Two Holyoke Soldiers’ Home leaders charged with criminal neglect after COVID-19 kills 76 veterans
'They risked their lives from the beaches at Normandy to the jungles of Vietnam. To know they died under the most horrific circumstances is shocking.'
Holyoke Soldiers’ Home Superintendent Bennett Walsh and Dr. David Clinton, the home’s former medical director, have been charged with criminal neglect in connection with a COVID-19 outbreak at the facility that killed dozens of veterans.
Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey’s office confirmed the charges Friday morning, and said Walsh, 50, and Clinton, 71, were indicted Thursday by a statewide grand jury. The men each face five counts of two separate charges: caretaker who wantonly or recklessly commits or permits bodily injury to an elder or disabled person, and a similarly worded charge pertaining to the alleged “abuse, neglect or mistreatment” of an elderly or disabled person.
The charges come six months after Healey’s office began investigating the outbreak at the 247-bed long-term care facility that claimed the lives of 76 veterans and sickened many others — some of whom are still recovering at the Soldiers’ Home or other facilities.
Healey said she believes the case is the first in the country brought against nursing home administrators since the pandemic began, adding that there are ongoing investigations into other long-term care facilities with high death rates due to COVID-19.
“We owed it to the families who lost loved ones and these veterans who served their country to get to the bottom of what happened,” Healey said.
She and her staff interviewed 90 families impacted by the outbreak at the Soldiers’ Home, Healey said.
“They risked their lives from the beaches at Normandy to the jungles of Vietnam,” Healey said. “To know they died under the most horrific circumstances is shocking.”
Tracy Miner, a Boston attorney representing Walsh in the criminal case, said neither Walsh nor other nursing home administrators across the nation could prevent the virus from entering their facilities — or from stopping its spread once it arrived. “It is unfortunate 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,” Miner said.
Clinton, resigned over the outbreak on June 24. He has not responded to previous requests for comment and the phone number for his private practice in South Hadley has been disconnected. His attorney has not responded to a request for comment.
The state’s investigation focused on the decision by Soldiers’ Home leaders to consolidate two dementia units into one on March 27, just before the death toll began to climb.
The same weekend, a refrigeration truck was parked outside as a makeshift morgue and a surplus of body bags were delivered, according to a report authored by Boston attorney Mark Pearlstein and commissioned by Gov. Charlie Baker.
Pearstein called the decision “catastrophic” and “baffling,” characterizing it as the early tipping point of the outbreak at the Soldiers’ Home. Pearlstein’s report was made public and Walsh was fired the same day. He had previously been suspended, and has challenged his firing in court.
Healey said her investigation and the charges focus even more specifically on the choice to put nine seemingly asymptomatic veterans in a dining hall as staff shuffled the veterans around, attempting to contain the virus.
“The residents thought to be asymptomatic were placed in nine beds in the dining room. However, the AG’s Office alleges that several of the residents that Soldiers’ Home categorized as ‘asymptomatic’ were, in fact, showing symptoms consistent with COVID-19 at the time of the consolidation or shortly thereafter,” Healey said.
Walsh and Clinton will be arraigned on the charges in Hampden Superior Court at a later date, Healey said.
Healey was scheduled to discuss the indictments at 11 a.m. Friday.
The outbreak is also the subject of an investigation by the U.S. attorney’s office. That investigation is active and ongoing, a spokeswoman said earlier this week.
This is a developing story that will be updated after additional reporting.
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Related: Management of state-run veterans homes to be investigated following COVID-19 deaths