The former superintendent and medical director of the Holyoke Soldiers' Home will face criminal charges for their alleged roles in the COVID-19 outbreak that killed 76 veterans at the state-run facility earlier this year.
Mass. Attorney General Maura Healey announced the charges against Bennett Walsh and Dr. David Clinton during a press conference Friday, noting that this appears to be the "the first criminal case in the country brought against those involved in nursing homes during the COVID-19 pandemic."
On Thursday, a grand jury indicted Walsh and Clinton each on five counts of causing serious bodily injury and five counts of criminal neglect.
According to Healey, the defendants face five charges in each category for the five veterans whose stories the grand jury heard. Bennet and Clinton are expected to be arraigned in Hampden County Superior Court in the near future.
"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 we believe are responsible here," Healey told reporters Friday.
And though no single action caused the deadly outbreak, Healy said a six-month investigation made it clear that combining two dementia units in the building on March 27 caused the most harm. It was a move that mixed COVID-positive residents with COVID-negative residents, and, as Healey put it, "never should have happened."
Despite objections from employees, the home's leadership team made the call to move residents because they were concerned about staffing shortages. At the time, the coronavirus had been sweeping through the facility for more than a week, and staff — who lacked proper personal protective equipment — were falling ill and calling out.
Rooms that were designed for four people were suddenly crammed with six, and staff had to put nine veterans in a dining room because there weren’t enough bedrooms. In total, 42 veterans were living on a floor designed for 25 at exactly the time the home should have been putting more effort into isolating residents.
"To think about this now, knowing how contagious and deadly this virus is and continues to be is most disturbing, and the alleged details are even worse," Healey said. "We are alleging that Walsh and Clinton were ultimately responsible for [the] decision on March 27 that led to tragic and deadly results."
Clinton, the former medical director, has not released any sort of public statement, but a lawyer for Walsh chastised Healey for "scapegoating" her client.
"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," attorney Tracy Minor wrote in an email. "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 independent state investigation into the outbreak released in June also put much of the blame on Walsh. As the report's authors noted, Walsh is "a polarizing figure" who was unqualified for the supervisor job. Employees at the nursing homes described him as retaliatory and vindictive, and said he had angers issues and poor communication skills.
Another lawyer for Walsh has repeatedly called the state report inaccurate and said his client only ever acted in what he believed to be the residents' best interest, including reaching out to his superiors in the state for assistance.
Ahead of delivering these charges, Healey said her office spoke with about 90 family members who had loved ones living in the Soldiers' Home.
"It's truly heartbreaking to think about how residents and staff suffered at this facility," she said. "From the time we became aware of this, we made it a priority. We owed it to the families who lost loved ones. And these veterans who served our country to get to the bottom of what happened."
In a private Facebook group for family members, many left comments thanking Healey and noting that this is one step closer to justice.
In a statement, the Holyoke Soldiers' Home Coalition, which includes many families, called the news "another event that brings up some very difficult memories for all of us."
"Today's announcement causes each of us to pause and reflect on what happened to our loved ones," the statement said. "We now want our state to move forward and do the right thing to ensure this never happens again to any other Veteran."
Meanwhile, for some employees at the Soldiers' Home, news of the criminal charges was bittersweet.
Joe Ramirez, a certified nursing assistant, was working at the facility Friday morning when staff started hearing that Healey was going to announce the criminal charges. Ramirez said every television in home was tuned into the press conference and employees gathered to watch, waiting anxiously to hear what she had to say.
When they learned what happened, Ramirez said the mood was "a mixed bag." Many employees, especially some of the CNAs and nurses who were directed to move residents when they consolidated the two dementia units, or who handled what felt like an endless stream of body bags as residents died, were traumatized by what they saw and did.
Every time news about Holyoke breaks, these people have to relive that trauma, he said. He described one nurse who just kept saying “wow,” over and over again as she processed the news.
Still, Ramirez said it was good to hear that Walsh and Clinton are being held accountable.
"I don’t know if 'happy' is the word. I don’t know what the word is, other than 'finally,' " he said. "Somebody needs to pay the price for the bad decisions they made or the lack of decisions they made."
Ramirez said he hoped Healey would bring charges against a few others in the home's leadership team for the roles they played.
Healey declined to answer a question about whether the grand jury considered charging any others members of the Home's leadership team, but when asked about the possibilities of future charges, said that if compelling evidence about other employees' actions surfaced, her office would "look at it."
This article was originally published on September 25, 2020.
This segment aired on September 25, 2020.