A former nursing assistant at the Louis A. Johnson Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Clarksburg, West Virginia, pleaded guilty Tuesday to the murders of seven veteran patients and an attempt to kill an eighth at the facility.
Reta Mays, 46, worked the night shift at the medical center's medical surgical award and was accused of injecting seven patients with fatal doses of insulin, in addition to being charged with intending to kill an eighth by the same method between 2017 and 2018.
She entered a guilty plea on all eight charges in federal district court and waived her right to a grand jury trial, affirming with a tearful voice to District Judge Thomas Kleeh that she was of sound mind in admitting her guilt.
Her plea bargain includes seven life sentences for the murder charges, a 20-year sentence for the charge of assault with intent to commit murder, and a $500,000 fine.
At least 26 family members of the victims were present in the courtroom Tuesday for the proceedings, which also were broadcast via Zoom. Defense attorneys requested time before sentencing to "develop mitigating evidence," meaning they will investigate possible reasons for Mays to have committed the crimes -- circumstances that might draw a lesser sentence.
Mays, an Army veteran, told the judge she is taking medication for post-traumatic stress disorder.
According to court documents, a doctor at the hospital alerted supervisors to the suspicious deaths, all of which involved "unexplained hypoglycemic episodes" in patients with no or minimal history of diabetes.
Mays' job was to take vital signs, including monitoring patients' blood glucose levels, and to sit with patients overnight. But according to court documents, she "willfully" and "maliciously" injected insulin into patients who either did not have diabetes or have an insulin prescription.
She was not authorized to administer insulin. Nor was she a credentialed nursing assistant. At the time of her hiring, the Clarksburg VA facility did not require nursing assistants to have a certificate or licensure as a condition of hiring or continued employment. According to court documents, Mays is a former West Virginia corrections officer who was eventually fired by the VA for lying on her resume, saying she was a certified nursing assistant.
The rapid turnaround of the dramatic case follows nearly two years of investigations by the U.S. Justice Department and the Department of Veterans Affairs' Office of Inspector General, and several lawsuits filed by the families of victims against the VA.
Melanie Proctor, daughter of former Army Sgt. Felix Kirk McDermott, filed a lawsuit against the VA in March over the death of her 82-year-old father. In April, Norma Shaw, widow of Air Force veteran George Nelson Shaw, also filed a wrongful death suit, alleging that a "widespread system of failures" at the hospital contributed to the 81-year-old's death.
In June, the children of John William Hallman, 87, filed a federal lawsuit seeking unspecified damages for Hallman's June 2018 death.
Prosecutors had said they were investigating up to 11 suspicious deaths at the facility.
VA Secretary Robert Wilkie repeatedly called for the VA Office of Inspector General to release results of the investigation last year, while Sen. Joe Manchin, D-West Virginia, pressed for answers from Attorney General William Barr on the case, saying the delay was tortuous to the families, some of whose loved ones were exhumed during the investigation.
In a statement Tuesday, Manchin said the charges were overdue but he hoped the announcement would bring "some semblance of peace to the hearts" of the victims' families, as well as those "who are still uncertain about the fate of their veterans."
"As a member of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, I will not stop until we determine how this could have happened, and ensure it never happens again. Our veterans deserve world-class care, and their families deserve peace of mind at every step of the way," Manchin said.
According to court documents, the victims who died, in addition to McDermott, Shaw and Hallman, were:
- Navy veteran Robert Edge, 82
- Army veteran Robert Kozul, 89
- Army veteran Archie Edgell, 84
- Army and Air Force veteran Raymond Golden, 88
The veteran who initially survived the attack and died two weeks after receiving the injection was a 92-year-old Navy World War II veteran, identified by his initials, R.R.P.
Sen. Shelley Capito, D-West Virginia, called the situation at the Clarksburg VA "sickening and deeply troubling."
"It is unacceptable in any setting. My heart breaks for the families of these veterans, and I know I speak for all West Virginians when I say that we are astounded that something like this could happen," Capito said in a statement.
Wesley Walls, chief of public affairs at the Louis A. Johnson VA Medical Center, pointed out that Mays had been fired by the VA, and its inspector general investigated the case for more than two years.
"Our hearts go out to those affected by these tragic deaths," Walls said. "We're glad the Department of Justice stepped in to push this investigation across the finish line and hopeful our court system will deliver the justice Clarksburg-area veterans and families deserve."