Gabrielle Swainson

Gabrielle Swainson’s body found; Kershaw County authorities to meet with SLED to discuss search for second missing woman

nophillips@thestate.comAugust 8, 2013 

  • Ridge View High’s pain

    Swainson’s disappearance rocked Ridge View High School, where she was a JV cheerleader and a member of the bio-health academic magnet program. As days moved into weeks, and still there was no word on her, students and administrators tried to keep up spirits and the hope that she would be found alive.

    In late August 2012, Principal Marty Martin said the waiting was dreadful for everyone at the school.

    “The not knowing just builds and builds and builds,” he said. “I’ve had runaways. I’ve never had a situation up front like this where there is evidence of foul play.”

    He said then his job was to provide support to students who attended classes with her and knew her as a friend.

    At times like these, he said, “The kids just need to have the opportunity to cry on each other’s shoulders, to comfort each other, to give each other hope.”

    Richland 2’s interim school superintendent Debra Hamm issued a statement Thursday expressing sadness about the tragic news and extending sympathy “to those who love and care about Gabrielle.”

    “She touched many people in such a positive way in her short life and, of course, many people have been affected by her disappearance and passing,” Hamm said.

    She said the district’s crisis response team will work in coordination with Ridge View to provide grief counseling and other services to students and staff when they return to school. As well, she said the school and district “will continue to support the family in preserving Gabrielle’s memory.”

  • More information

    Carolyn Click

UPDATE: 2:33 p.m.

The top cops in Elgin and Kershaw County will both meet with State Law Enforcement Division agents on how to conduct a search for another missing woman connected to accused killer Freddie Grant.

Adrianna Laster, originally of Florida, went missing after Labor Day in 2011. The 28-year-old woman lived with Grant at his burned-out Elgin home before she disappeared without much of a trace. Grant is believed to be the last person to see her.

Kershaw County Sheriff Jim Matthews and Elgin Police Chief Harold Brown will meet with SLED officials next week about orchestrating a search for Laster’s body in the woods where the body of Gabrielle Swainson was found.

Cadaver dogs and extra manpower will most likely be requested for the search. The search is expected to start in the place where Gabrielle’s body was found, and will likely go outward from that spot.

UPDATE: 12:27 p.m.

Paperwork was filed Friday morning to drop charges against Freddie Grant’s daughter, who was accused in June of trying to mislead investigators looking into Gabrielle Swainson’s disappearance.

Dominique Grant was charged with accessory after the fact to a felony when she was spotted near a Myrtle Beach grocery store where a truck driver found Gabrielle’s phone in June. Dominique Grant has been held on a $300,000 bond at Alvin S. Glenn Detention Center for more than a month. She was released from jail Friday.

It’s believed that Dominique Grant’s release was part of a deal that led to her father revealing the location where he buried Gabrielle.

Meanwhile, Freddie Grant appeared before a magistrate judge Friday morning, where he was formally charged with murder in the teen’s death.

UPDATE 11:30 a.m.

Examiners Monday were able to confirm that the body found buried in Elgin Thursday was that of Gabrielle Swainson, according to a Richland County Sheriff’s Department release.

The girl’s identity was released as the Richland County Coroner’s Office conducts an autopsy. Exactly how Gabrielle died isn’t yet known, but that information will be released later by Richland County Coroner Gary Watts.

Check back later for additional details.

Published Friday morning

For days last August, police walked every square inch of the tiny town where missing teen Gabrielle Swainson was last known to be.

But the 5-foot-deep hole where her body was found Thursday night was impossible to see.

In the early days of the search, the FBI had set up its command post at a fire department less than two football fields away. Even cadaver dogs had walked past the grave hidden among trees about 40 yards from railroad tracks off U.S. 1 in Elgin.

Finally, the man charged with Gabrielle’s kidnapping pointed it out to Richland County sheriff’s investigators.

“The monster Freddie Grant took us to a location in Elgin where he buried Gabbiee,” Sheriff Leon Lott said. “This has been 357 days of terror that Gabbiee’s mother and family have endured and that this community has endured. This is not the way we would have liked to end it.”

Grant was charged Thursday with murder after pointing to where deputies should dig. In exchange for leading investigators to the body, Grant will receive an undisclosed plea agreement.

