Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Angels of Death: The Doctors

Swango, The Experimenter

Dr. Michael Swango
Dr. Michael Swango

Ruth Barrick was a neurosurgery patient. She'd hit her head and nearly died, but was doing well there at the Ohio State University Medical Center. Dr. Michael Swango, an intern, told a nurse that he was going to check on her. The nurse thought this was strange, and when she later checked on Barrick herself, she found the woman barely breathing. Calling a code, she and the medical team managed to stabilize Barrick's vital signs and she recovered.

Then a few days later, Swango went into Barrick's room again. Another nurse checked on him several times and spotted several syringes. After nearly half an hour with the patient, Swango left, and when the nurse went in to see Barrick, she found the woman once again in a very bad state. While she administered mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, she heard Dr. Swango come in and say, "That is so disgusting."

Yet her efforts were useless. Ruth Barrick was dead and the nurse suspected that Swango had done something to cause it.

In fact, before he disappeared from the place, five patients died and several grew terribly ill. He'd also given a "spicy" chicken dinner to several coworkers, all of whom had become ill afterward. Swango was clearly a menace.

Even so, throughout his medical career, people had covered for Swango, and the same thing would happen again and again: He was allowed to get away with murder. His fellow students knew that he was unfit for a medical career---was in fact downright weird. They called him "Double-O Swango" because where medical care was concerned, he seemed to have a black thumb. What they didn't realize was that he truly had a license to kill. It seemed he'd entered the medical profession precisely as a cover for what he wanted to do to people. He had no compassion and he certainly had some bizarre ideas on what it meant to be a doctor. Yet this athletic, blue-eyed blonde always managed to charm his superiors into believing in him. Despite a lackluster performance, he always managed to pass through the system.

It wasn't just the medical establishment, either. Even his mother seemed to look the other way when he expressed an intense interest in violent deaths. She'd clip newspaper articles for him, assuring herself and everyone who commented on the oddity of this interest that the "information" would further Michael's medical career. He was learning things.

No doubt that's true, but what he was learning to do was bring about the deaths of other people. He found it exciting to walk out of the ER to inform worried parents of the death of their child, or to rush to an accident scene were bodies were twisted and torn apart. He lived for this kind of high.

In retrospect, it's difficult to understand how he managed to even become a doctor, let alone practice for almost two decades.

In 1983, Swango graduated from Southern Illinois School of Medicine in Springfield, Illinois, although he was a year behind his classmates for failure to complete his assignments. He served his internship at Ohio State University, but when his post was finished, it was not extended---partly because of suspicions that no one seemed to want to address. After he left, the authorities began to investigate him for murder, but found insufficient evidence to charge him with anything. It's not easy to pin a murder on someone giving injections to patients when that's what doctors do.

Swango then started work with a team of paramedics, who seemed to get along with him. Feeling comfortable, he told them his ultimate fantasy: "It's like this," he said. "Picture a school bus crammed with kids smashing head-on with a trailer truck loaded down with gasoline. We're summoned. We get there in a jiffy just as another gasoline truck rams the bus. Up in flames it goes! Kids are hurled through the air, everywhere, on telephone poles, on the street, especially along an old barbed wire fence along the road. All burning."

The others were put off. This guy was sick. They kept their distance.

Then one day Swango brought in a box of doughnuts, and four of his fellow workers who partook of it got severely ill. Another time, he offered soft drinks to two others, who also got sick. They quickly caught on to what he was doing and laid a trap. It soon became clear that Swango was poisoning them. He shrugged off their concerns, yet there was sufficient evidence from the amount of poison found in his locker and home to convict him of six counts of aggravated battery, for which he did less than three years in prison.

Despite that, he was accepted into several more positions in Virginia, South Dakota, New York, and Zimbabwe. All he had to do was lie, fake his credentials, adopt aliases, and misrepresent his past employment history. No one checked, and wherever he went, colleagues became ill and patients died. Each time authorities closed in, he was gone.

When Swango was finally stopped by the FBI, he'd been on a roll for almost two decades in seven different hospitals. In many cases, someone had seen him with a syringe, and several patients who recovered indicated that it was the blond doctor who had injected them before they lost the ability to feel and move.

In 1998, he was charged with killing five patients in a hospital in Zimbabwe, where he had worked from 1994-1996. However, complications with extraditing him to Africa meant that he would not be prosecuted. Then the FBI looked into his history, and agents estimated that he may have been responsible for directly causing well over thirty deaths. Apparently he just liked to see what would happen when he did this or that to a human being, whether patient or colleague.

James Stewart, who wrote Blind Eye after spending two years documenting Swango's swath of death, called him a psychopath who would never stop. "If he is free," Stewart said, "he will find a means and a place to do it again."

Arraigned on July 17, 2000, he finally confessed in September. He pleaded guilty to fatally poisoning three patients in 1993 at a New York hospital, and was convicted of another murder in Ohio. In a plea deal, he was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. The extent of his evil likely surpasses his admissions and may never be known.

Swango is not alone in this type of infamy. Throughout history there have been doctors who killed, and the list of motives is long and complex. Let's have a look at the most common ones.

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