Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Michael Swango: Doctor of Death

Wolf in Sheep's Clothing

Mnene, Lutheran Mission Hospital (James B. Stewart)
Mnene, Lutheran Mission Hospital
(James B. Stewart)
Banana-colored skies, crooked eucalyptus trees and a veldt that stretched outward until it fell over the horizon. This was Swango's newest home, Zimbabwe, southern Africa. A place where he thought he would be safe from a democracy that didn't like cyanide in its IV tubes or homemade botulism glazed on its jellyrolls.

But had he thought Africa too backward to notice that healthy patients don't just keel over without cause, he was about to learn a desperate lesson.

Looking to get out of the country, Swango applied with an agency that serves as a conduit for English-speaking doctors seeking employment in other nations. He submitted a parcel of forged and totally fabricated documentia, the curriculum vitae attesting to his outstanding work across the United States. A cover letter bespoke a desire to practice medicine in a far-off village somewhere, all for the sake of Mankind. The Lutheran mission hospital at remote Mnene received his package and thought that this Dr. Michael Swango would be an excellent catch. American doctors were hard to come by and here was one almost pleading to be selected.

Swango arrived in Africa just before the end of the year 1994. Church deacon Mpofu picked him up at the tiny airport at Bulawayo and transported him back to the mission station at Mnene to meet its director, Dr. Christopher Zshiri. Not one to mince words, Zshiri asked why such a dynamic metropolitan physician would want to come to a depressed atmosphere such as Mnene to earn only a pittance of what he was used to. The American said he loved Africa and wanted to give what he could to help the black people who just didn't get the breaks he had been given.

Zshiri somewhat bought it. But he made a point to survey Swango during his orientation days in the small, one-story, dry-bricked cottage cum hospital. The newcomer showed enthusiasm and a willingness to adapt to foreign cultures but, strangely, seemed somewhat lacking in the simple basics that the people here required — attending to childbirth, removing cysts, cleaning abscesses. Zshiri attributed the gap to Swango's specialization in neurosurgery. In America, he knew, specialists don't bother with ailments and prognoses outside their realm.

Swango agreed to take a five-month internship at Mpilo Hospital in Bulawayo to familiarize himself with the fundamentals of doctoring the local populace, to learn the bioethical nuances as well as the mechanical techniques of the operating room. He learned quickly, seeming to grasp the sensitive nature of an ancient and proud race who still didn't quite trust blonde, blue-eyed doctors from a mythical land called Illinois. His initiatives and hard work pleased Mpilo's superintendent, Dr. Chaibva, and the head of Obstetrics, Dr. King. But, his personal friend became Dr. Ian Lorimer, a tall, likeable surgeon/teacher who was struck with Swango's coolness under emergencies.

In May, 1995, a more skilled Swango returned to the outpost hospital at Mnene. Quite often, he worked late into the evening and effected improvements in procedures that decreased waiting periods endured by the sick of Mnene Parish. But Dr. Zashiri's earlier cynicism about this Yankee doctor gradually took form as he noticed Swango's attitude sink, a little at a time, and his nature turn sour. First, his work took on a sloppy disregard. Then, the Lutheran nuns with whom he worked began complaining that he was treating them with disdain, as if to taunt the respect he had been told to show them. Sometimes, Zashiri would awaken to find that "Dr. Mike" had taken an unauthorized holiday when there was no one else on duty to tend to patients.

But, Dr. Zshiri was a professional man, a capable leader; internal squabbles and sloven employees were not beyond his ability to fix. However, there was more to Swango than that.

Rhoda Mahlamvana had entered Mnene Lutheran Hospital with burns received in an accident at her home. She was doing well and was scheduled to leave the hospital in a few days. After Swango took over her case, her condition deteriorated. She died shortly thereafter. Swango could not explain.

There were others, too, young and old, who collapsed in the midst of recovery, never to awaken again. Cause of death: heart failure brought about by...well, that was the mystery. Dr. Jan Larsson, who helped out at the mission, admitted to Zshiri that he believed this Swango was playing foul.

