Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Michael Swango: Doctor of Death


The medical center belonging to Ohio State University (OSU) was and is considered top-drawer among the profession. Its educational agenda and attention to professionalism are unequalled and, because of this, only the best pre-med graduates are permitted through its doors in Columbus, Ohio.

"Given such competition, it didn't take long for some of (Swango's) shortcomings to surface," writes James B. Stewart in his book on Swango. "The doctor in charge of transplant surgery, who oversaw Swango's work from mid-October until mid-November (threatened to) fail Swango...(He) didn't believe he was competent to practice medicine." This doctor also complained that Swango had a "brusque and indifferent manner with patients."

Not only his bedside manner was at question. Fellow interns and residents alike perceived an aura about him that was inexplicably strange. He seemed to be often lost in space when conducting H&Ps. When he talked, it was not about anything related to the rest of the conversation. One doctor recorded in his files that the young intern was preoccupied with Nazi history and genocide of Jews.

Then, just after Christmas of 1983, Swango was assigned to the ninth floor of the Rhodes Hall wing and there was more to talk about than merely his odd-duck personality.

On the morning of January 31, 1984, Swango entered the room of a neurosurgery patient named Ruth Barrick, supposedly to check on her intravenous (IV) hook-up. The attending nurse, Deborah Kennedy, thought it was strange as it was now nearly 10 a.m. and routine checks are usually performed much earlier, and by doctors, not interns. Still, Kennedy left the room as ordered. Some twenty minutes later, she returned to find Swango gone and the patient turning blue, writhing, suffocating. Doctors rushed to her bedside on Kennedy's alert and were able to resuscitate Barrick. She recovered in the Intensive Care Unit. Hospital physicians were puzzled at what had caused an obvious respiratory failure.

A week later, February 6, Nurse Anne Ritchie observed a lower than usual reading on the central venous pressure gauge that supplied medicine to Barrick's IV tube. She summoned a doctor to check it. According to Ritchie, Swango answered the call. But, when Swango seemed to be taking a longer-than-expected time in the room, she peeked in to ask if there was a problem. The intern told her no, and seemed annoyed that she was interrupting him.

Finally seeing Swango leave the room, Ritchie returned to Barrick to check the dressing that she had just applied. The patient had turned a ghastly blue. Despite emergency treatment, Barrick died gasping for air. Ritchie noted that Swango stood at the foot of the bed throughout the procedure, unaffected and idle. His one comment referred to the nurse's attempts at mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. "That's so disgusting," he glowered.

A little more than 24 hours later, at 9 p.m. on the evening of February 7, student nurse Karolyn Beery checked in to see if a patient on her rounds, elderly Rena Cooper, was showing satisfactory signs of recovery after that morning's back operation. When she looked in, she saw Swango in the woman's room, injecting something into Mrs. Cooper's IV with a syringe. Beery figured he was freeing a blockage, which sometimes occurred. Swango, spotting the nurse eyeing him from aside, said nothing to her but left immediately.

Moments later, it happened. Cooper began shaking violently, choking for oxygen as her complexion turned a vein-popping blue. A league of doctors and nurses responded to Beery's emergency code. Within 15 minutes, resuscitation efforts fortunately took effect; the medics noticed her body easing up and her natural color returning. Though still unable to speak, Cooper motioned for a notebook and a pencil, which one nurse provided. A former nurse herself, Cooper dashed off: "Someone gave me some med in my IV and paralyzed all of me, lungs, heart, speech."

As she later told 20/20 television show host Connie Chung in 1999, "There was no feeling in my arms or body. A voice said, 'When it reaches your other elbow, you'll die.' And I shook the bed rail with my right hand..."

After Cooper was able to talk the following morning, a resident doctor asked her to describe the mysterious person with the syringe. Her description fit Swango: "Tall, blonde." However, when confronted — and despite Nurse Beery's persistence — Swango sanctimoniously denied having ever been anywhere near Cooper's room.

But, the nurses on the floor were unconvinced. One of their own, a male nurse named Joe Risley, had witnessed Swango darting out of the lavatory in an unoccupied room down the hall immediately following the trauma. Swango bore an eerie expression, according to Risley, and rushed by as if trying to escape from something. In the lavatory, Risley found a syringe, just washed out, still wet. Wrapping it in tissue, he turned it over to the night manager, Nurse Lily Jordan. With the needle in their possession and with Beery sticking to her story that it was Swango she saw in Cooper's room, the body of nurses in Rhodes Hall began comparing notes.

Since Swango's appointment to this area of the hospital, there had been an unusual increase in the number of deaths — more in those few weeks than there had been for an entire year. In each case, the patient had been doing well and had not been diagnosed with a life-threatening illness. Besides Ruth Barrick, there had been six others, including 19-year-old Cynthia Ann McGee who was found dead in her bed on January 14, 21-year-old Richard DeLong who succumbed unexpectedly on January 21, and 47-year-old Rein Walker who passed away without warning.

