Ex-Nursing Assistant Pleads Guilty in West Virginia Insulin Deaths

Marcia Frellick

July 16, 2020

A former nursing assistant and Army veteran pleaded guilty to federal murder charges this week in connection with the 2017–2018 deaths of seven patients in a West Virginia veteran's hospital, according to news reports.

Prosecutors said in court documents filed on July 13 that Reta Mays, 46, injected lethal doses of insulin into seven veterans at the Louis A. Johnson VA Medical Center (VAMC) in rural Clarksburg, West Virginia.

Their blood glucose levels plummeted, and each died shortly after their injections, according to the Tennessean.

An eighth patient, a 92-year-old man whom Mays is accused of assaulting with an insulin injection, initially survived after staff were able to stabilize him but died 2 weeks later at a nursing home, NPR reports.

According to NPR, US Attorney Jarod Douglas told the court Tuesday that the medical investigator could not determine whether the insulin contributed to the man's death but that it was Mays' intention to kill him.

"No one watched while she injected them with lethal doses of insulin during an 11-month killing rampage," the Washington Post reported.

No Motive Offered

The Post article said no motive has been established, "but after a two-year investigation into a pattern of suspicious deaths that took the hospital almost a year to detect, Mays, who had denied any wrongdoing in multiple interviews with investigators, told a federal judge she preyed on some of the country's most vulnerable service members."

An attorney for Mays, Brian Kornbrath, contacted by Medscape Medical News, said: "The defense team decided that we would have no public comment at this time."

According to court documents from the Northern District of West Virginia, Mays was charged with seven counts of second-degree murder and one count of assault with intent to commit murder in connection with the patient who died later.

Mays was hired at the VAMC in Clarksburg in June 2015. She worked from 7:30 PM to 8:00 AM in the medical surgical unit, court documents say.

According to the documents, "VAMC Clarksburg did not require a nursing assistant to have a certification or licensure for initial appointment or as a condition of continuing employment."

The documents indicate that in June 2018, a hospitalist employed by VAMC Clarksburg reported concern about several deaths from unexplained hypoglycemic events in the same ward and noted that many of the affected patients did not have diabetes.

By that time, according to the Tennessean, "at least eight patients had died under suspicious circumstances. Several had been embalmed and buried, destroying potential evidence. One veteran had been cremated."

An internal investigation began, followed by a criminal investigation, and in July 2018, Mays was removed from patient care.

Mays Fired in 2019 Because of Lies on Resume; Claims Suffers From PTSD

The Post reports that Mays was fired from the hospital in 2019, 7 months after she was banned from patient care, "after it was discovered she had lied about her qualifications on her resume."

Court documents indicate that her duties included acting as a sitter for patients, checking vital signs, intake and output, and testing blood glucose levels, but she was not qualified to administer medications, including insulin.

Similarities in the deaths were evident, the Post reported. Citing sources familiar with the case, the report said, "elderly patients in private rooms were injected in their abdomen and limbs with insulin the hospital had not ordered."

The Post reported that Mays sobbed by the end of the hearing on Tuesday.

The article notes that Mays has three sons and served in the Army National Guard from November 2000 to April 2001 and again from February 2003 to May 2004, when she was deployed to Iraq and Kuwait. She told the judge she was taking medication for posttraumatic stress disorder.

By pleading guilty, she waived her right to have the case presented to a grand jury. A sentencing hearing has not been scheduled, the Post reports.

NPR notes that prosecutors have requested that Mays serve seven consecutive life sentences and an additional 20 years in prison.

"Our Hearts Go Out to Those Affected by These Tragic Deaths"

A spokesman for VAMC Clarksburg said in a statement to Medscape Medical News: "Our hearts go out to those affected by these tragic deaths. Clarksburg VA Medical Center discovered these allegations and reported them to VA's independent inspector general more than two years ago. Clarksburg VA Medical Center also fired the individual at the center of the allegations.

"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."

According to the Tennessean, Michael Missal, inspector general for the Department of Veteran Affairs, said the agency is investigating the hospital's practices, "including medication management and communications among staffers."

Marcia Frellick is a freelance journalist based in Chicago. She has previously written for the Chicago Tribune and Nurse.com and was an editor at the Chicago Sun-Times, the Cincinnati Enquirer, and the St. Cloud (Minnesota) Times. Follow her on Twitter at @mfrellick.

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