Saturday, November 25, 2017
Public safety

Unsolved murder of Elizabeth Swanson haunts husband, police 12 years later

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ST. PETERSBURG — Peter Swanson was used to getting calls and visits from the detectives who were investigating his wife's murder. They told him they were aggressively searching for her killer.

But one day months after her death, they asked him to come to the police station and pick up some of her personal effects. Soon after he arrived, he was put in an interview room and grilled about his marriage.

Swanson understood. He knew that the perpetrators of many homicides were those closest to the victim. But he soon had enough.

He hired a lawyer. The calls and visits stopped. The people that Swanson had most trusted to find his wife's killer were now strangers. As months turned to years, he came to know well the plight of a surviving spouse in an unsolved murder case.

Today marks the 12-year anniversary of the day Elizabeth Swanson died after she was found beaten in the back room of a coin laundry business she owned with her husband.

Peter Swanson has since remarried, but he still contends daily with grief, anger and frustration.

For the detectives who still work the case, the identity of Elizabeth Swanson's killer is as elusive as it was 12 years ago.

• • •

On Feb. 11, 2000, Elizabeth Swanson, 38, was working a shift at Palm Cleaners, a business she co-owned with her husband, at 401 45th Ave. S in Coquina Key Plaza. She was filling in for a regular employee who was absent.

About 4 p.m., someone attacked her in a back room, beating her about the head. A customer soon found her and called police. Hours later, she died at Bayfront Medical Center.

"It's different in that it's basically an attack in broad daylight," said Robert Schock, the case's original lead investigator.

Police determined the attacker took money from the business.

Schock, who now works as an investigator for the Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney's Office, pursued several theories and suspects, but none panned out.

The case went cold.

• • •

Peter Swanson, who had a 9-year-old son with his wife at the time of her death, didn't sleep for four days after the murder. He still thinks about her every day, yet can only blame a faceless person for his pain.

"You have to move on," he says. "But it's always there."

He exists today on antidepressants. He speaks with a frenetic energy about what happened, a fire raging inside him.

"I can't even watch a … movie anymore," he said. "If someone gets killed or hurt, I fall to pieces."

Over the first few years, he hoped for an arrest and eventual justice. But when police started to lean on him as a potential suspect, he knew they were clueless about who killed his wife.

Swanson hasn't heard from detectives — nor has he called them — in five years.

In a way, he prefers not to hear from them. He doesn't know if he could endure learning of an arrest and preparing to watch a trial.

"Obviously I'd like to see this guy get hit by a Greyhound bus," he said. "But I don't want to sit in court and listen to it all. I'd probably kill him."

• • •

All that is known about Elizabeth Swanson's killing lies tucked inside a set of binders that sit on a shelf in a locked cabinet in the St. Petersburg Police homicide unit. Seven 4-inch thick volumes represent the largest case file among the hundreds of unsolved murders the agency still has open.

In them are records of each of the numerous leads that inundated detectives in the early days of the investigation. They tell the story of what happened and raise possibilities of who might be responsible.

"I wouldn't characterize anybody as a lead or a prime suspect," said David Wawrzynski, the Swanson case detective. "There are several very viable suspects, but not any one individual that stands out."

Wawrzynski is one half of the department's "cold case team." The other half is Brenda Stevenson, referred to as a "civilian investigator," who uses law enforcement training to re-examine old cases, looking for things detectives might have missed.

Together, Wawrzynski and Stevenson keep the investigations active. They look at old tips sheets. They reinterview witnesses. They resubmit evidence to the lab.

But ultimately, a single phone call is all that is needed.

"Somebody out there knows a whole lot more about Elizabeth Swanson's death, and it's not necessarily the killer," Wawrzynski said. "All this case lacks is that one person who is going to come forward and say, 'So-and-so said this.' "

Reach Dan Sullivan at (727) 893-8321 or [email protected]

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