Tim White still needed a walker to get around as he recovered from hip surgery. But the Army veteran and former chef, who lived in housing for formerly homeless veterans on the campus of the Bedford VA Medical Center, was in many ways his old self, wearing his trademark backwards baseball cap and befriending other residents.
Then, on May 8, the 62-year-old disappeared along with his walker. The private nonprofit that managed White’s building reported him missing to local police five days later.
But no one appears to have looked very hard for him: It turns out that White was lying at the bottom of a stairwell just 60 feet from his room for five weeks until a fellow resident discovered his body on June 12. White still had on the same clothes he was last seen wearing in early May — a baseball cap, Red Sox jersey, and jeans, according to the police report.
Now, members of the Massachusetts congressional delegation — Senators Elizabeth Warren and Edward Markey as well as Representatives Seth Moulton, Lori Trahan, and Katherine Clark — are asking the VA’s inspector general to investigate the circumstances surrounding White’s death. And Middlesex District Attorney Marian Ryan has launched her own investigation even though her office has said no foul play is suspected.
“For a veteran who served the country to die alone in a stairwell and not be discovered for that long a period of time is outrageous,” said Ryan.
Officials from the Department of Veterans Affairs and Caritas Communities, which manages the housing for formerly homeless veterans, each have said the other was responsible for the building where White was discovered. VA officials say they had leased most of the property to Caritas and the residents were Caritas’s responsibility.
Caritas officials counter that their staff had been ordered by the VA police to stay away from the stairwells and were threatened with penalties if they violated that order.
Caritas Communities executive director Karin Cassel said her staff searched all areas they had access to and promptly notified the VA and the VA police when White was discovered missing.
But neither explanation offers much comfort to White’s daughters.
“It is disheartening to see everyone pointing fingers and placing blame on each other before all the details are known,” said his daughter Karen. “We are waiting for answers, we hope to know more soon.”
“No one else should have to feel the way my sister and I are feeling right now,” said White’s other daughter, Katherine.
White’s death had a special resonance for the troubled Bedford VA Medical Center: In 2016, a patient at the VA with a heart condition died in his bed as the employee assigned to monitor him was playing video games. The nurse’s aide retired and pleaded guilty in federal court. She was sentenced to a year’s probation for making false statements.
More recently, the Bedford VA has faced questions from members of Congress about whether staff members inadvertently passed the coronavirus to patients. More than 50 Bedford VA inpatients and outpatients have died from the virus.
But the circumstances surrounding White’s death are complex as well as somewhat mysterious. At the time of his death, White was not a patient but was living in a VA-owned building that had been converted to housing for homeless veterans by Caritas Communities. He had been living in the Bedford Veterans Quarters since early 2020, according to a Caritas spokesman.
As a resident, White was free to come and go, but Caritas staff onsite kept an eye on the residents, many of whom suffered underlying health conditions and substance abuse issues. And the rarely used emergency stairwell where he was found would have been an unusual choice for exiting the building since opening the door would have set off an alarm.
Caritas officials said they began looking for White and speaking to other residents on May 11, three days after he was last seen. When White still had not turned up two days later, Caritas employee Gail Bishop called the Bedford police to report him missing. The next day, Caritas notified the Bedford VA police that White was missing.
Caritas officials acknowledge that they did not search for White in the emergency stairwell in part because its lease with the VA “explicitly states” that the stairwell was not part of the leased premises, according to a statement provided to the Globe.
The local police and the Bedford VA police force share jurisdiction for emergencies on the sprawling 177-acre VA site, which resembles a college campus. But an internal document from 2007, when Caritas took over the facility, says the VA police have primary jurisdiction over the building that houses Bedford Veterans Quarters.
It’s unclear exactly what VA police, with a force of 30 officers, did to look for White. A top local VA official told members of the Massachusetts congressional delegation this week that the Bedford VA police asked Caritas officials if they had searched the building. When they were told that they had, the VA police did not search further, the official was quoted as saying.
Bedford VA police chief Shawn Kelly did not return a call and e-mail.
For its part, Bedford town police entered White’s name into a national database for missing persons, while officers checked hospitals and jails to see if they could locate him. They also searched the campus, police said.
Bedford VA spokeswoman Kat Bailey referred questions about the case to the Middlesex DA’s office but reiterated that the building where White died is Caritas’s responsibility, not the VA’s.
Finally, on June 12, a resident who happened to use the emergency stairwell found White’s body, but, even then, the confusion did not end. White’s daughter Karen was told her father had died in his room, according to several sources. It wasn’t until a relative saw a story about an unnamed veteran’s death on TV news that she learned the truth.
A Caritas spokesman said White’s daughter was given complete information about his death.
Members of the congressional delegation asked the VA’s Inspector General Michael J. Missal “to determine accountability for this tragedy.”
They said the unwillingness of anyone to claim responsibility “raises concerns that there could be other cases where facilities that are located on VA property, but not run by the VA, also lack clearly delineated maintenance . . . allowing the possibility that another similar instance could occur in the future.”
Moulton, a former Marine who receives medical care at the Bedford VA, said officials need to stop pointing fingers and get to the bottom of White’s “tragic death.”
John MacDonald, a veteran’s advocate, called White’s death "absolutely atrocious. It’s difficult to put into words how awful this is.
“The VA in Bedford — there’s been a series of events that leave a lack of confidence in veterans and veterans’ families that when you go there, you will be provided for.”
But White’s grieving family is more interested in remembering Tim White as a person rather than placing blame. He was a passionate New England sports fan who constantly wore a baseball cap carrying his teams’ logos. He played guitar and loved to sing classic rock songs like “Sister Christian” by Night Ranger. He loved Christmas most of all and taking his family to Canobie Lake Park in New Hampshire.
And, though White had suffered through some hard times, at the end of his life he was eager to return to work after he recovered from his hip replacement surgery.
“His family will remember his laugh, and sense of humor, and miss him terribly,” his daughters said in a statement.
Andrea Estes can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.