An Army veteran was found decomposing in an emergency exit stairwell at his care home a month after he was reported missing, according to a federal report that strongly criticized police and the care home’s staffers.
The 45-page report by the Department of Veterans Affairs Office of Inspector General lays out a series of failures by staff and police at the Edith Nourse Rogers Memorial Veterans Hospital campus in Bedford, Massachusetts.
Timothy White, a 62-year-old Army veteran, lived at a VA-owned building used as housing for homeless veterans by the nonprofit Caritas Communities. White was last seen May 8, 2020, but five days passed before a house manager reported him missing. White was a resident, not a patient, so he was able to leave the facility as he wanted. However, the Caritas house manager told local police that White didn’t have a cell phone or car on campus and had never left without explanation, according to the OIG report.
On June 12, 2020, another resident found human remains in an emergency exit stairwell just 60 feet from White’s room. The body was badly decayed but wearing the same Boston Red Sox jersey, jeans, and baseball cap White was wearing the last day he was seen. A preliminary autopsy found no evidence of trauma or foul play. The medical examiner could not determine a cause of death because of the amount of decomposition.
Up until February 2020, Bedford VA police officers had patrolled the building daily and regularly included stairwells in those patrols, but the former VA police chief ordered them to stop, claiming it was at the request of Caritas managers. The residential facility disputes that accusation in the OIG report and previously stressed that Caritas staff had searched all areas they had access to, which did not include the emergency exit stairwells.
The police chief’s order violated federal law and agency policies requiring VA police to “patrol all VA property and to protect persons on that property,” according to the OIG report. The same misunderstanding over jurisdiction also resulted in medical center staff never cleaning the stairwell where White was found, the report states.
Investigators found the VA police failed to conduct a significant search for White and that the former chief also waited almost two weeks to respond to a request from the Bedford town police to use police dogs to search for White. A K-9 search was never conducted, according to the report.
VA police said they hadn’t extensively searched for White because he was a resident and not a patient, but according to the OIG, the VA is responsible for the safety of everyone on its property.
The VA police chief resigned in February 2021, while the investigation was ongoing.
“Mr. White’s disappearance did not receive the attention it deserved from VA, an agency that is required by federal law to provide for the protection of all persons on its property,” investigators concluded in the report, released Thursday, Sept. 9.
While investigators said no single person was to blame, they did make several recommendations, such as requiring VA police to search for missing persons and improving communication with tenants about security obligations. The OIG also recommended VA police chiefs be required to obtain approval from facility managers prior to excluding buildings or areas from regular patrols.
In an official response to the investigation, the VA said it would implement some of the suggestions outlined in the report. A spokesperson told The Boston Globe the VA had already implemented daily police patrols of the building White lived in to “prevent similar situations in the future.”
“We are very saddened over the loss of Mr. Timothy White and extend our deepest condolences to his family,” the VA wrote.