A former Veterans Affairs nursing assistant on Tuesday was sentenced to life in prison for murdering multiple patients through insulin overdoses in an act she described as helping them die “gently,” even though none of the victims were facing life-threatening conditions.
Reta Mays, who worked at the Louis A. Johnson Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Clarksburg, West Virginia, pled guilty to seven counts of second degree murder and one count of attempted murder last summer for the crimes, which occurred in 2017 and 2018.
Before her sentencing Tuesday morning, Mays, 46, offered a partial apology to the families of her victims in the West Virginia courtroom.
“There are no words I can say that can offer the families any comfort,” she said in a prepared statement. “I can only say I’m sorry for the pain I caused them and my family.”
But Judge Thomas Kleeh rejected her attorney’s arguments for leniency in the sentencing.
“These were no mercy killings,” he said. “You knew what you were doing...
“There is nothing in your history, and nothing about your characteristics that justifies or explains your heinous actions with respect to these eight veterans, these eight fathers, these eight grandfathers.”
Kleeh noted that Mays is ineligible for parole. In addition to the seven life imprisonment charges, she was also sentenced an additional 20 years on the attempted murder charge.
The case has cast a pall over the West Virginia VA hospital since 2017. Federal investigators have probed Mays’ background and hospital procedures in the years since, and on Tuesday the VA Inspector General’s office offered the results of its own 100-page investigation into both May’s actions and the failings of other VA staff to prevent the crimes.
The report for the first time offered a motive for the crimes, noting that Mays told law enforcement officials after her guilty pleas last summer that “she administered insulin to patients she believed were suffering so that they could pass ‘gently,’” and “these actions have her a sense of control” over chaos in her personal life.
None of the patients who died from her actions were considered to be in a terminal medical state, health officials noted. Federal prosecutors said several were expected to be discharged from the hospital within weeks of their poisoning.
Before her sentencing, family members were given a chance to offer remembrances of the victims and push for a harsher jail sentence for Mays. All seven of the patients she was charged with murdering were men aged 80 or older, and their loved ones lamented lost time that could have been spent with children and grandchildren because of her actions.
In court on Tuesday, Mays’ lawyers noted that she suffered post-traumatic stress disorder and military sexual assault during her own time serving in the Army, which resulted significant personal use and abuse of mental health medications.
But they also said that “no one knows why” Mays made the decision to end multiple patients’ lives.
The inspector general’s report noted multiple failures by Veterans Affairs officials in patient monitoring, medication security and hiring practices that contributed to Mays’ actions.
“Medication rooms and carts were not secured on the ward where Mays worked, giving her unauthorized access to the insulin used in these deaths,” the report states. “The pharmacy service also did not have a formal process to track medications that could have signaled the suspicious rise in hypoglycemic events.”
Investigators noted that local VA hiring officials did not fully complete background checks on Mays which could have alerted them to past reports of excessive force during a previous job as a prison guard.
Supervisors also did not note “known problems with her patient care” in performance assessments, including “odd or aggressive behavior toward patients at times, typically attributed to stress in Mays’ personal life.”
In a statement, acting Under Secretary of Health Dr. Richard Stone said that reforms are underway.
“VA deeply regrets that Ms. Mays’ actions were not discovered sooner and stopped,” he wrote in response to the report. “Knowing that she is behind bars is not enough. We are committed to preventing something like this from ever happening again.”
The inspector general outlined 15 recommendations for reforms at the West Virginia medical center and throughout the VA health care system, including new training for medical personnel, new patient mortality data analysis, and better tracking of medication supplies at the facilities.
VA employees at the hospital where Mays worked first brought the suspicious deaths to the attention of authorities, and law enforcement and inspector general officials have praised department staff for their cooperation in the ongoing investigation.
Kleeh noted in his sentencing statement that “VA is responsible for its own institutional failures here, but in absolutely no way are they responsible for your intentional homicidal actions.”
The department has already paid out more than $5 million in settlements with families as a result of the case. Additional cases of patient injury that Mays was connected to are still pending.
Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.