As we learned last week, to be a Doctor of Death is not an uncommon practice. Much like the infamous Dr. Death (surgeon Christopher Duntsch), deadly physicians can fly under the radar for quite some time— especially if they’re using various modi operandi and/or adopt alternate identities. This week, we’re meeting Dr. Michael Swango, a true medical-extraordinaire who loved poisoning people almost as much as he loved himself.
Born on October 21, 1954, Michael Swango was raised in Quincy, Illinois by his mother Muriel and his father John Virgil. John Virgil was a Vietnam veteran and Swango himself dabbled in the military life by serving in the U.S. Marine Corps, but he was honorably discharged in 1980. After attending Quincy University and graduating summa cum laude, Swango attended Southern Illinois University School of Medicine (SIU).
According to his SIU peers, Swango kept to himself and spent more of his time working as an ambulance attendant than he did attending his classes and laboratory sessions. When it came to his schoolwork, Swango was was allegedly undisciplined, conceited, and incredibly poor at dissections. Swango’s classmates began to notice that the patients assigned to his rotation tended to die and that Swango appeared to be unfazed (if not entertained) by the constant deaths. Many students nicknamed him “Double-O Swango” as an homage to James Bond 007 and Swango’s apparent license to kill.
For what he lacked in technical skill, the soon-to-be doctor made up for with wit and charm. In particular, Swango was adept at getting in the good graces of certain professors and even managed to save face when he was caught plagiarizing a report for his OB/GYN rotation. As punishment for his deceit, Swango was made to graduate later than his class. However, he still managed to secure a spot at the Ohio State University Medical Center (OSU) for a year-long internship in general surgery followed by a residency position at the university’s department of neurosurgery.
During his time as an intern at OSU, Swango’s patients began to mysteriously die despite not being diagnosed with any life-threatening illnesses. On January 14, 1984, 19-year-old Cynthia Ann McGee was found dead in her hospital bed. On January 21, 21-year-old Richard DeLong died unexpectedly. Ruth Barrick died following Swango’s second attempt to inject her with an unknown toxin, and 47-year-old Rein Walker passed away under suspicious circumstances. The only person who survived Swango’s poisoning streak was Rena Cooper, who eventually appeared on 20/20 to discuss her near-death experience. A month later, three more patients died in between February 19 and February 20.
In the wake of Swango’s poor performance and troubling track record, OSU decided not to allow the burgeoning doctor to move forward into his residency after his internship. However, the hospital opted out of investigating the numerous deaths that appeared to follow Swango wherever he went. Angry with both the university and the state of Ohio itself, Swango moved back to Quincy, Illinois. He joined the Adams County Ambulance Service as an Emergency Medical Service (EMS) technician in July 1984. In October, Swango was arrested and charged with battery for poisoning his coworkers with snack food that was laced with arsenic. On August 23, 1985, Swango was convicted and received a five-year-sentence.
Naturally, a prison sentence was not enough to stop Swango’s criminal tendencies. In 1991, he began applying to residency programs with a forged document that claimed his felony conviction was only a minor offense of getting into a fight rather than poisoning. He also asserted that he was sentenced to six months in prison rather than five years. As if that wasn’t enough, Swango also forged a “restoration of civil rights” letter from the Governor of Virginia and used it to apply to several residency programs.
It wasn’t until a year later (after applying to a program in West Virginia under an alias) that Swango was finally successful in securing a residency. On July 1, 1992, Swango began working at Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. In December 1992, after the infamous 20/20 was re-broadcast on a local cable station, Swango was recognized by someone who knew him as a resident. He was discharged after authorities received reports regarding his behavior at OSU. Without skipping a beat, Swango applied to the residency program at the Northport Veterans Administration Medical Center (administered by the State University of New York Medical School at Stony Brook). He began on July 1, 1993.
Within a couple of weeks of the program, Swango was back to his usual antics and managed to poison a patient named George Siano with epinephrine (Siano died on July 26, 1993). On September 23, 1993, another patient named Aldo Serini died. Then, on October 4, Thomas Sammarco died of poisoning via succinyl choline, a paralytic neuromuscular blocking agent. A week later, on October 13, the Dean of the University of South Dakota Medical School called the Dean of Stony Brook School of Medicine to warn him of the circumstances surrounding Swango’s 1992 dismissal. Swango was relieved of his clinical duties that same day and then discharged from the Stony Brook residency program on October 19 for falsifying his residency information.
The following week, the Dean of Stony Brook School of Medicine wrote a warning letter to 125 medical schools and 1,500 teaching hospitals about Swango’s bad behavior and propensity for using aliases to gain admittance into programs. Swango was one step ahead of him, however, and applied to hospitals that were outside of the country. He was accepted by the Zimbabwe Association of Christian Hospitals in November 1994 and was assigned to Mnene Hospital in Zimbabwe, Africa.
The poisonings began in the summer of 1995. On May 14, Kenias Muzezewa was found poisoned in his hospital room. On July 7, Virginia Sibanda was poisoned while being prepped for a cesarean section. On July 21, Swango was suspended from practice at Mnene Hospital. In May 1997, Swango became a doctor at the Royal Hospital in Dharan. One month later while stepping off the plane in Chicago while on his way from African to Saudi Arabia, Swango was arrested by Federal authorities for false statement and controlled substance charges.
In March 1998, Swango pled guilty to the false statement charge. On June 12, he was sentenced to three and half years in prison by the U.S. District Court, Eastern District of New York. Then, on July 11, 2000, Swango was indicted on Federal charges for three murders at the Northport VA Hospital and one at OSU. He pled guilty to the murders of Siano, Serini and Sammarco as well as Cynthia McGee and was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.