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Michael Swango

Real Name: Joseph Michael Swango
Aliases: Michael Kirk, David Jackson Adams, Jack Kirk, Michael Swan, "Double-O Swango"
Wanted For: Making False Statements, Questioning in Murders
Missing Since: October 1993

Case

Details: On February 7, 1984, at the State University Hospital in Columbus, Ohio, an intern, Dr. Michael Swango, checked on a sixty-nine-year-old woman, Rena Cooper, who was recovering from routine back surgery. No one knows why he was in the room, perhaps just to say hello. When he left, she seemed to be doing fine. Just a few moments later, however, she began convulsing. As doctors and nurses began to stabilize her, she struggled to tell them what happened. They gave her a pen and paper. She wrote: “The doctor put something in my IV.”
While this was going on, a nurse decided to walk down the hall to calm the patients, since there was a great deal of commotion. Four rooms down, she saw Swango exiting another room with a “very funny grin on his face.” She went into that room and found a large, hypodermic needle with the plunger down sitting on the sink. This was unusual, as hypodermic needles are normally not left lying around in a hospital. Three different doctors confronted Swango about what had happened in Rena’s room. He allegedly told three different stories. At one point, he claimed he had never even been in the room. However, Rena and her roommate said otherwise.
Most people tend to hold doctors to a higher standard, and perhaps that is fair. After all, we are sometimes compelled to trust them implicitly, depending on their knowledge and expertise to save our lives. Did Swango betray that trust for his own sadistic pleasure? If you ask him, he would probably say that he was the victim of bad luck and circumstance. But unfortunately, the question cannot be posed. No one can find him.
In 1983, Swango came to Ohio as a recent graduate of the Medical School of Southern Illinois University. He projected charm and confidence, despite a lackluster med school record. He reportedly became more and more withdrawn as he proceeded through his college classes and eventually got into medical school. And though academically, he did very well, the more the classes became advanced and the more he needed to do hands-on patient work, the more he pulled away from that, to the point where he was held back a year. Classmates reported that he did a "superficial" job when working with patients.
Swango’s poor performance continued through the first six months of his internship. His supervisor placed him on probation, telling him that unless he had a significant improvement, he would not be able to make the “next step” and be recommended for residency. Swango’s lifelong goal was now jeopardized; it could mean he would never become a full-fledged doctor. It was shortly after he was put on probation that Rena suffered her mysterious seizure. It was one of a series of puzzling events at the hospital that Spring. Rena survived, but at least five other patients died.
Hospital officials investigated the mysterious deaths. They discovered that all of the deaths occurred in areas where Swango was working. A “black cloud” seemed to follow him. Wherever he was, there was an unexplained respiratory arrest; this happened at least five times. Though some evidence appeared to point to him, hospital officials chose not to call the police. They decided to watch him closely and quietly wait out the last months of his internship. They also barred him from returning for a second year.
Swango did not appear disturbed by the hospital’s decision to let him go or the whispered allegations against him. In fact, on several occasions during the last months of his internship, he treated staff members to what he called “extra spicy chicken.” At least three doctors became violently ill within hours of eating it. They were so ill that they needed treatment for their eyes from ruptured blood vessels from vomiting. Their symptoms were consistent with arsenic poisoning.
Swango left OSU Hospital in June 1984 without being formally investigated. No charges were ever filed. One month later, he had a new job, not as a doctor, but as a paramedic in Quincy, Illinois. On September 14, he brought donuts for the whole crew. His coworker, Brent Unmisig, noticed that the donuts tasted different; he stated that it did not “spring back up” like most donuts do. Forty-five minutes later, he and several others became very ill. They wanted to test the leftover donuts, but they had disappeared. Only an empty box remained.
Paramedic Greg Myers said that no one had suspected Swango of any wrongdoing at the time. Everyone figured that it was just food poisoning. Since the donuts were gone, they figured that they could not do anything about it so they just decided to let it go. That next night, Brent worked with Swango at a local football game. At halftime, Swango bought him a soda. He started drinking it and within a few minutes, he became “deathly” sick. His symptoms matched those of arsenic poisoning.
