clarksburg — When Reta Phylis Mays, a former nursing assistant at the Louis A. Johnson Veterans Affairs Medical Center, pleaded guilty in U.S. District Court on Tuesday to murdering seven resident veterans by injecting each with fatal doses of insulin, a criminal case of the highest magnitude was solved.
Mays, 46, confessed to seven counts of second-degree murder for the deaths of the veterans in her care. She also said she intended to murder an eighth veteran in a similar manner, who initially survived only to die two weeks later from complications associated with severe hypoglycemia, or low blood sugar level.
All eight veterans died from Mays’ intentional administration of unnecessary insulin shots.
Mays admitted she was responsible for killing the following veterans: Robert Edge Sr., 82, of Lumberport; Archie Edgell, 84, of Centerpoint; Raymond Golden, 88, of Alum Bridge; Robert Kozul, 89, of Fairmont; Felix McDermott, 82, of Ellenboro; George Shaw, 81, of Wallace; W.A.H., whose family has requested anonymity. She also pleaded guilty for attempting to murder veteran R.R.P., whose family also requested his name not be made public. He died two weeks after being injected with insulin and suffering a hypoglycemic event.
“Though we can’t bring these men back because of her evil acts, we hope the conclusion of the investigation and the guilty plea helps ease the pain of the victims’ families,” said U.S. Attorney Bill Powell of the Northern District of West Virginia.
Powell oversaw the criminal case that led to Mays’ confession. With Mays in custody and awaiting a sentence that will surely put her behind bars for the rest of her life, attention now turns to the VA Medical Center itself and how a relatively low-level employee was empowered with the ability to become a serial killer.
Attorney Tony O’Dell, a partner with Tiano O’Dell, a Charleston-based law firm specializing in personal injury and medical malpractice, is representing the families of several of Mays’ victims. O’Dell has filed civil lawsuits against the Louis A. Johnson VA Medical Center on behalf of several victims’ estates.
“The criminal proceedings were about the accountability of the criminal defendant, Reta Mays. But all the civil cases are about the accountability of the hospital that allowed this woman to do what she did for as long as she did,” O’Dell said.
O’Dell said there was a “tremendous amount of system failures at this hospital” that allowed Mays to conduct a two-year killing spree within its walls.
One of the most glaring failures, according to O’Dell, was Mays’ easy access to the insulin she used to commit each murder.
“The Office of the Inspector General said during the press conference they’re looking into the medication management policies and communication at the hospital,” O’Dell said, noting that insulin was not secured in any way.
“One of the reasons they’re looking into medication management is because (the hospital) had insulin on carts on that floor and it was accessible to anyone, including Reta Mays, who should not have had access to any type of injectable medications because she was not competent to give medications and was not allowed under law,” O’Dell said.
Beyond the easy accessibility of injectable insulin, O’Dell said the Clarksburg VA Medical Center failed to properly investigate the deaths of the veterans.
“This hospital has a history of not identifying their simple events. A ‘simple event’ is when there’s an unexplained death or an untoward event that occurs in a hospital that requires a root-cause investigation. If you do a root-cause investigation, you usually figure out why something happened,” O’Dell said.
O’Dell said the manner in which most of the veterans died should have easily raised eyebrows among the hospital’s administration.
“Most of these victims were not diabetics and were not receiving insulin. Then all of a sudden, they end up with an inexplicable blood sugar of 12 or 17 or 22 or whatever. And no one bothered to try to figure out how that happened,” he said. “That’s incompetence and a total lack of caring. Because if they had looked into it, they would have figured out very quickly that there’s only one explanation.”
Another complaint of O’Dell’s is the lack of autopsies conducted on elderly but relatively healthy veterans who died suddenly while in the hospital’s care.
“Under West Virginia law, and its policies and procedures, each one of these deaths should have triggered an autopsy. Someone looking into it could have said, ‘Hey, there’s a severe, unexplained hypoglycemic event and then a death. How did that happen?’” O’Dell said.
If medical examiners are brought in to perform autopsies on patients who suffered unexplained deaths, the examiners could look for a particular cause during the autopsy.
“That didn’t happen in any of these cases,” said O’Dell.
The bodies of two murdered veterans had to be exhumed for examination.
“Because none of those things happened, this woman continued to kill people for we don’t really know how long,” O’Dell said. “We knew she was working on that floor long before July of 2017, when she killed Mr. Edge. Were there murders before then? We don’t know.”
O’Dell said the same hospital administration personnel who were in charge of the medical center during Mays’ murder spree remain at the helm today.
“The same people who allowed all this stuff to happen are still in charge up there. Nothing has been done to them that we’re aware of,” he said. “We’ve gotten so many calls from so many people whose loved ones died at the Clarksburg VA. We know there’s got to be more cases. We believe there were a lot more deaths than those prosecuted. Bill Powell’s office, we can say without a doubt, cherry-picked the easy cases.”
The murders and attempted murder occurred between July 2017 and June 2018. Mays worked at the VA Medical Center from June 2015 through July 2018.
Mays worked the night shift, from 7:30 p.m. to 8 a.m., in the center’s surgical unit, referred to as Ward 3A, during the period of time when each of the veterans died of hypoglycemia. The ward typically houses many patients with diabetes. Mays has not disclosed a motive for the murders she committed.
May faces up to life in prison for each count of second-degree murder, as well as 20 years in prison for the assault with intent to commit murder charge. U.S. Attorney Powell said his office will seek the maximum penalty.
When contacted for comment, the Louis A. Johnson VA Medical Center did not respond.