in­ves­ti­ga­tors iden­ti­fied Mays as a per­son of interest shortly af­ter of­fi­cials were no­ti­fied of the sus­pi­cious deaths in 2018. She was fired in July of that year.

Pow­ell, the U.S. at­tor­ney, said Mays de­nied wrong­do­ing un­til re­cently, when she re­al­ized the mount­ing ev­i­dence against her.

Felix Kirk Mc­Der­mott, 82, and Ge­orge Nelson Shaw Sr., 81, died in April 2018. The Army Forces med­i­cal ex­am­iner ruled that both men died by homi­cide by in­sulin in­jec­tion.

The other vic­tims are Archie Edgell, 84; Robert Edge Sr., 82; Robert Kozul, 89; Ray­mond Golden, 88; and one iden­ti­fied in charg­ing doc­u­ments as W.A.H. USA TODAY re­ported last year that Wil­liam Al­fred Hol­loway, 96, died af­ter suf­fer­ing from se­vere hy­po­glycemia, a con­di­tion in which blood sugar lev­els plum­met.

Some of the deaths were ruled “un­de­ter­mined.”

Court records say Mays in­jected an­other vet­eran, iden­ti­fied in records as R.R.P., with in­sulin, al­though his blood sugar lev­els sta­bi­lized. The man, 92, died two weeks later, but the med­i­cal ex­am­iner was un­able to tie his death to the in­jec­tion.

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