June 12, 2021

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‘VA hospital serial killer faces victims’ families at sentencing for seven murders – USA TODAY

6 min read

CLARKSBURG, W.Va. – Robert Kozul cried when he learned on Christmas in 2017 that he would be a great-grandfather.

But he never got to meet his great-grandchild. “You took all that away from him,” said Becky Kozul, Robert Kozul’s daughter-in-law, at a sentencing hearing in federal court for the former nursing assistant who confessed to killing Kozul and six other elderly patients at a local VA hospital.

The victims ranged in age from 81 to 96 and served in the Army, Navy and Air Force during World War II and wars in Korea and Vietnam. They died at the hands of the same person, at the same place, in the same way.

Reta Mays, 46, pleaded guilty last year to murdering seven veterans with insulin at the Louis A. Johnson VA Medical Center between July 2017 and June 2018. She also pleaded guilty to assault with intent to murder an eighth victim. 

Mays could get a life sentence for each second-degree murder charge, plus an additional 20 years for the assault charge.

Robert Kozul, 89, died January 30, 2018. Former nursing assistant Reta Mays pleaded guilty to killing him and six other elderly veterans with lethal doses of insulin at the U.S. Veterans Affairs hospital in Clarksburg, West Virginia.

Nurses who kill: Medical murderers and the mystery of the Clarksburg VA hospital in West Virginia

Family members from five of Mays’ victims spoke Tuesday, some appearing via video recordings and others addressing a crowded courtroom in Clarksburg. They honored their loved ones and reflected on the lives they lived while expressing grief and anger over their loss. None said they were ready to forgive Mays.

‘Why should you ever be let out of prison to enjoy freedom?’

Robert Kozul “loved to dance to sing and to play his harmonica,” Becky Kozul said. “He loved life.”

She said said Mays “confessed to killing seven men and ruining seven families by robbing us of our loved ones. Why should you ever be let out of prison to enjoy freedom?”

In a video statement, Norma Shaw, the widow of George Shaw, said her husband was “trapped in his own body” when Mays gave the Air Force veteran, who wasn’t diabetic, a lethal dose of insulin.

Air Force veteran George Nelson Shaw Sr., died on on April 10, 2018, at the VA hospital in Clarksburg, W. Va. His death, ruled a homicide by an Armed Forces examiner, is one of 10 under investigation by federal authorities. He was 81.

“I don’t know why Reta did what she did. I don’t know if we’ll ever know. But she took my life away from me,” Norma Shaw said.

The couple met in 1959. Their first date was on Valentine’s Day; they went to the Florida State Fair. “And like I told everybody I spent his money that night and I would spend it the rest of his life,” she joked. The married months later in June.

Shaw said she and her husband were married almost 59 years. He served in the military for 28 years and had three children, nine grandchildren, 23 great-grandchildren and five great-great grandchildren by marriage.

Shaw said she struggled with whether she could forgive Mays. Maybe one day.

Robert Edge Jr., the son of Robert Edge Sr., Mays’ first victim, said he couldn’t. “You murdered my father without cause or reason,” Edge said. “As you hear my words, I want them to play in your mind over and over and over again until the day you die.”

In a short, tearful statement, Mays said she wouldn’t ask for forgiveness “because I don’t think I could forgive anyone who’d do what I did.”

“There are no words I can say,” Mays said. “I can only say that I’m sorry for the pain that I caused the families and my family.”

Prosecutor: ‘This was all about control’

Jay T. McCamic, Mays’ defense lawyer, argued for a 30-year prison sentence, the low end of sentencing guidelines, saying Mays had a history of mental health issues tied to her military service and other events. McCamic said Mays suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder and military sexual trauma. 

McCamic said while working at the VA center in 2016, Mays was punched by a veteran and lost consciousness. When being treated in the emergency room, Mays was diagnosed with PTSD, depression, anxiety and bipolar disorder. But Mays continued to work, McCamic said, because she “feels like she’s a quitter if she gives in and doesn’t go to work.”

During a 2017 incident, Mays said during a mental health follow-up that she felt like she didn’t have control, and that she said, “I am afraid I will hurt someone else in the moment.” 

