Archive for August, 2007

Healthcare serial killers

August 24, 2007



This week, my latest book will be released. It’s called Inside the Minds of Healthcare Serial Killers, which pretty much explains the content. Many people think these cases are all alike, but that’s not the case. Whenever I give my undergraduate students a choice about whether I should talk about doctors and nurses who intentionally kill patients (HCSKs) or some other type of killer, they inevitably pick anything else. Like them, few people realize is just how unusual some of these killers are. They’re not mercy killers, although most claim to be. They generally have other motives, and they’re among the few types of serial killer for whom we can actually do a fairly accurate risk assessment. In retrospect, the red flags were all there.

Among the strangest is Dr. Michael Swango, who pled guilty to several counts of murder in 2000, although we may never know how many people he actually killed. Now here’s a guy who, during medical school and an internship, avidly collected stories about car accidents, deliberately poisoned coworkers, and openly admired Henry Lee Lucas, who he believed had wandered the country killing without consequence. Ted Bundy and Jim Jones were among Swango’s heroes, as was James Huberty, who slaughtered customers at a McDonald’s in 1984. Swango one told a female paramedic he’d like to plunge a hatchet into her head and revealed a violent fantasy to colleagues: he wanted to rush to the scene of an accident involving a school bus and a truck filled with gasoline. Another bus would slam into the truck, causing an explosion and sending kids flying. Nothing excited him more, except perhaps to tell families of patients that their loved one was dead. For him, that was truly erotic.

A few people saw the warning signs, but not most of Swango’s superiors. They kept ignoring the problems and when Swango finally managed to work on patients, a number of them died. He wasn’t called Double-O Swango for nothing – he had a license to kill.

Like many HCSKs, Swango succeeded by moving on from one establishment to another, and even going overseas. It was in Zimbabwe that one of the most bizarre stories emerged about him, as recorded in James Stewart’s excellent true crime narrative, Blind Eye. (It was also in Zimbabwe where his killing career was finally stopped.) He rented a room in a house that provided meals and every morning demanded the same breakfast: two eggs, four slices of toast, and a kilogram of fried bacon. Time passed and one day a servant went into Swango’s room. On a closet shelf she found dozens of neatly wrapped bacon sandwiches piled on top of one another, and in a drawer there were more. He hadn’t been eating all this bacon and bread, he’d been hoarding it – without refrigeration. Bizarre, but fascinating, and very likely related to his desire to kill.

The cases of HCSKs seem to have increased over the past decade and each one has its own peculiar stamp. Although it was my editor who suggested the book, I found that it was certainly a subject worthy of analysis – disturbing as well – and my hope is that what emerged from my study will help make our healthcare facilities safer. At the very least, someone who poisons associates and fantasizes about dead children won’t just be ignored or encouraged to go work elsewhere.