Michael Swango, a former doctor long suspected of poisoning patients from Ohio to Zimbabwe, was charged today with killing three patients in 1993 at a Long Island veterans hospital.
Federal prosecutors announced the new charges — which could carry the death penalty — days before Swango was to be released from a Colorado prison. He had been held there after confessing to lying about his criminal history on a job application, a charge prosecutors brought in part to buy them time to build the murder case.
Swango, said U.S. Attorney Loretta Lynch, was “exactly the kind of doctor you would want to avoid. The problem is, his appearance, his mannerisms and everything he did was designed to draw people in and make them trust him — when they should not have.”
Prosecutors suspect that soon after graduating from Southern Illinois University Medical School in 1983, Swango set off on a cross-country, then intercontinental spree of poisoning patients and co-workers for more than a decade.
Poison, and Death Swango, 45, is completing a 42-month prison sentence for lying on an application for a residency at Stony Brook University Medical Center. He admitted failing to disclose that he had spent 30 months in jail and lost his medical license in 1985 for poisoning six co-workers in Quincy, Ill.
None of the people died in that case.
But after Swango was hired by Stony Brook, three patients did die in his care at the Veterans Administration Hospital run by the university in Northport, prosecutors said.
Swango is suspected of killing all three patients by injecting them with toxins. In two of the cases, the doctor is accused of falsely telling associates that the patients’ families had issued “do not resuscitate” orders.
The patients died between July and October 1993.
More Charges Levied Prosecutors also believe a fourth patient was poisoned, but there wasn’t enough evidence to prove the injection led to death. Swango is charged with assault in that case.
For a brief time in 1992, Swango worked in a residency program at the University of South Dakota, but was fired from there too for lying about criminal record.
In gathering evidence while Swango was in prison in Colorado, prosecutors had the bodies of some of the victims exhumed and new toxicological tests performed.
Swango was fired by Stony Brook University on Oct. 13, 1993, after officials there learned he lied about his criminal past. He had told Stony Brook officials that his conviction was related to a bar fight, rather than the poisonings.
Prosecutors also linked Swango today to the death of a 19-year-old patient at Ohio State University Hospital in January 1984, and another poisoning at the same facility a month later. The victim survived in the latter case. The indictment alleges Swango poisoned both those patients, but charges were never filed.
On to Zimbabwe When Swango left Stony Brook, he headed for Zimbabwe, where he was hired by the Zimbabwe Association of Church Hospitals in 1994, according to today’s 17-page indictment. About a year later, patients at hospitals there began showing signs of poisoning.
Swango was suspended from practice at the Mnene Mission Hospital in Zimbabwe in July 1995. Prosecutors there are still investigating and cooperated with U.S. prosecutors in preparing today’s indictment, Lynch said.
The doctor was arrested at Chicago’s O’Hare Airport in 1997, en route to a new job in Saudi Arabia.
He was just days from being released from custody in Florence, Colo., when the indictment was announced.
Lynch said Swango will be transferred to New York to face the latest charges. No date was set for arraignment.
Swango’s court-appointed lawyer, Randi Chavis, did not immediately return a call seeking comment.
Lynch said the most difficult question about this case is “why somebody would take their medical degree and embark upon a career of killing and assaulting people.”