CLARKSBURG, W.Va. — A former nursing assistant at the Clarksburg VA Medical Center has pleaded guilty to killing 7 veterans by injecting them with insulin.
Reta Mays, 46, of Harrison County, entered that plea Tuesday afternoon to a federal information before U.S. District Judge Thomas Kleeh in Clarksburg.
She faces consecutive life terms for seven murder counts and another 20 years for a count of assault with attempt to murder. For now, she has been taken to West Virginia’s Northern Regional Jail.
During a hearing that lasted about an hour, Mays agreed with extensive questioning about whether she was aware of the terms of the plea, weeping at first and then building to sobs.
Mays, with short brown hair, glasses and a white facemask as a coronavirus precaution, stood as Kleeh asked “Did you in fact do what they say you did?”
She answered just as she had to prior questions, “Yes sir.”
But Mays did not ever say why she committed the crimes, and federal prosecutors said they were less concerned her motive than with keeping her away from further victims and sending her to prison.
A status conference is set for late October as defense attorneys and prosecutors build more of the case record. Her defense lawyers said they need to document mitigating circumstances as Kleeh considers what her sentence will wind up being.
The charges and plea follow a two-year investigation that began after the VA Medical Center reported several suspicious deaths. Mays had access to the veterans’ hospital rooms. She wasn’t supposed to have access to insulin.
U.S. Attorney Bill Powell, speaking to reporters after the hearing, said Mays had consistently denied the killings until facing a deadline set for the plea agreement of July 13. Otherwise, the case would have gone to a grand jury and then, possibly, to trial. It’s possible that could have resulted in death penalty charges.
Powell said process of elimination led to Mays, who had particular access to patients while on the night shift.
“She had one-on-one shifts with all of these patients at various times,” Powell said. “Through a variety of medical means and other investigative techniques we were able to determine approximately when insulin was received into the patients. Then it was a matter of narrowing down exactly who was with the patient at any given time during the time frame.
“Ultimately it led to her in every instance.”
The federal information document was unsealed this morning. A hearing was at 2 p.m. in federal court in Clarksburg for the Northern District of West Virginia.
She admitted to killing veterans Robert Edge Sr., Robert Kozul, Archie Edgell, George Shaw, a patient identified only as W.A.H., Felix McDermott and Raymond Golden while also administering insulin to “R.R.P.,” another patient who was not diabetic with intent to kill him.
“These eight veterans deserved respect and honor,” said FBI Special Agent in Charge Michael Christman. “They served our country, and we owe them a debt of gratitude.
“They didn’t deserve to die at the hands of a nursing assistant who intentionally inflicted pain on them and their families.”
The information also does not address why Mays would have done what she is accused of doing.
“Nothing we have done will bring your loved ones back,” Powell said. “But, we do hope the work of these agents and the prosecutors honored the memory of your loved ones in a way they so justly deserved and in small fashion assuaged the anguish you have suffered.”
Prosecutors said about 26 members of victims’ families were in the courtroom.
Steve Edgell, the son of Archie, stood outside the courthouse after the hearing and acknowledged he still wondered why Mays did what she was accused of doing.
“I’d like to know why she kept on doing it,” Edgell said. “Was she planning on being God or something? I don’t know.”
But Edgell acknowledged the hearing made a part of him feel sorry for Mays.
“I felt kind of sad for how long she has to spend there, for life it will probably be,” he said.
Tuesday was the first time Mays has been publicly named.
Authorities for months have described a person of interest, a former nursing assistant who had access to the rooms of the veterans who died at the Louis A. Johnson Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Clarksburg.
Autopsies on exhumed bodies have pointed to insulin injections that weren’t needed. The veterans died of low blood sugar level, severe hypoglycemia, which would be caused by the insulin shots.
A January report in the Washington Post said a federal grand jury was investigating at least 11 deaths.
There have already been a number of civil lawsuits filed by families in connection with the deaths.
Mays began working at the veterans hospital in June 2015. She was removed from her job in July 2018.
