By ARIELLE MITROPOULOS and AARON KATERSKY, ABC News
(HOLYOKE, Mass.) — Two former leaders of the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home in Massachusetts have been indicted in connection with the COVID-19 deaths of nearly a dozen veterans, Attorney General Maura Healey announced Friday.
Former Superintendent Bennett Walsh and former Medical Director Dr. David Clinton each have been charged with criminal neglect following an investigation into the facility, where at least 76 residents died of COVID-19.
Each defendant is facing five counts of charges of caretaker who wantonly or recklessly commits or permits bodily injury to an elder or disabled person, and five counts of caretaker who wantonly or recklessly commits or permits abuse, neglect or mistreatment to an elder or disabled person. Walsh and Clinton will be arraigned in Hampden County Superior Court at a later date.
“This was an outbreak at the home that we know claimed at least 76 lives … the lives of veterans who served our country bravely and with honor. They risked their lives from the beaches of Normandy to the jungles of Vietnam, and to know that they died under the most horrific circumstances is truly shocking,” Healey said.
The prosecution focused on a March 27, 2020, decision to consolidate two dementia units into one, which resulted in the placement of symptomatic residents, including confirmed COVID-19-positive residents, and asymptomatic residents, within feet of each other, increasing their exposure to each other.
Healey alleged that Walsh and Clinton were “ultimately responsible for the decision on March 27 that led to tragic and deadly results,” of combining the 42 veterans into a single unit that usually accommodates 25 beds. Six or seven veterans were placed in rooms meant to hold only four people. Because of overcrowding, nine beds also were placed in a dining room.
“Some of the residents in the dining room had symptoms of COVID-19, some did not. The beds of these veterans in the dining room were just a few feet apart from each other,” Healey said. “Some were next to the room where confirmed positive residents were located, and residents in the unit were mingling together regardless of their COVID-19 status.”
Healey said that these “reckless” decisions placed asymptomatic veterans at greater risk of contracting the virus — and a greater risk of death.
“While this criminal indictment cannot bring back their loved ones, I do hope, sincerely, that it provides those affected by this tragedy some solace that we are doing everything we can to hold accountable the individuals who we believe are responsible here,” Healey said.
In a statement, an attorney for Walsh wrote that “the Attorney General is blaming the effects of a deadly virus that our state and federal governments have not been able to stop on Bennett Walsh. He, like other nursing home administrators throughout the Commonwealth and nation could not prevent the virus from coming to the Home or stop its spread once it arrived there. At all times, Mr. Walsh relied on the medical professionals to do what was best for the veterans given the tragic circumstances of a virus in a home with veterans in close quarters, severe staffing shortages and the lack of outside help from state officials.”
An attorney for Walsh told ABC News he intends to plead not guilty and to vigorously defend himself against the allegations. An attorney for Clinton didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment from ABC News.
Over 90 families of Holyoke Soldiers’ Home veterans have been consulted and interviewed as a part of the investigation.
“I think that Bennett Walsh and Dr. Clinton should have to dig every grave that hasn’t been done yet — as well as whatever time they receive if they’re found guilty,” said Susan Kenney, whose father, Charles Lowell, served in the Air Force from 1960 to 1965 during the Vietnam War and died at the facility earlier this year. “They need to accept responsibility and account for their behaviors and the actions that they took.”
The Holyoke Soldiers’ Home coalition, on behalf of family members, also released a statement that read, in part: “Our Veterans and senior citizens deserve the greatest respect and should always receive care with the greatest honor and dignity as is the mission of our state for the Soldiers’ Home. We now hope that justice will prevail and that the state builds a new Home in Holyoke as a lasting memorial to all those who have died.”
The attorney general’s report is the second of four investigations into failures at the facility. Earlier this summer, an investigation lead by former federal prosecutor Mark Pearlstein also found that the facility’s leadership team made substantial errors in responding to the outbreak.
The two other investigations, which are still ongoing, include a federal investigation led U.S. Attorney for Massachusetts Andrew E. Lelling and an investigation conducted by the Massachusetts Office of the Inspector General Glenn A. Cunha.
Healey confirmed that her office is actively investigating several other facilities that suffered high numbers of coronavirus-related deaths. Since the beginning of the pandemic, over 6,000 probable or confirmed deaths have been reported in long-term care facilities in Massachusetts — approximately two-thirds of the state’s total reported death count.
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