Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Michael Swango: Doctor of Death

Killing for Pleasure

At first glance, arresting Michael Swango on fraud charges seems as incomplete as nabbing Al Capone for income tax evasion. But, the federal government had a method in its madness.

By charging Swango — now in its possession — with even a minor infringement and giving him the maximum time allowable under the statute of the law, the government would have on its side the value of time to build the case it wanted. Even though Swango had eluded the FBI by traveling to Africa, the Bureau had not given up the chase. Agents worked with international law enforcement agencies to pinpoint his movements and build a dossier. At the same time, they were shaping a psychological profile, an important phase of their investigation and a vital tool that would be used to identify the nature of his criminality.

There is yet to be done a thorough, up-close psychological study of Michael Swango, but subject experts and forensic clinicians who have watched his case from afar tend to agree that the profile emerging is one of an individual with emphatic narcissistic tendencies. He is not insane; he can distinguish right from wrong.

Forensic Psychologist Dr. Jeffrey Smalldon (who has examined many serial killers, among them John Wayne Gacy) believes that Swango's drive is "a preoccupation with control and manipulation," including a feeling of control over life and death itself. Sans a formal examination, Smalldon says Swango displays the common threads of a narcissist. These include — but are not inclusive of — a dysfunctional family history (in Swango's case, an absentee father); violent fantasies and attention to disasters (starkly noted by his scrapbook); an overt reaction to criticism (remember his self-punishing push-ups?); a contempt for his victims (he cruelly waved goodbye to Mzezewa after injecting him); and a compulsion to deceive (examples of this being the foundation of Swango's career).

But, how does one fully explain a psychopath, especially a Swango whose deeds are so loathsome and continuous? Dr. Smalldon says it's impossible. More so, as author James B. Stewart recently told 20/20, "One of the most chilling things about this kind of personality is that there is no known treatment...no psychiatric procedure...no drug...no way to stop him. If he is free he will find a means and a place to do it again."

*****

A sign that the government had not forgotten the fugitive is that while he was still in Africa, an FBI agent visited Swango's old nemesis Judge Dennis Cashman in Springfield, Illinois, to garner information that would help prosecutors slot the type of killings Swango performed. It was at that time that Cashman learned the depth of the poisoner's crimes. The agent, John McAfee, admitted that the Federal Bureau of Investigation suspected that Swango could be responsible for as many as 60 deaths. Cashman was stunned.

At his hearing on charges of fraud July 12, 1998, Swango entered a plea of guilty and was given the maximum penalty for such a crime, to be served at the high-security Sheridan Correctional Facility in Florence, Colorado. Judge Jacob Mishler, in passing sentence, mandated that Swango, at no time during confinement, would fulfill any duties "that directly or indirectly require the preparation or delivery of food".

With Swango behind bars only temporarily, the FBI accelerated its search for hard evidence of murder. Africa had contacted them and was preparing an official warrant for his arrest. The FBI knew that an extradition order would follow once Zimbabwe officials fused their respective pieces of evidence into a murder rap. But, FBI agents had worked too many hours and months to lose their grasp on Swango. They wanted to see him in an American courtroom.

They interviewed relatives of patients who had died under mysterious causes at Stony Brook. From the many people interviewed, agents drew up a plea to disinter those patients whose deaths at Swango's hands seemed to be most certain. These were Thomas Sammarco, Aldo Serinei and George Siano who, it appears, were given lethal injections of a drug that stopped their hearts. Swango was charged with the deaths of these three men in June, 2000.

Swango is also charged with battery on patient Barron Harris. Although it is believed that he had given him a shot that led to a coma, technically Harris' demise was the result of a larger ailment.

"In all," reads a CNN press release, "Swango is charged with three counts of murder, one count of assault, and three counts of making false statements, mail fraud, and a scheme to defraud by use of wires." After U.S. prosecutors recited his charges in court on June 17, Swango pleaded not guilty to each.

*****

Just when it looked as though Swango would be released from prison, federal prosecutors charged him with murdering three patients at a VA hospital in Northport, Long Island. All three died during 1993. The government suspected, but could not prove, that a fourth person was also a victim. Also linked into the indictment was the murder of 19-year-old Cynthia McGee by an injection of potassium when Swango was an intern at Ohio State University Hospital. McGee was in the hospital after an auto accident.

Swango finally pleaded guilty of murdering the three patients in the New York veterans hospital and was sentenced to to life in prison without parole. Later, Swango was again sentenced to life in prison in the murder of Cynthia McGee.

The most chilling evidence was Swango's own diary in which he said he killed for pleasure. He loved the "sweet, husky, close smell of indoor homicide." He claimed that these murders were "the only way I have of reminding myself that I'm still alive."

How does one explain a man going through the arduous path of getting a medical degree and then using it to launch a career of murder and assault on the people who entrusted their lives to him? One can almost understand the attributed motivation of serial killers of murdering to have complete power over an individual. But killing for pleasure?

 

 

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