Ex-Holyoke Soldiers’ Home chief, medical director indicted on neglect charges in deadly COVID-19 outbreak

HOLYOKE, MASS. (WHDH) - Two people who were running the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home when a COVID-19 outbreak ran rampant through the facility earlier this year have been indicted on criminal charges in connection with the deaths of at least 76 veteran residents, officials announced Friday.

Former Superintendent Bennett Walsh, 50, of Springfield, and former Medical Director Dr. David Clinton, 71, of South Hadley, are both facing charges including five counts of criminal neglect and five counts of causing serious bodily injuries to elder of disabled person for alleged decisions that accelerated the spread of the disease at the home for aging veterans, Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey said during a virtual news conference.

“We began this investigation on behalf of the families who lost loved ones under tragic circumstances and to honor these men who bravely served our country,” Healey said. “They risked their lives from the beaches of Normandy to the jungles of Vietnam…It’s truly heartbreaking to think how the veterans of this facility suffered and lost their lives.”

Healey described the investigation as the first case in the country involving criminal charges linked to long-term care facility deaths during the pandemic.

“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 Holyoke Soldiers’ Home Coalition said in a statement after the indictments were announced.

Walsh was fired in June after investigators released a 174-page report detailing “terrible errors” made by the superintendent and his leadership team that helped the disease run rampant at the home.

Investigators concluded that Walsh was unfit to preside over the facility, especially amid a pandemic that exacted an unimaginable toll of death and devastation throughout the United States.

The most substantial error made by the home’s leadership team came on March 27, when they decided to move all veterans from one of the two locked dementia units into the other locked unit, where a total of 42 residents would be crowded in with veterans already living there, investigators said.

At the time, each unit was said to have had some veterans who were COVID-19 positive, some who were suspected of having the disease, and others who were displaying no symptoms.

Healey said the charges against Walsh and Clinton are related to the deaths of five asymptomatic veterans who were moved into the dining room of the consolidated unit.

“We are alleging that these decisions, which were ultimately the responsibility of Walsh and Clinton, were reckless and increased the likelihood that asymptomatic veterans would contract COVID-19 and put them at higher risk of death and harm,” Healey said.

Charles Lowell, 77, served in the Air Force during the Vietnam War. He was among the veterans who died as a result of the outbreak. His daughter, Susan Kenney, said she “had no reason to believe that he wasn’t going to live to see his next birthday.”

“The poor care and the poor decisions that were made there…That’s what resulted in my father’s death,” Kenney told 7NEWS.

Kenney also said she feels that the indictments are not enough.

“I think that any licensed professional that did things like, knowing it was wrong…Should be held just as responsible. They should have been screaming from rooftops that this was going on.”

Earlier this week, a Hampden Superior Court judge ruled that Gov. Charlie Baker’s administration wrongfully fired Bennett Walsh, the former head of a home for aging veterans.

Walsh has defended his actions and accused the Baker administration of denying the home emergency aid as staff worked to protect the residents from the virus.

Walsh’s lawyer has argued that the home’s board of trustees can hire and fire the superintendent.

“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,” his lawyer said in a statement. “The Attorney General should not be scapegoating Mr. Walsh, who was on the front lines trying his best to do whatever he could to help the Veterans of the Holyoke Soldiers Home, including asking for help from state officials and the National Guard, which arrived much too late.

Both Walsh and Clinton will be arraigned at a later date.

An investigation remains ongoing.

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