Former VA medical staffer pleads guilty to murdering 7 veterans with lethal insulin injections

Abbie Bennett
July 14, 2020 - 11:56 am
Authorities are investigating a string of about 10 suspicious deaths of patients, including one ruled a homicide, at a Veterans Affairs hospital in Clarksburg, West Virginia.

Jack Gruber, USA TODAY

This story originally published July 14, 2020 at 11:46 a.m. EST. It was updated at 2:17 p.m. and 2:44 p.m.

Former Department of Veterans Affairs nursing assistant Reta Mays pleaded guilty Tuesday to seven counts of second-degree murder of veteran patients at the VA hospital where she worked in West Virginia.

She faces seven life sentences, among other punishments. 

Mays, who worked at the Louis A. Johnson VA Medical Center in Clarksburg, admitted in federal court Tuesday to killing at least seven veteran patients by injecting them with lethal doses of insulin. Mays also admitted to assault with intent to commit murder of an eighth veteran patient at the VA hospital. 

On Tuesday, Mays entered a guilty plea on all eight charges against her as part of a plea deal and waived her right to a grand jury trial. Her attorneys said they were not aware of any "viable defenses" for Mays. The plea agreement included seven life sentences for the murder charges. along with a 20-year sentence for the eighth charge and a $500,000 fine.

District Judge Thomas S. Kleeh accepted Mays' guilty plea. Sentencing will be held at a later date. 

At least 26 family members of the victims were present in the courtroom to hear Mays' plea, and more watch the proceeding via Zoom, prosecutors said. The prosecution asked for timely sentencing, since some victims' families are in poor health, including the one victim's widow and one victim's son who are both undergoing cancer treatment.

The next status update is scheduled for October 30, when a sentencing date will likely be set. 

Her motive in the killings, the total number of victims and whether VA could have interceded earlier in the yearlong streak of serial murders, remains unknown. Mays, 45, told the judge when asked, that she is taking medication for post-traumatic stress disorder prescribed to her by VA.

Mays, an Army veteran, was hired by VA in June 2015 and at the time, the Clarksburg VA did not require nursing assistants to have a certification or license. Nursing assistants like Mays were responsible for measuring patient vital signs, documenting patient intake and output, testing patient blood glucose levels and sitting with patients who required close observation. 

Mays specifically was not "qualified or authorized" to administer any medication, including insulin, according to recently unsealed court documents.

Mays worked the night shift, 7:30 p.m. to 8 a.m. in the medical-surgical unit of the hospital. That ward of the hospital housed patients who weren't ready to be discharged but didn't require intensive care. At the time, a number of the patients in that ward had diabetes.

In June 2018, three years after Mays was hired, a doctor at the hospital reported to hospital leadership that they were concerned about the deaths of patients who "suffered unexplained hypoglycemic episodes" in the ward where Mays worked, including "the deaths of multiple non-diabetic patients." Hypoglycemia is a condition linked to a surplus of insulin. 

The hospital launched an investigation. By July 2018, the hospital had "removed" Mays "from a position of patient care," the court documents said. Clarksburg VA spokesman Wesley Walls told Connecting Vets Mays was fired. 

Now, she's admitted guilt in seven deaths and one assault with intent to kill, for "willfully, deliberately, maliciously and with malice" administering insulin, the court documents say. 

In each of the cases, Mays admitted to injecting the patients with insulin, leading to hypoglycemia. Four of the veterans were diabetic and four were not. For the four veterans who were diabetic, two were not prescribed any insulin during their hospital stays, but Mays still injected them. The two who were diabetic were injected with too much insulin, court documents said. 

The attacks happened between July 2017 and June 2018, according to the court documents. 

That investigation, followed by outcry from victims' families and civil lawsuits, led to the charges filed Monday and subsequent plea deal, authorities said. 

U.S. District Attorney Bill Powell told reporters of an "exhaustive investigation" and said he believed the guilty plea "is a just outcome for all the victims." 

Motive for the killings is still unknown.

"I don't know what her motivation was," Powell said. "She denied it for a long time." Powell said he expects to learn more about Mays' motive during sentencing. 

Powell listed the veterans Mays killed or attempted to kill: 

  • Navy veteran Robert Edge Sr., 82; 
  • Army Korean War veteran Robert Kozul, 89, who served in the 11th Airborne;
  • Army Korean War veteran Archie Edgell, 84, who served as part of the Army band; 
  • Highly decorated Air Force Korean and Vietnam-era veteran George Shaw, 81; 
  • Army Vietnam-era veteran Felix McDermott, 86, who retired from the Pennsylvania National Guard after more than 20 years of military service;
  • Army and Air Force veteran Raymond Golden, 88, who served in Vietnam, Panama and the Philippines;
  • A 96-year-old Army World War II veteran identified only by his initials;
  • A 92-year-old World War II Navy veteran also only identified by his initials, R.R.P. The eighth patient, who Mays pleaded guilty to assaulting with intent to murder, died two weeks after the injection.

Previously, a federal grand jury was presented evidence in at least 11 suspicious deaths at the VA hospital, but Powell said Tuesday the prosecution brought charges for all the deaths they believed they had sufficient evidence to link to Mays and he does not expect any more charges, though he added that could change. 

Veterans Affairs Inspector General Michael Missal said his office would take up an inspection of the hospital that was delayed during the criminal investigation, which will look into medication management and staff communication. 

"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," VA spokesman Wesley Walls said. 

Mays told the judge, when asked, that VA prescribed her medication for PTSD in recent weeks. 

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

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

Reach Abbie Bennett: abbie@connectingvets.com or @AbbieRBennett.

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