2 former Holyoke Soldiers’ Home officials face charges in state probe

The former superintendent and medical director of the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home are both facing criminal charges in connection with the COVID-19 outbreak at the facility that killed at least 76 veterans, state Attorney General Maura Healey said Friday.

a train traveling down train tracks near a building: The Holyoke Soldiers' Home.

© Patrick Johnson
The Holyoke Soldiers’ Home.

Bennett Walsh, 50, the former superintendent, and Dr. David Clinton, 71, were indicted Thursday on 10 criminal neglect charges each, Healey’s office said. They’ll be arraigned in Hampden Superior Court at a later date. Neither man has been taken into custody.

Speaking at a late-morning news conference, Healey said the case against the two men is believed to be the first prosecution in the country stemming from an outbreak at a nursing home. And, she said, more probes are ongoing in Massachusetts.

“We have active and ongoing investigations into a number of facilities across the state,” she said.

Asked if anyone else would be charged in connection with the Holyoke probe, Healey said prosecutors charged Walsh and Clinton because “they were the ultimate decision makers” on the outbreak at the home, but “if new evidence comes to light, we would, of course, look at that.”

Healey extended her condolences to victims’ families, some of whom she spoke with earlier Friday.

“My heart goes out to the families who lost loved ones at the Holyoke Soldiers Home during this coronavirus pandemic,” Healey said, adding that the outbreak claimed the lives of “veterans who served our country bravely and with honor.”

Tracy Miner, a lawyer for Walsh, insisted Friday that her client wasn’t responsible for the devastation wrought by the outbreak.

“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 in a statement. “Mr. Walsh has spent his entire life in the service of our country, first in active duty in the Marine Corps for 24 years and then serving other veterans as the Superintendent of the Holyoke Soldiers Home. 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.”

The charges follow the June release of a damning report from former federal prosecutor Mark W. Pearlstein that found leaders at the home made “utterly baffling” mistakes in responding to the devastating outbreak. That report was commissioned by Gov. Charlie Baker.

“The Administration appreciates the Attorney General’s thorough investigation of the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home tragedy and expects the individuals responsible to be held accountable for their actions, subject to all of the requirements of a full and fair trial,” said Baker press secretary Sarah Finlaw in a statement Friday.

Healey’s office said Friday that prosecutors had launched a probe in April “after learning of serious issues with COVID-19 infection control procedures at” the home.

The case, officials said, is “principally focused” on a March 27 decision to consolidate two dementia units into one, which led to symptomatic residents, asymptomatic veterans, and confirmed positive cases being kept “within feet of each other.”

“The AG’s Office alleges that these decisions, which were ultimately the responsibility of Walsh and Clinton, were reckless and increased the likelihood that asymptomatic veterans at SHH would contract COVID-19 and put them at higher risk of death and harm,” the statement said.

Faced with staffing shortages, Healey’s office said, the home consolidated the two units, totaling 42 residents. Veterans who were positive or symptomatic for COVID-19 were allegedly placed six to a room in dorm-style units meant for four people.

Asymptomatic residents, Healey’s office said, were placed in nine beds in the dining room. However, the office said, several residents allegedly categorized as “asymptomatic” were showing symptoms of COVID-19 “at the time of the consolidation or shortly thereafter.”

In addition, beds in the dining room were allegedly just a few feet apart from each other and next to the room housing infected veterans.

“The residents in the consolidated unit were allegedly mingling together, regardless of COVID-19 status,” the statement said. “The AG’s Office alleges that this decision was reckless from an infection control perspective and placed the asymptomatic veterans at an increased risk of contracting COVID-19.”

However Miner, Walsh’s lawyer, said Friday that her client relied on the advice of medical professionals in making decisions to protect residents.

“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,” Miner said. “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.”

Walsh and Collins each face five counts alleging they “wantonly or recklessly” committed or allowed bodily injury to an elderly or disabled person, plus five counts each that they committed or allowed abuse, neglect, or mistreatment to an elderly or disabled person.

Healey said the charges related to five veterans placed in the dining room, three of whom were infected with COVID-19, including one who died.

Pearlstein also zeroed in on the consolidation of the units in his June report. The report called the conditions in the combined unit “deplorable,” with insufficient amounts of morphine and comfort medications to tend to dying veterans.

The decision meant 40 veterans were crowded into a space designed to hold 25, providing what the report called the “opposite of infection control.” A recreational therapist who was instructed to help with the move said she felt like she was “walking [the veterans] to their death,” Pearlstein’s report said.

Walsh was fired in June, but Hampden Superior Court Judge John S. Ferrara recently ruled that his termination — in the form of a letter signed by state Health and Human Services Secretary Marylou Sudders and endorsed by Baker — was “invalid and is void.”

However, Ferrera wrote that had Baker asked the home’s board of trustees to fire the superintendent, “there was no reason to believe that the Board would not have complied.” Baker appoints the home’s board.

US Attorney Andrew E. Lelling’s office has also launched a federal probe into the outbreak at the home.

Healey acknowledged Friday that criminal charges won’t bring back any of the veterans who died. But she added that she hopes “sincerely that it provides those affected by this tragedy some solace that we are doing everything we can to hold accountable the individuals we believe are responsible here.”

The soldiers’ home outbreak was part of a pandemic that has killed thousands in the state. The state had tallied 9,362 confirmed and probable case deaths from the virus as of Thursday.

Material from prior Globe stories was used in this report.

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