Heart of Darkness
Exactly what he was doing is now the subject of a sweeping—and often frustrating—federal investigation. Its central question: Did the doctor, whose real name is Michael Swango, methodically poison dozens of his patients in the course of a more than 10-year medical career, making him one of the most prolific murderers of all time? "Our feeling is that he is a serial killer, based on his trail of mayhem and death," says Tom Valery, special agent for the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, who has long been involved in the investigation. Yet the handsome, clean-cut Swango, 45—who in 1985 was convicted of poisoning several coworkers, none fatally—has never even been charged in any of the deaths. The family of Barron Harris, who died three weeks after the 1993 incident witnessed by his wife, sued the state later that year. But an autopsy could not conclusively link Swango to Harris's death, and the lawsuit was withdrawn, according to Elsie Harris's lawyer Andrew Siben. Likewise, a 1984 internal investigation into suspicious deaths at Ohio State University Hospitals found insufficient evidence against the doctor. That certain substances become difficult to detect in the body over time only makes it harder to prosecute Swango, who has denied any wrongdoing. "I'm innocent," he told ABC's 20/20 in 1986. "I could never do any of the things that...have been alleged.... I think my whole life speaks for that."
For the moment, Michael Swango is safely behind bars at the Federal Correctional Institution in Florence, Colo., serving a 42-month sentence for taking a job at the Northport V.A. hospital in 1993 under false pretenses. But he could be set free by July 15 unless authorities find a way to charge him with murder. A source at the FBI, which has exhumed several bodies, says the bureau feels confident it has a case against him. Still, some of those who have crossed paths with Swango fear he will somehow slip away again and even resume practicing medicine, as he did after his 1985 conviction. "He's not done yet, he can't be done," warns Greg Myers, 48, a paramedic poisoned by Swango in 1985. "He's got a reason for doing this, and he's going to find other victims. He has before."
The second of three sons of Virgil Swango, a career Army officer and Vietnam veteran, and his wife, Muriel, young Michael was class valedictorian at Christian Brothers High School in Quincy, Ill. At the time, says his aunt Louise Scharf, he also "kept a scrap-book of terrible accidents and mass killings." Swango served two years in the Marines before taking premed courses at Quincy College and graduating summa cum laude in 1979.
The trouble started in medical school at Southern Illinois University, where Swango's perceived incompetence and odd behavior led several students to lobby for his expulsion. "Whenever a surgical patient passed away, Michael would write 'DIED' in big letters across their name on the chart," says his classmate Dr. James Rosenthal. "Everybody thought that was incredibly callous and weird." Still, Swango graduated in 1983 and began an internship in general surgery at Ohio State University Hospitals that same year. One patient, Rena Cooper, then a 69-year-old widow recovering from a back operation, says Swango entered her room and injected something into her IV. "He kept his face averted and didn't say one word," says Cooper, a former nurse. "After the injection, I started to lose consciousness."
Cooper survived, but there were at least five suspicious deaths during Swango's internship. OSU Hospitals officials investigated the Cooper incident yet did not notify police and eventually exonerated Swango. "They gathered no evidence, not even the syringe he used," says Donald Boyanowski, then an associate executive director at the OSU Hospitals. "Instead it was, 'Discredit the witness. That way, nothing will happen at our great institution.' " James B. Stewart, the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist whose 1999 bestseller Blind Eye made a compelling case against Swango, suggests in his book that OSU's failure to investigate Swango aggressively was a key blunder. "If we had pinned him down then," agrees Boyanowski, "it would have changed the pattern of what came after."
Swango received a license to practice medicine in Ohio in September 1984. Before that, however, he returned to Quincy and began working as a paramedic. Coworker Greg Myers became violently ill after drinking a 7UP Swango bought for him. The next morning, he says, "Mike called and asked what my symptoms were, how long it lasted, how I felt. That's when I knew he had poisoned me. He was experimenting." After coworkers found a batch of tea spiked with arsenic, they went to police. A search warrant turned up recipes for poisons in Swango's apartment, and he was eventually convicted of six counts of aggravated battery.
In addition to receiving a prison sentence, Swango lost his medical license. But when he got out in 1987, he brashly began applying for hospital jobs, even using as a reference the name of the judge who sentenced him. Then in 1991, while taking a class at a hospital in Newport News, Va., he met Kristin Kinney, a bright, vivacious nurse, and became engaged. (Swango's marriage to nurse Rita Dumas had ended earlier that year after 18 months.) Soon afterward, Swango—explaining that he had been unjustly convicted—was hired as a resident at the University of South Dakota's internal medicine program, and he and Kinney moved to Sioux Falls. Then in November 1992, the Discovery Channel rebroadcast part of the interview Swango had given 20/20 in 1986 while in prison for poisoning his colleagues.
In the furor following the show, Swango was suspended and later asked to resign. He and Kristin then returned to Virginia, where Kinney's mother, Sharon Cooper, lived. At first, Cooper admits, she had been "pretty much taken" with Swango. Over time, though, her daughter became withdrawn and exhausted. Later, it was discovered, she had written in her diary of troubling episodes. "I felt the color leave my face," read one entry. "My vision was getting blurry." Swango left for a job in New York in June 1993, but her nausea continued, and in July she shot herself three times in the chest. "Trust me," she wrote in a note, "I'm better off where I am." Since Kinney's death was clearly a suicide, the coroner didn't check her body for poisons, and Swango was not charged with any wrongdoing. But sources tell PEOPLE that an analysis of a lock of Kristin's hair—snipped by her mother as a keepsake before her funeral—indicates poison in her system; the case is part of the FBI's investigation.
By the time of Kinney's suicide, Swango was tending to patients at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center as part of a residency at the State University of New York. "Standard procedures for checking applicants were not followed," admits Dr. Jordan Cohen, dean of the medical school at SUNY, Stony Brook. Acting on a tip" from Sioux Falls, Cohen fired Swango—but not before several patients, including Barron Harris, died mysteriously. "What started to unfold was that perhaps we might have a serial killer," says special Veterans Affairs agent Tom Valery. "Working the case has raised inescapable suspicions."
Remarkably, even then Swango's medical career wasn't finished. In 1996 he went to work for an Evangelical Lutheran mission hospital in Zimbabwe. "He kissed the ground because he was so happy to be here," says Howard Mpofu, the hospital's coordinator. But a rash of unexplained deaths, coupled with sightings of Swango in the hospital during unscheduled hours, quickly raised suspicions. "One time he put a screen around a patient," says Mpofu, "and when he came out, the patient was gasping." Finally, in June 1997, Swango flew back to the U.S. to pick up a visa for a hospital job in Saudi Arabia. Police at Chicago's O'Hare Airport, noticing a warrant for his arrest flash on a computer screen, arrested Swango on fraud charges related to his stay at Northport's V.A. hospital.
If Swango is convicted—either in the U.S. or in Zimbabwe, where he may also face charges—those who are still haunted by him will surely breathe easier. But should the case against him prove inadequate, at least one ex-colleague believes Swango will find some way to practice medicine again. "He could even end up functioning as a modern Josef Mengele," says James Rosenthal, Swango's former med-school classmate. "If there's anybody who would be willing to step into that role, it's Michael Swango. He might finally find his niche."
Champ Clark in Chicago, Rose Ellen O'Connor in Washington, D.C., Jennifer Longley in New York City and Vera Haller in Johannesburg