Joseph Michael Swango (born October 21, 1954) is an American serial killer and a licensed physician. It is estimated that Swango has been involved in as many as 60 fatal poisonings of patients and colleagues, though he only admitted to causing four deaths. He was sentenced in 2000 to three consecutive life terms without the possibility of parole, and is serving that sentence at the ADX Florence supermax prison near Florence, Colorado.
Swango was born in Tacoma, Washington and raised in Quincy, Illinois, the middle child of Muriel and John Virgil Swango. Swango’s father was a career U.S. Army officer who served in the Vietnam War and was troubled by alcoholism. Upon his return from Vietnam, Swango’s father became depressed and was divorced by Muriel. Growing up, Swango saw little of his father and as a result, was closest to his mother.
Michael Swango was valedictorian of his 1972 Quincy Catholic Boys High School class. During high school he played clarinet and was a member of the Quincy Notre Dame band.
Swango served in the Marine Corps, graduating from recruit training at Marine Corps Recruit Depot, San Diego; he received an honorable discharge in 1976. He saw no action overseas during his service, but his training in the Marines left him with a commitment to physical exercise; when not studying, he was frequently seen jogging or performing calisthenics on the Quincy campus, and he was known to perform pushups as a form of self-punishment when criticized by instructors. Swango attended Quincy College, graduating summa cum laude and being awarded the American Chemical Society Award. Following his graduation from Quincy, Swango went to medical school at Southern Illinois University School of Medicine.
Swango displayed troubling behavior during his time at SIU. Although he was a brilliant student, he preferred to work as an ambulance attendant rather than concentrate on his studies. A fascination with dying patients was noted during this time. Although no one thought much of it at the time, many of Swango’s assigned patients ended up “coding,” or suffering life-threatening emergencies, with at least five of them dying.
Swango’s lackadaisical approach to his studies caught up with him a month before he was due to graduate, when it was discovered that he had faked checkups during his OB/GYN rotation. A number of his fellow students had suspected he had been faking checkups as early as his second year. He was nearly expelled, but was allowed to remain when one member of the committee voted to give him a second chance; at the time, a unanimous vote was required for a student to be dismissed. Even earlier, several students and faculty members had raised concerns about his competence to practice medicine. Eventually, the school allowed him to graduate with an M.D., one year after his entering classmates, after fulfilling the conditions that he repeat the OB/GYN rotation and complete several assignments in other specialties.
Despite a very poor evaluation in his dean’s letter from SIU, Swango got a surgical internship at Ohio State University Medical Center (now The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center) in 1983, to be followed by a residency in neurosurgery. While he worked in Rhodes Hall at OSU, nurses noticed that apparently healthy patients began dying mysteriously with alarming frequency. Each time, Swango had been the floor intern. One nurse caught him injecting some “medicine” into a patient who later became strangely ill. The nurses reported their concerns to administrators, but were met with accusations of paranoia. Swango was cleared by a cursory investigation in 1984. His work had been so slovenly that he was not hired as a resident physician after his internship ended in June.
In July 1984, Swango returned to Quincy and began working as an emergency medical technician with the Adams County Ambulance Corps even though he had been fired from another ambulance service for making a heart patient drive to the hospital. Soon, many of the paramedics on staff began noticing that whenever Swango prepared the coffee or brought any food in, several of them usually became violently ill, with no apparent cause. In October of that year, Swango was arrested by the Quincy Police Department, who found arsenic and other poisons in his possession. On August 23, 1985, Swango was convicted of aggravated battery for poisoning co-workers. He was sentenced to five years’ imprisonment.
Swango’s conviction set off recriminations at Ohio State. A scathing review by Law School Dean James Meeks concluded that the hospital should have called in the police, and also revealed several glaring shortcomings in its initial investigation of Swango. Nonetheless, it was another decade before Ohio State formally conceded it should have called in outside investigators. Franklin County, Ohio prosecutors also considered bringing charges of murder and attempted murder against Swango, but decided against it for want of physical evidence.
