Profile of Joseph Michael Swango

A License to Kill

Front and profile mug shot portraits of Joseph Michael Swango

 Public domain / Police booking photo

Joseph Michael Swango is a serial killer who, as a trusted doctor, had easy access to his victims. Authorities believe he murdered up to 60 people and poisoned countless others, including co-workers, friends and his wife.

Childhood Years

Michael Swango was born on October 21, 1954, in Tacoma, Washington, to Muriel and John Virgil Swango. He was the middle son of three boys and the child that Muriel believed was the most gifted.

John Swango was an Army officer which meant the family was constantly relocating. It was not until 1968, when the family moved to Quincy, Illinois, that they finally settled down.

The atmosphere in the Swango home depended on whether or not John was present. When he was not there, Muriel tried to maintain a peaceful home, and she kept a strong hold on the boys. When John was on leave and at home from his military duties, the home resembled a military facility, with John as the strict disciplinarian. All of the Swango children feared their father as did Muriel. His struggle with alcoholism was the main contributor to the tension and upheaval that went on in the home.

High School

Concerned that Michael would be under-challenged in the public school system in Quincy, Muriel decided to ignore her Presbyterian roots and enrolled him in the Christian Brothers High School, a private Catholic school known for its high academic standards. Michael's brothers attended the public schools.

At Christian Brothers, Michael excelled academically and became involved in various extracurricular activities. Like his mother, he developed a love of music and learned to read music, sing, play the piano, and mastered the clarinet well enough to become a member of the Quincy Notre Dame band and tour with the Quincy College Wind Ensemble.

Millikin University

Michael graduated as class valedictorian from Christian Brothers in 1972. His high school achievements were impressive, but his exposure to what was available for him in selecting the best colleges to attend to was limited.

He decided on Millikin University in Decatur, Illinois, where he received a full music scholarship. There Swango maintained top grades during his first two years, however, he became an outcast from social activities after his girlfriend ended their relationship. His attitude became reclusive. His outlook changed. He exchanged his collegiate blazers for military fatigues. During the summer after his second year at Millikin, he stopped playing music, quit college and joined the Marines.

Swango became a trained sharpshooter for the Marines, but decided against a military career. He wanted to return to college and become a doctor. In 1976, he received an honorable discharge.

Quincy College

Swango decided to attend Quincy College to earn a degree in chemistry and biology. For unknown reasons, once accepted into the college, he decided to embellish his permanent records by submitting a form with lies stating that he had earned a Bronze Star and the Purple Heart while in the Marines.

In his senior year at Quincy College, he elected to do his chemistry thesis on the bizarre poisoning death of Bulgarian writer Georgi Markov. Swango developed an obsessive interest in poisons that could be used as silent killers.

He graduated summa cum laude from Quincy College in 1979. With an award for academic excellence from the American Chemical Society tucked under his arm, Swango set out to get accepted into medical school, a task that was not so simple during the early 1980s.

At that time, there was fierce competition among a massive number of applicants trying to get into a limited amount of schools throughout the country. Swango managed to beat the odds and he got into Southern Illinois University (SIU).

Southern Illinois University

Swango's time at SIU received mixed reviews from his professors and fellow classmates.

During his first two years, he earned a reputation for being serious about his studies but was also suspected of taking unethical shortcuts when preparing for tests and group projects.

Swango had little personal interaction with his classmates after he began working as an ambulance driver. For a first-year medical student struggling with tough academic demands, such a job caused great stress.

In his third year at SIU, the one-on-one contact with patients increased. During this time, there were at least five patients that died after they had just received a visit from Swango. The coincidence was so great, that his classmates began to call him Double-O Swango, a reference to the James Bond and the "license to kill" slogan. They also began to view him as incompetent, lazy and just strange.

Obsessed With Violent Death

From the age of three, Swango showed an unusual interest in violent deaths. As he got older, he became fixated on stories about the Holocaust, particularly those that contained pictures of the death camps. His interest was so strong that he began to keep a scrapbook of pictures and articles about fatal car wrecks and macabre crimes. His mother would also contribute to his scrapbooks when she came across such articles. By the time Swango attended SIU, he had put together several scrapbooks.

When he took the job as an ambulance driver, not only did his scrapbooks grow, but he was seeing firsthand what he had only read about for so many years. His fixation was so strong that he would rarely turn down the chance to work, even if it meant sacrificing his studies.

His classmates felt that Swango showed more dedication to making a career as an ambulance driver than he did for getting his medical degree. His work had become sloppy and he often left unfinished projects because his beeper would go off, signaling him that the ambulance company needed him for an emergency.

The Final Eight Weeks

In Swango's final year at SIU, he sent off applications for internships and residency programs in neurosurgery to several teaching colleges. With the help of his teacher and mentor, Dr. Wacaser, who was also a neurosurgeon, Swango was able to provide the colleges with a letter of recommendation. Wacaser even took the time to write a handwritten personal note of confidence on each letter.

Swango was accepted in neurosurgery at the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics in Iowa City.

Once he nailed down his residency, Swango showed little interest in his remaining eight weeks at SIU. He failed to show up for required rotations and to watch specific surgeries performed.

This astounded Dr. Kathleen O'Connor who was in charge of overseeing Swango's performance. She called his place of employment to schedule a meeting to discuss the matter. She did not find him, but she did learn that the ambulance company no longer permitted Swango to have direct contact with patients, although the reason why was not disclosed.

When she finally did see Swango, she gave him the assignment to perform a complete history and examination on a woman who was going to have a cesarean delivery. She also observed him entering the woman's room and leaving after just 10 minutes. Swango then turned in a very thorough report on the woman, an impossible task given the amount of time he was in her room.

O'Connor found Swango's actions reprehensible and the decision to fail him was made. It meant that he would not be graduating and his internship in Iowa would be canceled.

As the news spread about Swango not graduating, two camps were formed--those for and those against SIU's decision. Some of Swango's classmates who had long decided that he was not fit to be a doctor used the opportunity to sign off on a letter describing Swango's incompetence and poor character. They recommended that he be expelled.

Had Swango not hired a lawyer, it is likely that he would have been expelled from SIU, but shrinking from the fear of being sued and wanting to avoid the costly expense of litigation, the college decided to postpone his graduation by a year and give him another chance, but with a strict set of rules that he had to follow.

Swango immediately cleaned up his act and refocused his attention on completing the requirements to graduate. He reapplied to several residency programs, having lost the one in Iowa. Despite having an extremely poor evaluation from the dean of ISU, he was accepted into a surgical internship, followed by a very prestigious residency program in neurosurgery at Ohio State University. This left many who knew Swango's history completely dumbfounded, but he apparently aced his personal interview and was the only student out of sixty accepted into the program.

Around the time of his graduation, Swango was fired from the ambulance company after he told a man having a heart attack to walk to his car and have his wife drive him to the hospital.

Deadly Compulsion

Swango began his internship at Ohio State in 1983. He was assigned to the Rhodes Hall wing of the medical center. Shortly after he began, there was a series of unexplained deaths among several healthy patients being cared for in the wing. One of the patients who survived a severe seizure told the nurses that Swango had injected medicine into her just minutes before she became critically ill.

Nurses also reported to the head nurse their concerns about seeing Swango in patients' rooms during odd times. There were numerous occasions when patients were found near death or dead just minutes after Swango left the rooms.

The administration was alerted and an investigation was launched, however, it seemed as if it was designed to discredit the eyewitness reports from the nurses and patients so that the matter could be closed and any residual damage curbed. Swango was exonerated of any wrongdoing.

He returned to work, but was moved to the Doan Hall wing. Within days, several patients on the Doan Hall wing began to die mysteriously.

There was also an incident when several residents became violently ill after Swango offered to go get fried chicken for everyone. Swango also ate the chicken but did not get sick.

License to Practice Medicine

In March 1984, the Ohio State residency review committee decided that Swango did not have the necessary qualities needed to become a neurosurgeon. He was told he could complete his one-year internship at Ohio State, but he was not invited back to complete his second year of residency.

Swango stayed on at Ohio State until July 1984 and then moved home to Quincy. Before moving back he applied to get his license to practice medicine from the Ohio State Medical Board, which was approved in September 1984.

Welcome Home

Swango did not tell his family about the trouble he encountered while at Ohio State or that his acceptance into his second-year residency had been rejected. Instead, he said he did not like the other doctors in Ohio.

