WASHINGTON – A former nursing assistant pleaded guilty Tuesday to federal murder charges in connection with a string of insulin deaths at a veterans hospital in West Virginia.
Federal prosecutors say Reta Mays injected lethal doses of insulin into eight veterans at the Louis A. Johnson VA Medical Center in rural Clarksburg, causing their blood sugar levels to drop to dangerously low levels. Seven died shortly after.
The 46-year-old was charged with seven counts of second-degree murder and one count of assault with intent to commit murder, according to charging documents unsealed Tuesday. She faces life imprisonment. Her attorneys did not respond to requests for comment.
"Nothing we have done will bring your loved ones back," Bill Powell, U.S. attorney in West Virginia, said at a press conference. "But we do hope that the work of these agents and prosecutors honored the memory of your loved ones in a way that they so justly deserved and, in some small fashion, assuage the anguish you have suffered."
The deaths gripped Clarksburg, where several war memorials honoring veterans stood at the center of town.
The development comes two years after a criminal investigation into suspicious deaths of 10 veterans at the hospital began. All patients were elderly veterans staying in the hospital's surgical unit, known as Ward 3A. All suffered unexplained drops in their blood sugar levels.
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Mays began working at the hospital five years ago and was assigned to work the night shift in Ward 3A. As a nursing assistant, Mays was responsible for, among other things, acting as a one-on-one sitter for patients, checking vital signs and testing blood sugar levels, but she was not qualified to administer medication, including insulin.
Her motive remains unclear.
USA TODAY reported in October that hospital staff missed opportunities to figure out what was happening, which may have risked veterans' lives and limited evidence in the probe. The hospital didn't adequately track insulin, and there were no surveillance cameras on the ward, according to employees.
By the time a doctor alerted hospital supervisors of the deaths in June 2018, at least eight patients had died under suspicious circumstances. Several had been embalmed and buried, destroying potential evidence. One veteran had been cremated. Many of the bodies had to be exhumed for a medical examiner to perform autopsies.
Mays appeared in court for a plea hearing Tuesday, repeatedly saying "Yes, sir" to the judge's questions, including whether she understood the terms of her plea deal. At times, her body shook and her voice trembled beneath the white mask she was wearing.
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Tony O'Dell, who represents several of the victims' families, said his clients are pleased with the outcome, although he said the investigation should not stop.
"The VA hospital in Clarksburg had a frightening number of system failures that allowed this person to kill as many people as she did," O'Dell said in a statement. "The fact that the related deaths continued to pile up shows a complete lack of competence and a total lack of human caring."
Michael Missal, inspector general for the Department of Veteran Affairs, said his agency is conducting an investigation of the hospital's policies and procedures, including medication management and communications among staffers.
Missal said investigators identified Mays as a person of interest shortly after officials were notified of the suspicious deaths in 2018. She was fired in July of that year.
"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," Wesley Walls, spokesman for the hospital, said in a statement.
Powell, the U.S. attorney, said Mays denied wrongdoing until recently, when she realized the mounting evidence against her.
"While overdue, today justice is finally being served. I hope today’s announcement brings some semblance of peace to their hearts and to the families who are still uncertain about the fate of their veterans," Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., said in a statement.
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Manchin, who introduced a bill requiring the Department of Veteran Affairs to submit detailed reports on patient safety, publicly pressured officials for answers and called for a Senate investigation.
The investigation drew the interest of Attorney General William Barr after it became public last year that at least two of the deaths had been ruled homicides.
The other victims are Archie Edgell, 84, Robert Edge, Sr., 82, Robert Kozul, 89, Raymond Golden, 88, and one identified in charging documents as W.A.H. USA TODAY reported last year that William Alfred Holloway, 96, died after suffering from severe hypoglycemia, a condition in which blood sugar levels plummet.
Some of the deaths were ruled "undetermined." Several of the patients were not diabetic, while others had Type 2 diabetes but were either not prescribed insulin or needed only a small dose.
Court records say Mays injected another veteran, identified in court records as R.R.P., with insulin, although his blood sugar levels stabilized. The man, 92, died two weeks later, but the medical examiner was unable to tie his death to the insulin injection.
All men died within months, sometimes days, of each other in 2017 and 2018.
One veteran, John Hallman, 87, was cremated, although his daughter said his medical records showed his level of insulin spiked before he died.
Mays previously worked as a correctional officer in West Virginia and at a privately-owned home care company based in Kentucky.
Contributing: Donovan Slack, Kevin Johnson and Ken Alltucker
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Veteran deaths: Reta Mays facing murder charges for Clarksburg deaths