Patient Keneas Mzezewa awoke one night from a shallow slumber to sense Swango's needle in his arm. Before the doctor stepped away from his cot, he waved goodbye, an act which Mzezewa could not comprehend — until a bit later when he began to feel scalding hot all over, then nauseated, then feel his frame begin to paralyze. He could barely speak, but somehow managed to find the power for one scream. Resuscitation efforts by the nuns revived him, and when he was able to speak he told them to keep Swango away from him. "That man, he's no good!" he cried. "He tried to kill me!"

Swango told Zshiri that Mzezewa must have hallucinated. "No one injected him!" Swango cried, not knowing that the nuns had found a needle cap lying on the floor beside his cot.

Within a few weeks, Katazo Shava died. He had been talking with friends who had come to see him after his leg operation when Swango interrupted them. He asked the party to leave, saying Shava needed to rest. Respectfully, the visitors filed out, leaving the doctor alone with his patient. Suddenly, they heard Shava scream. When they ran back to his cot, they found him frenzied, yelling that Swango had given him something bad in a needle. Swango denied it, but Shava died that afternoon. Paralysis due to heart failure.

And the beat went on...Phillimon Chipoko succumbed in the middle of a foot amputation — a very rare occurrence. Again, heart failure.

Virginia Sibanda nearly died during the spasms of childbirth. Going into labor pains, the nurses wheeled her into the delivery room when Swango appeared to take over. He had been there only moments when the sisters heard the patient crying for help. Her body wracked with pain, she yelped for relief. The nurses stepped in to deliver the baby while the mother writhed. Luckily, a healthy child was born and Sibanda recovered.

That evening, she told a nun that, while the nurses were not looking, "Dr. Mike" bent over her to inject her with a needle that he withdrew from inside his lab coat; her excruciating pain followed within seconds. When confronted, Swango smirked and blamed the whole matter on the patient's delusions.

One more death was to follow, that of Margaret Zhou, a young woman facing a mild operation, who died in the still of the peaceful African night.

By this time, the nuns were threatening to go to the police if Zshiri did not. Zshiri called a meeting and it was decided to summon a police investigation. Superintendent of the Zimbabwe Republic Constabulary, P.C. Chakarisa, obtained a search warrant and went to Swango's cottage nearby. Inside, the police found, according to James B. Stewart's Blind Eye, "an extensive array of drugs and medical equipment". Syringes, some still filled with a liquid, lay about the room; so did bottles and tins of substances foreign to the Zimbabwe doctors.

Shortly after the raid, Swango hired one of the region's top lawyers, David Coltart, a man respected by authorities. Coltart's reputation was so high that Swango's friends from Mpilo Hospital firmly believed that Swango's defamation charges against Mnene had credence. While Swango awaited an upcoming hearing, they allowed him to practice medicine at Mpilo.

Meanwhile, Inspector Chakarisa's case was solidifying as he talked to surviving patients and relatives of those who had died, and to the good sisters at the mission hospital. The drugs found in Swango's residence were lethal. Intercontinental communications began to bring to the surface another Swango that Dr. Zshiri and the folks at Mnene had never known — one who had been in an American prison for poisoning co-workers and who was dismissed from one hospital after another for apparently suspicious reasons. When Chakarisa learned that Swango was practicing at Mpilo, he intervened. He contacted the republic's Minister of Health and Child Welfare who, in turn, ordered Swango barred from further duty.

As the evidence built, Attorney Coltart realized his client might be guilty, after all. And he was sure of it when the doctor failed to appear at a hearing in August, 1996. The main players knew he had gone on the lam.

*****

Hiding out in Zambia, then Europe, for nearly a year, Swango returned to the United States. Immigration officials, checking all flights for many months, were ready for him when he stepped off an airplane in Chicago's O'Hare Airport on June 27, 1997. Cuffed in the terminal, he was ushered to a back room, read his rights and told he was arrested for fraudulently entering Stony Brook and practicing medicine without a license in a VA hospital.

From Chicago, he was escorted to New York for trial.

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