Exclusive: Sister's hunch solves riddle of Lake Murray body

nophillips@thestate.comOctober 1, 2013 

For three years, Lisa Swindler Campbell waited for a phone call from her brother.

She knew if he did call, he could be anywhere, including in a mental hospital hundreds of miles from his home in Utah. It had happened before.

Days, months and years passed for Campbell and her other six brothers and sisters, all of whom live in Utah. They wondered if they would ever see their oldest brother, Daniel Swindler, again. They made phone calls. They created a Facebook page. A private investigator was hired.

On Sept. 24, they learned that Daniel Swindler was dead, and that his body had been discovered about six weeks after he left home in 2010 among the rocks at the Dreher Shoals Dam spillway near Lake Murray. He was more than 2,000 miles from home.

Daniel Swindler’s story is one of a wanderer with a mental illness, a family that would not give up and law enforcement officers who did everything they could to identify a body. What happened in the two months between his disappearance and the discovery of his body remains a mystery.

Swindler was last seen by his family Aug. 20, 2010, after he paid a visit to his grandmother. He never mentioned travel plans during the visit, Campbell said.

Swindler, then 35, had been dealing with mental illness since his early 20s. He had been diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder, a combination of schizophrenia and bipolar disorder that causes people to have hallucinations, delusions and suffer from either manic or depressive moods.

Swindler often heard voices and was paranoid about people who might be out to get him, his sister said. He didn’t have a car, a cell phone or social media accounts.

From time to time, he would disappear. But he rarely stayed away for more than three months. Once, he called his family from a mental hospital in Kansas. Another time, he was in Colorado, Swindler said.

“He had paranoia about having a cell phone,” she said. “He didn’t respond to email very much.”

Swindler was a bright child and loved the outdoors. But the symptoms of bipolar behavior and schizophrenia started surfacing while he was in college.

It was a challenge to keep Swindler on his medication, Campbell said. When off it, he always thought he was feeling great, she said.

“We knew if he got off his medication, he couldn’t take care of himself alone.”

Searching for a missing adult is difficult, even if that person has a mental illness. Privacy laws prevent hospitals, banks and other businesses from releasing information. With no evidence of foul play, police often consider an adult to be voluntarily missing.

“Our big roadblock this whole time has been privacy,” Campbell said. “He is an adult and has privacy rights.”

An East Coast lead

In January 2011, four months after Swindler went missing, one of his sisters hacked into his email account after she was able to answer family-related security questions, Campbell said. That’s when the family learned their brother on Aug. 19, 2010, had checked into an Extended Stay America motel near I-26 in Columbia.

They have no idea what drew their brother to Columbia.

They called the motel, and someone told them he had checked out in October 2010, but that person would not provide additional details, Campbell said.

“After we found out he had checked out, we figured he was somewhere else,” she said.

They also called every Swindler in the Columbia phone book because their brother liked genealogy and was known to try to find distant relatives. They left messages about their search, but no one called back, Campbell said.

Family members checked online for missing-persons reports but did not find any they could connect to their brother. In retrospect, someone should have called local authorities to specifically ask about any unidentified bodies, she said.

They decided South Carolina was a dead end, especially after a private investigator accessed Swindler’s bank account and found that he had purchased in October 2010 an Amtrak ticket to Riverside, Calif., from Columbia.

They turned their attention to train stops along the route. And continued dealing with the heartache of not knowing.

Campbell occasionally wrote about her brother’s disappearance on her blog, “All Things Campbell.”

On April 2, 2012, she wrote:

“Daniel’s 37th birthday is tomorrow. In all honesty, we don’t even know if he’s alive or dead. It’s a terrible feeling, knowing that your own brother is either off alone in the world in an awful situation or that he possibly died alone without anyone knowing. He’s been gone for two Christmases and this will be the second birthday that passes with him unaccounted for.”

In January, she made finding her brother a goal for 2013.

“I’m seriously sick every time I think of how little we’ve been able to do to find my brother who’s been missing for 2½ years. This is my most important goal, yet the most out of my control,” she wrote.

What the Swindler family didn’t know was that their brother already was dead by the time they began their search in earnest.

His body had been found Oct. 20, 2010, by fishermen walking to their favorite fishing hole, but investigators from the Lexington County Coroner’s Office had been unable to figure out the person’s identity.

Laura Grimes, the coroner’s forensic death investigator, worked with the State Law Enforcement Division to reconstruct a 3D model of the man’s face. That model and pictures of the man’s clothes and belongings were posted on SLED’s website within days of the body’s discovery.

Grimes posted fliers about the body in businesses surrounding the area.

It’s not usual to find a body, Grimes said. But her office usually identifies the person within 24 hours, she said.

Swindler was the office’s only cold case, she said. Once, a Georgia family called about it, but their relative’s dental records did not match.

Swindler’s cause and time of death is unknown. Foul play is not suspected, Grimes said.

“It appears he was just hiking the rocks,” Grimes said.

‘You want to be 100 percent sure’

The break came on Sept. 13 through a late-night gut feeling that Campbell had.

Campbell said she had not been thinking of her brother very much during the day. But around bedtime something inside her felt compelled to log onto the Internet and run a few searches.

And, she felt South Carolina was the place to start even though she and other family members had repeatedly searched the state.

“As a person of faith, I feel like it was a spiritual feeling,” she said.

Within a half-hour, she found SLED’s posting from October 2010.

The hair was too long on the rendering, the nose was too big, and the chin protruded too far. But something in that reconstructed 3D model looked like her brother. Then, there was the photo of his clothes and a small, red backpack.

Campbell logged onto the “Find Daniel” Facebook page and found a picture of him on a hiking trip. In the picture, he was wearing a braided leather belt like the one in the SLED photo. And the same red backpack was next to him on the ground.

“I knew right away it was him,” she said.

With such a large family, Campbell decided there was no way she could call everyone to tell them what she had found. She wrote an email and waited until morning to send it.

“The first person I tried to talk to about it, I just started crying,” she said.

The next morning, which was a Saturday, Campbell began calling authorities in South Carolina. They requested dental records to confirm the identity.

“I was 98 percent sure it was Mr. Swindler,” Grimes said. “But I’m never going to give a family false hope. You want to be 100 percent sure.”

The identity was confirmed Sept. 24.

The Swindler family’s three-year mission had ended.

Grimes, who had just returned from her honeymoon when the Swindlers called the coroner’s office, said she was relieved that the family had been found.

“I’m overcome with joy that I’m able to give that family closure,” Grimes said. “It makes me feel my job is worthwhile.”

Swindler’s remains will be sent to Utah once a memorial service has been arranged. The Swindler family is still planning it, Campbell said.

The Swindlers were crushed by their brother’s death. But they also have some peace knowing he has been found and that his struggle with mental illness is over.

In announcing her brother’s death on her blog, Campbell wrote, “As much as we are hurting for his loss, we know that Daniel has been freed from his suffering. We know that one day we will get to know Daniel, plain Daniel, without his heavy burden of mental illness. Just as I was certain I had found Daniel before I had solid proof, I am certain his spirit lives on.”

Reach Phillips at (803) 771-8307.

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