App leads IG to murderer

App leads IG to murderer


Special agent Bruce Sackman felt almost certain that evidence strong enough to convict a serial-killer doctor was sitting on his desk in a pile of more than 1,000 medical records from around the world.

Instead of digging into the paper pile, Sackman, the special agent in charge of the inspector general's Northeast field office for the Veterans Affairs Department, turned to a PC program called Analyst's Notebook.

Dr. Michael Swango was convicted of serial killings at VA hospitals.
It helped him document the case against Michael Swango, a physician who was convicted last year of killing hospitalized patients around the world by injecting large doses of epinephrine, a heart stimulant, and succinylcholine, an anesthetic.

Sackman said he believes Swango might still be killing patients if it weren't for the program. 'You'd be talking about almost an impossible task because of all the data that's involved,' he said. 'We probably would have never attempted it.'

Analyst's Notebook, from i2 Inc. of Springfield, Va., runs under most versions of Microsoft Windows and costs $3,388 for up to 99 licensed users. It sorts evidence into color graphics by links, time lines and networks of people. Similar investigative software is available from Anteon-CITI LLC, an Anteon Corp. subsidiary in Fairfax, Va., and WinShapes Inc. of Seattle.

Sackman and an assistant entered large amounts of data, such as patients' names, conditions and doctor visits. The software sorted through it all and charted several graphs, which were used as evidence to convict Swango.

Sackman learned from Analyst's Notebook which patients Swango was seeing at particular times. 'It helped us determine who he victimized,' he said.

Also, some of the doctor's records showed him visiting different patients simultaneously, which didn't become obvious to Sackman until he automated the sorting. The discovery might have saved lives, he said.

Swango was sentenced to three consecutive life terms without parole.

Veterans Affairs is now using the software to prosecute a woman suspected in an 18-year-old murder. 'There were many players involved in this case, many family members,' Sackman said. 'We linked them together as to their involvement in the case.'

The woman's husband was seeking a divorce. Instead of risking the loss of his benefits, the woman allegedly hired a hit man to kill him, Sackman said. Eighteen years later, the hit man allegedly revealed the murder while jailed for another crime.

'This guy starts bragging, and we were able to get the evidence,' Sackman said. 'With the telephone records, we linked who was calling who among all the players.'

The evidence led to the arrest of the woman and a third party last month, he said.

All wrapped up

The software is 'great for conspiracies by groups of people,' Sackman said. 'It produces everything in a nice chart that can be shown to a jury.'

VA special agent Bruce Sackman says Swango might have eluded capture if not for software's help.
But learning to use the program effectively is not easy, he said. 'This software is still not user-friendly,' said Sackman, whose assistant runs the program for him. 'I know that every agent won't just open up a notebook computer and start using this.'

Figuring out which commands to enter to sort different types of data is challenging, he said, and entering the data from paper records is time-consuming.

'But it's still a lot easier than trying to manually cross-check everything,' Sackman said. In the future, as more medical records are created digitally, he hopes to skip the data entry.

The most challenging part of learning to use the investigative program is 'pinpointing exactly what outcome you want,' said Kimberly Hughes, an investigative analyst at the Health and Human Services Department. 'You really have to narrow the scope. Otherwise, it's junk in, junk out.'

Until Hughes began using the i2 software two years ago, she had manually sorted the evidence in cases of suspected fraud or misuse of Medicare funds.

'Utilized correctly, it can be extremely successful,' she said. 'We use it for looking at telephone data, bank records, just about anything you can think of.'

Before VA acquired the software, Sackman said, investigators would write things all over the walls to find crime patterns because he didn't know of any database tool that could sort through evidence.

'You'd start on one wall and start connecting,' Sackman said. 'We had charts and all posted on the wall. Now we just flip open the laptop screen and save wall space.'

Forthcoming plug-ins for Analyst's Notebook will increase the amount of data it can analyze. IBase SQL Server Enterprise, available later this month, will store larger volumes of records in a database format and chart it on demand. Next month, an iBridge plug-in will be available for Oracle Corp. databases. Shortly, i2 will roll out a PatternTracer plug-in for telephone call analysis.


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