Nursing assistant Reta Mays killed patients with insulin injections at a VA hospital in Clarksburg, W. Va.
Serial killer
Among the victims, from left: Feelix McDermott, William Holloway, George Shaw and Russell Posey
| Credit: Courtesy (4)

In March 2018, the usually active George Shaw began to experience weakness and trouble breathing. Worried about a flare-up of a previously diagnosed heart condition, his family took him to the ER at the Louis A. Johnson VA Medical Center in Clarksburg, W. Va.

Hydration helped Shaw, 81, improve quickly. Doctors told his wife, Norma, and daughter Linda that the decorated veteran who'd served 28 years in the Air Force during the Korean and Vietnam war eras would be home soon. Meantime, he was admitted for observation to the hospital's Ward 3A.

"He was doing well," says Linda, who'd followed her dad's example and served 22 years in the Air Force herself. "Then all of a sudden, he had a fall in the hallway. After the fall in the hallway, it was deterioration of his entire body. No one knew why he got dizzy, no one knew why his blood sugar dropped, no one knew why anything happened."

"It's like he was trapped in his body," Norma, 80, tells PEOPLE in this week's issue. "He couldn't talk, couldn't get up."

Nineteen days after being admitted, he died in hospice care on April 10, 2018.

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Three months later a knock on Norma's door brought a cataclysmic shock. FBI agents told her they didn't think George had died from natural causes — and they wanted her approval to exhume his body. Her jaw dropped, she says. "It just confirmed the fact that we knew something was not right."

George Shaw
George Shaw, at left, and wife Norma
| Credit: courtesy

It was a year before she learned the truth: George Shaw had been murdered – and was neither the first nor the last veteran to fall prey to a serial killer stalking Ward 3A.

In an extensive investigation that spanned two years and included more than 250 interviews and hundreds of pieces of evidence, authorities uncovered a chilling murder spree undertaken by a calculating killer armed with syringes: nursing assistant Reta Mays, 46. On July 14, 2020, Mays pleaded guilty to seven counts of second-degree murder and one count of assault with intent to murder an eighth victim by injecting each with lethal, unprescribed doses of insulin.

In October 2020 the U.S. government settled a civil suit naming Mays and blaming oversight failures at the VA hospital for the similar death of a ninth patient. Additional suits are pending.

"We will never truly know how many veterans Reta Mays killed," says Charleston, W. Va., attorney Tony O'Dell, who represents several of the victims' families.

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Prosecutors revealed a swift trail of death before Mays was suspected and transferred from patient care in June 2018, raising multiple questions about why her deeds were not detected sooner.

The first victim died in July 2017. The second died the following January, then a third that March. Three victims, including Shaw, died in April. Two more died in June, and one succumbed in July, two weeks after Mays injected him, according to her plea.

Authorities say they have not learned her motives, and Mays' attorneys did not respond to PEOPLE's request for comment.  

But as she awaits a scheduled sentencing in February — Mays faces several life terms in prison — the families of her victims are left with endless grief and questions.

Says Vincent Posey, whose father Russell, 92, a WWII Navy veteran, was the last of Mays' known victims: "I want to know why."