Investigators Look Into Suspicious Deaths At West Virginia VA Hospital
NOEL KING, HOST:
A Veterans Affairs hospital in Clarksburg, W.Va., is facing criticism and a lot of confusion. Two deaths there have been ruled homicides, and federal investigators are in the process of exhuming a third body to conduct an autopsy. From West Virginia Public Broadcasting, Dave Mistich has the story.
DAVE MISTICH, BYLINE: Army Sergeant Felix McDermott was a Vietnam veteran from Ellenboro, W.Va. His family says he happily used the VA facilities about 40 minutes away in Clarksburg. But while being treated for aspiration pneumonia in April of last year, McDermott died in the VA hospital at the age of 82. His daughter Melanie Proctor says he wasn't in perfect health but she'd expected him to be released back to the nursing home.
MELANIE PROCTOR: And somebody gave him a shot of insulin - even though he's not a diabetic, which caused him to pass. We thought he had died of natural causes, only to find out in late August last year, when the FBI showed up at my house, that he didn't. And we have been waiting for answers ever since.
MISTICH: To determine McDermott's cause of death, federal officials exhumed his body for an autopsy. Then, just last week, a second death at the West Virginia facility was also ruled a homicide. Air Force veteran George Shaw Sr. was determined to have died of hypoglycemia, or low blood sugar, as a result of four insulin injections. It was the same cause of death as McDermott just one day later.
Officials at the VA Medical Center in Clarksburg did not agree to an interview but did say a person of interest is not a current employee. The facility says it is cooperating with investigators in the Office of Inspector General.
Just a few miles down the road, local veterans were gathered Tuesday night at the VFW Post 573 in downtown Clarksburg.
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MISTICH: Sixty-eight-year-old David Barker, who served in Vietnam, was among the dozen or so vets sitting around the horseshoe-shaped bar talking over loud music from the jukebox.
DAVID BARKER: I thought - Jesus Christ, we're not safe anywhere. You know, you go to the hospital - expect help, not to be killed.
MISTICH: Barker says he's there mostly for outpatient treatment. And overall, he says the care there is pretty good. Still, he's alarmed by what he's heard.
BARKER: Makes me think about letting anybody give me a shot of anything and - unless I know what it is and who it is that's giving it to me.
MISTICH: U.S. Attorney William Powell says he and other investigators have been working diligently to wrap up the case.
WILLIAM POWELL: The investigation, I think as I've said here recently, if you were going to categorize it, I would say it's the beginning of the end as opposed to the beginning of the beginning.
MISTICH: Powell says he can't say exactly when an indictment might come. But for family members of confirmed victims, like Felix McDermott's daughter Melanie Proctor, she's calling out a warning to anyone who goes there for treatment.
PROCTOR: I would be asking a lot of questions before I left a loved one there. I'd want to know - how did you fix this? - which I still don't even know. They say they got safety measures in place. But I don't know what they are now even. And I'm involved in it.
MISTICH: An attorney for McDermott's family says relatives of at least five others who died at the Clarksburg VA have contacted him about the suspicious nature of a veteran's death. But the Office of Inspector General declined to provide a number of deaths at the facility that are being investigated as potential homicides.
For NPR News, I'm Dave Mistich in Clarksburg, W.Va.
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