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Army veteran VA nursing assistant pleads guilty to 7 veterans’ murders

Louis A. Johnson VA Medical Center in Clarksburg, WV. (Veterans Health/Flickr)

A former Veterans Affairs nursing assistant on Tuesday pleaded guilty to murdering seven veterans at the Clarksburg VA medical center by giving them lethal doses of insulin and attempting to murder an eighth, ending a 2-year-old case that roiled this small town where the VA is one of the largest employers.

The former nursing assistant, Reta Mays, 46 — herself an Army National Guard veteran who served in a noncombat position in Iraq and Afghanistan — was spared the death penalty with her plea and may spend the rest of her life in prison, depending on a judge’s final sentencing decision. Mays of Harrison County, W.Va., pleaded guilty on seven counts of second-degree murder and a count of assault with intent to commit murder.

Ensuring Mays spent the rest of her life in prison was something the eight victims’ families — the eighth victim also died, but the cause of death could not be directly linked to Mays’ actions — all agreed was better than going through a jury trial and pursuing the death penalty, according to Bill Powell, the U.S. attorney for the Northern District of West Virginia, who prosecuted the case.

“The victims’ families had to be on board with the plea,” Mr. Powell said Tuesday in a press conference after Mays’ guilty plea in federal court. “They were uniformly clear that life in prison and a much more expeditious path toward a conclusion of the case were extremely important factors to them.”

Mays’ defense attorneys did not respond to email messages sent to them Tuesday.

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Mays’ crimes were horrific, said Doug Olson, assistant special agent in charge of the Pittsburgh FBI office, which investigated the case, because “these veterans and their families put their trust in this nursing assistant.”

“She betrayed that trust and decided to pick and choose who lived and who died,” Mr. Olson said.

Though she was never publicly named prior to Tuesday, nearly every adult in town seemed to know for most of the past two years that Mays was the suspect.

But what no one has yet heard is why she did what she did, though FBI investigators asked multiple times.

“There was no satisfactory response to any question like that she was ever given,” Mr. Powell said.

“She denied it for a long time until most recently when she finally recognized, I think, the strength of our case, had consultations with counsel, decided the jig was up and the plea was ready,” Mr. Powell said.

Mays said nothing about her motivation in court, though she did tell the judge that she had been taking medication for PTSD for the past three weeks. She did not explain what the PTSD was from.

The length of the case had caused anguish for families, many of whom told reporters that they had suspected their loved one’s death was suspicious long before they got knocks at their doors by FBI agents a year or more after the deaths.

But Mr. Olson said, as he and his investigators tried to explain to families, this was an incredibly complicated case that, minus a guilty plea, would have to be proved through circumstantial evidence because there were no cameras in the Louis A. Johnson VA Medical Center in Clarksburg that would show definitively that Mays injected the eight men with insulin.

Proving that circumstantial case was difficult and among the most complex the FBI and U.S. attorneys office said they had ever encountered.

Mr. Olson said more than 250 interviews were conducted, hundreds of pieces of evidence had to be sent to the FBI’s lab in Quantico, Va., and international medical experts had to be consulted, with thousands of pages of medical records reviewed for many more than the eight men who were named as victims in the case.

“I can tell you that doesn’t happen overnight,” he said.

Mr. Powell said there were dozens of veterans’ deaths that were evaluated for possible inclusion in the case against Mays, either because their families called to have their deaths evaluated or they were already considered suspicious.

Beyond the eight cases Mays pleaded guilty to, there were others that “were close” to being included, “but couldn’t be proven beyond a reasonable doubt,” Mr. Powell said.

Mays worked as a nursing assistant in the hospital’s medical-surgical unit known as 3A from June 2015 to July 2018, when she was removed from patient care and fired a year later.

The call that first raised the fear that veterans were dying suspiciously in 3A came to the VA’s Office of Inspector General’s hotline in late June 2018.

A doctor there had noticed some veterans had died after hypoglycemic events that did not seem to make sense given their conditions and medications they were on.

Within a day, the OIG had a team sent to Clarksburg.

“And within days they had identified Reta Mays as a person of interest,” said the VA’s Inspector General Michael Missal.

“Working with the facility, we had [Mays] removed from the patient care area immediately,” Mr. Missal said. “That act alone may have saved countless lives.”

Mr. Missal said his office will now finish an inspection of the Johnson VA Medical Center to look into whether the VA’s protocols were followed in the events that led to the eight men’s deaths, whether medicine management rules were followed, and whether communication in the hospital was proper. The report will be made public, he said.

“We’re looking at the care of the veterans and the question of who knew what and when” about the men’s deaths and what may have led to them, he said.

According to the case information that Mays pleaded guilty to in U.S. District Court in Clarksburg on Tuesday afternoon, the first death occurred July 20, 2017, when Robert Edge Sr., 82, a Navy veteran, died.

The next death did not happen until Jan. 29, 2018, when Robert Kozul, 89, an Army veteran, died.

But then four more deaths occurred in little more than two weeks between March 24 and April 9: Archie Edgell, 84, an Army veteran on March 24; George Shaw, 81, an Air Force veteran on March 26; a 96-year-old Army World War II veteran identified only by his initials W.A.H. on April 4; and Felix McDermott, 82, an Army veteran from Ruffs Dale, Westmoreland County, on April 9.

Then June 4, Raymond Golden, an Army and Air Force veteran, died. And on June 18, a 92-year-old Navy World War II veteran identified only as R.R.P. was assaulted by Mays injecting him with insulin. He died about two weeks later, though his death could not be connected directly to Mays’ injection of insulin.

Though some victims’ families were frustrated by what seemed like a case that was taking too long, Mr. Powell explained that even though it was known the victims had had hypoglycemic episodes when they died “there are multiple medical causes for hypoglycemia.”

“Certain physical conditions cause hypoglycemia. There’s a whole myriad of possible causes of hypoglycemia for patients who are sick and taking other medications,” he said. “So you have to rule all those out.”

“In and of itself, the fact that someone had a hypoglycemic event doesn’t mean they were injected with insulin,” he said. “It could be explained by other means.”

Mr. Powell said that over the past few months he has visited with each of the victims’ families, either at their homes — most of them live not far from Clarksburg — in his office or by phone, to talk about the plea agreement he was proposing.

He said that over a week ago he gave Mays’ attorneys a copy of the plea agreement and a deadline of July 13. He was told last week that she was going to sign the agreement, but that was not completed until Saturday, July 11.

Getting that plea agreement signed was the first time Mays had ever admitted any part in the men’s deaths, Mr. Powell said.

Though motivation is not an element of a crime that prosecutors have to prove, Mr. Powell said: “I expect we’ll hear more about that at sentencing when she attempts to mitigate her conduct.”

Mr. Olson said he hopes the work it took to get a guilty plea helps the families, given the circumstances.

“It’s beyond disturbing that someone would seek out an opportunity to work in the health care field to aid the sick and twist their duty and willingly end the life of their patients,” he said. “We hope this outcome can give them some peace and perhaps some level of closure.”

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© 2020 the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette