Real-Life Heros Who Helped in the Capture of Serial Murderers

Need inspiration? A boost? If so, this should do it! 

What might a blond teenager from Southern California, a vision-impaired artist from Mississippi and a career white-collar investigator for the Veterans Administration have in common? They all ensured that serial murderers were put behind bars.

Lynette Duncan

First up is Miss Lynette Duncan.  Back in 1977 she was enjoying a happy, carefree life of a teenager in southern California.  This bubbly blond had just turned 17 and was dreaming about her first car and an upcoming social gathering.  She had many friends.  Life was good.  But, in a few horrible minutes, it was flipped into a nightmare.

One chilly February evening at 4 a.m. her father was returning home with a bank deposit from his business.  Lynette and her sisters were comfortably asleep upstairs while her mom awaited his arrival downstairs.  As her dad approached the steps of the family home in the dark, he was followed by two young men who had killed before.  In fact, these shadowy figures were on a nine-day killing spree.

Lynette was abruptly awoken by the hellish sound of gunfire. For a moment she thought she’d only had a nightmare.  Then she and her sister dashed toward the piercing noise coming from the front of their house.  Her older sister was ahead of her as they flew down the steps inside.  Moments later Lynette arrived to see the pair shooting up the exterior bricks with an automatic weapon as they prepared to flee.  To her horror, Lynette witnessed her older sister Denise and her father lying motionless in a pool of blood on the threshold of the house.  Her mother had dozens of wounds in her legs but was crawling to the kitchen wall phone to call 911.

It fell to Lynette, still a child herself, to inform her younger sister (who was with a friend across the street for a sleepover) what had happened.  She also had to make double funeral arrangements for her father and oldest sister and enlist help to get the crime scene cleaned up. The first big purchases of her life were two cemetery plots, headstones and caskets. Lynette became the de-facto head of the household while traumatized herself, without any experience in adulthood, not even a driver’s license.

The murderous pair was caught days later in a stolen vehicle with the help of Lynette.  She had given the detectives a clear description of their appearance, car driven, direction driven and even a rough description of the kind of weapon used. The two defendants were arraigned, tried, convicted, and given life sentences.  But Lynette wasn’t done with them. Not by a long shot.

In the following years, Lynette attended and graduated from college. Today she is an accomplished prosthetist-orthotist in California who fits patients with artificial limbs. But even now, some 47 years later, she works persistently to keep the one surviving murderer behind bars at his parole hearings. In the last meeting, the prisoner proudly displayed a notebook full of his accomplishments behind bars, the classes he’d taken, the the jobs he’d fulfilled. Lynette had notebooks with her as well. One was for her father and one for her sister. She opened up the blank pages and said, “And this is what my father and sister have been able to accomplish since 1977.” She fully understands the fallacy behind the word “closure.”

Sharon McConnell Dickerson

Let’s transition from California to Memphis where I’ll introduce you to Sharon McConnell Dickerson.  She is a petite, attractive woman with a dark brown pixie haircut and quick-moving hands.  She gradually went blind, starting at age 27.  Despite trying every known intervention to halt the approaching darkness, her world slowly turned dim, then murky-gray, then pitch black. 

But her lack of vision didn’t stop her from becoming an accomplished artist.  Using her sensitive sense of touch, her encouraging voice, and her unending patience, she began to craft several life masks of famous blues musicians while they patiently sat for her.  To date, she has finished 60 amazing “lifecasts” with the likes of Bo Diddley, Pinetop Perkins, Big George Brock, and others.  They’re on display as a collection. She encourages museum-goers to touch her art.

But there’s an equally admirable backstory to Sharon’s life.  When her friend Bo Icler went missing in Panama, she grew alarmed.  He was planning on returning to the States to temporarily move in with Sharon and her husband within the next week or two while he resettled.  Sharon knew to her core that something was terribly wrong. They typically spoke twice or three times a week. She hadn’t heard from him in eight days.

Using only her telephone, persistence, and wits she discovered that a dangerous con artist had supposedly purchased Bo’s two-story house with arches and a veranda in the verdant backcountry.  But something didn’t feel right about the transaction, of which she was a legal co-signer.  She persistently asked more questions and turned up unsettling bits of data that, when assembled, formed an ugly mosaic of murder. 

Sharon partnered with others who had similar suspicions and then with Panamanian law enforcement.  In time, Wild Bill Holbert was arrested in a neighboring country.  And it turns out Bo was not his first victim. In all, Wild Bill had taken the lives of five people – all for money. Who knows how many lives Sharon saved by getting him arrested?

A book entitled “The Jolly Roger Social Club” by Nick Foster describes the hunt for Wild Bill and Sharon’s part in capturing him.

Bruce Sackman

The last of the three amazing people I will introduce you to is a man of impeccable credentials. His full title is Special Agent Inspector General of Veteran Affairs.  He was based in busy New York City.  Sackman was responsible for the area between West Virginia to Maine. 

