Reta Mays: An Angel of Death Stalking Her Own At VA Hospital
If you don’t know who Reta Mays is yet, we will get to that in a minute. First, let us define terms in case anyone questions whether she “counts” among the Gacys and Rippers of the world. The FBI applies the term “serial killer” to offenders who commit two or more murders 1 with a period of time in between. The period in between can be days to months, even years, though it often shortens as the killers find it harder to resist their compulsion. Estimates of how many active serial killers are at work today range from 50 to thousands.
Not all serial killers leave their victims bloody and mangled like we normally see depicted in the media. Reta Mays didn’t. In fact, she left her victims in whole and pristine condition, without a mark on their bodies. Not one that you could see without very close examination, that is. The mark was so small the men were buried without anyone noticing it. It was as tiny as the tip of a needle.
Reta Mays was one of a particular subset of murderers known as medical serial killers, or “angels of death”. The term refers to medical workers and caregivers who quietly murder their patients in their beds. They tend to get away with it for quite a while; their victims are usually sick and their deaths attributed to natural causes. One method used by several of these killers, including Reta Mays, is to inject the patient with unnecessary insulin — most of her victims were not diabetic — causing their blood sugar to crash and leading to their deaths. Reta’s victims were elderly men, veterans of the United States Armed Forces, at a hospital entrusted to care for them as promised in return for their service to their country.
The story of Reta Mays began in the summer of 2017 at the Louis A. Johnson Veterans Medical Center in Clarksburg, West Virginia where she had worked as a nursing assistant since 2015. It was a story that played out for almost a year before doctors finally noticed that several patients in a particular ward had died suddenly of hypoglycemia, a drop in blood sugar. By then, there were 11 suspicious deaths. The hospital investigated, and within about a month Mays was fired. The office of the Inspector General for the Department of Veterans Affairs and the FBI took over the investigation, which went on for the next two years. Mays remained free.
Families were contacted, bodies were exhumed. Examinations found the tiny pinprick injection sites from insulin needles on the victims’ stomachs and legs. Tissue samples left over from a cremated victim revealed the truth as well. A “person of interest” was officially identified in the fall of 2019, though the person’s name was not disclosed. Facebook commenters who lived in the area speculated, some naming a name, deducing a connection with a recently fired nursing assistant. Some families filed a lawsuit against the VA, alleging systemic failures which allowed their loved ones to be preyed upon. But it was not until July 14, 2020 that the world learned the confirmed identity of the suspect, 46 year old Reta Mays.
The US Attorney for the Northern District of West Virginia announced that Mays had agreed to plead guilty to 7 counts of second degree murder and one count of assault with intent to commit murder. In that 8th charge, her victim didn’t die right away, making it difficult to prove the cause of death. The government will ask for consecutive life sentences. Mays was eligible for the federal death penalty, but the families of those she killed preferred the guilty plea to trial and uncertainty. She pleaded by information, meaning she waived her right to be indicted by a grand jury.
She committed her crimes in the span of 11 months; four of her victims died within the same 16 day period. When she injected one of her victims, 84 year old Archie Edgell, it caused his sugar to drop to 24 (anything less than 70 is low). Hospital staff saved and stabilized him- so she did it again, and he was unable to be revived. Edgell was one of four killed between March 24th and April 4th, 2018. One might expect that many sudden and unexplained deaths due to hypoglycemic shock in one ward in such a short time frame would have raised alarms, but it did not. It was months before the doctor would notice the suspicious cluster of deaths and call the Inspector General.
In addition to Archie Edgell, Mays murdered Robert Edge, Sr., 82; Robert Kozul, 89; Raymond Golden, 88; Felix McDermott, 82; George Shaw, Sr., 81; and William Holloway, 96. The 8th victim is not identified in accordance with his family’s wishes; he was 92 and died two weeks after Mays tried to kill him.
Mays’ official body count is 7, but the US Attorney indicated that there were other suspicious deaths that they could not prove. The real number may be 11.
Who is this woman? What kind of person coldly ends the lives of elderly veterans, helpless in their hospital beds?
There are not many details public about Mays. We do know that she, herself, is a veteran of the US Army. She was also formerly employed by the West Virginia Department of Corrections as a corrections officer at North Central Regional Jail.
