VA Pathologist Sentenced for Mishandled Diagnoses in Arkansas

CLARKSBURG, WV — A VA nursing assistant has pleaded guilty to seven counts of second-degree murder and one count of assault with intent to commit murder in the deaths of eight veterans at the Louis A. Johnson VAMC. 

Reta Mays, 46, appeared in federal court in Clarksburg, WV, on July 14 as part of a plea agreement with prosecutors. She admitted to injecting veterans in her care with insulin, causing their glucose levels to plummet and leading to their deaths. Her admission brings an end to a two-year investigation, but many questions remain unanswered. 

Mays was hired at the Clarksburg VAMC in 2015. She was eventually assigned to the overnight shift. As an assistant she was authorized to check vitals such as glucose levels but was not authorized to administer medication.

The first death to which she admitted occurred in July 2017, when she administered insulin to Robert Edge Sr., 82. The next fatal dose came in January 2018. Two more occurred in March 2018, two more in April or May 2018 and one in June 2018. She administered a dose to another veteran that June, but he did not die immediately. He passed away in July at a nursing facility, but it could not be determined if too much insulin was the cause of death. 

In June 2018, the VA Inspector General’s Office was informed of the pattern of deaths occurring at the Clarksburg VAMC. The timing of the deaths narrowed the suspect list down significantly. 

“Within a matter of days of learning of the suspicious deaths at the facility, VA OIG agents identified the defendant as a person of interest. Working with medical facility leaders, the defendant was immediately removed from patient care,” explained VA Inspector General Michael Missal in a statement following Mays’ court appearance. “Without critical investigative actions being taken so expeditiously, additional lives could have been lost.” 

While the families of these eight veterans have some answers, the question still remains as to why Mays did what she did. Her plea did not include an explanation of her motivations.

Investigators have pointed out that the stereotype of the angel of death killer—someone whose motive is to help ease patients’ suffering—does not fit in this case. Her victims were not critically ill, and her method of killing them was not swift. Once hypoglycemia began and patients’ organs began failing, death would take several hours or longer.

Another lingering question is whether the eight deaths represent the totality of Mays’ crimes. The number of suspicious deaths the IG was investigating had at one point been 11. 

“There are suspicious deaths that aren’t included in [Mays’] plea deal and their families deserve justice,” declared Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV). “I urged Inspector General Missal to ensure the families receive answers and will continue to work with the VA OIG to help those families receive closure.” 

Manchin also said he would press the IG to investigate Clarksburg’s policies and procedures to discover how this pattern of deaths went undetected for so long. 

“I will continue to push the VA and my Senate colleagues to ensure that those responsible for allowing these heinous actions to occur are held accountable,” he said.

Families of six of the victims have filed lawsuits against the VA, the latest coming shortly after Mays’ court appearance. 

Mays’ sentencing hearing has yet to be scheduled. She faces life imprisonment for each murder and 20 years for the assault charge. 

This summer also delivered closure to another VA scandal that resulted in the mistreatment and deaths of veterans. In August 2019, a former VA pathologist was charged with three counts of involuntary manslaughter and 28 counts of mail fraud after he mishandled lab results while intoxicated. 

As the chief of pathology and laboratory medicine for the Veterans Health Care System of the Ozarks from 2005 through 2018, Robert Morris Levy, MD, was responsible for reviewing thousands of lab results. Investigators discovered many of those tests were mishandled due to Levy’s alcohol abuse, with diagnoses going undetected and patients dying as a result. 

The charges of mail fraud came from Levy lying on reports that another pathologist agreed with his review. Levy appeared in a Fayetteville, AR, courtroom in June to plead guilty to one count of involuntary manslaughter and one count of mail fraud. He faces up to 28 years in prison.