Federal grand jury presented evidence in case of suspicious deaths of 11 veterans at West Virginia VA

Elizabeth Howe
January 31, 2020 - 10:16 am
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Federal prosecutors have begun presenting evidence to a grand jury regarding eleven suspicious veteran deaths at a West Virginia Veterans Affairs medical center. This comes more than a year and a half after the investigation into the deaths was originally launched. 

Vietnam veteran Felix McDermott a retired Army sergeant with 20 years of active duty service, was admitted to the Louis A. Johnson VA Medical Center in Clarksburg, West Virginia in early April 2018 with pneumonia, according to a lawsuit filed by McDermott's family. His condition improved during his initial stay. Three days later, he died of hypoglycemia, also known as low blood sugar. McDermott was buried four days later. Hospital employees offered no explanation to the family.

This veteran's death at a VA hospital was ruled a homicide — and there could be ten more 

An investigation was launched by the Office of the Inspector General in June of 2018 when doctors from the medical center came forward reporting — at the time — eight cases of severe blood sugar drops without medical causes similar to McDermott's. All eight of the similar blood sugar drops were fatal.

The investigation revealed not eight, but 11 similarly suspicious deaths at the facility. 

Families continue to come forward after suspicious veteran deaths at West Virginia VA

The families of at least four of those veterans came forward seeking answers about the deaths of their loved ones in the months following the investigation. In October of last year, a lawsuit was officially filed. 

Attorney Tony O'Dell — who is also representing several other families who were notified that their veteran family member died suspiciously — filed the notice on behalf of John William Hallman. According to the notice, Hallman received a shot of insulin “he did not need and for which no medical order was placed." The injection resulted in a fatal blood sugar spike. 

Now, evidence for this lawsuit and all other cases of suspicious death at the facility is coming to light through the OIG investigation. Collaboration between the OIG and federal criminal prosecutors is not uncommon when serious allegations such as murder are being considered, but the calling of a grand jury does indicate a significant step forward in the investigation.  

The federal prosecution is focusing on a person of interest, according to U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and O'Dell.

The notice filed with O'Dell's original lawsuit read that a VAMC assistant had “documented involvement during the hospitalization while critically low levels of glucose were recorded.” VA has stated that the person is no longer working at the facility. An anonymous source told the Washington Post that the former female nursing assistant in question worked an overnight shift. All the veterans who died under these suspicious circumstances were patients on the same floor of the facility. 

Deaths at West Virginia VA hospital all happened on Floor 3A, attorney says

“They weren’t terminal and all of a sudden they took a turn for the worse, and their blood sugars show this dramatic decrease," O'Dell said. "There's clearly a pattern that goes with it."

The incident and investigation have garnered the attention of VA officials and members of Congress. In August, VA Secretary Robert Wilkie demanded answers from VA Inspector General Michael Missal. 

"I'm asking that he finally end his investigation so we can get the answers that these families deserve," Wilkie said in August of 2019. "It looks to me like they've been the victims of a crime, but we haven't received those conclusions from the criminal authorities."

Wilkie wants answers in light of homicide investigation at WV VA hospital

"This report is shocking and if accurate, I am appalled that these crimes were not only committed but that our veterans, who have sacrificed so much for our country, were the victims," Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W. Va, said the same month. "As a member of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee I will do everything in my power to investigate these accusations and get to the bottom of what happened. These families and loved ones deserve answers as soon as possible and I will make sure they get them."

Just this week, Manchin spoke out again on the issue at a Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee hearing. 

“It’s unbelievable,” Manchin said. “It has been a year and a half, and nothing has been done. We have a suspected person, but not one arrest has been made. I can’t get information out of the VA or the prosecutor's office."

The grand jury in West Virginia could continue to meet and review evidence for weeks or months, those close to the matter told the Washington Post. 

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