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.
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.
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.
“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.”
VA hospital murders ‘feel like a betrayal’
Nearly two years after news broke about the insulin deaths, even after a global pandemic, the wounds remain fresh. That’s because the community has such a deep connection to the military, said local talk radio host Hoppy Kercheval.
“The story still resonates because it is so horrific, almost unimaginable,” Kercheval said. “West Virginia has a high rate of people who have served in the military, and many depend on the VA for their care. The murders at the VA hospital feel like a betrayal.”
The Clarksburg chapter of the Fraternal Order of Eagles is down the street from the local VFW. At the members-only lounge, friends sit on leather chairs pushed up against an oval-shaped bar and chat about current events.
On Monday afternoon, that was the sentencing of Reta Mays.
Angela Insani is the daughter of an Army veteran who gets care at the Louis A. Johnson VA Medical Center. What’s so frustrating, Insani said, is that veterans were victimized at the very place they thought they would be protected.
“She took a strike at the red, white and blue,” Insani said, her voice cracking. “She took a strike at America.”
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.
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 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