His primary role was to investigate white-collar crimes in the Veterans Administration.  His work ensured that veterans and medical staff had not fallen prey to ID scams, property theft, embezzlement, prescription fraud and other non-violent crimes.

Agent Sackman was on the cusp of retirement in October of 1995.  He was reflecting on his long career and reviewing the many decisions and arrests he’d made over the decades.  His personal belongings were gradually being gathered and carefully tucked inside moving boxes. His many plaques would soon be removed from the wall behind his desk.

It was then he received an unusual, urgent phone call from Doctor Thomesen, a psychiatrist at Northport.  She requested Agent Sackman to come at once.  Trying to imagine how this could possibly involve him, Agent Sackman casually asked, “What’s this all about?  I’m not taking on new cases.”  Much to his surprise the voice on the other end of the line firmly declared “We have a doctor here who is killing his patients, a guy named Swango!”

It was not Sackman’s manner to rush into new directions based on a simple phone call. White-collar crimes had never necessitated a lights and sirens response.  But he felt obligated to at least review what evidence she had. He grabbed his coat and a colleague and left to visit Dr. Thomesen. The adventure had begun.

What he discovered triggered a lights and siren response inside him.  He learned that Michael Swango, M.D. had somehow fallen through cracks in the VA background check process.  Had staff done their work, they would’ve discovered some large red flags blowing wildly in the wind. They would’ve known that Dr. Swango, a former Marine, had been imprisoned earlier for poisoning coworkers in Illinois.  Moreover, there was an unusually high number of deaths that mysteriously trailed him in his relatively short career.

Agent Sackman was caught between two pillars.  On the one hand, he admired physicians.  He was well aware of the long years it took to become a doctor and the difficult procedures, decisions and questions that were a part of their routine.  His head couldn’t process the idea that a physician (or nurse) would deliberately kill someone in their care, let alone several, patients.  But on the other hand, he also had a very devoted and protective stance when it came to veterans.  His own father fought with the Third Armored Division at the Battle of the Bulge, and his father-in-law in Burma.

One thing was for sure. He couldn’t look the other way.  True to form Sackman wanted proof, not rumors.  So began his deep dive into the murky background of a man nick-named “Double O Swango Licensed to Kill” for all the jams he somehow wiggled through.

The more Sackman investigated, the uglier it became.  Swango was finally arrested in Ohio. He was ultimately convicted of sixty poisonings of patients and colleagues, although he admitted to only causing four deaths. He was sentenced to three consecutive life terms without the possibility of parole. He’s being held at the Supermax facility in Florence, Colorado.

Ultimately, with the help of a team of forensic nurses, Sackman gradually developed a pattern of signs that a physician was an “MSK” (medical serial killer). He implores administrative staff to consider these telling signs – especially in long-term healthcare facilities.  He calls them the “Red Flags Protocol for MSKs.”

Agent Sackman reluctantly came to the chilling conclusion that hospitals are the perfect “hunting blind” for serial murderers.  Why?  They know the vulnerabilities of the human body.  They have access to deadly chemicals.  They work in privacy.  They appear beyond reproach and their personality is such that some can inflict pain with indifference. 

And facilities are complicit, too.  They sometimes do cursory background checks and, even when unhappy with a staff member, usually only carry out in-house investigations.  They’re reluctant to haul a physician into court. They loathe bad publicity.  They’d prefer to send them on their way with a neutral recommendation letter.  Of course, this just moves them to new hunting grounds. Silence and the failure to communicate with even other hospital administrators pave the way for more carnage.

Here are six of Sackman’s 26 MSK Red Flags:

  • The rate of death is higher for specific physicians when they’re on a case.
  • The doctor (or nurse) prefers the midnight shift.
  • The patient’s death was unexpected.
  • The cause of death is generic (like “cardiac failure”) and a later autopsy review turns up a deadly chemical not normally tested for.
  • The patient has few to no friends or relatives who visit or call.
  • The medical staff in question never seems upset or surprised at the news of the death.

Special Agent Sackman’s account of developing the MSK protocol and the capture of Dr. Michael Swango and other medical serial killers is captured in his book, Behind the Murder Curtain.

There you have it.  Three people just moving through life suddenly confronted with the deadliest predators in human nature.  They rose to the occasion.  By aiding in the capture and incarceration of these serial murderers life became safer for everyone.

For more detailed information and for other resources, please refer to my book What Now? Navigating the Aftermath of Homicide and Suicide, available now on Amazon.

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I’m Jan Canty. Psychologist, author, podcast host, speaker…  and homicide survivor.

I am passionate about finding ways to support and help other so-called “homicide or suicide survivors.”

No one should have to go through this kind of loss… but if you do, I want you to know… YOU ARE NOT ALONE! 

You aren’t crazy. It’s not your imagination! Society does not know how to comfort us. Fortunately, we know how to comfort one another.

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