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OCTOBER 29, 2018


Are Veterans Administration hospitals the perfect hunting ground for serial killers? That’s one of the provocative suggestions in former VA special investigator Bruce Sackman’s new book, “Behind the Murder Curtain.

Sackman was the special agent in charge of the VA’s Criminal Investigation Division’s Northeast Field Office, chasing crime from West Virginia to Maine. A maverick, he bucked the system and brought two prolific serial killers—Michael Swango and Kristen Gilbert—to justice. Both murdered veterans at VA hospitals.

“There have been plenty of hospital serial killers in the private sector throughout history,” Sackman writes. “But it sticks in my mind that a VA medical center is a perfect hunting ground. The VA facilities are filled with long-term care patients with serious debilitating illnesses,” making them easy marks for medical serial killers. Often, patients are isolated and vulnerable, with visits from family members few and far between.

“Behind the Murder Curtain,” co-authored with Michael Vecchione and Jerry Schmetterer, unfolds like a police procedural, taking us through the Swango and Gilbert cases. The authors make quick stops at other cases and offer a smart program for spotting trouble.

Sackman estimates that Swango, a doctor, killed as many as 100 patients in the United States and Africa. Swango began practicing medicine in 1983 and drifted from hospital to hospital, dogged by reports of fraud and improper behavior. By 1995, he was at the Northport VA Medical Center in New York. A television news program raised questions about his past. Medical personnel at Northport were concerned.

Sackman caught the case. But he faced resistance. Allegations of killings at hospitals were largely uncharted investigative territory. The FBI considered murder on federal turf to be their territory, but had little experience with hospital cases. VA law enforcement usually focused on white-collar crimes like embezzlement and fraud.

Was Sackman out of his league? He persisted, put together a team of experts, including famed forensic pathologist Michael Baden, and ultimately was instrumental in convicting Swango on multiple murder counts and sending him to Colorado’s Supermax prison for the rest of his life.

In a chilling image, Sackman writes that most hospital killings occur behind “the murder curtain” surrounding a patient’s bed. Medical records and documents “revealed a pattern of behavior by Doctor Swango at his patients’ bedsides: he entered their rooms by himself, drew the curtains, and administered lethal injections.”

Kristen Gilbert, a nurse at the Northampton VA Medical Center in Massachusetts, also committed her killings behind the murder curtain. It began with the theft of epinephrine from the hospital medical cabinet. Swango also used “epi,” a common drug to speed up the heart rate, but fatal in high doses.

Like Swango, Gilbert worked the overnight shift. “When the ward was empty of other personnel,” Sackman writes, Gilbert “would pull the bedside curtain around her. She would then inject the patient with a fatal dose of the drug.” In an attention-seeking twist, Gilbert would often be on hand when the patient “coded”—began to go into cardiac arrest and die—taking seemingly heroic measures to save her victim.

Hospital killing cases are tough to make. In the Gilbert investigation, Sackman writes, “We would need to count those missing bottles of epinephrine, prove that Gilbert had access to them, prove they were administered to the patients in question, and finally, prove they died from those injections. We had to paint a picture for the jury that, given the opportunity and the resources, Kristen Gilbert would draw the curtain around her patient, and for the thrill and glory, administer a dose of fatal poison. “

In 2001, a Massachusetts jury convicted Gilbert of killing four veterans. She’s serving four consecutive life terms.

Nurses are Sackman’s heroes, on the front lines of patient care night and day. Three concerned nurses at the Northampton VA first raised the alarm about Gilbert—a tough call to make about a colleague in the tight world of medical personnel.

Nurses also first raised the alarm about healthy patients dying under Swango’s care. Early in Swango’s career, “nurses reported their concerns, but the administration conducted a very superficial investigation and then dismissed the complaining nurses as paranoid,” Sackman writes. “This was a pattern I would see often…. Hospital brass never wanted to hear bad news about their doctors. Too often, they were willing to cover up in order to save face.”

