A former nurse at Lexington's Veterans Affairs Medical Center has been charged with murder in the death three years ago of a 90-year-old World War II veteran who was a patient at the VA hospital off Coop er Drive.
In a federal indictment unsealed Wednesday morning, Maria K. Whitt is accused of killing Jesse Lee Chain by injecting him with lethal levels of morphine.
Whitt, 32, of Mount Sterling was working at the medical center at the time of Chain's death.
The indictment comes in the wake of a major shakeup in top management at the VA Medical Center, which has facilities off Coop er Drive and on Leestown Road.
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Dr. Walter Divers, who, as chief of staff, oversaw the doctors, has been moved into a "supportive role" in the center's quality and safety office. Melinda Washburn, who, as associate director for patient care services, oversaw the medical center's nurses, has been temporarily assigned to the position of associate nurse executive for patient care services. Anita Stiles has been moved from the position of associate nurse executive for patient care services to a new role involving data in the medical center's quality and safety office, according to VA officials.
Officials from VA medical centers in other states have been brought to the Lexington facility to take on temporarily Divers' and Washburn's previous duties.
The shakeup, which began in September, came just after a review and report by a consulting firm called in by the Lexington VA Medical Center and the VA Midsouth Healthcare Network to look at conditions at the Lexington facilities, according to medical center officials.
The medical center is working with the consultants and staff to implement a variety of changes, including increasing doctor and nurse staffing, improving the center's patient incident reporting system, and overhauling and redesigning its quality management department, the medical center's public affairs office told a Herald-Leader reporter in an e-mail.
Whether the shakeup and changes at the medical center and the investigation into Chain's death are related is unclear.
Whitt was arrested by federal authorities Tuesday and taken to the Grayson County Detention Center.
The indictment does not offer any details into the investigation, but says Whitt "willfully, deliberately, maliciously and with premeditation and malice aforethought" injected Chain with "lethal levels of morphine," killing him.
If found guilty, she could sentenced to life in prison, be fined $250,000 and face the possibility of five years' supervised release, according to the indictment. A detention hearing has been scheduled for 9 a.m. Thursday; arraignment will be at 9 a.m. Friday in U.S. District Court in Lexington.
Whitt had been working as a nurse at St. Joseph-Mount Sterling hospital since February. She was suspended Wednesday, said Jeff Murphy, regional director of communications for St. Joseph Health System, which includes several hospitals.
Fayette County Coroner Gary Ginn said Chain had been a resident of Thomson-Hood Veterans Center in Wilmore before he went to the VA hospital. Chain died in the hospital's intensive care unit Sept. 3, 2006, Ginn said.
The medical center's public affairs office said in the e-mail that Chain's case was reported to the VA's Office of Inspector General on Sept. 5, 2006, and that medical center officials "have cooperated fully with their investigation into this case."
Ginn, whose office ruled the death a homicide, said the length of time it has taken to put the case before a grand jury might be because federal officials have been poring over the medical records of other Lexington VA Medical Center patients since it was determined that Chain's death was a homicide. The case has been investigated by the coroner's office and U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs' Office of Inspector General, Ginn said.
"It's my understanding that they are reviewing or have reviewed many medical records, which has possibly delayed this case," the coroner said.
Also, authorities wanted to make sure they had all the facts they needed about Chain's death, said Fayette County Deputy Coroner John McCarty, who was directly involved in the case. "This took a lot of work to figure out. ... It wasn't your standard homicide investigation."
McCarty said he didn't sign Chain's death certificate until Nov. 15, 2007.
"It's a pretty big investigation. We had to make sure we followed through before we went official," he said. "After three years, after all the work we put into it, I have never had a greater sense of satisfaction than after the grand jury returned the indictment — never."
Murphy said that St. Joseph-Mount Sterling hospital officials were unaware of any "negative situations" involving Whitt since she began working there.
"We always have protocols in place to ensure the safety of our patients, regardless of a situation like this. However, in light of this new information, we will do a second review of patient encounters with this nurse," he said.
Ginn said he is reviewing another, more recent death at the VA hospital.
On Sept. 22, Jennifer Kay Angelini, 42, a registered nurse at the VA hospital, was found dead in a hospital staff restroom. Angelini was found in a locked restroom on the sixth floor, which houses the hospital's intensive care unit. Ginn said he's looking to toxicology test results for clues to her death.
Ginn said his office has been involved only in the investigations of the deaths of Chain and Angelini at the VA hospital but will look into other VA hospital deaths if VA officials ask him to do so.
Maxine Graybill, Chain's stepdaughter, said Whitt's arrest was "certainly overdue."
"In fact, I had given up that anything would have been done," she said.
Graybill said her stepfather had heart trouble, and she was told by authorities after his death that he also had cancer.
The fact that he probably didn't have long to live was not justification for someone to take his life, Graybill said.
"God has a plan, and you shouldn't disrupt that plan," she said.
Graybill said authorities told her that her stepfather had 14 times the allowable level of morphine in his system.
Chain was very adamant that the VA would take care of him, Graybill said.
"Daddy said, 'I served my country, and I don't have to worry. I'll be taken care of,'" she said. "They took good care of him, didn't they? It breaks my heart."