Why did Reta Mays murder those veterans?

Reta Phyllis Mays in her identification photo from the Northern Regional Jail

The unavoidable and overriding question in the case of admitted serial killer Reta Mays is why; Why would this woman in the trusted position of nurse’s assistant at the Louis A. Johnson Veterans Medical Center in Clarksburg kill eight of her patients?

Mays admitted to the crimes in federal court Tuesday, but she said nothing about a motive. Her pattern was to inject patients with lethal doses of insulin.

U.S. Attorney Bill Powell, whose office has worked on the case for months, says he does not know. He adds that up until just a few days ago Mays continued to deny the accusations.

Motive remains “the million dollar question,” Powell said.  “She never told us why she did it.”

Mays is a veteran and during her plea there was a brief mention that she is taking medication for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.  Attorney Dino Colombo, who represents the family of victim Archie Edgell, said maybe that is a clue.

“She may never tell us exactly why,” Colombo said on Talkline Wednesday.  “But I think we may be able to put the pieces of the puzzle together.”

Colombo said those pieces could appear when Mays’ attorneys argue for leniency when she is sentenced. Somehow, Mays lawyers are going to have to make her a more sympathetic character, with the goal of getting a judge to consider some alternative to putting her in prison for the rest of her life.

“They are going to try to make a strong argument that there were mitigating circumstances in her life that led her to do this,” he said. “I think they are going to lean heavily on PTSD.”

Clearly, something caused her to methodically kill people she was supposed to be caring for. A behavioral analysis by the FBI says that serial killers “differ in many ways, including their motivations.”

One of their conclusions, which does not help much in understanding the VA murders, is that “motive generally may be difficult to determine.”   But the experts also conclude, “serial murderers commit their crimes because they want to.  The exception to this would be those few killers suffering from a severe mental illness.”

Mays is not mentally ill, otherwise that could have been used as a defense.  If Colombo is right, the sentencing should produce some clues that will most likely include some trauma in her life that supposedly triggered the behavior.

But a play for sympathy from the judge is going to be a tough sell given the magnitude of the crime. Is a judge going to seriously consider anything other than life in prison for an individual who admitted to murdering seven people, with intent to murder an eighth?

Powell said the families did not want to pursue the death penalty which, even if obtained from a jury, could have dragged on for years with appeals. The appropriate punishment here is what the federal prosecutor and the families want—life in prison.

As to the ‘why’ question, that is something that may be unknowable.


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