Melanie Proctor doesn’t know how to put into words the devastation wrought by the nursing assistant who murdered her father and a half-dozen other elderly veterans at a hospital in West Virginia.
She writes a few thoughts, takes time to think and writes a few more as she prepares to face the serial killer and deliver a victim impact statement during a sentencing hearing in federal court Tuesday.
“At this point, what do you say?” Proctor said in an interview. “I want to see her spend the rest of her life in jail and no chance of her ever seeing the light of day.”
Still, she said, “I want to say something so people realize that this isn’t about her; this is about her victims.”
Reta Mays, 46, pleaded guilty last year to seven counts of second-degree murder and one count of assault with intent to commit murder for a string of killings from mid-2017 through June 2018 at the U.S. Veterans Affairs hospital in Clarksburg, West Virginia.
Mays admitted to giving the veterans, ages 81 to 96, lethal doses of insulin, according to court records. She could receive seven life sentences plus an additional 20 years in prison.
One of her lawyers, public defender Brian Kornbrath, said last week they plan to ask for a shorter sentence. He declined to say what mitigating factors they might present and wouldn’t comment on Mays’ case.
The VA inspector general is expected to announce the results Tuesdayof an administrative investigation into shortfalls at the Louis A. Johnson VA Medical Center that allowed Mays’ deadly spree to continue without detection.
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.
Mays, hired by the VA in 2015, was assigned to work the night shift in Ward 3A. As a nursing assistant, she checked vital signs and sugar levels and acted as a one-on-one sitter for patients requiring close observation. She was not allowed to administer medication, including insulin, according to her plea agreement.
A string of oversights
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 the ward where Mays worked. 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.
By the time a doctor alerted hospital leaders to the deaths in June 2018, at least eight patients had died under the same suspicious circumstances on the same ward. Three deaths occurred within three days.
One of them was Proctor’s father, Felix McDermott. He died April 9, 2018. Mays pleaded guilty to giving the 82-year-old man, who was not diabetic, insulin on the night shift hours earlier. Insulin injections can be a lifesaver for diabetics, but for others it can be fatal.
When a doctor checked on him shortly before 2 a.m., his pupils were pinpoints, he was struggling to breathe, he was foaming at the mouth and his blood sugar had dropped so dangerously low he never recovered, medical records show.
McDermott is “Count Six” in a court filing outlining the charges against Mays.
“I don’t even want to ask her why, because whatever comes out of her mouth is going to be a lie,” Proctor said last week.
Suspicious deaths:Veterans demand answers. ‘It’s scary – really scary’
Investigation:Red flags missed in serial killer case at VA hospital
She and more than a half-dozen other families have settled claims against the VA for amounts ranging from $625,000 to nearly $1 million, according to Tony O’Dell, a lawyer who represented Proctor and several other families.
Proctor said she not only wants to see Mays spend the rest of her life in prison,she wants the VA to make sure this sort of thing can’t happen again. “I don’t want to see it happen anywhere,” she said.
VA watchdog identified safety failings at hospital
In December, the VA announced that an internal review at the hospital had “identified concerns as to safe patient care and ineffective reporting of adverse events.”
The agency replaced the hospital’s director and head nursing executive. It conducted a “safety stand-down” in which noncritical patients weren’t admitted for several weeks. The VA said hospital staff were retrained in how to report critical patient care incidents.
Last week, the VA told USA TODAY it has made a litany of other improvements in response to the investigation by the agency’s 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 in a statement. What happened “was unacceptable, and we want to ensure veterans and families know we are determined to restore their trust in the facility.”
The VA, which provides medical care for nearly 9 million veterans at more than 1,200 facilities, said it has improved hiring standards and practices nationwide. It is evaluating whether it needs to strengthen policies governing medication storage at its hospitals.
Mays posted memes about work conditions on Facebook
Before she was hired at the VA in 2015, Mays had worked for several years as a correctional officer. In 2013, she was working at the North Central Regional Jail and Correctional Facility in Greenwood, West Virginia, when she was accused in a civil rights lawsuit of assaulting an inmate.
In the suit, an inmate alleged that Mays kicked him, spat at him and chastised, “You ain’t that tough now are you?” A federal judge found there was not enough evidence to support the allegations and dismissed the case, according to court records.
Mays also worked at ResCare, a privately owned home care company based in Kentucky, public records show.
Before her arrest, Mays’ social media profile was filled with pictures, memes and videos. In the summer of 2018, around the time that federal law enforcement began investigating the veterans’ deaths, Mays posted on Facebook regularly, sometimes about patients and work conditions.
“When you get the most difficult patient and you wonder if it’s bc they think you are a good nurse or bc they hate you,” says a meme with an image of a pouting child.
“5 minutes before change of shift? Let me spice things up for you!” says another with an image of an old woman sprawled on the floor.
“Yeah, so we’re going to be short-staffed forever so if you could just work yourself to death that’d be great,” another says.
In April 2018, Mays shared a newsstory about the Golden State Killer, who police say committed multiple murders, several dozen rapes and dozens more burglaries across California.
In the lone post publicly visible on her Facebook page last week, Mays asked for donations in May 2018 to a nonprofit group that helps wounded veterans, saying the organization’s mission “means a lot to me.”
Contributing: Kristine Phillips, Ken Alltucker