Federal prosecutors say the hospital did not require nursing assistants to have a certification or be licensed to keep their jobs.
Mays, the information alleges, “was not qualified or authorized to administer medicine, including insulin.”
But she worked the night shift, 7:30 p.m. to 8 a.m. in Ward 3A, which housed fragile patients who were not well enough to be discharged but whose conditions did not require the intensive care unit.
Mays’ job as a nursing assistant required her to measure patients’ vital signs, test blood glucose levels and sit one-on-one with patients who required observation.
Some families of veterans who died under mysterious circumstances later recalled having met someone who matched that description. Looking back, their memories were eerie.
Gina Wilkins, daughter of Navy veteran Russ Posey, one of the patients who died, in an interview last year, recalled conversations with a hospital employee who matched the descriptions of a “person of interest.”
“She just came in and told me it was an honor serving my dad, which I thought was very nice. I didn’t think very much about it at the time,” Wilkins said of the nurse’s assistant who was on the night shift.
“When she came back on shift, she did say ‘Oh, you’re still here,’ which kind of caught me off guard.”
By June 2018, a doctor at the veterans hospital told a supervisor about concerns that a number of patients had suffered crashing blood sugar levels, hypoglycemia, unexpectedly and died. Several of the patients who died were not diabetic, raising particular suspicions.
Hypoglycemia can result in seizures, coma and death.
Some families of the veterans who died have stepped forward over the past year, describing similar circumstances and shock that their loved ones who had gone to the hospital for medical help instead died under mysterious circumstances.
In the case of Edgell, the veteran went to the VA hospital in Clarksburg in March, 2018, to begin a transfer to the nearby VA nursing home.
“He wasn’t dying. He wasn’t even close to dying,” Dino Columbo, a lawyer for Edgell’s family said in an interview last year.
Yet he died after three days at the hospital. He had dementia and was diabetic, but there was no order for him to receive insulin, Colombo said.
Months later, investigators with the Veterans Administration’s Office of Inspector General came to the house where Edgell had lived with his son, Steve, and daughter-in-law, Amanda.
Steve said, “They killed him didn’t they?” Colombo recounted.
He had already been identified by the OIG as a suspicious death. After the Edgells gave permission, his body exhumed Dec. 11, 2018, and taken to Dover Air Force Base for an autopsy.
The autopsy identified four injection sites on his thigh and arm where he had been given insulin.
The autopsy concluded, “These findings are strongly suspicious for unprescribed insulin administered during hospitalization.” But the autopsy also said Edgell’s cause of death was “undetermined.”
Another victim, Shaw, went to the Louis A. Johnson Medical Center on March 22, 2018. He needed treatment for low blood pressure and symptoms of dehydration. But his symptoms plummeted unexpectedly and he died.
“They were going to give him some fluids, build him back up,” his wife, Norma, said in an interview last year. “He was in good spirits. He wanted to come home. He missed his dog.”
But on the morning of March 26, he took a turn for the worse.
By April 10, after being transferred to hospice, he had died.
In July 2018, the FBI reached out to the Shaws.
“They were investigating my husband’s death and investigating some other mysterious deaths at the VA around that same time,” Norma said. “I couldn’t believe what was going on.”
McDermott, a Vietnam veteran, was admitted for treatment at the VA Medical Center in Clarksburg on April 9, 2018 because he had choked on some food and developed aspiration pneumonia.
At first, his health improved.
Then, on April 9, 2018, his condition plummeted. He couldn’t catch his breath. A fingerstick blood glucose test showed that he had critically low blood sugar.
The situation was so critical that his family was called in.
By 9 a.m., McDermott was dead.
“Really, no answers were given to the family at all. They really were just left in the dark. He took a sudden turn. They didn’t know what to think. They were surprised,” a lawyer for the family, Tony O’Dell, said last year on MetroNews’ “Talkline.”
McDermott was buried on April 13, 2018.
“Put yourself in that position where it’s your father,” the lawyer O’Dell said, “and someone may have purposefully killed that person.”