Daily Press from Newport News, Virginia on November 28, 2000 · Page 8
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Daily Press from Newport News, Virginia · Page 8

Newport News, Virginia
Issue Date:
Tuesday, November 28, 2000
Page 8
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AS Tuesday, November 28, 2000 F POISONOUS PASSION rm . Poison Continued from Al It was a place where she'd gone often during her search for peace. Surrounded by the wooded Noland Trail and the lush green grounds of The Mariners' Museum, Lake Maury was a good place to think. Her parents didn't know her last wish until it was too late to honor it. Police in the middle of their investigation didn't immediately give Kristin's suicide note to Sharon and Al Cooper. The note, found with her body, said she'd chosen the lake as her final resting place because she found the area so peaceful "It is so beautiful," she wrote, "and has been a source of comfort since it opened." The Coopers got the note several weeks after their daughter's death on July 15, 1993. By then, they'd already spread her ashes over the Chesapeake Bay "We raced to her urn and found a few ashes left," Mrs. Cooper said. "We carried them to the Noland TraiL" Tracking a killer Michael Swango returned to New York two days after Kristin's memorial service. Her death had interrupted yet another of Swango's attempts to complete his residency training he needed in order to become a fully accredited doctor. By lying on his application, Swango had won admission to a program at the State University of New York at Stony Brook on Long Island. Swango was assigned to the Veterans Affairs hospital in nearby Northport Once again, he had access to patients. Once again, they began to die. Mysterious paralysis, unexplained comas. Sharon Cooper got a letter from Swango that fall. "I know Kristin would have wanted us to stay in touch ..." he wrote. Mrs. Cooper had no interest in ever hearing from Swango again. She couldn't prove it but she felt certain he was somehow responsible for her daughter's death. She took note of his New York address, and began to worry "I knew he was working in a hospital again," she said. "And that tormented me. I had to do something to stop him." She didn't know where to begin. She was afraid to take on Swango afraid he might come back to Hampton Roads with vengeance on his mind. Finally, she wrote a letter to one of her daughter's friends at the VA hospital in South Dakota where Kristin and Swango had worked before moving back to the Peninsula. Swango had been fired there when hospital officials learned of his past She told Kristin's friend about Swango's new position. As Mrs. Cooper had hoped, the news alarmed Kristin's friend. She told South Dakota hospital officials, who, in turn, alerted administrators at Stony Brook. Swango was dismissed the same day Oct 19, 1993. The VA launched an investigation. The FBI joined in. By the time they decided which agency was in charge, Swango had disappeared. He drifted to Florida, where he dropped in on Tracey Dun-lap, a nurse who'd worked with Kristin at a hospital in Naples. Dunlap had never met Swango. He'd started calling her after Kristin's death and writing now and then. He had mentioned that he would like to come and visit sometime. She hadn't taken him seriously She was surprised when he called one night in November from a phone booth in Naples. "He ended up coming over," Dunlap said. "We stayed up all night talking about Kristin. Listening to him, it seemed like he Swango wanted to By David Chernkky Daily Press Michael Swango used a lethal array of hospital drugs to murder his patients, but he used arsenic when he wanted to control instead of kill. Tom Valery chief investigator for the Office of Inspector General, headed the Swango investigation for the Department of Veterans Affairs. "I believe Swango administered arsenic to anyone who annoyed or 'i 1 !M, Joe FudgeDaily Press Sharon and Al Cooper walk on the Noland Trail in Newport News near the area where Kristin Kinney's body was found after she committed suicide. r. - , . v. . r. - 1 ' m Above: This photo the latest one of Kristin was taken shortly before she killed herself July 15, 1993. Right: Michael Swango is in a Columbus, Ohio, courtroom on Oct. 18, 2000, where he pleaded guilty to killing a patient in 1984. Who's who in the Kristin Kinney case Dr. Michael Baden Chief forensic pathologist for New York State Police; oversaw forensic and toxicology tests in Swango investigation. Gary Brown Assistant U.S. attorney for Eastern District of New York. Carol Carlsen Sioux Falls, S.D., therapist who treated Kristin Kinney. cared deeply about her like it had hurt to lose her." Swango seemed in no hurry to