Sackman retired from the VA in 2005 and works as a private investigator and consultant, specializing in healthcare matters. (He’s also president of the Society of Professional Investigators, where I am a member.) Suspicious hospital deaths, he writes, are “a problem that afflicts every type of hospital, public or private.”

Sackman notes that “hospital managers have a well-documented history of defending employees suspected of intentionally harming patients. They are afraid that bad publicity and potential lawsuits will follow formal investigations, especially if conducted by outside authorities like a district attorney. When the police or DA get involved, a record of their activity is a public record. The media will find out about it and sensational stories will result. They are right to fear that but sweeping the problem under the rug is not a solution.”

A better solution, Sackman believes, is the adoption of what he calls “Red Flag Protocols” by nursing and medical schools to help identify possible medical serial killers. Sackman has presented his protocols at healthcare symposiums around the world and outlines them in the  book.

Is there an increased rate of patient deaths connected to the suspect? Does he (or she) work a late-night shift and frequently is alone with patients? Is the patient’s death unexpected and attributed to a “catchall like cardiac arrest?” Are “sudden-death” chemicals available on the ward? Do colleagues have concerns about the suspect? Was the suspect with the patient before the patient’s death? Do records of prior employment show questionable incidents? Does an initial review by management find insufficient evidence to proceed?

Those are some of the questions raised by Sackman’s Red Flag Protocols. “Most importantly,” Sackman writes, “hospital brass must listen to their staff when allegations are made.” Michael Swango, Kristen Gilbert and others, he notes, “were left free to kill even after hospital brass was warned.”

***

 Micah Morrison is chief investigative reporter for Judicial Watch. Follow him on Twitter @micah_morrison. Tips: mmorrison@judicialwatch.org

Investigative Bulletin is published by Judicial Watch. Reprints and media inquiries: jfarrell@judicialwatch.org

 
So thankful for your work on hunting down medical serial killers. I'm hunting them too now, after being an eyewitness to my father's murder at the hands of a gang of rogue nurses on the night shift at John Muir Hospital in Concord, California. The case has been substantiated & the Department of Justice is investigating now. This phenomenon is much more common than anyone could imagine, and, as you said, these are NOT mercy killings! These are true sociopaths who target elderly patients & kill with absolute impunity due to current laws that allow them to cover their tracks, evade investigations from outside agencies, and maintain full control of the crime scene. Most crucially, these depraved predators know that the police will rarely intervene, which emboldens them to carry on their ruthless murders without fear of ever being caught. Laws need to be enacted immediately that allow us to protect ourselves and our loved ones in medical facilities, because right now, we are all sitting ducks. - Barbara Page, Patient Advocate 


 FROM AMAZON:

Format: HardcoverVerified Purchase
If you think there is no connection between true crime stories and “news you can use,” this book will convince you otherwise -- immediately, and urgently. On the one hand, it is the true account of doctors and nurses who murder hospital patients, and the administrators who care more about the reputation of their hospitals than they do about exposing crimes to public view. On the other hand, and perhaps most importantly, it sounds a clarion call at very high decibels about the risk anyone could face, and how, armed with this knowledge, there are questions we, as potential patients, should ask prior to ever needing the services of our local hospitals.

Both sides of this story are told in the first person by Bruce Sackman, who rose to national prominence in the federal government’s Veterans Affairs Department by bringing to justice medical serial killers. The stories are real, and really terrifying. Some of the accounts have been the subject of other books; the great value here is that Sackman’s experiences in tracking down murdering doctors and nurses is so authentically told. The writing by Jerry Schmetterer, author of five previous, excellent true crime books, and the insights brought to this project by former Brooklyn rackets investigator Michael Vecchione, make this a totally compelling read.