In July 1984, he began working for Adams County Ambulance Corp as an emergency medical technician. Apparently, a background check was not done on Swango because he had worked there in the past while attending Quincy College. The fact that he had been fired from another ambulance company never surfaced.

What did begin to surface was Swango's weird opinions and behavior. Out came his scrapbooks filled with references to violence and gore, which he doted on regularly. He began making inappropriate and strange comments related to death and people dying. He would become visibly excited over CNN news stories about mass killings and horrific auto accidents.

Even to hardened paramedics that had seen it all, Swango's lust for blood and guts was downright creepy.

In September the first noticeable incident that Swango was dangerous occurred when he brought doughnuts for his co-workers. Everyone who ate one ended up becoming violently ill and several had to go to the hospital.

There were other incidents where co-workers became ill after eating or drinking something Swango had prepared. Suspecting that he was purposely making them ill, some of the workers decided to get tested. When they tested positive for poison, a police investigation was launched.

The police obtained a search warrant for his home and inside they found hundreds of drugs and poisons, several containers of ant poison, books on poison, and syringes. Swango was arrested and charged with battery.

The Slammer

On August 23, 1985, Swango was convicted of aggravated battery and he was sentenced to five years behind bars. He also lost his medical licenses from Ohio and Illinois.

While he was in prison, Swango began trying to mend his ruined reputation by doing an interview with John Stossel who was doing a segment about his case on the ABC program,? 20/20. Dressed in a suit and tie, Swango insisted that he was innocent and said that the evidence that was used to convict him lacked integrity.

A Cover Up Exposed

As part of the investigation, a look into Swango's past was conducted and the incidents of patients dying under suspicious circumstances at Ohio State resurfaced. The hospital was reluctant to allow the police access to their records. However, once the global news agencies got wind of the story, the university president, Edward Jennings, assigned the dean of Ohio State University Law School, James Meeks, to conduct a full investigation to determine if the situation surrounding Swango had been handled properly. This also meant investigating the conduct of some of the most prestigious people in the university.

Offering an unbiased assessment of the events that had occurred, Meeks concluded that legally, the hospital should have reported the suspicious incidents to the police because it was their job to decide if any criminal activity had occurred. He also referred to the initial investigations performed by the hospital as superficial. Meeks also pointed out that he found it astounding that the hospital administrators had not kept a permanent record detailing what had occurred.

Once full disclosure was obtained by police, the prosecutors from Franklin County, Ohio, toyed with the idea of charging Swango with murder and attempted murder, but due to a lack of evidence, they decided against it.

Back on the Streets

Swango served two years of his five-year sentence and was released on August 21, 1987. His girlfriend, Rita Dumas, had fully supported Swango throughout his trial and during his time in prison. When he got out the two of them moved to Hampton, Virginia.

Swango applied for his medical license in Virginia, but because of his criminal record, his application was denied.

He then found employment with the state as a career counselor, but it was not long before weird things began to happen. Just like what happened in Quincy, three of his co-workers suddenly experienced severe nausea and headaches. He was caught gluing gory articles into his scrapbook when he should have been working. It was also discovered that he had turned a room in the office building basement into a kind of bedroom where he often stayed for the night. He was asked to leave in May 1989.

Swango then went to work as a lab technician for Aticoal Services in Newport News, Virginia. In July 1989, he and Rita got married, but almost immediately after exchanging vows, their relationship began to unravel. Swango began ignoring Rita and they stopped sharing a bedroom.

Financially he refused to contribute to the bills and took money out of Rita's account without asking. Rita decided to end the marriage when she suspected that Swango was seeing another woman. The two separated in January 1991.

Meanwhile, at Aticoal Services several employees, including the president of the company, began suffering from sudden bouts of severe stomach cramping, nausea, dizziness, and muscle weakness. Some of them were hospitalized and one of the executives of the company was nearly comatose.

Unphased by the wave of illnesses going around the office, Swango had more important issues to work out. He wanted to get his medical license back and start working as a doctor again. He decided to quit the job at Aticoal and started applying at residency programs.

It's All in the Name

At the same time, Swango decided that, if he was going to get back into the medicine, he would need a new name. On January 18, 1990, Swango had his name legally changed to David Jackson Adams.

