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Doctor of Death: The Twisted, Decades-Long Crime Spree of Michael Swango

He's suspected of claiming as many as 60 lives.

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  • Photo Credit: Murderpedia

When you go to the doctor, you put your life in their hands. But what if your doctor can’t be trusted? Such was the case for the patients of infamous physician and serial killer Michael Swango.

In July 2000, Swango was charged with the murders of three New York state patients. He soon confessed to the crimes, and would admit to one additional slaying. Yet investigators suspect that during his crime spree, which spanned 1981 to 1997, Swango may have claimed the lives of as many as 60 patients through poisoning. Even after Swango lost his medical license for poisoning co-workers in 1985, he managed to work his way into patient care again and again. It would take years—and a handful of deaths—before justice finally caught up with this doctor of death.

Early Life

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Michael Swango was born on October 21, 1954, in Tacoma, Washington, to Muriel and John Swango. Raised in Quincy, Illinois, middle-child Swango was considered by his mother to be the most academically gifted of the family.

John Swango was an Army officer, who served in the Vietnam War. He was a strict man who struggled with alcoholism, and the Swango household was in a constant state of tension until Muriel decided to divorce John.

As he became older, Swango excelled in school and was always involved in extracurricular activities. Swango graduated as the valedictorian from Quincy Catholic Boys High School in 1972, and went to Millikin University in Illinois on a full-ride scholarship. Despite doing well in school, Swango became depressed after a breakup and dropped out to join the Marines.

Related: Dr. Buck Ruxton and the Grisly Jigsaw Murders of 1935 

After finishing his term of service, he decided to return to school and pursue a career in medicine. Swango attended Quincy University, where he graduated summa cum laude and was awarded the American Chemical Society Award. Swango’s senior thesis centered on the poisoning of Bulgarian writer Georgi Markov.

As a promising doctor on the rise, Swango went on to attend South Illinois University School of Medicine, where his interest in poisons took a very dark turn.

A Fascination with Death

During his time at SIU, Swango began to fall behind academically. He was often suspected of cutting corners in his work, exams, and projects, but somehow he continued to pass courses. 

When Swango decided to accept work as an ambulance attendant during his first year, his obsession with death emerged. By the time his third year rolled by, Swango was engrossed in ambulance calls, prioritizing them over schoolwork in order to get closer to dying or critically injured patients. 

Related: 6 True-Crime Books About Killer Doctors 

It was during the third year that Swango started to have individual sessions with patients. During these sessions, a handful of patients suffered life-threatening emergencies, and five of them died under his care.

Just a month before his graduation, Swango’s recklessness caught up to him when professors learned that he was faking checkups with patients. He was nearly expelled for his behavior, but was ultimately allowed to stay for one more year to finish. Near his graduation date, Swango was fired from his ambulance job after he told a man who was having a heart attack to go to his own car and get his wife to drive him to the hospital. 

A Trail of Bodies 

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Despite a lackluster reputation and academic career at SIU, Swango was granted a surgical internship at Ohio State University Medical Center in 1983. After he began his internship, healthy patients began to die when he was the intern on duty. One patient who survived a seizure reported that Swango injected them with medicine before the attack.

Nurses began to file complaints with the hospital about Swango going in to patients’ rooms at random hours of the day. But despite numerous complaints, Swango was cleared of wrongdoing. However, his residency offer from OSU was rescinded due to poor work.

After getting rejected from pursuing a second year at Ohio State, Swango returned to his hometown of Quincy and landed a job as an emergency medical technician for Adam County Ambulance Corp in 1984. A background check was never done on Swango, so his employers didn’t know that he was fired from his previous ambulance job.

Once he started his position, co-workers noticed that any time Swango brought food in to share with everyone, anyone who ate it became violently ill. After the workers tested positive for poison in their systems, a police investigation was conducted. When detectives searched Swango’s home, they found a large supply of drugs, books on poison, and arsenic. Swango was convicted of aggravated battery in 1985 and sentenced to five years. 

An Addiction Like No Other

Swango was released early from prison in 1987, only serving two of his five year sentence. He found work as a career counselor, but he quickly fell back into his old habits. 

Shortly after Swango started, a couple of co-workers experienced symptoms of severe nausea and headaches. Then Swango started exhibiting strange behavior, such as working on a scrapbook of horrific news articles during office hours. Finally, he turned the building’s basement into his own personal bedroom. He was asked to leave in 1989.

