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Families of VA Hospital Homicides Await Answers, Feds Say Investigation at 'Beginning of the End'

Dave Mistich
West Virginia Public Broadcasting

Two deaths have been ruled homicides at a Veteran’s Affairs hospital in Clarksburg and an ongoing investigation is leaving families of the victims desperate for answers.

Federal prosecutors say they are in the “beginning of the end” of their work. But the VA and Office of Inspector General have provided few details on how many veterans may have been killed at the facility or what has been done to ensure it won’t happen again. Most of the information that has been made public has come from the families of the victims.

The first confirmed homicide was Army Sgt. Felix McDermott, a Vietnam veteran from Ellenboro, West Virginia. 

His family says he happily used the Louis A. Johnson VA Medical Center facilities about 40 minutes away in Clarksburg. But while being treated for aspiration pneumonia in April of 2018, McDermott died in the VA hospital at the age of 82. 

His daughter, Melanie Proctor, said he wasn’t in perfect health but she had expected him to be released back to the nursing home.

“Somebody gave him a shot of insulin -- even though he's not a diabetic, which caused him to pass,” Proctor said. “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.”

U.S. Senator Joe Manchin told reporters last week a third body was in the process of being exhumed to determine a cause of death. 

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 and the Office of Inspector General. 

Local Veterans Stunned at Confirmed Homicides

Just a few miles down the road, local veterans were gathered Tuesday night at the VFW Post 573 in downtown Clarksburg. Many there noted that the Louis A. Johnson has a reputation for providing quality care to veterans.

“I thought, ‘Jesus Christ, we’re not safe anywhere.’ You go to the hospital expecting to be helped -- not to be killed,” said 68-year-old Vietnam veteran David Barker of Clarksburg.

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.

“It makes me think twice about letting anyone give me a shot of anything,” he said. Unless I know what it is and who it is that’s giving it to me.”

Federal Prosecutor Says Investigation Reaching the ‘Beginning of the End’

U.S. Attorney William Powell says the investigation has been ongoing for “some months” and that he and other officials have been working diligently to wrap up the case. 

“If you're going to categorize it, I would say it's the beginning of the end as opposed to the beginning of the beginning,” Powell said.

Powell and others can’t say exactly when an indictment might come, but they, too, have acknowledged a person of interest. 

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.

“I would be asking a lot of questions before I left a loved one there,” Proctor said. “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.”

An attorney for McDermott’s family says relatives m 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.

A native of Washington, West Virginia, Dave Mistich joined West Virginia Public Broadcasting in October of 2012, as the Charleston Reporter. After bouncing around a variety of newsroom roles at WVPB, he now focuses on state-level politics and government, as well as breaking news. Dave plays on the world's best-worst softball team, Chico's Bail Bonds. He can be reached via email at dmistich@wvpublic.org and you can follow him on Twitter @davemistich.

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