leave. He camped out on Dun-lap's sleeper sofa for several weeks. "He overstayed his welcome," Dunlap said Swango's strange behavior made his visit seem even longer Instead of pitching in with the grocery bills, Swango bought his own food and stored it in a closet separate from Dun-lap's and her roommates'. "There was just something eerie about him," Dunlap said. "Maybe it was intuition." She called Al Cooper in York County. "He didn't tell me much. Maybe he was afraid of scaring ma But I do remember him telling me, 'You need to get him out of your house."' Dunlap didn't panic, but she did ask Swango to leave. He asked if he could stay another week, or until after Christmas. "He said he was thinking about going to the islands to work and he had to get things ready," Dunlap said. His visit ended after Dun- threatened him: The paramedics in Quincy, his landlady in Africa, bosses, co-workers even his ex-fiance," Valery said. "He wanted to control them as opposed to killing them," Valery said. "He derived great pleasure in causing discomfort, misery and illness. But he also derived great satisfaction at killing." Valery said an FBI profiler tried to delve into Swango's psyche, but Swango refused to cooperate. "Any profiler would find Swango : . I f j s - I . .... ' -. ' f . . ; . . - i - ' k - ' Al Cooper Kristin Kinney's stepfather: Sharon Cooper Kristin Kinney's mother. Tracey Dunlap Nurse friend of Kristin's from Naples, Fla. Bert Gee Respiratory therapist who befriended Kristin in Naples, Fla. lap's roommate also a nurse heard a story about a Dr. Swango from Stony Brook who was being investigated for poisoning patients. Dunlap and her roommate went to the library, where they found and photocopied a series of newspaper articles about Swango. "I called the FBI in Miami," Dunlap said. "They told me to call the local police." She did, but no one at the station seemed interested. Dunlap waited for Swango to come home, then confronted him with the articles. "He denied everything," she said. "He said none of it was true. But I didn't believe him." An FBI agent showed up the next morning, but he was too late. Swango had left the night before, duffel bags in hand. Swango went to Atlanta to visit Bert Gee, a respiratory therapist Kristin had worked with during her time in Florida. Swango had met Gee at Kristin's memorial service Gee now allowed him to move in. In February 1994, Swango miijinw mi..mini,ji U.J.U.1UIIM awmmui.jpuiu u luihi-i,... .j.wwwwhw wwij j.mw.u&1'.mi'" .ipwwwmwMwiWMWM .... AP control people he wasn't going to kill a fascinating and complicated character," Valery said. So why would Swango poison Kristin Kinney, a woman he had asked to be his wife? "I honestly believe she confronted him," Valery says. "I have absolutely no doubt that Kristin knew he was a killer. I also think that up until her death she really believed she could rescue him. As a nurse, she was the type of person who thought maybe she could help him get through this." ' a . " i " J- Kristin Lynn Kinney Riverside Regional Medical Center nurse who broke off engagement to Dr. Michael Swango after learning of his sinister past. Kinney committed suicide on the Noland Trail July 15, 1993. James B. Stewart Author of "Blind Eye: The Terrifying Story of a Doctor Who Got Away with Murder." Published in 1999. used a fake name to get a job as a chemist with a company oper-ating just outside Atlanta. Working at the company's wastewater treatment plant, he had access to the entire water supply of metropolitan Atlanta. "Investigators were concerned about that," said Tom Valery, chief investigator for the U.S. Office of Inspector General, which oversees the VA medical centers. When the Coopers heard the FBI had lost track of Swango, they called the bureau suggesting he might have gone to Atlanta. They knew Kristin had a friend who lived there. Agents found him there in July and tried to question him. He refused to cooperate, quit his job and dropped out of sight On Oct. 27, 1994, federal authorities issued an arrest warrant for Michael Swango. It wasn't for murder. They couldn't prove that yet. But they could charge him with fraud for lying on his application at Stony Brook. Convicting him of that Carol Carlsen, Kristin's therapist from Sioux Falls, agrees. Sharon and Al Cooper, Kristin's mother and stepfather, signed a letter authorizing Carlsen to discuss their daughter's troubles. "Her initial complaint was depression stemming from the situation she was experiencing with her fiance," Carlsen said. "Kristin believed Michael was being victimized." The intense therapy sessions later produced doubts in Kristin's 1 Michael Joseph Swango Ex-Marine and medical doctor who poisoned fellow paramedics in