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St. Petersburg police acknowledge they didn't tell family murder case was closed

Cynthia Woods has kept a $5 bill that belonged to her son in hopes that she could someday bring it to a trial and show his killer all that she has left of her son, Calvin Swain.

KATHLEEN FLYNN | Times

Cynthia Woods has kept a $5 bill that belonged to her son in hopes that she could someday bring it to a trial and show his killer all that she has left of her son, Calvin Swain.

ST. PETERSBURG — Calvin "K-Swiss" Swain was lured to his death in 2005. He was shot dead at age 28, and not just once.

"They emptied their guns into him," said his mother, Cynthia Woods. "When I saw him in the casket, I didn't even know who it was."

She waited years for closure, to face his killers in court. The streets were full of rumors about who did it. The mother waited to hear it from the police — but the streets told her first.

She got the news Saturday that the case had been closed after her daughter heard it from a friend at a club.

Then she checked the St. Petersburg police's unsolved homicides website.

"Solved" was written across Calvin Swain's photo.

In fact, police figured out who did it more than a year ago. They still can't prove it, but they also know those men are no longer a threat: two are dead, and a third is serving a life sentence for another murder.

But no one with a badge reached out to tell the mother that.

That was a mistake, top St. Petersburg police officials said Thursday. That's why the department apologized to the mother.

"I told the family the buck stops here with me," said Maj. Mike Kovacsev. "I took responsibility because they weren't notified in a timely manner."

• • •

Kovacsev was a patrol sergeant back on April 21, 2005, the first officer on scene when Calvin Swain was found in Wildwood Park.

Swain attended Lakewood High School and later passed the GED test. But he also had an arrest record and did time in prison.

The case stalled right from the start, said Mike Puetz, who recently retired as the major in charge of crimes against persons.

The first real break came after a man was killed while committing a home invasion in 2007, police said. Police informers now felt free to link him to Swain's death.

Then police learned he might have had a partner: a man convicted of murder in 2006 and sentenced to life in prison.

Detectives then found a third man. It was someone they believed was the conduit between the victim and his alleged killers, who could testify in court. But then that man was killed in an armed home invasion in 2008.

St. Petersburg police did not name the three men because no criminal charges have ever been filed. Police still aren't sure about the motive.

In 2009, after a series of meetings, detectives classified the case as "exceptionally closed/warrants further investigation."

"We kept the evidence, we kept the notes," Kovacsev said. "It's always possible to do a prosecution later down the road."

The case was closed — but also left open, just in case.

• • •

So why wasn't Cynthia Woods told all this last year?

"It just fell through the cracks," said Puetz, who recently went back to work for the police as a media spokesman.

While detectives agreed the case should be closed, no official action was taken to close it. That would have triggered an official meeting with the family, police said. But it was never officially closed because prosecution was still theoretically possible.

Nor was closure rushed just to improve the department's clearance rate, Puetz said. After two years, it's permanently classified as unsolved anyway.

In February, Kovacsev was promoted to major and put in charge of crimes against persons. He went through the cold cases and noticed that while Swain's file appeared closed, it was listed online as unsolved. So he had "solved" stripped across the photo.

"I was under the assumption that the family was already aware," Kovacsev said.

• • •

Keeping the families of murder victims informed about their investigations has been especially vexing to St. Petersburg police.

In February 2009, the father of a son whose murder remains unsolved complained to the City Council that detectives weren't keeping him informed. So police Chief Chuck Harmon instituted sweeping new rules requiring regular contact.

But just telling one family member isn't enough, police later learned. Some families have stopped talking to each other.

Kovacsev credited Detective Karl Sauer with putting together the pieces in the Swain case. But the mother is still mad at Sauer.

Woods said she called the detective in 2009 to ask about her son's case. He called her back and left a message, she said, but he gave no indication that he had any news.

"I stopped calling him because I didn't feel like he cared," Woods said. "I didn't want to talk to him anymore."

Sauer was on vacation this week. Police officials said they could not reach him to get his side of the story.

• • •

Woods said she accepted the major's explanation and apology.

But the only thing that can bring her closure is a conviction. That's why she asked that the word "closed" be removed from her son's photo on the cold cases website. It'll be done today.

She still hopes to one day face one of her son's killers in court. She wants to show him the plastic-wrapped $5 she still carries with her, which police found on her son's body the night he was killed.

"I'm happy to know that they feel pretty confident about who did it," she said. "But on the other hand, I would like to see him in court and be able to look him in his face and tell him:

"May God have mercy on his soul."

St. Petersburg police acknowledge they didn't tell family murder case was closed 07/15/10 [Last modified: Thursday, July 15, 2010 11:37pm]
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