Assistant U.S Attorney Jarod J. Douglas said Mays should receive a life sentence for each murder. He argued Mays showed “extraordinary callousness” and acted in a deliberate manner, putting herself in a position to murder these men.

“This was all about control,” Douglas said. “These actions gave the defendant a sense of control.”

He dismissed any notion that the killings showed mercy to the ailing veterans, as he suggested that Mays had claimed. He also said her mental health conditions were not related to the violence she committed.

“Giving someone insulin that’s not prescribed to them is not merciful,” Douglas said before he detailed the painful effects the men felt as their blood sugar levels dropped. Edge was “thrashing around.” Shaw was “agitated,” “sweating” and had a “fast heart rate.” Felix McDermott experienced “latent breathing,” and a nurse found him “with most sheets, cold and clammy.”

Mays on multiple occasions reported the men’s conditions and participated in the life-saving efforts, Douglas, said.

Mays performed chest compressions on one of the victims for over half an hour, Douglas said. She then called her husband, who was incarcerated, and complained that her arms “felt like rubber” after doing compressions for so long. Mays also complained in Facebook messages about having to deliver medication that prolonged Shaw’s life, Douglas said.

VA inspector general to release report on what happened

After the sentencing, the inspector general at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs is expected to release the results of an investigation into failings at the hospital that allowed the deaths to go undetected.

Mays was assigned to work overnight shifts on Ward 3A, the hospital’s medical surgical unit, in July 2017 when patients began suffering mysterious, acute drops in blood sugar. 

A USA TODAY investigation in 2019 found that a string of oversights at the hospital may have cost veterans’ lives. Insulin wasn’t adequately tracked, and there were no surveillance cameras on Ward 3A. Staff didn’t conduct key tests to figure out why patients were experiencing severe episodes of low blood sugar. Nor did they file reports that could have triggered investigations.

This photo released July 14, 2020, by the West Virginia Regional Jail and Correctional Facility Authority shows Reta Mays. Mays, a former nursing assistant at the Louis A. Johnson VA Medical Center in Clarksburg, W.V., is scheduled to be sentenced Tuesday, May 11, 2021, for her guilty plea to intentionally killing seven patients with fatal doses of insulin.

Insulin can be crucial in keeping diabetics’ blood sugar in check, but for non-diabetics and those who aren’t prescribed the medication, it can be deadly, driving blood sugar too low.

By the time doctors alerted hospital leaders in June 2018 to the string of suspicious deaths, at least eight patients had died. Many had been embalmed and buried. One had been cremated.

How it started: Authorities investigating 10 suspicious deaths at VA hospital

Federal investigators zeroed in on Mays. They exhumed bodies and gathered evidence.

In July, Mays entered her guilty plea. She admitted to killing the seven veterans and administering insulin to an eighth who later died, too.  

VA pledges improvements

The Department of Veterans Affairs said in a statement last week that the agency has made a number of improvements in response to the investigation by the inspector general, an independent watchdog. They include steps to increase care coordination between medical providers, bolster endocrinology referrals and evaluations and better train nursing staff on diabetes.

“The Louis A. Johnson VA Medical Center grieves for the loss of each of these veterans and extends our deepest condolences to their families and loved ones,” the agency said. What happened “was unacceptable, and we want to ensure veterans and families know we are determined to restore their trust in the facility.”

The Louis A. Johnson VA Medical Center in Clarksburg, W.Va., serves 70,000 veterans.

The Clarksburg VA draws patients from across the region, serving about 70,000 veterans in north-central West Virginia and nearby Maryland, Ohio and Pennsylvania.

In December, the VA replaced the hospital director and chief nursing executive and retrained staff on critical incident reporting after an internal review identified problems with patient safety. The hospital conducted a “safety stand-down” in which noncritical patients weren’t admitted for several weeks.

“People are satisfied now,” said John Aloi, senior vice commander of VFW Post 573 in Clarksburg. 

Wearing a black “United We Stand” mask after wrapping up a Monday night meeting at the post, Aloi said veterans want a measure of justice from the court hearing. Equally important, he said, are safety reforms at the VA hospital. 

“But the real test is how things go in the future,” he said. “Once you lose trust, it’s hard to get it back.”

Contributing: Ken Alltucker

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