Sackman readily admits that no one is sure how many patients have been murdered by health care professionals. In considerable details, he explains the difficulty in detecting hospital murders, and the extent to which hospital administrators have gone to conceal their suspicions, and, in too many instances, to ignore serious allegations brought to their attention to dedicated nurses. Fortunately, Sackman's empathy for the victims and their families led him to formulate what he calls the Red Flags Protocol, an A-to-Z guide for detecting, exposing, arresting, and convicting hospital murderers. The protocol is now widely in use at hospitals around the country.

Before reading this book, I had something akin to blind faith in the bona fides of health care staffs and the competency of those who run hospitals. Now, not so much. My plan, before hospital care becomes an issue, is to confirm that hospitals within my community have and follow Sackman’s protocol. Any that don’t, I’m not going.

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2 people found this helpful


Goldengirl
5.0 out of 5 starsA terrifying look at medical serial killers
September 29, 2018Format: HardcoverVerified Purchase
Absolutely riveting! And terrifying! A meticulously written true tale of sociopaths who prey on the most vulnerable, our veterans, under the guise of being a medical professional. I know these stories to be true from unfortunate experience, and at last Bruce Sackman et al have exposed this most evil of crimes. Thoroughly researched and documented, this is a must read, and a terrifying look at medical serial killers. Terrific!
One person found this helpful


cuzinbrucie
5.0 out of 5 starsTruth written like fiction!
September 26, 2018Format: HardcoverVerified Purchase
The book reads like a novel but it’s non-fiction. This book tells the story of how hard grunt work uncovered and proved cases of Murders by admired Medical professionals who were being compensated by taxpayers dollars. It does a great job of explaining the investigational and forensic process. Kudos to the Authors.
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fbichick
5.0 out of 5 starsGreat read
September 27, 2018Format: Kindle EditionVerified Purchase
this book was very well written- it gives the reader a true perspective into a world that most of us civilians know little about. Kudos to Bruce Sackman for not giving up and doing great investigative work.
One person found this helpful


annette georgios
5.0 out of 5 starsnot too miss
September 19, 2018Format: HardcoverVerified Purchase
I could not put this book down...a real page Turner...the story had to be told..... and...no one could tell like these three authors....well. done.
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Heather Anne Chamides
4.0 out of 5 starsAn inside view into healthcare investigations
September 20, 2018Format: Kindle EditionVerified Purchase
This was a great first person look into the complexity of investigating health care professionals who harm patients and highlights the dedication and team work of the investigators.
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Thomas Hunt
5.0 out of 5 starsCaptivating, often horrifying
September 26, 2018Format: Hardcover
Behind the Murder Curtain is the captivating and often horrifying story of Special Agent Bruce Sackman's efforts to protect hospital patients from Medical Serial Killers (MSKs) - people who used medical credentials to extinguish others' lives, who "killed for fun" and, too often, with impunity. Sackman's professional concern, as special agent in charge of the Veterans Administration Office of Inspector General, was for the ailing U.S. veterans treated in V.A. medical facilities in the Northeast, and he successfully brought to justice Michael Swango and other killers. But his work, including a Red Flags Protocol that provides early warning of MSK activity, has improved the safety of all patients. The book is tightly written and an easy read, though it explores in detail the science, procedures and profoundly distasteful aspects (readers are treated to a tale of a grisly exhumation and provided with a discussion of the smells that emanate from a body during autopsy) of MSK investigations.
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fashion student
5.0 out of 5 starsCouldn't put this True Crime Story Down
October 5, 2018Format: Hardcover
Behind the Murder Curtain blows the lid on Mecial Serial Killers who are ever present in hospitals and care facilities across the globe. It is amazing to read the detective work and diligence by Bruce Sackman and his team. This memoir/non-fiction read has so many twists and layers that you would think it was a drama. It is a great reminder to be aware of what is going on hospitals and gives a new found appreciation to brave whistleblowers in the medical field who spoke up about suspicious colleagues. I feel safer knowing that people like Bruce are on the hunt for MSKs (Medical Serial Killers) and am sure that this book and his work will encourage more protocols and checkpoints to keep these people out of our hospitals. An important read!