Swango had been the floor intern at the time that every one of them died.

Assistant Director of Nursing Jan Dickson, recognizing the earnestness of her staff members, knew the time had come to present their suspicions to Neurosurgery Professor Joseph Goodman. After relaying her concerns about Swango, as well as typed statements from some of her employees, Dickson was startled to find Dr. Goodman reserved and unsympathetic. He hinted that the nurses should stick more to their business and stop feeding a rumor mill. He promised to investigate, but Dickson, as did the rest of the nursing staff, felt that nothing would come of it. They knew why. As with any institution trying to survive, bad publicity, coupled with a lawsuit, could ruin it.

"The issue of potential legal liability was especially sensitive at Ohio State because, as a large state-financed and taxpayer-supported institution, the university was largely self-insured," explains author Stewart. "Judgements against the hospitals, the medical school or the university itself were paid by the university."

Doctor Goodman's investigation on February 9 was less than inclusive. He interviewed Cooper, read the results of her blood test and reviewed the files of the seven patients whose deaths were suspect. But, he never interviewed any doctors or nurses who responded to the emergency calls, never spoke to nurses Kennedy, Beery or Ritchie, and didn't care to examine the syringe found in the washroom. After conferring with hospital attorneys and other institutional brass — among them Dr. Michael Tzagournis, Dean of the College of Medicine, and Medical Director Michael Whitcomb, Goodman concluded that Swango had been a victim of bad press. (As an aside, and to their credit, Tzagournis and Whitcomb proposed to monitor Swango's future activities.)

Swango, who had been put on probation, was reinstated with full intern privileges.

Near victim Rena Cooper, who survived her ordeal, left the hospital confounded and very disturbed by the light judgement passed on Swango. As she told {20/20}, somehow — she doesn't know how — investigators concluded that her description of the individual who entered her room did not match Swango at all. Overnight, her account of the syringe-brandishing ghost had become a metamorphosis. It went down on paper not as a "tall, blonde" male, but as a short female!

"I think at that time words were trying to be put in my mouth," Cooper expressed.


Gossip barely subsided in Rhodes Hall when unexplainable deaths began to occur in neighboring Doan Hall — immediately following Swango's transfer there to work surgery rotation.

February 19, 1984: Charlotte Warner, 72 years old, was found dead in her room. Only hours earlier, her doctor had told her she was doing well after a recent surgery, well enough to go home in a day. Something...someone...had caused her blood to clot in several organs.

February 19: Patient Evelyn Pereney began bleeding profusely from body orifices, even through her eyes, after being examined by Michael Swango. Resident physician Dr. Birkin had no explanation for the hemorrhaging.

February 20: Anna Mae Popko, 22, recovering from a simple intestinal operation, rolled up her sleeve to permit Swango to give her a shot to (as he claimed) increase her blood pressure. The girl's mother did not understand why the doctor wanted to shoo her from the room, but after a brief argument the woman relented. Not long afterwards, Swango confronted Mrs. Popko with an attitude that seemed almost victorious. "She's dead now," Swango droned. "You can go look at her."


A residency review committee in late February pondered Michael Swango's ability to become a resident doctor at Ohio State. Even apart from the suspicious deaths, his performance was ruled as "poor" by supervising doctors. For that reason, the university decided not to accept Swango as a resident physician after his internship concluded in June. After being notified in March, he left angrily.


Ohio State University would later regret not having taken the nurses' claims further. In the months ahead, as Swango had further dealings with the law, its handling of the Swango case would reap scandal. After Swango became a target of national suspicion in the late 1990s, the press lambasted it. Columbus Dispatch Science Reporter David Lore would write, "OSU's critics say the university still has not cleaned up the mess that was created when doctors and attorneys at OSU Medical Center gave Swango a pass after bungling their cursory and closed-door investigation...Last month, in response to ABC News, OSU conceded in a written statement (that) 'we should have called in outside police authorities to investigate.'"


Hindsight, however, didn't help the patients who died. In the meantime, in 1984, the Ohio State Medical Board, routinely investigating Swango for a state medical license, learned of his behavioral problems and alleged link to patients' deaths. In response to the board's inquiries, Surgery Director Dr. Larry Carey expressed misgivings about Swango, citing run-ins with hospital personnel and, specifically, the Rena Cooper episode.

The crazy luck that followed Swango again struck, however. In the face of negative reports from those, like Carey's, who worked with him, the medical board granted Michael Swango a license to practice medicine in the State of Ohio.

But Swango was angry about the way he had been treated by his peers. Either that or he was frightened. At any rate, he absconded from Ohio to return to Quincy, Illinois. He told his mother and brothers that he had been a victim of a personality clash with the powers that be.

He would seek a license to practice his beloved Hippocratic Oath in his own home state.


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