Michael Swango: Doctor of Death
Death Takes No Holiday
Having had the ability so far to pick and choose his fields of endeavor, as a child pretends to be a cowboy one minute and a Martian the next, this time it was with a psychiatric residency program offered by the State University of New York through its Stony Brook Medical School. He had been interviewed in the spring. When the issue of his conviction in Illinois arose, Swango again used the barroom brawl alibi, and again displayed the forged Virginia pardon. Sufficiently dazzling Dr. Alan Miller, Director of the Psychiatric Department, as well as other professorial types, no one checked with the administration that convicted him or on the standing of his credentials. Had they done so, they would have realized he was a doctor in search of practice without a license. Instead, they hired him and slated his first tour of duty to commence July 1.
His first assignment was with Internal Medicine at the Veterans Administration complex on picturesque Northport, Long Island. The hospital, one of the institutions that made up Stony Brook, sat in the midst of the pleasant community, which enjoyed having a medical establishment of such good merit in its fold.
But, reverberations of oncoming trouble began the first evening of Swango's duty. His first patient, Dominic Buffalino, mysteriously died that night within hours after Swango taking charge of his case. Wife Teresa Buffalino could not understand how her husband, a man who entered the hospital with a mild case of pneumonia and who had been sitting up teasing her and the nurses that very afternoon, could suddenly succumb to paralysis of the heart and other organs.
A rare case as it was, Mrs. Buffalino's query was matched by other startled relatives of patients over the next couple of months. Aldo Serinei died suddenly. As did Thomas Sammarco. As did George Siano. All died of heart failure after paralysis struck in the night. As they lay breathing their last, Swango had placed a DNR order on every one of them. DNR, or in its entirety "Do Not Resuscitate," meant that a patient's condition was fatal and inoperable.
The case of Barron Harris is one of the more dramatic because his wife, Elsie, proved later to be one of Swango's more vocal detractors. Elderly Harris had been admitted into the hospital after contracting pneumonia in September. At first, the wife approved of the resident doctor put in his charge, the tall, congenial Swango. But her attitude of him soon soured. He grew distant and silent towards her. One night when she came to visit Barron, she found the doctor in the room, lights off, injecting something into his patient's neck. When she asked what the shot was for, Swango answered unemotionally, "Vitamins," then shuffled off with no further explanation.
Mrs. Harris must have sensed his response amiss, for later she asked the nurse on duty about the shot she saw Swango administer. The nurse stared back incredulously. "Doctors don't give shots," she reported. "That's what we're supposed to do."
Within days, Harris' condition faltered. He was forced to a respirator, then slipped into a coma. When she heard that Swango assigned a DNR to be placed across Barron Harris' chart, Elsie demanded to know why. "Because," Swango groaned as if annoyed, "his brain is virtually dead."
Mr. Harris lived for some time after the incident, but never awoke from the coma. When his wife later sued the hospital for negligence, the case was tossed out of court for lack of evidence that Swango had committed a crime.
Since then, things have changed.
Mr. and Mrs. Cooper, Kristin Kinney's parents, could not accept her suicide. They knew she had been driven to it by a very evil man. And they wanted answers. They wanted to know why this fellow was still practicing medicine, maybe hurting more good people like their beloved KK. In communicating with one of Kristin's nursing friends in South Dakota, Sharon Cooper relayed her wariness over the elusive Swango. She knew he had left to take a residency in Stony Brook and, after what she had found about him through the 20/20 program and subsequent newspaper exposes, she felt that there had been a gross error committed somewhere.
Kristin's friend was aghast — she hadn't known Swango was working again — and pledged to elevate Mrs. Cooper's concerns. She followed through with her promise. The next day she sought audience with Dean Robert Talley.
Horrified, Dr. Talley directly phoned Dr. Jordan Cohen, Dean of Stony Brook. An emergency meeting ensued, to which Dr. Miller and Swango were summoned. When Miller insisted to hear the real reason for Swango's prison time in Illinois, the latter shrugged, then admitted it had not been for a barroom brawl, but for suspicion of poisoning fellow paramedics.
Swango was terminated, but not before the media got ahold of the incident. Local and national press rallied at the threshold of Stony Brook. People who lost loved ones under Swango's care sent out a war cry, among them Barron Harris' wife, Elsie. The University of New York, gun shy, shook the hierarchy trellis and before the year was out both Drs. Miller and Cohen resigned. Looking back, Cohen later told AP reporter Larry McShane, "(Swango was) a charming, pathological liar."
According to ABC News, Dr. Cohen resigned gracefully, taking a step no other of his profession had done before. "He sent a letter to every medical school in the country, warning them about Swango."
The Justice Department now moved in quietly to investigate. However, Swango had left New York for parts unknown. Agents checked for his whereabouts in several locations that he was known to have visited; they followed leads from friends and associates, including the Coopers, who thought he might have gone here or there. But, months passed without results. In mid-1994, they finally traced him to friend Bert Gee's home near Atlanta, Georgia. Gee, an acquaintance for years, was unaware of Swango's crimes and unaware that the FBI had put his house under surveillance.
No order had yet come down from headquarters to arrest the runaway doctor-who-wasn't, so agents bided their time shadowing Swango's movements. They panicked when they discovered he was working at a wastewater treatment facility, which connected to Atlanta's water supply! Before they could confront the local authorities, warning them of the dangers inherent, their suspect suddenly left Atlanta.
Within weeks, the long-awaited arrest warrant arrived, charging Michael Swango with falsifying documents in order to enter the service of the federally granted Veterans Administration hospital at Stony Brook.
But, this time, Swango had vanished, not to be found. Federal Bureau of Investigation agents predicted he had either killed himself or left the country. Having dealt with the likes of Swango many times in its history, the FBI laid its money on the second.