In May 1991, Swango applied for the residency program at Ohio Valley Medical Center in Wheeling, West Virginia. Dr. Jeffrey Schultz, who was the chief of medicine at the hospital, had several communications with Swango, mainly centering on the events surrounding the suspension of his medical license. Swango lied about what had happened, downplaying the battery by poisoning conviction, and said instead that he was convicted for an altercation he was involved in at a restaurant.

Dr. Schultz' opinion was that such a punishment was far too severe so he continued to try to verify Swango's account of what happened. In return, Swango forged several documents, including a prison fact sheet which stated that he had been convicted of hitting someone with his fists.

He also forged a letter from the Governor of Virginia stating that his application for Restoration of Civil Rights had been approved.

Dr. Schultz continued to try to verify the information that Swango had provided to him and forwarded a copy of the documents to the Quincy authorities. The correct documents were forwarded back to Dr. Schultz who then made the decision to reject Swango's application.

The rejection did little to slow down Swango who was determined to get back into medicine. Next, he sent an application to the residency program at the University of South Dakota. Impressed by his credentials, the director of the internal medicine residency program, Dr. Anthony Salem, opened up communications with Swango.

This time Swango said the battery charge involved poison, but that coworkers who were jealous that he was a doctor had framed him. After several exchanges, Dr. Salem invited Swango to come for a series of personal interviews. Swango managed to charm his way through most of the interviews and on March 18, 1992, he was accepted into the internal medicine residency program.

Kristen Kinney

While he was employed at Aticoal, Michael had spent time taking medical courses at the Newport News Riverside Hospital. It was there that he met Kristen Kinney, to whom he was immediately attracted to and aggressively pursued.

Kristen, who was a nurse at the hospital, was quite beautiful and had an easy smile. Although she was already engaged when she met Swango, she found him attractive and very likable. She ended up calling off her engagement and the two began dating regularly.

Some of her friends felt it was important that Kristen know about some of the dark rumors they had heard about Swango, but she did not take any of it seriously. The man she knew was nothing like the man they were describing.

When it came time for Swango to move to South Dakota to begin his residency program, Kristen immediately agreed that they would move there together.

Sioux Falls

At the end of May, Kristen and Swango moved to Sioux Falls, South Dakota. They quickly established themselves in their new home and Kristen got a job in the intensive care unit at the Royal C. Johnson Veterans Memorial Hospital. This was the same hospital where Swango began his residency, although no one was aware that the two knew each other.

Swango's work was exemplary and he was well liked by his peers and the nurses. He no longer discussed the thrill of seeing a violent accident nor did he exhibit the other oddities in his character that had caused problems at other jobs.

Skeletons in the Closet

Things were going great for the couple until October when Swango decided to join the American Medical Association. The AMA did a thorough background check and because of his convictions, they decided to turn it over to the council on ethical and judicial affairs.

Someone from AMA then contacted their friend, the dean of the University of South Dakota medical school, and informed him of all of the skeletons in Swango's closet, including the suspicions surrounding the death of several patients.

Then on the same evening, The Justice Files television program aired the 20/20 interview that Swango had given while he was in prison.

Swango's dream of working as a doctor again was over. He was asked to resign.

As for Kristen, she was in shock. She was completely ignorant of Swango's true past until she watched a tape of the 20/20 interview in Dr. Schultz' office on the day Swango was being questioned.

In the following months, Kristen began to suffer from violent headaches. She no longer smiled and began to withdraw from her friends at work. At one point, she was placed in a psychiatric hospital after the police found her wandering in the street, nude and confused.

Finally, in April 1993, unable to take it anymore, she left Swango and returned to Virginia. Soon after leaving, her migraines went away. However, just a few weeks later, Swango showed up on her doorstep in Virginia and the two were back together.

With his confidence restored, Swango began sending out new applications to medical schools.

Stony Brook School of Medicine

Incredibly, Swango lied his way into the psychiatric residency program at the State University of New York at Stony Brook School of Medicine. He relocated, leaving Kristen in Virginia, and began his first rotation in the internal medicine department at the VA Medical Center in Northport, New York. Again, patients began to mysteriously die wherever Swango worked.


Kristen and Swango had been apart for four months, although they continued to talk on the phone. During the last conversation that they had, Kristen learned that Swango had emptied out her checking account.

