Hundreds mourn Gabbiee at last farewell

jmonk@thestate.comAugust 18, 2013 

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More than 1,000 on Sunday bid a last goodbye to Gabbiee Swainson, the long-missing murdered teen whose disappearance a year ago and tragic discovery of her body earlier this month has long riveted the Midlands’ attention.

“I’m not going to tell you God needed another flower in heaven — He created all the flowers, and this wasn’t His way of getting flowers,” the Rev. Herbert Bailey told the crowd .

“Some of you hear preachers tell you that kind of stuff — that’s a lie. Tell them I told you.”

Bailey said he couldn’t explain why Gabbiee’s life had been taken and urged the audience to take refuge in faith, that “God will comfort us in any trouble” and find a way to bring good out of the inexplicable grief left by Gabbiee’s death.

The service at Right Direction Church International, a nondenominational Christian church, lasted more than two hours, but few left before the end as the hymns, songs and testimonies by adults and young people who knew Gabbiee — who exceled at dance, academics and music — kept the crowd’s attention.

If there was a theme, it was that Gabbiee’s life held as much promise as any child ever to come out of the Midlands.

At Ridge View High School, she amazed teachers, who called her a “gifted academic” and a joy to teach.

“Her Latin teacher told me she was the best student he ever taught,” said Nicole Walker, her Ridge View English teacher. “For me personally, I know that was true.”

Walker told how when Gabbiee was in 9th grade, she had asked students to read “Lord of the Flies” and write a three- to five-page paper. Gabbiee’s outline alone was 13 pages, full of to-the-point biblical references. Eventually, “what she turned in would have received the highest score on any AP exam — it was insightful, articulate, well-written.”

Gabbiee, seemingly shy at the beginning of 9th grade, had by the end of the year “revealed herself as an athletic, artistic, beautiful academic prodigy. She truly had it all. When students reflected this past year on her, the word that kept coming up was ‘perfect.’ And for us, she was perfect,” Walker said.

Gabbiee went to extra classes in algebra, despite having an A in the class. When a teacher asked her why she attended extra classes, Gabbiee replied, “That A isn’t going to slip, so I’ll be here,” Walker said.

Science teacher Jennifer McLeod-Crady told the crowd that Gabbiee helped mentor other students. “She also was humble. She did not need to flash her many talents around. She knew who she was.”

Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott, who over the past year had grown close to Gabbiee’s family, was one of the more than a dozen speakers.

“No light has ever shined as bright as Gabbiee,” Lott said, “and it will continue to shine.”

Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin, an unscheduled speaker, told the crowd of the love he had for his two school-age daughters, and said Gabbiee’s death was “the devil’s work” — an assertion that drew exclamations of support from the crowd.

Rev. Bailey, speaking after Benjamin, seized on the metaphor and told the audience, “Clap like the devil’s in between your hands.” Everyone clapped heartily.

Teens and adults who knew Gabbiee shared memories of her spunk, mischievousness and warmth.

Victoria Barrett, Gabbiee’s friend since 1st grade, spoke how in the first minutes of meeting Gabbiee, Gabbiee told her with great certainty that she wanted to be called “Ariel, like the mermaid.”

Other friends told how Gabbiee pulled a prank on Gabbiee’s mother when Gabbiee put hot sauce in her mom’s iced tea one time, how Gabbiee had given her a necklace with a heart and the word “forever,” and how Gabbiee had refused to be angry one time when a friend was peeved at her for little reason.

Christopher Narcisse read a poem with the words, “Why cry for a soul set free?”

Guitarist singer Chris Kelley sang, “I know it seems like this could be the darkest day you know, but believe you me, the God of strength will never let you go.”

Through it all, photos and videos of Gabbiee from the time she was a baby in a Santa Claus suit flashed on two enormous video screens above the altar: Gabbiee serious and graceful at the ballet barre, Gabbiee with five other dancers doing intricate steps, Gabbiee at the beach, Gabbiee in the snow, Gabbiee laughing with friends. The pictures flashed on the screen as the service closed with the choir singing a rousing hymnlike anthem that repeated the words, “God is awesome.”

Gabbiee was buried Sunday afternoon at Greenlawn Memorial Park.

Sunday evening’s service was the last of a series of public vigils and visitations for Gabbiee.

When she disappeared, she had just made Ridge View High’s junior-varsity cheerleading team. School was about to start.

Her mother, Elvia Swainson, a single mom who from an early age kept her daughter involved in activities like dancing and music, had left Gabbiee alone on the night of last Aug. 18 in their two-story house at 221 Tamara Way, about a mile from the Village at Sandhill mall, to go to work early around 3 a.m.

Gabbiee was her only child. It was, she would say, the only time she had ever left Gabbiee alone at night.

When the mother came back shortly after 7 a.m. Saturday, she heard Gabbiee’s alarm going off in her second-floor bedroom. But the teen was gone.

The FBI and a team of Richland County sheriff’s detectives quickly focused on a suspect – Freddie Grant, then 52, who was the mother’s boyfriend. Grant had made suggestive remarks about Gabbiee, and law officers found traces of Gabbiee’s DNA at his house in Kershaw County. He apparently used a key the mother had given him to gain access to the house.

After being held in jail for months, Grant — whom Lott deemed a “monster”— last week pleaded guilty to murder and kidnapping Gabbiee. Lott said in an interview that Grant killed Gabbiee within hours of taking her.

Grant had agreed to tell officers where the body was in exchange for a 30-year prison sentence and for authorities dropping criminal charges against his adult daughter, who had been implicated in helping him conceal the murder.

Her body was found in a 5-foot-deep hole, among trees about 40 yards from railroad tracks off U.S. 1 in Elgin. Early on in the search for Gabbiee, the FBI had set up a command post less than 200 yards away while cadaver dogs searched for her grave.

Reach Monk at (803) 771-8344.

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