In 1989, Swango, now released from prison, found work as a counselor at the state career development center in Newport News, Virginia. He was forced out after being caught working on a scrapbook of disasters on work time. He then found a job as a laboratory technician for ATICoal in Newport News, now Vanguard Energy, a division of CITA Logistics. During his time there, several employees sought medical attention with complaints of persistent and increasing stomach pains. Around this time, he met Kristin Kinney, a nurse at Riverside Hospital. The two fell in love and planned to marry once they got settled. He was employed until 1991, when he resigned his position to seek out a new position as a doctor.
In 1991, Swango legally changed his name to Daniel J. Adams and tried to apply for a residency program at Ohio Valley Medical Center in Wheeling, West Virginia. In July 1992, he began working at Sanford USD Medical Center in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. In both cases, he forged several legal documents that he used to reestablish himself as a physician and respected member of society. He forged a fact sheet from the Illinois Department of Corrections that falsified his criminal record, stating that he had been convicted of a misdemeanor for getting into a fistfight with a co-worker and received six months in prison, rather than the five years for felony poisoning that he served. Most states will not grant a medical license to a violent felon, considering a violent felony conviction to be evidence of unprofessional conduct. He forged a “Restoration of Civil Rights” letter from Virginia Governor Gerald L. Baliles, falsely stating that Baliles had decided to restore Swango’s right to vote and serve on a jury, based on “reports from friends and colleagues” that Swango had committed no further crimes after his “misdemeanor” and was leading an “exemplary lifestyle”.
Swango established a sterling reputation at Sanford, but he made the mistake of attempting to join the American Medical Association (AMA). The AMA did a more thorough background check than the medical center and found out about the poisoning conviction. That Thanksgiving Day, the Discovery Channel aired an episode of Justice Files that included a segment on Swango. Amid the AMA report and calls from frightened colleagues, Sanford fired Swango. Kinney went back to Virginia soon afterward after suffering from violent migraines. After she left Swango, the headaches stopped.
The AMA temporarily lost track of Swango, who managed to find a place in the psychiatric residency program at the State University of New York at Stony Brook School of Medicine. His first rotation was in the internal medicine department at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Northport, New York. Once again his patients began dying for no explicable reason. Four months later, Kristin Kinney committed suicide, and arsenic was found in her body at the time of her death. Her mother, Sharon Cooper, was horrified to find out a person with Swango’s history could be allowed to practice medicine. She got in touch with a friend of Kinney who was a nurse at Sanford. The nurse alerted Sanford’s dean, Robert Talley, to Swango’s whereabouts. Talley telephoned the dean at Stony Brook, Jordan Cohen. Under intense questioning from the head of Stony Brook’s psychiatry department, Alan Miller, Swango admitted he had lied about his poisoning conviction in Illinois. He was immediately fired. The public outcry resulted in Cohen and Miller being forced to resign before the end of the year. Before he resigned, Cohen sent a warning about Swango to all 125 medical schools and all 1,000 teaching hospitals across the nation, effectively blacklisting Swango from getting a medical residency in the United States.
Since the latest Swango incident took place at a Veterans Affairs facility, federal authorities got involved. Swango dropped out of sight until mid-1994, when the FBI found out he was living in Atlanta and working as a chemist at a computer equipment company’s wastewater facility. Soon after the FBI alerted the company, Swango was fired for lying on his job application. The FBI obtained a warrant charging Swango with using fraudulent credentials to gain entry to a Veterans Affairs hospital.
By that time, Swango had fled the country. In November 1994, he went to Zimbabwe and used forged documents to obtain a job at Mnene Lutheran Mission Hospital in the center of the country. Again, his patients began dying mysteriously. As a result of suspicions of the medical director there, Dr. Zishiri, Swango was suspended. Because of the failure to perform adequate autopsies, no firm conclusions could be drawn. During his suspension, he hired prominent lawyer David Coltart to enable him to return to clinical practice. He also appealed to the authorities at Mpilo Hospital, Bulawayo, to allow him in the interim to continue working voluntarily there. However, this was opposed by Dr. Abdollah Mesbah, a surgical resident, who had often found him snooping around mysteriously on the wards and in ICU even when not on call. He had suspected that sudden deaths of some patients were due to Swango, but had no proof at that stage.
