Investigators contacted the family of George Nelson Shaw Sr., an 81-year-old who died at the hospital in April 2018, to exhume his body last winter, according to USA Today. Their investigation found that he had died not of natural causes, but from an insulin injection that he didn’t need.
Felix Kirk McDermott, an 82-year-old Army veteran, died at the hospital a day before Shaw. His body was exhumed. Lawyers his family has hired said that he, too, died after receiving an insulin shot in his abdomen.
The deaths have the potential to become a significant challenge for Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert Wilkie.
Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) told reporters this week that a “person of interest” was connected to the deaths, but did not give more information. The Inspector General at the Department of Veterans Affairs, which is conducting the investigation with other federal law enforcement bodies, did not release names of any other potential victims.
“The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) Office of Inspector General (OIG) has been working with our federal law enforcement partners to investigate the allegations of potential wrongdoing resulting in patient deaths at the Louis A. Johnson VA Medical Center in Clarksburg, West Virginia,” it said in a brief statement.
In a news release Friday, Bill Powell, the United States Attorney for the Northern district of West Virginia, confirmed that there was an ongoing federal criminal investigation into the deaths of patients at the hospital.
“The investigation, conducted by my office, along with the FBI and the VA OIG, was initiated as soon as potential criminal conduct was discovered and continues to be a top priority,” he said. “We fully understand the desire for a speedy resolution and need for closure.”
“People at VA have been what looks like the victim of a crime,” Wilkie said. “The biggest thing we can do — and I agree with Senator Manchin … this Inspector General has to get us the answers.”
Wesley Walls, a spokesman for the hospital, said the investigation, which focuses heavily on events in 2018, did not involve anyone who was still an employee.
“Immediately upon discovering these serious allegations, Louis A. Johnson VA Medical Center leadership brought them to the attention of VA’s independent inspector general while putting safeguards in place to ensure the safety of each and every one of our patients,” he said. “For the sake of all of West Virginia Veterans and their families, we hope the IG’s more than yearlong investigation will yield detailed findings soon.”
Manchin said his office was first notified of the investigation in early July, after the inspector general said a medical and criminal investigation was taking place to examine at least nine inpatients at the hospital who had been diagnosed with low blood sugar of unclear cause in the previous nine months. The investigation had been opened a year before, Manchin said, after doctors had reported eight episodes of low blood sugar with no medical cause to a hospital management team.
Wall said hospital officials had reported the issue to the inspector general in June 2018.
The story grew larger last week after the Clarksburg Exponent Telegram reported that McDermott’s death had been ruled a homicide after investigators completed their autopsy of his remains.
Lawyers hired by McDermott’s family have filed a notice of claim, an early step in the process of filing a lawsuit, with Veterans Affairs.
The court filing alleges that VA investigators told McDermott’s daughter that nine or 10 other patients had died after being wrongfully injected with insulin in their abdomens, according to the Exponent Telegram.
Shaw’s family told USA Today why they wanted to file a lawsuit.
“This cannot happen to another family, ever,” daughter Linda Kay Shaw told the newspaper. “It’s got to be stopped. Whoever’s accountable needs to be held accountable, and that goes all the way to the top.”