Lawyer: Family would have requested autopsy in VA death

PARKERSBURG — An autopsy would likely have been performed had the circumstances been disclosed of how a patient died at the Louis A. Johnson VA Medical Center, said an attorney representing the families of veterans who died at the hospital under suspicious means.

John Hallman, 87, passed away in June 2018, the day after he was admitted to the medical center for treatment of liver problems and signs of pneumonia. Hallman served in the U.S. Navy during the Korean War.

The family was never told that the amount of insulin in Hallman’s body had spiked upward at the time of his death, said Tony O’Dell, a Charleston attorney representing Hallman’s family and the families of other veterans dying under suspicious circumstances at the medical center. Attorney Harry Deitzler is co-counsel.

Hallman was cremated. Had the family been told of the insulin in his body and that there was no reason for its presence, “we would probably have had an autopsy,” O’Dell said.

Investigators with the independent Office of the Inspector General in the Department of Veterans Affairs in November contacted Debbie Cutler, Hallman’s daughter, and showed the family the amount of insulin in his body spiked just before he died.

Hallman is the third veteran identified among others dying under suspicious circumstances at the medical center.

The first disclosure of an investigation underway at the medical center came in a claim against the Department of Veterans Affairs from Melanie Proctor of Ellenboro over the April 9, 2018, death of her father, retired Army Sgt. Felix K. McDermott, 82, from a medically unneeded or prescribed insulin injection causing hypoglycemia, or severe low-blood sugar. Nine or 10 other deaths under similar circumstances may have occurred, the claim said.

A medical examiner performing McDermott’s autopsy in October ruled the death a homicide.

Several days later it was reported George Nelson Shaw Sr., 81, of Wallace, W.Va., died April 10, 2018, also from severely low blood sugar. He was injected with insulin at four points on his body, according to the autopsy, and the medical examiner also ruled that death a homicide.

While the Hallman case has not been ruled a homicide, Hallman was on the same floor as the others and died under similar circumstances, O’Dell said.

Federal authorities started an investigation in July 2018 after the hospital’s Quality Management Team learned of other suspicious deaths. A person of interest in the investigation cited in press reports was removed from their position at the medical center, according to Dr. Glenn Snider, director of the medical center.

The investigation is being conducted by the VA Inspector General and the U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of West Virginia.