Yet another mysterious illness made Swango’s coworkers increasingly suspicious. They also could not help noticing his grisly fascination with accidents and death; the gorier the better. He would describe his “ultimate calls” as a paramedic as being a bus load of children hitting head-on with a tanker truck and igniting. As he would approach the scene, he would see charred bodies out of the windows of the buses and bodies caught in barbed wire fences. Brent thought that these statements were very strange, that Swango apparently wanted to see death. Swango also reportedly called other paramdeics and tried to elicit "gruesome" details about their calls. He even kept a "scrapbook" of accidents that he and his coworkers had witnessed.
Finally, the paramedics decided to fake a call to get Swango out of the building. They wanted him away long enough to search his locker. In his gym bag, his coworkers found two bottles of arsenic-based ant poison: one full, one empty. In his apartment, police discovered more incriminating evidence. Dozens of bottles of poisons, books on poisons, recipe cards for making poisons, and an assortment of syringes. One syringe was full of ant poison. Coworkers had also saved a glass of iced tea from the work kitchen that tasted strange; testing determined that it contained traces of arsenic.
The evidence was overwhelming. On October 26, 1984, Swango was arrested and charged with six counts of aggravated battery. He maintained his innocence; however, he was convicted of the charges and sentenced to five years in prison. After serving half his sentence, he was given time off for good behavior. Amazingly, he again found work in the health care field. He was apparently able to convince employers that he had been the victim of a miscarriage of justice and that the crime he had served time for involved a "barroom brawl." In Newport News, Virginia, in 1989, he turned up at a medical vocational school. There, three of his colleagues reportedly fell ill.
In 1990, under the name "David Adams", Swango applied to the residency program of the Ohio Valley Medical Center. Again, he claimed that his conviction was the result of a "barroom brawl"; this time, he used altered court documents to support his claims. After learning the true facts of his conviction, the center rejected his application. In 1992, Swango talked his way into the University of South Dakota hospital, claiming that he was wrongfully convicted of the poisoning charges. Again, he was shadowed by his past and dismissed.
Finally, in 1993, Swango resurfaced at Stony Brook University in New York. He was assigned to the Long Island Veteran's Administration hospital in Northport. While there, he changed his name to “Michael Kirk.” He was accepted in the Stony Brook program and they never bothered to check him with a central registry for medical residents, which, apparently, had a file that was an inch thick on him. There were 180 people who applied for twelve slots, and he managed to get one of those slots, despite these clouds of questionable activity that followed him in at least four states.
On September 29, 1993, Swango’s path crossed that of Elsie and Baron Harris. Baron was a sixty-year-old cabinet maker from Long Island. He had a fever of 104 degrees and a slight case of pneumonia. At first, Elsie thought that Swango was very professional. He seemed to be concerned and knew what he was doing. Overall, she thought he was a very pleasant man. He told her to go home, as there was nothing more she could do.
Elsie said Swango told her that on the night of October 2, he gave Baron a sedative. By the next morning, Baron had been moved to intensive care. He had lapsed into a coma. Elsie could not understand how his condition deteriorated so quickly. Swango suggested that he may have had an allergic reaction to drugs that were given to him at the hospital. When she questioned him further, he said that "he hoped it wasn't anything we did." She noticed that Swango had a very “smirky” attitude, and had a half-cocked smile on his face. She felt that there was something “sneaky” about him.
On October 22, 1993, Swango was fired by Stony Brook University after they learned that he had lied about his criminal past. Once the story about him hit the wires and reporters started converging on the Northport VA Hospital and on his dorm room, he very hastily packed up and disappeared. Before he vanished, he allegedly told Elsie that Baron would never come out of his coma. Swango apparently knew what he was talking about. Baron died on November 9, 1993. Wherever Swango is today, authorities believe that he is most likely working in the medical field.
Surprisingly, Swango has never been charged in connection with the mysterious deaths of his patients. He is wanted only for making false statements on a job application to a government hospital (the VA hospital run by Stony Brook University). In his application, he reportedly did not disclose his poisoning conviction or the fact that he had lost his medical license.
Extra Notes:

  • This case first aired on the November 3, 1995 episode; it was later updated on a Lifetime episode.
  • It was also profiled on America’s Most Wanted and 20/20 during his flight from justice and on Very Scary People after his arrest.
  • Author James Stewart wrote the book "Blind Eye: The Story of a Doctor who Got Away with Murder" about it.

