Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Michael Swango: Doctor of Death

Fresh Start, Same Syptoms

The arrest of Michael Swango in Illinois prompted a media interrogation that reached national heights. In Columbus, Ohio State University honchos took the rap for unleashing a suspected poisoner into the world. James Meeks, OSU's Dean of Law, forced an investigation, then published results that pretty much bowed to the critics. What became known as the Meeks Report agreed that the school had indeed been negligent in its responsibility to the American community.

Reporter John Stossel, who became personally interested in the alleged crimes of Swango, sought an interview with him in prison for the television investigative program, 20/20. Swango agreed to talk and what resulted was rapid-fire dialogue. Stossel questioned Swango about the poisons in his Quincy apartment, about his shady internship in Ohio, and about his reaction to the mess he found himself in. Throughout, Swango insisted he was innocent, resenting the monster figure the press had created. Saidhe, "I did not do these things. It is simply beyond my— well, beyond the sort of person I am to even think about doing something like that."

When Stossel told him that the public feared his release from confinement, Swango grimaced. "There's certainly no reason for anyone to be scared (of me)," he responded, "none whatsoever."

*****

On August 21, 1987, Swango was released on good behavior from the correctional center after serving only two years of his five-year sentence. A year's probation would follow. By the time he walked out, the media furor had died down and his name had long lost front-page appeal. He was happy to be in the shadow. And to avoid local gossip, he left Illinois for other climes. He chose Newport News, Virginia, a city with an Atlantic flavor so unlike Quincy or Columbus.

Miles between him and the past, the past nevertheless was present. When he applied for a medical license in Virginia he was vigilantly turned down. Instead, he hired on as a job counselor at the state's Career Development Center. His tenure was brief, as the professionals with whom he worked cast a disapproving eye on his habit of working on his scrapbook of disasters at his desk during work time.

His next position, that of a lab technician at coal exporter Aticoal Services, lasted longer. Work was clinical and humdrum, but it paid well and the company's president thought well of Swango. That he had been the doughnut poisoner featured on 20/20 had been forgotten (after all, it had been a couple of years), for his co-workers showed no hesitation in accompanying him at lunchtime. And it seems he avoided the wagging finger when several Aticoal employees fell ill and almost died from food poisoning.

*****

Kristin Kinney (Cooper family collection)
Kristin Kinney
(Cooper family
collection)
Kristin Kinney was beautiful, red-haired, 26 years old and newly divorced when she met Swango in 1991 at Newport News' Riverside Hospital. She was a nurse there and Swango was taking a refresher course. Engaged to a doctor at the facility, Kristin at first regarded her friendship with Swango as platonic, but as the months passed they clearly became an item. Her friends, who liked her and affectionately called her KK, fretted over the whirlwind romance. One even told her to beware, as it became common knowledge that Swango's attempts for employment at the hospital were rejected for some sort of past scandal. But, she laughed off any consternation.

Swango had been itching to get back into practice and had applied at a number of medical centers across the country. Between nurturing his relationship with KK, he continued to send resumes. In September, 1991, he received a phone call from the University of South Dakota in Sioux Falls. Dr. Anthony Salem, the director of the residency program there, was interested.

By phone, Salem congratulated him on an excellent resume, but asked him to further clarify certain past history episodes mentioned in Swango's cover letter — most importantly, a passage that referred to a conviction "of battery in Ilinois". Swango fabricated. He explained that he had been involved in an unsightly barroom brawl in which several people were hurt; he was the fall guy who wound up taking all the blame. But, he quickly added, he now had all his practicing rights restored to him in Virginia where he now resided. Salem, who said he appreciated the other's frankness, acknowledged that accidents do happen. He invited him to come to Sioux Falls to be interviewed by several teaching doctors.

Kristin kissed Swango good luck and he flew to the meeting, which was set for October 3. As the first-step of what would be a long selection process, he was interviewed by an assembly of internists who centered their questions on his background in internal medicine. "Incredibly, no one asked any other questions about his conviction on battery charges," Blind Eye author James B. Stewart awes. "It never occurred to (them) to contact police or judicial authorities in Quincy."

Just past the new year, 1992, a long list of candidates for twelve open positions was sliced to less than twenty. Even though he hadn't fared well with all interviewers, his name remained afloat. More banter, more shearing. Then, in March, Swango was given official notice of his residency to begin in June.

