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When Michael Swango was a student at the Southern Illinois University School of Medicine (SIU) in the early 1980s, he took a special interest in dying patients.
“He hovered over their bedsides, studied their charts and asked questions about what kind of pain they were in and how they were bearing it,” writes author Bruce Sackman.
But Swango’s interest was less medical than the type Hannibal Lecter might display, according to the book “Behind the Murder Curtain: Special Agent Bruce Sackman Hunts Doctors and Nurses Who Kill Our Veterans,” by Sackman, Michael Vecchione and Jerry Schmetterer (Post Hill Press), out Sept. 18.
“While he was considered a brilliant student, with the potential of being a great doctor, no one got the impression he was searching for ways to help those desperate patients,” Sackman writes of the doctor who would later be sentenced to three life terms — without possibility of parole — for murdering his patients. “It appeared that what he enjoyed most was being close to their suffering.”
Sackman was the special agent in charge of the Veterans Affairs Office of Inspector General who worked for five years, from 1995-2000, building a murder case against the deadly doctor. (His co-author Vecchione was formerly a prosecutor in the Brooklyn district attorney’s office, and Schmetterer was the DA’s spokesman.)
There’s no telling how many people Swango killed in total, due to the secretive and hard-to-prove nature of his crimes, though there’s reason to believe the number is more than 60. Equally shocking, Swango was allowed to continue his reign of terror for years — even after imprisonment — due to a broken system of background checks and the failure of hospital administrators to believe that one of their own might be a killer.
SWANGO was born on Oct. 21, 1954, and raised in Quincy, Ill. His father, a Vietnam vet, returned home from the war with a drinking problem and regaled his three children “about his war experiences and especially the killings in which he participated.”
After graduating valedictorian of his high school, the younger Swango served in the Marines. There, he was a “fanatic about his physical condition and became a lifelong devotee of push-ups and jogging as a means of self-discipline.” This carried over to his medical career.
“One of his medical-school professors told me that if Swango was criticized over an even minor mistake, he would drop to the floor and perform 50 or so push-ups as a form of self-punishment. The other students would cheer him on,” Sackman writes.
While at SIU, he earned the nickname “Double-O Swango, Licensed to Kill” from his concerned fellow students “for his cavalier attitude toward death and mishandling of cadavers.”
There’s no telling how many people Swango killed in total … though there’s reason to believe the number is more than 60.
Swango was disciplined at the school after faking a report on a pregnant woman he had been assigned to examine. He would have been expelled, but one member of the committee making those decisions “voted to give him a second chance.”
Despite a “poor evaluation” from SIU, Swango became a neurosurgery resident at Ohio State University Medical Center. There, “nurses complained that healthy patients were mysteriously dying with unexpected frequency whenever Swango was the intern on their floor. One nurse caught him injecting something into a patient who later became ill.” After a skimpy “investigation,” hospital administrators told the nurses they were being “paranoid.”
This is a story that would play out many times over his 12 years working in medical establishments, as hospital administrators refused to discipline or dismiss Swango despite overwhelming evidence that he was harming patients or worse.
“In the medical profession, people have taken an oath to heal the sick,” Sackman tells The Post. “To be in an environment where people save lives, and then have people who use that environment to kill, it’s a difficult concept for anybody to grasp.”
Seven patients died unexpectedly after being cared for by Swango within one year, three of them over the course of just two days in February 1984. Sackman writes that the reports of his activities at OSU during this time read like “the script from a horror movie.”
One 72-year-old woman was told she’d be going home that day before dying after her blood clotted following a visit from Swango. That same day, another patient “began bleeding profusely from body orifices, even through her eyes, after being examined by Swango. The resident physician had no explanation for the hemorrhaging.”
The next day, “a 22-year-old woman, recovering from a simple intestinal operation, rolled up her sleeve to permit Swango to give her a shot, as he later claimed, to increase her blood pressure,” which Sackman says the doctor had “no sound medical reason” for doing.
“Swango pulled the curtain around him and the patient and asked the woman’s mother to leave the room. The mother did not understand why the doctor wanted to shoo her from the room, but after a brief argument, she relented. A few minutes later, Swango confronted the woman with an attitude that seemed almost victorious,” Sackman writes. “ ‘She’s dead now,’ Swango smirked. ‘You can go look at her.’ ” The woman’s mother filed a complaint with the hospital, but no action was taken against Swango.
Fellow OSU students regarded him as “a torturer.” Toward the end of his residency, in June 1984, he brought in take-out chicken for his co-workers, who all “quickly began vomiting and developed diarrhea.” They suspected Swango poisoned the chicken but were unable to prove it.
Following this incident, OSU rescinded a residency offer it had made to Swango. The hospital did, however, give him a glowing recommendation, which allowed him to get his medical license.