Related: How H. H. Holmes Became America's Most Prolific Serial Killer 

He took another job at Aticoal Services in 1991, where he continued to poison other employees. A few of them were hospitalized, and one of the executives of the company nearly slipped into a coma. 

While at Aticoal, Swango met Kristin Kinney, a nurse at Riverside Hospital in Newport News, Virginia, for whom he immediately fell. Kristin was already engaged, but called it off and pursued a relationship with Swango. It was also during this time that Swango decided to start applying to residency programs to get back into the medical field.

A New Name and a New Life

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  • Sanford USD Medical Center.

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In 1991, Swango changed his name to David Jackson Adams and moved with Kristin to Sioux Falls, South Dakota, where he was accepted to a residency program at the University of South Dakota Medical Center. He was able to get through background checks by lying about his conviction and providing forged documents stating that he was imprisoned for a misdemeanor.

Surprisingly enough, Swango gained a positive reputation and was well-liked by his co-workers. However, his new life was shattered when Swango applied to join the American Medical Association. After an extensive background check, the AMA dug up Swango’s previous convictions and informed USD of Swango’s true identity and history of poisoning.

In addition to this, an interview that Swango had done while he was in prison aired on television. When all of this came to the forefront, Swango was asked to resign, and Kristen was shocked.

Although Kristen stayed with Swango for a few more months, she complained of having severe migraines and was withdrawn from work. After she was found naked and confused on the street, she was briefly placed in a psychiatric hospital.

In 1993, she finally left Swango and returned to Virginia, and her physical health immediately improved. However, Swango remained in her life, and charmed his way back into her heart. 

A Mother’s Revenge

Swango somehow managed to lie his way into a psychiatric residency program at the State University of New York at Stony Brook School of Medicine. He left Kristin to pursue the program, where yet again, patients began to die under Swango’s watch. 

Swango and Kristin continued their long distance relationship. However, one conversation took a tragic turn when Swango admitted to Kristin he had emptied out her bank account. Upon hearing this news, Kristin shot herself in the chest the very next day and passed away. 

Related: 10 Evil Doctors That Will Make You Sick 

After her tragic death, Kristin’s mother blamed Swango for her suicide, and was shocked to learn that he was still practicing medicine elsewhere. She got in contact with a nurse and close friend of Kristin’s in South Dakota, who then got in touch with the dean of the medical school at Stony Brook. 

Swango was then fired, and notices were sent to over a thousand hospitals and medical schools across the country about Swango. The FBI also began to hunt for the criminal.

Swango Goes Abroad

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Feeling pressure from the FBI, Swango decided to flee the country to continue his career in Africa. Swango forged more documents, and moved to Zimbabwe in 1994, where he landed a job at Mnene Lutheran Mission Hospital. 

Yet again, patients that were under Swango’s care mysteriously passed away. After complaints from nurses and patients about Swango’s concerning behavior, the hospital’s director Dr. Zshiri contacted the police and had them search Swango’s home.

When the police raided Swango’s property they found hundreds of different drugs and poisons. Swango was fired and had a week to vacate the hospital property.

When Zimbabwe police began to thoroughly investigate the deaths in connection to Swango, evidence of his guilt piled up. During this time, Swango was trying to restore his medical license. When news about his impending arrest reached him, however, he fled to Zambia. Using a false resume, Swango then applied for a position at the Royal Hospital in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia.

Swango’s Crime Spree Comes to an End

Thankfully, Swango never made it to his next gig. In June 1997, Swango was arrested in the United States while on a layover at the Chicago-O’Hare airport. Immigration and Naturalization Service agents arrested him on fraud charges.

In 1998, Swango pleaded guilty to defrauding the government, and was sentenced to three years and six months in prison. During this time, investigators amassed a fuller report of Swango's crimes. On July 11, 2000, just a few days before was released, federal prosecutors on Long Island filed criminal complaint charging Swango with a number of crimes, including three counts of murder, assault, and fraud.

Related: 33 Books About the World’s Most Famous Serial Killers 

Swango was formally indicted a few days later. He initially pleaded not guilty. By September, however, he pleaded guilty to the charges, thus avoiding the death penalty in New York for murder. He also admitted to poisoning Cynthia Ann McGee in Ohio in 1984. 

Swango received three consecutive life sentences for his convicted crimes. He is currently being held prisoner at the United States Penitentiary, Administrative Maximum Facility (USP Florence ADMAX), a supermax federal prison in Colorado, informally known as the "Alcatraz of the Rockies".

Featured photo: Murderpedia