In 2013, she was one of several defendants in a lawsuit brought by an inmate who alleged he was repeatedly beaten and abused by COs at the jail, including Mays. According to the plaintiff, he woke up after losing consciousness (due to his head being stomped) to hear Mays, who then spit in his face and stated “[h]ow do you like that mother fucker” and “you ain’t that tough now, are you?” This lawsuit was dismissed on summary judgment, with the Court finding that the defendant could not corroborate his claims.
Two years later, Mays landed at the VA hospital. She was assigned to Ward 3A, which housed patients too ill for discharge but not in need of intensive care. In July 2017, she killed her first known victim, 82 year old Robert Edge. The last man to die at her hands was Raymond Golden, killed on June 3, 2018. On June 18, she injected her last would-be victim, whose ultimate cause of death could not be proven.
Just over 2 years later, after steadfastly professing her innocence, she pleaded guilty to it all. She stood in federal court and said “yes” each time the judge asked her if she had done what she was accused of. She was remanded to the same jail at which she once worked. She now awaits sentencing, where the government will ask for 7 consecutive life sentences for the murders and another 20 for the assault. She and her defense team will no doubt plead for mercy and offer a slew of excuses, reasons why her behavior warrants leniency. An attorney for the families of her victims hinted that Mays will claim post-traumatic stress disorder, a grotesque use of a condition so very common in veterans who do not methodically murder helpless elderly men.
It’s a convenient excuse for Mays in a story that makes us search for the answer to the question of why. Serial killers have been studied at length since the term was coined 40+ years ago to try to answer that question. There are sexual sadists, psychotics, thrill killers, and other attempts to categorize this type of murder. But Mays belongs to a more specific subset: the angel of death killer.
So-called “angels of death” are caregivers, usually medical professionals and often nurses, who kill the patients in their care. Cases of this type go back to the 1800s and the perpetrators can be men or women. Their motives vary, from financial gain to the thrill of power and control over life and death. Some are speculated to be afflicted with Munchausen by Proxy, in which they crave the attention they receive when a patient in their care dies. Some see themselves as angels of mercy, believing they are relieving their charges from the grips of sickness and death. There are also cases of caregivers who bring their patients to the brink of death, only to save them at the last minute, enjoying the praise they receive for their heroic actions; sometimes they fail to revive their victim.
Regardless of which, if any, of these categories Reta Mays belongs in, the veterans she was to care for are gone and their families are left to grieve. But the grief is compounded by anger, at the killer and at the institution in which she was allowed to operate. While nobody made Reta Mays a killer, there is some extra blame to go around, according to the lawsuit pending against the VA by several of the families.
As a nursing assistant, Mays was not permitted to administer any medication. She was not supposed to have access to the insulin which, according to the lawsuit, was left unattended on a medication cart rather than locked away. They allege further that the sudden episodes of hypoglycemia should have alerted the staff to a problem and warranted investigation as to why non-diabetic or otherwise stable patients suddenly experienced the drastic decline and drop in blood sugar. Not all victims were given autopsies.
One of the lawsuits quotes Section 1050.01 of the VHA Handbook:
Clinicians and organizational leaders must work together to ensure that disclosure is a routing part of adverse events… Honestly discussing the difficult truth that an adverse event has occurred demonstrates respect for the patient and a commitment to improving care.
The lawsuits allege that the VA also failed to timely report the suspicious deaths. Multiple patients dying in the same way should have prompted a report to the Veterans Health Administration of a “sentinel event,” an adverse event that results in death, but no such reports were made. They allege that the Louis A. Johnson facility has a pattern of failing to fulfill their non-discretionary duty to report sentinel events. The families believe that Mays could have been caught earlier and some of their lost loved ones could have been saved if not for this negligence. While the killer is answering for her actions, it remains to be seen whether the institution who gave her cover will pay for their part.
The insidiousness of killers like Mays is especially disturbing because of their positions of trust and the expectation that they will offer comfort and care to their victims. Their motivations may differ from the typical serial killer, the creeps in the shadows who pervade movies and our nightmares. But in the end, the reason people like Mays kill is the same reason that people like BTK and the Night Stalker do: because they want to.