Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Michael Swango: Doctor of Death

Toxic Snacks

Back in Quincy, Swango got a job as a paramedic with the Adams County Ambulance Corps. He did not try to reapply with his old employer, American Ambulance, because he had left them in bad favor. Actually, he had been fired for making a coronary victim walk to the ambulance. Not having told Adams his past history, the new company thought they had a gem on their hands with all his medical expertise.

Members of the ambulance corps worked in 24-hour shifts and shared the same suite of rooms in Blessing Hospital. Thrown together like they were, they were a fraternity of people who got to know each other's habits, personalities and, sometimes, secrets. More than anything, they were a dedicated group — dedicated to their job and to each other. Except for Swango. From the start, he was considered the group's official loonytoon.

Free to express himself now that he was unfettered from the stodgy cubicles of porcelain white that was Ohio State, Swango admitted to the crew that violence turned him on. And even though he did not carry the sentiment further, the others gathered that that was probably why he became a paramedic: to surround himself in the blood-and-guts and every-second-counts scenario of an ambulance corps.

Fellow corpsmen Mark Krzystofczyk, Jim Daniels, Brent Unmisig and the others, including Lonnie Long, who captained the group, regarded Swango's singularity as harmless; they sometimes looked forward to his black humor to break the monotony of long idle periods. Notwithstanding, Swango was a good technician; he had more practical medicine experience than the rest of them put together; and that was justifiable reason to let much of his bizarre dialogue pass. But — sometimes he got just a little too creepy — like when he professed poison as the best murder tool, or the time he told a fellow paramedic that he loved being a doctor because, "It gives me an opportunity to come out of the emergency room with a hard-on to tell some parents that their kid has just died."

As the crew sat around the cafeteria one evening, Swango described his total fantasy. While he confessed it, the others shuddered. "It's like this," he began. "Picture a school bus crammed with kids smashing head-on with a trailer truck loaded down with gasoline. We're summoned. We get there in a jiffy just as another gasoline truck rams the bus. Up in flames it goes! Kids are hurled through the air, everywhere, on telephone poles, on the street, especially along an old barbed wire fence along the road. All burning."

Gruesome fabrications aside, everyone considered Swango nothing but talk and imagination. Until the doughnut incident. After that, he was viewed by his comrades more ambiguously — and with much more of a cautious eye.

As was customary, members of the corps took turns bringing in treats for others to share — cookies, candy, biscuits, doughnuts. The latter were especially popular, for they went well with the general morning coffee habit. On a mid-September morning, Swango brought in an assortment of freshly baked doughnuts to the delight of the other four paramedics on duty. The crew fell on them with a hearty appetite, but over the next hour, one by one, the entire crew of paramedics were stricken with identical symptoms: stomach cramps, nausea, dizziness, then vomiting. They had to leave work, all of them.

Only later did it dawn on them that Swango had not partaken of his own box of treats. When angrily questioned later if he had pulled some kind of a stunt, he answered, "{Of course not!} I wouldn't do anything like that!"

The following evening, Swango and Unmisig were assigned to routine emergency detail at the local high school football game. Near halftime, Swango said he was thirsty and would like to buy himself and Unmisig a cola. The co-worker thanked him and promised to hold Swango's seat while he went off to fetch two Cokes. After sipping half the cup, Unmisig started to experience severe cramping. Swango drove him home where the fellow was forced to his bed with a headache, nausea and dizziness for three days.

No doubt, Swango became suspect. No one would drink a cup of anything or swallow a tidbit from the once-welcomed tray of snacks whenever Swango was about. One afternoon, the latter asked if anyone would care to join him for a soda in the recreation area. Paramedic Greg Meyers, who had been less informed than the rest of the personnel, agreed to go along. Besides, he knew that the soda Swango referred to would come in a can straight out of a pop dispenser. Tossing his co-worker loose change, he waited nearby. When Swango returned, Meyers noticed that the flip-top of his can was pulled back.

"Why did you open this?" he asked.

"Why not?" Swango smiled.

Against his better judgment, Meyers sipped the pop. Within minutes, he was met with stomach pains and the related various symptoms suffered by Unmisig earlier in the month. Once again, an Adams County paramedic had to be rushed home, compliments of an ailment that appeared out of thin air.

Following that latest upset, his fellow workers decided to check out Swango's duffel that he habitually carried to work. When he left quarters on a call, they opened his locker and retrieved the bag. Inside they found a box of Terro ant poison. According to the label, it was comprised of chiefly arsenic, which, when ingested, causes the exact symptoms each of them had had after downing Swango's snacks. They decided to spring a trap.

The men purposely left a freshly brewed pot of iced tea on the counter when they knew Swango would be alone. When they returned, and after Swango had gone out, they poured the tea into another container and washed out the pot. They then brought the liquid to the local coroner, an acquaintance, who in turn sent it to the nearest FBI lab for testing. Results indicated traces of toxin.

Before the week was up, the Adams County Sheriff searched Swango's apartment on Eighteenth Street. Amid the debris of an unkempt flat, police uncovered a mass of vials, bottles, syringes and other medical paraphernalia, all piled around a book entitled The Poor Man's James Bond, a tongue-in-cheek manual of weapons and do-it-yourself murder. As the police report reads, "An eerie mini-lab set-up was observed. Detectives found numerous chemicals, suspected poisons and poisonous compounds... Handwritten recipes for poisons...were (also) observed." As well, the police confiscated several models of handguns and a range of knives.

Swango was promptly arrested, charged with seven counts of aggravated battery.

His trial opened in the Quincy Courthouse on April 22, 1985. Proceedings moved quickly. Defense lawyer Dan Cook had very little to work with in Swango's behalf because prosecutors had unearthed the defendant's shady past history from Ohio State University (much to the university's chagrin) to throw in suspicion upon suspicion. Cook's main platform was that his client was being accused on largely circumstantial evidence.

Witnesses for the prosecution included Swango's co-workers who had become ill after sampling his devices, as well as the coroner to whom the poisoned tea was delivered, and the lab technician who tested it. Swango was found guilty, thumbs down.

Addressing the prisoner of the bar, Presiding Judge Dennis Cashman ascertained, "It's clearly obvious to me that every man, woman and child in this community or anywhere else that you might go is in jeopardy as long as you are a free person...You deserve the maximum under the law because there is no excuse for what you have done."

Following the sentence, Michael Swango was transported to the Centralia Correctional Center to begin a five-year sentence.

His application for a license to practice medicine in Illinois was revoked.

Judge Cashman always believed that Swango was using the Adams County paramedics as guinea pigs for some bigger poisoning efforts he had in mind. In a 1999 interview with ABC-TV reporter John Stossel, Cashman opined, "I think he wanted to take them to the edge of death. If he had wanted to kill these people he had plenty enough arsenic to do so."

 

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