Death Man Walking

Dozens of patients died on nurse Richard Williams' watch, but he was never charged. Did authorities do too little, too late?

Her strongly worded opinion about the deaths declared: "The Court finds that [a] causal link has been established because it believes that the level of codeine found in Mr. Havrum's body is not consistent with a therapeutic dose of codeine and because the circumstances surrounding Mr. Havrum's death implicate Nurse Williams as the source of the lethal dose of codeine.... Even absent the expert testimony regarding the source and effect of codeine on Mr. Havrum's body, there was sufficient evidence presented to the Court for the Court to determine that Mr. Williams killed Mr. Havrum."

For a few years, two congressional subcommittees and several senators sought to investigate the FBI's handling of the case, calling Adelstein and Christensen to testify before Congress. The General Accounting Office said that the inspector general had failed to properly investigate cover-up allegations against the hospital and the VA. At one point, senators on the Veterans Affairs committee demanded that the FBI turn over records on the matter, and U.S. Sen. Christopher "Kit" Bond (R-Mo.) tried to make FBI funding contingent on receipt of the documents.

After much pressure from Congress and many unexplained delays, the FBI in 1998 released a brief report that claimed the agency had found "no evidence of wrongdoing" by Williams but provided very little insight into its handling of the investigation. The report failed to so much as mention the excess codeine found in Havrum's body. The FBI admitted that the labwork on the 13 exhumed bodies had been delayed by a glut of labwork related to the O.J. Simpson trial (being handled by the same contracted lab, National Medical Services) and that the lab originally recommended $234,000 worth of tests. The FBI found that too expensive and reduced the tests to $86,000 worth.

In a 1992 television interview, Richard Williams denied killing patients: "I'd never do anything like that."
In a 1992 television interview, Richard Williams denied killing patients: "I'd never do anything like that."

During the Havrum trial, FBI Agent Phil Williams admitted that thorough toxicology tests were never completed on the tissues from the other 12 exhumed bodies. Adelstein and Christensen still wonder why the FBI dropped the case so suddenly.

And aside from the two doctors, it seems that many people -- family members of the dead included -- are willing to trust that the FBI found "no evidence" and drop the matter. The Havrum family refused New Times' requests for interviews, saying they wanted to "put this behind" them. Some victims' family members have died themselves. Milton Fox's family refuses to talk about the matter among themselves, even though he was among the veterans whose bodies were exhumed, says Charles Rupard, widower of Fox's stepdaughter. Rosetta Rupard was preparing to care for her ailing stepfather at home when he died unexpectedly. Charles Rupard, at age 76, has just trusted that justice would have been served in Fox's death.

"Well, I suppose he's in jail," Rupard says of Williams. "I don't know what they done with him, but I guess he must be in jail." He seems surprised and confused to hear that the nurse is not in jail but living near St. Louis with his wife, having worked in a string of temporary and office jobs. New Times attempted to contact Williams for this story, but he did not return phone messages.

Williams may never be prosecuted. The voices of U.S. senators and representatives who vehemently vowed to the media that they would find the truth have died down, and people have lost interest. One Columbia VA nurse, Dena Squires, says some hospital staffers believe that the talk of murders was all hype and that "Williams didn't get a fair shake."

Boone County Prosecuting Attorney Kevin Crane hints that there may be an ongoing investigation but then says local investigators are not involved and have never been involved. Any further investigation would fall to the FBI, he says. He won't rule out prosecuting Williams and won't comment in detail on the case. "I've said before, if I had a case to prosecute, I'd prosecute it," he says.

Some find it chilling that Williams remains unprosecuted. Christensen, who has cared for patients in rooms where many of the deaths occurred, says he sometimes "gets the creeps" on 4-East.

"If everyone we believed was murdered was indeed murdered," Christensen says, "you're talking about more murders than the Zodiac Killer, more murders than Ted Bundy, more murders than John Wayne Gacy, more murders than the Hillside Strangler. And here the government does an investigation and it's all lies and no one gets punished, and all this money is wasted."

Allie Johnson is a staff writer for PitchWeekly of Kansas City, a sister publication of the Riverfront Times.

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