News | September 20, 2000

Scientists use LC, MS to help crack 'Dr. Death' case

Using liquid chromatography and time of flight mass spectrometry, forensic scientists from National Medical Services (NMS; Willow Grove, PA) provided federal investigators with key evidence that led to a guilty plea from Michael Swango, a former physician accused of fatally poisoning three patients in a Long Island Veterans Affairs hospital in 1993. The so-called "Dr. Death" was sentenced to three consecutive life terms in a maximum-security prison without parole or appeal.

NMS was commissioned by the Department of Veteran Affairs' Inspector General's Office to extract and isolate the chemicals Swango used to poison his victims—including the muscle relaxant succinyl choline and the heart stimulant epinephrine—from tissue specimens collected from the exhumed bodies. To do this, the company decided to develop new testing and analysis methods, which proved to be a very challenging task.

"Succinyl choline and epinephrine are difficult compounds to isolate due to their inherent properties," Fredric Rieders, NMS founder and forensic toxicologist, said in a company press release. "This challenge was magnified by the fact that each tissue specimen was unique. Some came from embalmed bodies, others were not embalmed. And these bodies had been buried for many years in various places."

To crack the case, NMS also utilized liquid chromatography tandem and time of flight mass spectrometry. "This technology combined with the new methods we developed to extract and isolate chemicals from tissue specimens enabled us to detect the compounds used by Swango with great specificity and confidence in our analysis," stated Kevin Ballard, the company's director of research and development.

In recognition of their efforts to help resolve the seven-year-old case, Rieders and Ballard were each presented with a bronze eagle award by the Inspector General of the Department of Veteran Affairs.

"The testing and analysis methods developed by NMS will have long-range impact on law enforcement and the judicial system as well as forensic medicine," Rieders added. "This should serve as a warning and a deterrent to those who would commit a crime using these and other previously undetectable compounds. You cannot outsmart present day science. These drugs are now detectable."

National Medical Services is a full-service independent laboratory offering analytical and consultative services in forensic and clinical toxicology, criminalistics, therapeutic drug monitoring, consumer product integrity testing, biopharmaceutical support services, environmental/occupational toxicology, and research and development.

For more information, contact Megan Holt of National Medical Services at 215-366-1274.

Edited by Jim Pomager
Assistant Editor, Bioresearch Online