Royal C. Johnson VA Hospital (J.R. Romanka)
Royal C. Johnson VA Hospital
(J.R. Romanka)
He followed up the good news by proposing to KK. She accepted and together they made plans to move to Sioux Falls. They opted to live together until each was settled in his or her own respective job. Kristin had been hired as an RN at the Royal C. Johnson Veterans Memorial Hospital, one of the university's franchises, and looked forward to her new job where she planned to make a difference.

Kristin's mother and stepfather, Sharon and Al Cooper, were skeptical. Like Kristin's friends, they were bothered by the blank spots in Swango's background, years he ignored. But, as Sharon was to tell an interviewer years later, she dismissed her worries by telling herself that it "was the answer for Kristin". Husband Al adds, "Kristin had gone through one marriage that hadn't worked out. She wanted desperately to be married and have children."

The Coopers' concerns seemed to be all for nothing. In Sioux Falls, Swango and KK became achievers. He proved to be better than the university had hoped, carving a reputation for himself as one of the best emergency-situation doctors it ever had. Kristin, at the VA hospital, brought a sparkling personality and intensity to the nurses' station that it needed. She became very well liked and respected by both nurses and doctors. Together, KK and Swango turned many a head and generated much envy.

By October, 1992, Swango had gotten too cocky. Even though he was an unlicensed doctor who had obtained an internship under false pretenses, hiding his past, he dared to apply for membership in the American Medical Association (AMA). Only one logical reason supports this gutsy move: He must have counted on them not checking his credentials. He was wrong.

Conducting its usual background checks, the AMA inadvertantly discovered that Swango's conviction in Quincy was not due to a barroom brawl. When Judge Cashman, the jurist who tried Swango for the poisonings in 1985, heard that a call had come in from the AMA concerning Swango working as a doctor again, he unraveled. Immediately, he returned the call and told AMA official Nancy Watson the true story. Watson related it to her superior and he relayed it to Dr. Robert Talley, Dean of the University of South Dakota.

Good things may come in pairs, but the old cliche had a mirror effect in this case. Just about the time Talley was hearing the bad news about his prized doctor in emergency, 20/20 re-broadcast John Stossel's 1986 interview with Michael Swango from the Centralia Correctional Center. The nurses and doctors — and patients — who knew Swango now saw that man's face on TV while a voiceover suggested that he might have purposely needled doughnuts with ant poison. The effect was devastating.

Kristin saw the program, too, and fell apart. Swango, having been dismissed, was in no mood to comfort her or to answer any questions. Once again, his world had shaken. He ranted and shouted defamation and did everything he could to show he was being railroaded — everything but hug Kristin. Feeling deserted, KK waited in humiliation, ducking reporters who badgered her about her berserk boyfriend. Almost more hurtful than the truth of his crimes were the chuckles and giggles that many were having at her expense. One popular radio station played a song, sung to the tune of "Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer," part of which goes:

"Swango the troubled doctor
USD says out he goes
And if you saw his rap sheet
All of us would say "Oh no!"

When Kristin's friends at the hospital tried to show their support by inviting her and Swango to a Christmas party, KK noticed that the host's husband followed Swango from room to room and hovered whenever Swango neared the punchbowl and sandwich platters.

Headaches began. Pounding, dizzying headaches. Always troubled by migraines, KK had never experienced anything as miserable as these. For a while she attributed them to tension — but deep down inside she wondered if Swango was dropping chemicals in her food. She was a nurse, a good one, and she most likely feared the worst.

Finally, she couldn't take it anymore and rushed back to her mother's house in Virginia. Away from Swango, the headaches abruptly ended.

Gone from him, she continued to love him. Perhaps she continued to believe, meekly, that Swango was innocent and all would be right in the end. But, she couldn't, just couldn't, explain why those headaches vanished the day she left.

She weighed her emotions, separated her hopes from the obvious, until the obvious became too unbearable. And then she committed suicide.

At her apartment police found a note left behind, addressed to her mom and Al Cooper:

"I love you both so much. I just didn't want to be here anymore. Just found day-to-day living a constant struggle with my thoughts. I'd say I'm sorry, but I'm not. I feel that sense of peace, 'peace of mind,' I've been looking for. It's nice."

An addendum below, to Michael, read:

"I love you more! You're the most precious man I've ever known.
       "Love, KK"

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