A man described as a monster and a career criminal forced 15-year-old Gabrielle Swainson from her home in the wee hours of the night on Aug. 18 and took her to his burned out house on a dirt lane in Elgin, authorities said Tuesday.
What happened in that house is unknown, but there is clear evidence of foul play, Sheriff Leon Lott said.
Now, 52-year-old Freddie Grant, is in jail on kidnapping and federal gun charges, refusing to cooperate with the FBI and sheriff’s investigators, who were searching for Gabrielle.
“A monster came in that morning and did something that only happens in our nightmares,” Lott said.
Grant had a relationship with Gabrielle’s mother, Elvia Swainson, and investigators quickly named him as the top suspect when the teen disappeared.
Investigators traced Gabrielle’s cellphone signal to Grant’s house and found her DNA there, Lott said. While the sheriff was reluctant to release many details about what investigators have found, he did say the missing teen’s blood was found on duct tape in the vicinity of Grant’s house.
Grant has an extensive criminal record dating back at least 25 years. Because of that record and his connection to the family, he was an early suspect in Gabrielle’s disappearance from her home in the North Crossing neighborhood in Northeast Richland, the sheriff said.
Grant also is being investigated in connection to another missing person case, connected to the Elgin Police Department.
Police Chief Harold Brown said his agency is looking into the disappearance of Adrianna Diana Laster, who was last seen around Labor Day 2011, when she was 28. Laster had lived for some time with Grant, and he is believed to be the last person to see her, Brown said.
On Tuesday, investigators focused on Carn’s Salvage, an old auto junkyard in Elgin, which is across a set of railroad tracks from Grant’s house. At one point, Kershaw County Coroner Johnny Fellers went to the junkyard with shovels but nothing came of his search.
More than 120 Richland County sheriff’s deputies, FBI agents and other police officers combed Elgin and its outskirts as FBI experts pinpointed possible hotspots based on evidence and tips, Lott said.
Officers were seen looking underneath houses, crawling in drainage ditches and walking through woods as they poked through scrub brush with sticks. Deputies also continued to collect evidence at Grant’s home along Kelly Lane.
Grant’s brick house sits amid a dozen other houses and mobile homes on a dirt lane. The house burned several years ago, but Grant continued to live there off and on, several neighbors said. He had electricity and running water, although the house had broken windows and charr marks on the roof and wooden trim.
Grant moved to the Midlands more than 20 years ago after serving a stint in the Army, said his sister, Cynthia Grant, who was standing with other neighbors outside his Elgin home. His older brother also had been stationed at Fort Jackson, and most of the family eventually moved to the area from Florida, she said.
Several people, including the Elgin police chief, said Grant presented himself as a respectable person.
Grant occasionally had shown up at Elgin Town Council meetings to ask questions about the budget and to request a sign for his street, Brown said. He also was known to be a regular church-goer, he said.
Donna Hudson, a neighbor who is related to Grant by marriage, said he could be a polite gentleman.
But, “That man has a dark side,” she said.
Lott described Grant as a “career criminal.” Grant’s criminal history includes aggravated assault, battery, criminal domestic violence, multiple charges for cocaine and weapons violations in Florida and South Carolina.
Grant’s wife, Ollie Rotan, died in 2004, Hudson said.
Neighbors said that Elvia Swainson had dated Grant off and on over several years. They said Grant ran a lawn care service and would do yard work at the Swainson home. He also worked as a truck driver, they said.
Lott would not confirm a romantic relationship between Swainson and Grant but described them as acquaintances.
Grant had mowed the Swainson’s yard Aug. 17, the day before Gabrielle disappeared, Lott said.
Swainson left home around about 3:45 a.m. on Aug. 18 to go to her office to catch up on work. Before leaving, she briefly woke her daughter and handed the girl her iPhone. Swainson typically confiscated the phone around 8:30 each night so her daughter could not send late text messages to friends.
When Swainson returned to the house about 7:30 a.m., her daughter was gone. Nothing was missing but Gabrielle and her phone.
On Tuesday, Lott said Grant forcibly took the girl, who was barefoot and wearing pajamas, from the house. He said investigators have established a timeline through cellphone tracking. He would not release the timeline.
It is unclear how Grant knew the girl was alone, Lott said. There was no sign of forced entry at the house.
Once Gabrielle was reported missing, investigators first looked into those closest to the family. Grant was in the next layer of family acquaintances, Lott said.
“It’s unusual when you have someone who is a friend of the family who doesn’t want to cooperate,” Lott said. “As the search for Gabbiee began, our investigators began making their case against Mr. Grant.”
During a search of Grant’s house, investigators found ammunition, which led them on Sunday to arrest him on federal weapons charges, Lott said. He was charged Monday with kidnapping by the Sheriff’s Department.
Swainson is distraught and devastated over her daughter’s kidnapping, Lott said. During a news conference about the arrest, Lott praised Swainson as a model parent, who always put her child first.
Gabrielle was supposed to start her sophomore year at Ridge View High School last week, where she was in a bioscience program and on the junior varsity cheerleading squad. She was a good student, who sang and played guitar and participated in activities at her church.
“Ten days ago, a mother had the biggest nightmare you could have as a parent,” Lott said. “Gabbiee was safe and secure in the home, and then she was gone.”