Quincy, III; suspected in patient deaths elsewhere. Tom Valery Chief investigator, U.S. Office of Inspector General; handled Swango investigation for the Department of Veterans Affairs. would buy the time they needed to prove the other, Valery said. Catching Swango would be the hard part In November 1994, a few days after the fraud warrant was issued, Swango surfaced in Africa. He had found the perfect place a place so desperate for doctors that he would be welcomed with few questions asked. Swango practiced medicine over the next two and a half years at village hospitals in Zimbabwe and Zambia. At least five more patients died suspiciously and others became inexplicably ill. With African authorities closing in, Swango applied for a hospital post in Saudi Arabia. He was hired. Only one thing stood in his way. He needed to renew his work visa. That required a stop in the U.S. He landed at Chicago's O'Hare Airport on June 27, 1997. A customs official doing a routine computer check against Swango's passport spotted the TV ; v. t mind about Swango. "She began to ask herself, Did he really do the things he is being accused of,'" Carlsen said. "I believe the reason Kristin killed herself was that she discovered the truth. It was too much to bear. I also believe that she believed she could never get away or escape him." David Chemlcky can be reached at 247-4743 or by e-mail at dchernickydailypress.com outstanding warrant Federal marshals made the arrest i On March 16, 1998, Swango pleaded guilty to making a fake statement on his residency application at Stony Brook. He was sentenced to 3 years in federal prison. The struggle The Coopers spent most of their time after Kristin's death tryingtoheaL The search for answers consumed the rest That search became a crusade after Swango's arrest. Their suspicions that he'd poisoned their daughter grew stronger "The more we learned about him, the worse it got," Mrs. Cooper said. They didn't know what type of poison he might have used on her, but they believed it had driven her into a deep depression and then, to suicide. They got most of their information about Swango from the same place as everyone else: newspapers and TV newsmagazine shows. Swango's story seemed to be riveting the nation. Just about all the major networks produced at least one Swango show. Some of those shows fea tured the Coopers. TV produc ers came to their York County home and interviewed them on their couch. They shared photographs of their daughter and read excerpts from her journal on ABC's "2020," Court TV and others. They gave numerous interviews to newspaper reporters and to James B. Stewart, a Pulitzer Prize-winning author writing a book about Swango. They worked closely with federal investigators scram bling to build a murder case against Swango in the deaths of former patients. There was only so much time. Swango was due to be released on July 15, 2000 seven years to the day after Kristin's death. The Coopers hoped to con vince those investigators that Kristin was also one of his victims. "We knew it wouldn't bring her back, Mrs. Cooper said. But we were after an answer. We wanted to know what real ly happened to Kristin. We just knew she didn t do this herself. He did it" , But without hard evidence, it was nothing more than the speculation of grieving parents. Kristin's body had been cremated. Mrs. Cooper knew there was nothing left but ashes. Except for that lock of her hair. A young man at the funeral home had clipped it just before Kristin s body was cremated, Mrs. Cooper had split the precious reddish-blonde curl with Kristin's natural father a man she had divorced years ago. She had put her share in a safety deposit box at the bank. "I guess I knew it could be important one day," she said. "I knew hair could be analyzed that it could tell you things." They offered the lock of hair to VA investigator Tom Valery In March 1998, as part of a massive two-continent search for physical evidence, Valery collected Kristin s hair. It got buried beneath a grow ing mound of higher-priority evidence like the bodies of Swango's patients that were being exhumed for analysis. Investigators wanted to put Swango away for murder. Kristin had undoubtedly pulled the trigger on herself. The answers On July 11, 2000 four days! before Swango would havel waucea out the prison door federal authorities indicted him for the murders of three Datients in NTpw Ynrlr nno In Ohio and the attempted murder oi two patients uiAinca. I Investigators felt certairf there were others perhaps aa many as 35. But Swango could De charged only with poison Please see PoionA9 "V a VALERY. Handled the Swango inves tigation for the VA. K

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