The next day, July 15, 1993, Kristen committed suicide by shooting herself in the chest.

A Mother's Revenge

Kristen's mother, Sharon Cooper, hated Swango and blamed him for her daughter's suicide. She found it inconceivable that he was working at a hospital again. She knew the only way he got in was by lying and she decided to do something about it.

She contacted a friend of Kristen's who was a nurse in South Dakota and included his full address in the letter stating that she was glad that he could not hurt Kristen anymore, but she was afraid of where he was working now. Kristen's friend clearly understood the message and immediately passed along the information to the right person who contacted the dean of the medical school at Stony Brook, Jordan Cohen. Almost immediately Swango was fired.

To try to prevent another medical facility from being duped by Swango, Cohen sent letters to all the medical schools and over 1,000 teaching hospitals in the country, warning them about Swango's past and his sneaky tactics to gain admission.

Here Come the Feds

After being fired from the VA hospital, Swango seemingly went underground. The FBI was on the hunt for him for falsifying his credentials in order to get a job in a VA facility. It was not until July 1994 that he resurfaced. This time he was working as Jack Kirk for a company in Atlanta called Photocircuits. It was a wastewater treatment facility and frighteningly, Swango had direct access to Atlanta's water supply.

Fearing Swango's obsession over mass killings, the FBI contacted Photocircuits and Swango was immediately fired for lying on his job application.

At that point, Swango seemed to vanish, leaving behind a warrant for his arrest issued by the FBI.


Swango was smart enough to realize that his best move was to get out of the country. He sent his application and altered references to an agency called Options, which helps American doctors find work in foreign countries.

In November 1994, the Lutheran church hired Swango after obtaining his application and falsified recommendations through Options. He was to go to a remote area of Zimbabwe.

The hospital director, Dr. Christopher Zshiri, was thrilled to have an American doctor join the hospital, but once Swango began working it became apparent that he was untrained to perform some very basic procedures. It was decided that he would go to one of the sister hospitals and train for five months, and then return to Mnene Hospital to work.

For the first five months in Zimbabwe, Swango received glowing reviews and almost everyone on the medical staff admired his dedication and hard work. But when he returned to Mnene after his training, his attitude was different. He no longer seemed interested in the hospital or his patients. People whispered about how lazy and rude he had become. Once again, patients began mysteriously dying.

Some of the patients that survived had a clear recall about Swango coming to their rooms and giving them injections right before they went into convulsions. A handful of nurses also admitted to seeing Swango near patients just minutes before they died.

Dr. Zshiri contacted the police and a search of Swango's cottage turned up hundreds of various drugs and poisons. On October 13, 1995, he was handed a termination letter and he had a week to vacate hospital property.

For the next year and a half, Swango continued his stay in Zimbabwe while his lawyer worked to have his position at the Mnene hospital restored and his license to practice medicine in Zimbabwe reinstated. He eventually fled Zimbabwe to Zambia when evidence of his guilt began to surface.


On June 27, 1997, Swango entered the U.S. at the Chicago-O'Hare airport while in route to the Royal Hospital in Dhahran in Saudi Arabia. He was promptly arrested by immigration officials and held in prison in New York to await his trial.

A year later Swango pleaded guilty to defrauding the government and he was sentenced to three years and six months in prison. In July 2000, just days before he was to be released, federal authorities charged Swango with one count of assault, three counts of murder, three counts of making false statements, one count of defrauding by use of wires, and mail fraud.

In the meantime, Zimbabwe was fighting to have Swango extradited to Africa to face five counts of murder.

Swango pleaded not guilty, but fearing that he could be facing the death penalty on being handed over to the Zimbabwe authorities, he decided to change his plea to guilty of murder and fraud.

Michael Swango received three consecutive life sentences. He is currently serving his time at the supermax U.S. Penitentiary, Florence ADX.

mla apa chicago
Your Citation
Montaldo, Charles. "Profile of Joseph Michael Swango." ThoughtCo, Feb. 16, 2021, Montaldo, Charles. (2021, February 16). Profile of Joseph Michael Swango. Retrieved from Montaldo, Charles. "Profile of Joseph Michael Swango." ThoughtCo. (accessed April 20, 2021).