When nurses at the facility demanded an investigation into mysterious Swango-related patient deaths, the hospital refused to contact law enforcement. Several nurses eventually spoke to the local prosecutor themselves, and the prosecutor later said that “they were blocked by the hospital administration at every turn, despite the fact that everywhere Swango went, ‘code blues and deaths by respiratory failure increased.’ ”
FIVE bodies were exhumed in an investigation of Swango’s time at OSU, but the results were inconclusive. Ultimately, there wasn’t enough evidence to bring charges against Swango, whose medical career continued to bring mass death wherever he landed.
Finding a job as a paramedic with the Adams County Ambulance Service in Quincy, Ill., in July 1984, he brought donuts for his co-workers one day — and left them vomiting so heavily one said he thought he would die.
Seven patients died unexpectedly after being cared for by Swango within one year, three of them over the course of just two days
The co-worker recovered after a few hours and received a call later that night from Swango, asking how he was feeling.
“At first, I thought it was kind of him to check up on me,” the co-worker told one of Sackman’s agents. “Maybe, I was thinking, he felt responsible because he brought the donuts in. But then he started to ask for details. He asked me how bad the pain was, how long it lasted, if I thought I was dying. After a few minutes, he was creeping me out. He was definitely enjoying hearing about my pain. I thought he was disappointed that I didn’t die.”
As suspicions lingered, his co-workers devised a test. In October 1984, they left a pitcher of ice tea on a table where they knew Swango would be alone with it. Bringing it for lab tests after, they learned it was “packed with arsenic.”
After finding ant killer — the main ingredient of which was arsenic — in Swango’s duffle bag, they took their findings to the police, who obtained a warrant to search his Quincy home and found a virtual laboratory for poisons, including, Sackman says, “ant poison, ricin, botulism and pesticide mixtures.”
On Aug. 23, 1985, in a plea deal, Swango was convicted of aggravated battery and sentenced to five years in prison for poisoning his co-workers.
While incarcerated at the Centralia Correctional Center in Illinois, he was interviewed on the news magazine show “20/20.” But after Swango was released for “good behavior” in 1987, he was still able to “crisscross the country taking low-paying jobs as a medical technician.”
In 1992, he landed a residency at the University of South Dakota Sanford School of Medicine thanks to forged documents showing that his prison time was just six months for a barroom brawl. Throughout the hiring process, “no one thought it necessary to contact OSU or law enforcement back in Quincy to confirm.”
When he applied the following year at the Health Science School for Medicine at Stony Brook University on Long Island, he was similarly able to convince hospital administrators that his arrests had been “menial” — and he was hired, with the hospital doing no formal background check. Swango was sent for training to the local VA Medical Center in Northport.
ABC reran the “20/20” segment in October 1995, and Swango was soon let go from his job. But first, a psychiatrist at Northport VA called Sackman’s office to complain that a doctor at the facility was killing patients. This was when Sackman got involved.
After his firing, Swango took off for Africa, knowing that impoverished villages would likely fall over themselves for an US-trained doctor.
Sackman’s team estimates that during three years on that continent, including time working at a hospital in Zimbabwe, Swango may have murdered as many as 60 people.
Upon his June 1997 return to the US — he flew here just to have his passport stamped, as he had taken a job in Saudi Arabia — he was arrested at Chicago’s O’Hare Airport on fraud charges for presenting false credentials to Stony Brook and for illegally distributing controlled substances. Swango took a plea deal for 3¹/₂ years in prison.
As he was locked up at the Sheridan Correctional Facility in Florence, Colo., Sackman and his team built their case for murder, including exhuming five more bodies on Long Island.
They found traces of epinephrine, which temporarily speeds up the heart and can kill if the dose is too high, and succinylcholine, which can cause paralysis, in three patients’ organs.
On July 11, 2000, Swango was charged with three counts of murder, among other charges, in federal court. The government of Zimbabwe also charged him in absentia with poisoning seven patients, killing five.
In a plea bargain, Swango was sentenced to three consecutive life terms without possibility of parole as a condition for not being extradited to Zimbabwe. He is currently serving his time at Supermax prison in Colorado.
In the wake of the Swango case, Sackman developed the Red Flags Protocol, which provides medical environments with warning signs to look out for — such as death rates that rise when one particular individual is on duty. He also notes that hospitals have tightened their processes for employee background checks.
But Sackman, now a private investigator for medical centers in New York, notes that medical serial killers are not a thing of the past and that hospitals must be vigilant due to the enormous potential they have for mass destruction.
“A traditional serial killer may kill eight to 10 people. But medical serial killers can kill that many people in a week,” Sackman says.
“There’s a guy named Dr. Harold Shipman in England who killed somewhere between 250-300 people. [Some medical serial killers] kill so many people they can’t even remember. Being in a medical center is the greatest location if you’re inclined to commit murder.”
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