The Veterans Affairs secretary is calling for his department’s inspector general to speed up the investigation into a string of suspicious deaths at a West Virginia veterans hospital amid reports of a second confirmed homicide at the facility.
“We are learning what we know from the media,” Robert Wilkie said Thursday during an appearance on Fox News. “This investigation was started by the independent inspector general before I became secretary … It is time for the inspector general to finally end this investigation and answer the questions our grieving families have. It has been far too long.”
Earlier this week, NPR reported that family members of George Nelson Shaw Sr. — a veteran who died under mysterious circumstances at the Louis A. Johnson VA Medical Center in Clarksburg last year — received an autopsy report from federal authorities classifying the death as a suicide.
Shaw, 81, died of as a result of an insulin injection even though he did not suffer from diabetes. Earlier this month, lawyers for the family of 82-year-old Felix Kirk McDermott released documents showing he died of similar circumstances around the same time at the hospital, and that a military autopsy had ruled the death a homicide.
Lawmakers have said as many as 11 deaths at the facility in 2018 may be connected to the same criminal behavior. The Inspector General has been coordinating an investigation into the deaths with federal and local law enforcement officials for more than a year.
Wilkie, who took office in late July of 2018, noted that the wrongdoing predates his leadership tenure and that the inspector general’s office operates independently of his administration. Like local lawmakers, he is anxious to get more answers.
In a statement earlier this week, VA Inspector General Mike Missal said “the care and safety of our veterans and their families remain our top priority” for his office but would not release any other details of the ongoing review.
No individual has been named as the possible attacker in the crimes. VA officials have said the investigation does not involve any current employees at the West Virginia facility and they have cooperated with every step of the investigation.
Wilkie said in the TV interview that “as soon as (local) officials heard something was wrong, they immediately reported it to the authorities.” He downplayed concerns raised by lawyers that the crimes could be indicative of larger systemic problems at VA hospitals.
“We have 400,000 employees,” he said. “The idea that something like this would be widespread strains credulity. The biggest thing we can do now is for the inspector general to get us answers.”
Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., on Thursday said he has spoken with Attorney General William Barr to ensure the Department of Justice will assist in the ongoing investigation and respond swiftly when details emerge.
Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.