Doctor may face execution in deaths of 3 patients

Sunday, July 16th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

NEW YORK – At first glance, Dr. Michael Swango was everything a patient could want in a physician: confident and competent, with a good bedside manner.

Prosecutors took a longer look and saw something else: someone they think fatally poisoned three patients at a Long Island veterans hospital and left a trail of dead bodies stretching from Ohio to Zimbabwe.

"Everything he did was designed to draw people in and make them trust him," said U.S. Attorney Loretta Lynch, who announced Dr. Swango's murder indictment.

Now the man dubbed "Dr. Death" by the tabloids faces the death penalty himself.

Dr. Swango will return Monday to Long Island for his arraignment on the murder charges.

Authorities have charged Dr. Swango with three murders, but the best-selling book Blind Eye: The Story of a Doctor who Got Away with Murder suggested he may have killed as many as 35 patients on two continents.

"He's a charming, pathological liar," said Dr. Jordan Cohen, dean of the Long Island medical school that ran the facility where the three deaths occurred.

Dr. Swango's lies continued right up until 1997, when he was arrested while boarding a plane for Saudi Arabia and another medical job, authorities said.

On Tuesday, the 45-year-old doctor – just days from release at a Colorado prison on unrelated charges – was accused of the 1993 murders of three patients at the Veterans Administration Hospital in Northport.

Dr. Swango is accused of injecting the three with toxins. In two of the cases, he then told other hospital staff members that the patients' families had issued "do not resuscitate" orders, the indictment said.

"At first, he was a nice doctor," recalled Barron Harris Jr., whose father survived an attack on Long Island. "I remember shaking his hand – he said he would do the best he could."

After the indictment Tuesday, Dr. Swango's court-appointed lawyer, Randi Chavis, did not return a call seeking comment. Efforts to reach Mr. Chavis later in the week also were unsuccessful.

Dr. Swango graduated from Southern Illinois University Medical School in 1983. There, according to James B. Stewart's Blind Eye, he was dubbed "Double-0 Swango" by classmates who joked that he had a license to kill after several of his cases ended in death.

He is accused of killing a 19-year-old gymnast with a fatal dose of potassium while he was an intern at Ohio State University Hospital in 1984. He was never prosecuted for that death, or for another alleged poisoning of an OSU patient who survived.

Dr. Swango was not permitted to return for the second year of his residency. Instead, he returned to his Quincy, Ill., home and took a job as an emergency medical technician. His stint ended with his conviction for lacing his co-workers' coffee and doughnuts with ant poison. Five of them became ill, and Dr. Swango served two years of a five-year prison sentence. He also lost his medical license.

His prison release coincided with various unsuccessful attempts to revive his career. He eventually landed a 1993 residency at the State University of New York at Stony Brook by lying on his job application. That lie resulted in a 42-month prison sentence in Colorado.

Three Long Island patients died between July and October of 1993 while staying at the veterans' hospital run by the school.

Dr. Swango was dismissed by SUNY-Stony Brook after his record became public knowledge, and he soon relocated to Zimbabwe. Within a year of his arrival, patients in a hospital there were showing signs of poisoning, the indictment said.

In July 1995, a Zimbabwe hospital suspended Dr. Swango from practice.

He was finally arrested two years later at O'Hare Airport in Chicago, where he was boarding a flight to Saudi Arabia for a new medical job.