When retired Army Sergeant Felix McDermott died last year at a Department of Veterans Affairs hospital in West Virginia, his family believed he had succumbed to natural causes.
But in January, McDermott’s family was shocked to learn that the 82-year-old was murdered.
Now, lawyers for two families say, authorities have ruled that Air Force veteran George Nelson Shaw, 81, also was murdered while a patient at the same facility. Investigators are examining additional cases of veterans who similarly died from unexpected blood sugar episodes while hospitalized at the Louis A. Johnson VA Medical Center in Clarksburg, West Virginia.
Although many of the patients were elderly, they expected to leave the hospital alive, a law enforcement source with knowledge of the investigation tells PEOPLE.
“It’s not some angel of death situation where these people were terminal and on their death beds,” says attorney Tony O’Dell, who represents five families in claims connected to the deaths. “They all were getting better.”
Both McDermott and Shaw, who were not diabetic, died after being injected with insulin, O’Dell says.
McDermott’s daughter, Melanie Proctor, tells PEOPLE: “We had my dad where we thought he was safe. How did this even happen to him and to any of the other families?”
The deaths and their similarities came to light over time, after physicians at the Clarksburg VA noticed something deeply amiss.
“Doctors didn’t understand why there was a cluster of patients who died from unexplained low blood sugar,” says the law enforcement source. The source is not authorized to speak to the press, and spoke on the condition of anonymity.
On June 18, 2018, several doctors officially raised the alarm, according to a timeline issued on Thursday by Senator Joe Manchin (D-WV). The doctors reported eight episodes of unexplained low blood sugar among hospitalized patients.
The alarm quickly travelled up the channels to Washington, D.C., and officials launched an investigation.
“Immediately upon discovering these serious allegations, Louis A. Johnson VA Medical Center leadership brought them to the attention of VA’s Inspector General while putting safeguards in place to ensure the safety of each and every one of our patients,” wrote the facility spokesman, Wesley R. Walls, in a statement to PEOPLE.
Officials identified a person of interest, who soon was fired, the law enforcement source says.
PEOPLE has reached out to the individual, who has not been charged.
In October, investigators exhumed McDermott’s body, followed by Shaw’s.
Both bodies were sent to the Armed Forces Medical Examiner in Dover, Delaware, O’Dell says. The results, he says, showed insulin injection sites. The verdicts: murder.
Families Feel ‘Betrayed’
George Shaw’s family is devastated, their attorney, David Glover, tells PEOPLE.
“This is like a punch to the gut,” says Glover, who notes that Shaw once worked at the facility where he was killed. “The family trusted the VA. They feel betrayed.”
So, too, does Proctor.
“My dad always said, if anything medically bad happened to him, he wanted to be in the VA,” Proctor says. When McDermott suffered a stroke in 2014, Proctor placed him in a nursing home at the Clarksburg VA.
“The whole family pretty much moved in,” Proctor says. “We brought meals to the VA. On Thanksgiving or Christmas, if you wanted a holiday dinner, you went to the VA.”
On April 6, 2018, McDermott inhaled food, and developed aspiration pneumonia, Proctor says. He went into the main hospital. While there, the “fun dad” — who was known for his practical jokes, and who once engaged the teenaged Proctor in a rotten-tomato fight — showed signs of his old spunk. He joked with his nurses. He steadily improved. The family expected him to move back to the nursing home the following week.
But a 1 a.m. emergency phone call brought Proctor racing to the hospital, where her father had suffered a lethal drop in blood sugar. He died on April 9, 2018.
To learn that the apparently natural death was actually murder has left Proctor grappling for answers.
“I don’t understand how someone could do this to someone who was in the shape my dad was in,” Proctor says.
The person of interest so far has not shed light on the situation.
When called on the phone by PEOPLE, the person did not pick up calls nor respond to telephone voice messages, nor to a message left in conversation with a family member.
The VA’s Office of Inspector General is working with federal law enforcement to investigate potential wrongdoing resulting in patient deaths at the hospital, VA Inspector General Michael J. Missal wrote in a statement obtained by PEOPLE.
On Thursday, VA Secretary Robert Wilkie asked the Inspector General to speed up the investigation.
“It is time for the Inspector General, who is not controlled by me or the White House, to finally end this investigation, to answer the questions that our grieving families have,” Wilkie said in an interview on Fox News. “It has been far too long.”
“My dad would be one of the first ones screaming the loudest to say, ‘Fix this,'” Proctor says. “Now it’s my turn to take his place. I want this fixed. I don’t want another family to go through this.”