CLARKSBURG, W.Va. — Four months after Melanie Proctor’s father was buried with military honors for his combat service in Vietnam, she came home to her farm to find an unfamiliar tan SUV in the driveway.
Two federal agents stepped out into the hot sun in August 2018.
“We’re here about your father,” the FBI agent said. “We don’t believe he died of natural causes.”
Flipping open a laptop on her kitchen counter, the agents showed Proctor her dad’s records from the three days he had been hospitalized at the local VA medical center.
What the line graph showed was alarming.
In the early morning hours that April, Felix McDermott’s blood sugar had bottomed to dangerous levels. The retired Army sergeant his family knew as “Pap” died the next morning from severe hypoglycemia.
Someone had given her father, who was not a diabetic, a deadly injection of insulin, the investigators told Proctor — and he was not the only one.
Multiple veterans had died under similar circumstances on the same ward, and the agents had come to Proctor’s farm in a hamlet 42 miles east of Clarksburg to ask the unthinkable: They wanted to dig up Pap’s body.
Proctor agreed, and her father was one of seven bodies exhumed in an investigation of 11 suspicious deaths at the Louis A. Johnson VA Medical Center, according to a person familiar with the case who, like others, spoke on the condition of anonymity because it is ongoing.
The 14-month inquiry is the latest criminal investigation to engulf the Department of Veterans Affairs, intensifying questions about whether the country’s largest health care system is doing enough to protect the veterans in its care.
The cascade of inquiries threatens to undermine trust in the long-troubled agency and undercut President Donald Trump’s promises to reform the system, the foundation of his pitch to veterans as he runs for reelection.
In Clarksburg, a small Appalachian community four hours west of Washington, hospital officials said they alerted VA leaders as soon as they learned that their medical staff suspected foul play.
The deaths from the second half of 2017 through July 2018, initially found to be of natural causes, are now being investigated as homicides. Federal authorities say they have identified a person of interest in the case.
The probe has come to focus on a now-fired hospital employee, a woman who worked the overnight shift as a nursing assistant and left last year, according to people familiar with the case.
The Washington Post is not using the woman’s name because she has not been charged. Through her son, she declined to speak to a reporter.
“When you have someone who is 80-something years old and they had health issues, you’re thinking, ‘This was their time,’ ” said Proctor, 53. “You don’t question it. None of us had a clue something was wrong.”
Investigators have identified similarities in nearly a dozen deaths: Elderly patients in private rooms were injected in their abdomen and limbs with insulin the hospital had not ordered — some with multiple shots, according to people familiar with the case. The insulin, which was quickly absorbed, was given late at night when the hospital staff had emptied out. Within hours, the veterans’ blood sugar levels plummeted.
The person of interest was assigned to monitor several of the veterans who died in what are known as one-on-one bedside vigils for patients who need extra attention.
Despite these common denominators, the medical staff and those with oversight of hospital procedures were slow to identify a pattern — a failure that could have cost lives, several people familiar with the investigation said.
The Clarksburg medical center reported 26 deaths from late 2017 through June 2018, according to an internal VA database that tracks mortality rates across the system. The suspicious deaths accounted for close to half of them, according to the data reviewed by the Post.
The case has also brought new scrutiny to VA’s internal controls. The medical surgical ward in Clarksburg, known as 3A, did not have surveillance cameras, according to people familiar with the case. The woman is believed to have had improper access to the medical supply room. The medicine carts on the floor also were routinely left unlocked.
Wesley Walls, a hospital spokesman, said the facility has “many protocols in place to safeguard medication.”
But lawmakers are still demanding answers.
“All of us are up in arms,” said Sen. Joe Manchin III, D-W.Va., describing the reaction of his colleagues on the Senate committee that oversees veterans’ care. He said he is incredulous that hospital leaders in Clarksburg took so long to put the pieces together.
“You mean to tell me that for nine months you didn’t know what was going on in your hospital?” Manchin said. “Either you didn’t care, or there was a lack of competency.”
The insulin deaths have set off rumors and unease in a community where the VA medical center is a local institution.
Linda Shaw, an Air Force veteran who has post-traumatic stress disorder, has canceled her therapy appointments at the hospital, which she says she is afraid to enter.
“I do not feel safe there.”