At this time, Swango rented a room from a widowed woman in Bulawayo, who subsequently became violently sick after a meal he had prepared for her and a friend. The woman consulted a local surgeon, Michael Cotton, who suspected arsenic poisoning and persuaded her to send hair samples for forensic analysis to Pretoria. These clippings confirmed toxic levels of arsenic in the hair. The lab reports were passed on by the Zimbabwe CID through Interpol to the FBI, who subsequently visited Zimbabwe to interview Cotton and the pathologist in Bulawayo, Dr. Stanford Mathe. In the meantime, Swango had sensed that the net was closing on him; he crossed the border to Zambia and subsequently to Namibia where he found temporary medical work. He was charged in absentia with poisonings. In March 1997, he applied for a job at the Royal Hospital in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, using a false résumé.
While all this was happening, Veterans Affairs Office of the Inspector General Criminal Investigator Tom Valery consulted with Charlene Thomesen, M.D., a forensic psychiatrist. Because of her considerable clinical expertise, Thomesen was able to review documents and evidence and give a psychological profile of Swango, along with her assessment of why he had committed such crimes. Valery was called by the FBI to discuss holding Swango; Valery called then Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) Basic Agent Richard Thomesen, who was stationed in the Manhattan DEA Office, to discuss the case. Thomesen’s conversation focused on Swango lying on his government application to work at the Department of Veterans Affairs, where he prescribed narcotic medications. There was enough evidence for Immigration and Naturalization Service agents to arrest Swango in June 1997 on a layover at Chicago-O’Hare International Airport on his way to Saudi Arabia.
Faced with hard evidence of his fraudulent activities and the possibility of an extended inquiry into his time in Zimbabwe, Swango pleaded guilty to defrauding the government in March 1998. In July 1998, he was sentenced to 3.5 years in prison. The sentencing judge ordered that Swango not be allowed to prepare or deliver food, or have any involvement in preparing or distributing drugs.
The government used this time to amass a dossier of Swango’s crimes. As part of that investigation, prosecutors exhumed the bodies of three patients and found poisonous chemicals in them. They also found evidence that Swango paralyzed patient Baron Harris with an injection of what was supposedly a sedative. The sedative caused him to lapse into a coma, and Harris died on November 9, 1993. Additionally, prosecutors found evidence that Swango lied about the death of Cynthia Ann McGee, a patient he treated during his internship at OSU. Swango claimed she suffered heart failure; he had killed her by giving her a potassium injection that stopped her heart. On July 11, 2000, less than a week before he was due to be released from prison on the fraud charge, federal prosecutors on Long Island filed a criminal complaint charging Swango with three counts of murder, one count of assault and one count each of false statements, mail fraud and conspiracy to commit wire fraud. At the same time, Zimbabwean authorities charged him with poisoning seven patients, five of whom died.
Swango was formally indicted on July 17, 2000 and pleaded not guilty. On September 6, he pleaded guilty to murder and fraud charges before Judge Jacob Mishler. Had he not done so, he faced the possibility of the death penalty in New York and extradition to Zimbabwe. At his sentencing hearing, prosecutors read lurid passages from Swango’s notebook, describing the joy he felt during his crimes. Judge Mishler sentenced Swango to three consecutive life terms; he is incarcerated at ADX Florence near Florence, Colorado.
In his book Blind Eye, Quincy native James B. Stewart estimated that counting the suspicious deaths at SIU, circumstantial evidence links Swango to 35 suspicious deaths. The FBI believes he may be responsible for as many as 60 deaths, which would make him one of the most prolific serial killers in American history. The case was featured on the American crime show Unsolved Mysteries and on National Geographic Channel’s Doctor of Death.
Swango did not often vary his methods of murder. With non-patients, such as his coworkers at the emergency medical service, he used poisons, usually arsenic, slipping them into foods and beverages. With patients, he sometimes used poisons as well, but usually he administered an overdose of whichever drug the patient had been prescribed, or wrote unnecessary prescriptions for dangerous drugs.