Swango after his arrest

Results: Captured. After the arrest warrant was issued for Swango, he fled to Zimbabwe. In November 1994, he was hired by the Zimbabwe Association of Church Hospitals. About a year later, patients at hospitals there began to show signs of poisoning. In July 1995, he was suspended from practice at one of the hospitals. Soon after, he was accused of more deaths and poisonings there. As a result, he planned to flee to Saudi Arabia. After securing a new job there in June 1997, he headed to the United States to renew his work visa. He arrived at Chicago’s O’Hare Airport on June 27. An alert customs agent ran his name through the computer and found the warrant against him. He was arrested by INS agents soon after.
Swango was charged with defrauding a goverment agency and making false statements on a government hospital job application. In September 1997, he was also charged with illegally prescribing narcotics to patients. In January 1998, he was charged in Zimbabwe with poisoning seven patients, five of whom died. In March, he pleaded guilty to the fraud and false statement charges. In June, he was sentenced to three-and-a-half years in prison. While he served time on those charges, U.S. federal prosecutors had about three years to develop a murder case against him that could put him away for life.
Prosecutors noted that proving murder was much more difficult in Swango’s case because it was initially assumed that his victims had died of natural causes. They had the bodies of several victims exhumed and new toxicology tests were performed. The tests showed poisonous chemicals in the bodies. Swango’s own diaries also helped seal his fate. Page after page of his personal writings were filled with morose texts like, “I love it, sweet, husky, close smell of an indoor homicide…” and "[murder is] the only way I have of reminding myself that I’m still alive." Prosecutors determined, based on his writings, that he liked to kill people. For him, the thrill was doing the killing and getting away with it. It was difficult to establish a pattern with him because he was an opportunistic killer; he would kill whenever he had the chance to.
On July 11, 2000, just a few days before he was supposed to be released from federal prison, Swango was charged with the murders of Thomas Sammarco, George Siano, and Aldo Serini, along with assault against Barron Harris (they were unable to prove that the injection of toxins led to his death). They had all been patients of the Long Island Veteran's Administration Hospital, and they all had been in the care of Swango. In two of the cases, he falsely told coworkers that the patients' families had issued "do not resucitate" orders.
Soon after, Swango was also charged with the January 1984 murder of nineteen-year-old gymnast Cynthia Ann McGee, who had died at the Ohio State University Hospital while recovering from a bike accident. A nurse witnessed him entering Cynthia's room with a syringe shortly before she lapsed into a coma and died. Prosecutors allege that he was also responisble for poisoning Rena, but he could not be charged because the statute of limitations had passed.
In September 2000, Swango pleaded guilty to three counts of murder in Thomas, George, and Aldo's cases. He admitted to intentionally killing them by "administering toxic substances which [he] knew were likely to cause death." He was given three life sentences without the possibility of parole. In October, he also pleaded guilty to killing Cynthia; he admitted to injecting her with a deadly dose of potassium that caused cardiac arrest. In return for the plea deal, Zimbabwe agreed not to pursue charges and the United States agreed not to pursue the death penalty. He is now imprisoned at Supermax ADX Florence, and is in 23-hour solitary confinement.
Investigators and author James Stewart note that circumstantial evidence links Swango to at least thirty-five deaths and twenty non-fatal poisonings; they fear that he may be responsible for over sixty poisoning deaths, including several deaths in Zimbabwe and the United States. One of those alleged victims was twenty-two-year-old Anna Mae Popka, who died under his care in 1984. His mother sued him, claiming that he was responsible for her death. However, he was never criminally charged.
Another alleged victim was twenty-one-year-old Ricky DeLong, who died on January 20, 1984, at the Ohio State University Hospital. Swango "found" his body; an autopsy later determined that he died after a ball of gauze was placed in his throat. His family also sued Swango, claiming that he was responsible for the death. Stewart also believes that Swango was responsible for the 1993 death of Swango's fiancee, Kristin Kinney, who committed suicide after suffering from symptoms consistent with arsenic poisoning. After she died, arsenic was found in her hair.
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