TAMPA — Lives have come and gone in the 34 years that Kim Marie Swann's killer has spent on death row.
Her parents, who so looked forward to the day they'd watch the execution, died before they got that closure. One of her sisters lost a battle with leukemia a few years back. Her son, Robbie Swann, has since had his own son. Kim Swann would have been 56 now, a young, vibrant grandmother.
Thursday is the day her family has long waited for. The state plans to execute Bobby Joe Long, who murdered Swann and at least seven other women in the Tampa Bay area in the 1980s. The 65-year-old is set to die by lethal injection at 6 p.m. at Florida State Prison outside Starke.
Swann, 21, is believed to be the last of Long's victims, ending an eight-month span of terror. He abducted most of the women along a strip of bars and nightclubs on Tampa’s N Nebraska Avenue, then left their bodies in wooded areas and orange groves. She was last seen on Nov. 11, 1984. Her body was found near Adamo Drive in east Tampa. She was so badly beaten that her face was beyond recognition, said Tammy Kaspi, one of Swann's sisters. She is planning to attend the execution.
“She was closed-casket in a disaster bag,” Kaspi, 61, said. “My mom was running around trying to figure out what dress to put her in for the funeral. Nobody had the heart to tell her that it didn’t matter.”
Kaspi, of Tampa, plans to head to Starke with her son, boyfriend and cousin. She decided to go in part for her parents, Bobbie and Louis Swann. But the decision was tougher than Kaspi thought it would be. She has since befriended Long's ex-wife, and sympathizes with his children. She knows what it's like to lose a loved one.
“I never thought that this day would ever come,” said cousin Lisa Avery Rich. “Is it something I want to do? No. But I didn’t want him to kill my cousin, either. Nobody wanted any of this to happen.”
Kim Swann was brave, adventurous, “a pistol,” Rich said. Her family and Rich's family lived off Ehrlich Road and shared a property line. It was still country back then, Kaspi said. The sisters would go horseback riding or run around in the woods. Their father, a paratrooper-turned Tampa firefighter, used to bring out his parachute and toss the girls in it. No matter how high they slung Swann, she wanted to go higher.
The girls remained close as they grew older. Swann briefly worked as a dancer at the Sly Fox Lounge. One of Long's other victims worked there, and several more hung out there. Swann lived in an apartment a block west of N Nebraska Avenue but later moved back in with her parents. She took a waitressing job and enrolled in a vocational program to become a medical technician.
She had only seven weeks left to finish the course when she died, her sister said. Swann had hoped to continue her schooling and become a registered nurse one day.
After she got pregnant, she moved in with Kaspi, who was also pregnant at the time with her second child. The women would go to Clearwater Beach together, their round bellies poking out of their bikinis.
They had their babies on the same day, May 4, 1983. Swann had a boy and, a few hours and a caesarean section later, Kaspi had a girl. While in labor, they talked on the phone from their separate hospital rooms.
“We were just wishing that we could be together," Kaspi said.
Swann’s son was only a year and half when she was murdered, too young for him to remember his mother. He now lives in the area and works as a plumber, Kaspi said.
Both Kaspi and Rich clearly remember the day they learned what happened to Swann. Kaspi was bringing in plants, preparing for a frigid night, when a neighbor popped her head over the fence to say police had found another body. Kaspi’s younger sister hadn't come home that night.
She and the neighbor went inside to call Tampa police. Detectives confirmed her creeping fear: they believed the body was Swann. Kaspi went to her parents' Carrollwood home to tell them. Her mother let out a blood-curdling scream.
At Rich's house, her husband acted strange after a phone call. Then her parents walked in, and Rich saw the horror in her mother's eyes. Her dad turned on the news. Rich saw a body with her cousin’s blonde hair hanging out.
The tragedy rocked the tightknit family. One of Swann's other sisters, Angie, was in high school at the time and turned to drugs. Rich, a woman of strong faith, said she grew angry at God. Swann's parents became parents again, adopting their daughter's son.
Their struggle was made harder by the way the women were portrayed in the media. Some of the women were sex workers or dancers. Kaspi said she felt all the women were treated with less sensitivity because of that. She recalled the Thanksgiving dinner weeks after her sister's death. They heard a knock at the door, and her mother answered. It was a reporter.
"Can you tell me, Mrs. Swann, is your daughter a prostitute?" Kaspi remembers the reporter asking.
"Why don't you go ask Hugh Smith?" her mother said, referring to the popular Tampa WTVT-Ch. 13 anchor who was twice arrested for solicitation in the 1980s and 1990s.
Kaspi and Rich hope the execution will bring some semblance of peace, not only for them, but the other women harmed by Long. He confessed to killing 10 women and is believed to have attacked dozens more in South Florida.
“It’s just the next step in his voyage,” Rich said, “and in our voyage to get closure.”
Contact Kathryn Varn at [email protected] or (727) 893-8913. Follow @kathrynvarn.