Tuesday, January 23, 2018
Public safety

Officers receive Medal of Valor for shooting naked woman

BROOKSVILLE — In late October, an off-duty Tampa police officer and an off-duty Hernando County sheriff's detective were involved in the fatal shooting of a naked 42-year-old woman.

Two months later, the State Attorney's Office concluded that Officer William Mechler and Detective Rocky Howard were justified in their actions.

On Wednesday, the two law enforcement officers received the highest honor given by the Hernando Sheriff's Office — the Medal of Valor.

Sheriff Al Nienhuis said the officers earned the honor through their willingness to put their lives on the line and by their effort to protect a group of people, which included a young boy.

"You know — you never know what's going to happen," Nienhuis said at a Wednesday afternoon awards ceremony at the Sheriff's Office. "Anytime anyone puts themselves between danger and a 5-year-old child, it's nothing less than heroic."

In a letter recommending the two officers for the honor, sheriff's Lt. Harold Hutchinson Jr. praised the two men.

"They placed their own safety at risk and responded to the incident in a brave and admirable manner to ensure the safety of those around them," the letter read.

But the recognition wasn't well received by the brother of Inga Marie Swanson, the victim in the shooting.

"They shot a mentally disturbed, naked woman — is that valor? Is that the definition of valor?" asked Gunnar Swanson. "To me, it's like they are celebrating a kill."

Nienhuis took issue with that.

"That's totally incorrect," he said.

Gunnar Swanson said he understands Mechler and Howard had to shoot. What bothers him is why the officers, after seeing his sister's condition, initially let her walk away and didn't do more to come to her aid.

"They didn't do anything to help her," he said.

The incident happened Oct. 20, beginning at the home of Howard's in-laws at 9070 Orchard Way, a short walk from where Inga Swanson was living.

A friend of the in-laws, Eric Glass, was working on his truck, accompanied by his 5-year-old son.

While the boy was sitting in the truck, his father heard a woman yelling, "No, stop it," according to a memo from Assistant State Attorney Richard Ridgway.

Glass went to investigate and found Swanson next to the truck.

She opened the door and tried to get in, saying "I love you" repeatedly to the child, according to the memo.

Glass removed her from the truck, only then noticing she was wearing no clothing.

As she walked away, she told him, "My daddy's going to kill you," the report said.

Howard and Mechler, who didn't see the incident, were told about it and went into the street to see what was going on. They saw Swanson walking down the street naked. At some point, she lay down.

When Howard walked up to her to see if she needed help, she started growling and making other noises.

Howard asked if she was okay. She said she was going to kill "that … Mexican." She then called Howard a name, got up and turned down a driveway.

At that point, Howard called the Sheriff's Office non-emergency line and asked that a deputy be sent to investigate. He said he thought the woman was either mentally ill or on drugs.

Swanson's brother questioned why the detective didn't call the emergency line in that situation. Nienhuis said it wouldn't have resulted in a faster response time.

A short time later, Inga Swanson returned and was carrying a weapon, the memo says.

She approached Mechler, Howard and a small group of others, including the child, who was still inside the truck.

"This is a heist," she said. "The kid is coming with me."

Howard and Mechler unholstered their weapons. They repeatedly ordered her to drop her gun. She didn't. She continued at them and was eventually shot and killed.

Swanson's gun, authorities later determined, was a .22-caliber, single-shot, break-open pistol. It was unloaded and inoperable because it was missing parts.

"There was, of course, no way either Deputy Howard or Officer Mechler could have known this," Ridgway wrote in his memo.

Gunnar Swanson thinks the shooting might have been prevented had more been done to help his sister during the first encounter.

"A person who deserves a Medal of Valor would have gone above and beyond at that point," he said.

Nienhuis, as he has since the incident, defended the law enforcement officers.

"These are people that are off duty," he said. "They weren't prepared to deal with this in the same way that a patrol deputy who is on duty is prepared to deal with stuff."

In these types of situations, he said, deputies are told to call someone on duty, and that is what they did.

Still, Gunnar Swanson felt it was wrong to celebrate such a sad situation.

"It warps the whole meaning of the Medal of Valor," he said.

Danny Valentine can be reached at [email protected] or (352) 848-1432. Tweet him @HernandoTimes.

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