Superintendent, medical director face criminal charges in deadly COVID-19 outbreak at Soldiers’ Home

  • Bennett Walsh, superintendent of the Soldiers’ Home in Holyoke STATE HOUSE NEWS SERVICE/CHRIS VAN BUSKIRK

  • Wreaths, signs and flags are part of a memorial at the Soldiers’ Home in Holyoke, Tuesday, May 12, 2020. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

  • Attorney General Maura Healey speaks at a press conference Friday, Sept. 26, 2020, to announce that a grand jury had returned criminal neglect indictments against suspended Soldiers' Home superintendent Bennett Walsh and former medical director Dr. David Clinton. SCREENSHOT/MASSACHUSETTS ATTORNEY GENERAL’S OFFICE

  • The Soldiers’ Home in Holyoke. Photographed on Tuesday, March 31, 2020. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

Staff Writer
Published: 9/25/2020 11:54:33 AM

HOLYOKE — The superintendent and former medical director of the Soldiers’ Home in Holyoke have been indicted on criminal charges in connection with their roles during a deadly COVID-19 outbreak that swept through the facility earlier this year.

Attorney General Maura Healey announced Friday morning that a grand jury had returned indictments against suspended superintendent Bennett Walsh and former medical director Dr. David Clinton. Each faces 10 criminal neglect charges and is expected to be arraigned in Hampden Superior Court at a later date.

The indictments come after a coronavirus outbreak in the Soldiers’ Home earlier this year that contributed to at least 76 veteran deaths and left many more residents and employees sick. At a virtual press conference Friday, Healey said her office believes this is the first criminal case in the country brought against nursing home officials during the pandemic.

“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. “We allege that the actions of these defendants during the COVID-19 outbreak at the facility put veterans at higher risk of infection and death and warrant criminal charges.”

In particular, Healey cited the March 27 decision to combine two dementia units — a choice that a state-commissioned independent investigation released in June described as a “catastrophe,” resulting in “the opposite of infection control.”

“Walsh and Clinton were responsible for the decision to combine 42 veterans, some COVID-positive and others not even showing any symptoms of COVID, into a single unit that usually accommodates 25 beds,” Healey said. “As part of this consolidation, the home decided to put six or seven veterans in rooms that were meant to hold only four people.”

Because there wasn’t enough space in those overcrowded rooms, Healey said nine residents — some with COVID-19 symptoms and some without them — were placed in a dining room. Their beds were just a few feet apart and next to a room with confirmed positive patients, and residents of the unit were mingling together regardless of their COVID-19 status, she said.

In a statement, Walsh’s attorneys William Bennett and Tracy Miner accused Healey of scapegoating Walsh for “effects of a deadly virus that our state and federal governments have not been able to stop.” They said that Walsh asked for help from the state and National Guard, but that it arrived too late.

“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 statement said. “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.”

Efforts to reach Clinton were unsuccessful Tuesday.

The administration of Gov. Charlie Baker, who appointed Walsh, placed the superintendent on paid leave after details of the outbreak emerged in late March. After former federal prosecutor Mark Pearlstein released his state-commissioned investigation in June, Clinton resigned and Baker attempted to fire Walsh. However, a Hampden Superior Court judge ruled that the Soldiers’ Home board of trustees has the power to fire Walsh, not Baker’s administration. The trustees are meeting to discuss Walsh’s employment status on Sept. 30.

Walsh and Clinton 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 “Caretaker Who Wantonly or Recklessly Commits or Permits Abuse, Neglect, or Mistreatment to an Elder or Disabled Person.”

Healey said Friday that the bodily harm charge carries a sentence of up to 10 years in state prison, and the other charge carries a sentence of up to three years in prison.

“That’s for each count, and again this is a 20-count indictment,” Healey said. When asked whether there would be any charges against others at the Soldiers’ Home, Healey said that Walsh and Clinton were charged because they were “the ultimate decision-makers” at the facility. “If new evidence comes to light, we would of course look at that.”

Federal prosecutors, state lawmakers, and the state inspector general have all also launched probes into the outbreak at the Soldiers’ Home.

Prior to her press conference, Healey said she spoke with families of those who were Soldiers’ Home residents during the outbreak. She said that it was on the behalf of families that she began her investigation back in April.

The advocacy group Holyoke Soldiers’ Home Coalition, whose members include families who lost loved ones at the home during the outbreak, said in a statement that the charges bring up difficult memories.

“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 coalition’s statement said. “We will remain active in our community in ensuring all current and future veterans get the best care they have earned.”

Dusty Christensen can be reached at
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