COLUMBIA, SC — A federal judge ruled Wednesday that Richland County sheriff’s investigators had sufficient evidence to obtain a warrant to search the house of a Richland County teen’s accused kidnapper.
U.S. District Judge Cameron McGowan Currie’s ruling cleared the way for a Jan. 14 trial for Freddie Grant on a charge of being a felon in possession of ammunition. Investigators found shotgun shells and .38-caliber bullets in Grant’s Elgin home as they searched for missing 15-year-old Gabrielle Swainson, whose mother had dated Grant.
Earlier this year, Grant’s defense attorney, John Delgado, had said he would seek a plea deal if he failed with his motion to suppress the search warrant. However, Delgado informed the judge Wednesday that his client wants a jury trial.
Grant also insisted that the trial on ammunition charges be held Jan. 14 even though Delgado wanted a delay because of his busy court schedule. Currie made sure Grant understood that he was risking going to trial with an unprepared lawyer. Currie also asked Grant if he was willing to give up his right to later claim that he did not get fair representation during trial because of his attorney’s preparations.
Grant replied, “Yes.”
Federal prosecutors are seeking an increased penalty for Grant on the grounds that he has three prior convictions for violent and drug-related crimes. They are citing his convictions on kidnapping and assault while serving in the Army in Korea and a 1991 conviction in Richland County for possession of cocaine with intent to distribute.
Delgado had presented three points in trying to suppress the search warrant, but the most serious argument centered on a note that was found in the home the day Swainson disappeared. The note, which was not read in its entirety in court, said, “I need to bounce up out of here.”
Documents filed earlier in the week also hinted that Swainson and her mother recently had conversations about sexuality. However, those conversations were not discussed in court.
To get the search warrant suppressed, Delgado had to prove that investigators intentionally withheld information from the magistrate and that the information would have changed the magistrate’s decision to issue a search warrant.
But Currie determined that even if the note had been divulged in a hearing over the search warrant, it would not have changed the magistrate’s decision.
Either way, a 15-year-old was missing and her cell phone was sending signals to towers within 400 yards of Grant’s home in Elgin, Currie said. There was no reason for the girl’s cell phone to be at Grant’s house, she said.
“If she was a runaway, there would have been probable cause to search for this girl at his home,” Currie said.
The arguments presented Wednesday provided more details on what happened in the early days of the investigation after Swainson was discovered missing on the morning of Aug. 18.
Her mother, Elvia Swainson, had gone to work at 3 a.m. and had returned home around 7:30 a.m. to find that her daughter was not home. Elvia Swainson called her daughter’s cell phone at 7:35 a.m.
That was the last time the teen’s cell phone had any interaction with the Verizon network, said FBI Special Agent Chad Fitzgerald, a telecommunications specialist from the Atlanta office who helped in the early days of the search.
Fitzgerald went through a detailed account of the girl’s cell phone records that traced it to Grant’s home. When Fitzgerald finished, Currie told attorneys, “You don’t need to waste time on the cell phone towers. Agent Fitzgerald’s testimony put the nail on that coffin.”
Gabbiee Swainson was set to begin her sophomore year at Ridgeview High School when her mother reported her missing.
After calling her daughter’s phone, Swainson’s second call went to Grant and her third call was to Richland County 911.
The note, which was handwritten on the top of a pad by the kitchen sink, was discovered by the first Richland County sheriff’s deputy to arrive at the Swainson home, said Assistant U.S. Attorney Stacey D. Haynes.
But Swainson told investigators that the handwriting did not look like her daughter’s style and suggested that she had been forced to write it, Haynes said.
Swainson never considered her daughter a runaway, Haynes said.
“Mr. Grant kept saying, ‘You need to show that note to police,’” Haynes said. “Mr. Grant kept trying to tell police that Gabrielle was a runaway.”
Police almost immediately suspected foul play after they discovered blood in the girl’s bed. Grant quickly became a suspect after investigators discovered his criminal record and that he had lived with another young woman who had been reported missing in September 2011 in Elgin.
And, Gabbiee had told one of her music teachers that Grant had made sexually inappropriate comments to her, authorities said.
Reach Phillips at (803) 771-8307.