But Grant will not receive a light sentence because of it, Lott said. Instead, his 27-year-old daughter, Dominique Grant, who was arrested earlier this summer on an accessory charge, is the most likely beneficiary of any deal.

Gabrielle disappeared from her mother’s home in Northeast Richland County in the early morning hours of Aug. 18, 2012. Her disappearance earned national attention and tugged at the local community’s heartstrings as people waited for news on the girl’s whereabouts.

Thousands attended vigils and volunteered to search. Friends wore blue bracelets as a sign of hope that she would be found.

By all accounts, Gabrielle was a model teenager. She made the honor roll in the bioscience magnet program at Ridge View High School. She sang and played guitar, often performing at Right Direction Church International, where she was faithful member with her mother. She had been chosen for Ridge View’s junior varsity cheerleading squad as she entered her sophomore year.

Within hours of Gabrielle’s disappearance, sheriff’s investigators suspected Grant. He had been dating Gabrielle’s mother, Elvia Swainson, and even had participated in the early search.

But Grant refused to cooperate with investigators, even after he was charged with kidnapping and then convicted in federal court on an ammunition charge.

The break came in June when Gabrielle’s cellphone was discovered behind a Myrtle Beach Piggly Wiggly, Lott said. Investigators said they were able to place Dominique Grant in the area about the same time the phone was discovered.

She was jailed at Alvin S. Glenn Detention Center on a $300,000 bond after being charged with accessory after the fact of a felony.

“That was the breaking point as far as getting Freddie to lead us to where Gabbiee was buried,” Lott said.

Lott said he and 5th Circuit Solicitor Dan Johnson had been negotiating with Grant for months but he had refused to budge. And they refused to offer a lenient sentence, Lott said. Still, Johnson said, he won’t pursue the death penalty.

“It’s almost like you’re making a deal with the devil,” he said.

Dominique Grant remained in jail Thursday night.

From the beginning, Lott said his priority was finding Gabbiee. He has watched the parents of Dail Dinwiddie, who disappeared from Five Points in 1992, suffer for more than 20 years, and he said he wanted to prevent the same prolonged pain of uncertainty for Elvia Swainson.

“For the past 357 days, I’ve seen the pain in Elvia every time I’ve talked to her,” Lott said.

Lott said breaking the news of the grave to Elvia Swainson was the hardest family notification he has made in his 38-year law enforcement career.

Three Richland County sheriff’s investigators flew Thursday morning in a state airplane to Kentucky to pick up Grant from McCreary federal prison, where he is incarcerated on the federal ammo charge.

They arrived back in Columbia around 2:45 p.m. and immediately took Grant to Elgin, just across the county line, in Kershaw County. He pointed out the unmarked grave, which was about 40 yards from railroad tracks and near a bridge off U.S. 1. Grant’s house on a dirt lane in Elgin is less than a quarter mile away, on the other side of the tracks.

“It kills us because we failed to find her even though we could not have saved her life,” Lott said.

Kershaw County Sheriff Jim Matthews said the grave, about 5 feet deep, was impossible to recognize. His department brought in an excavator that was used to pull away brush. Richland County Coroner Gary Watts and Kershaw County Johnny Fellers were at the scene and were able to identify the grave markings soon after the excavator was used.

Then, investigators began using smaller digging tools so as not to miss any evidence, Matthews said. Lights and a generator were brought in so investigators could see after sunset.

Gabrielle’s body was recovered shortly after 9 p.m. Items were found at the site that connected the body to Gabrielle, but an autopsy scheduled for Friday morning is expected to confirm it is hers, Lott said.

Grant’s court appearance on the murder charge is expected to happen quickly.

Grant also has been named by Elgin police as a person of interest in another missing-person case. Adrianna Laster, who was 28 when she was last seen around Labor Day 2011, had been living with Grant.

And Matthews said he considers Grant a person of interest in the October 2011 shooting death of 36-year-old Lee Wood in Lugoff. Wood had a relationship with Laster, Matthews said.

But the two sheriffs said Thursday they were focused on Gabrielle’s case and Grant had not been offered any plea deals in those cases.

Grant’s defense attorney on the kidnapping charge, Richland County public defender Fielding Pringle, declined to comment.

Reach Phillips at (803) 771-8307.

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