THREE RIVERS, Mich. (WOOD) — A suspect now faces charges for the killing of a young mother in her Three Rivers apartment more than three decades ago.
For nearly 35 years, who killed 19-year-old Cathy Swartz has been a mystery. But now investigators say they have an answer: Robert Waters, a 53-year-old living in South Carolina.
Waters was taken into custody on Sunday in South Carolina after St. Joseph County Prosecutor David Marvin signed a warrant for his arrest. Waters faces charges of open murder and, if convicted, could spend the rest of his life in prison.
On Dec. 2, 1988, Swartz’s fiance found her viciously beaten, stabbed multiple times and strangled to death. Her 9-month-old daughter was in her crib in the next room.
“I was a middle school kid when this happened,” Marvin, the prosecutor, said. “I remember it. So I never would’ve thought after all these years I’d have any involvement in something like this.”
Investigators believe Swartz fought back. They found self-defense wounds and signs of attempted rape.
“It was a very gruesome murder scene,” Marvin said.
The killing has haunted investigators for decades.
“You always remember the cases you don’t solve and that are still out there,” Michigan State Police Detective 1st Lt. Chuck Christensen said. “Especially on a homicide such as this.”
“It was big because it was brutal,” Marvin reflected. “It was brutal. Rumors fly and that’s the problem when you don’t find your bad guy: people worry. It caused a lot of problems for a lot of years.”
Marvin added that former Police Chief Thomas Bringman, who retired in 2021, was “very young” when the Swartz killing happened.
“A lot of people’s careers, they spent trying to figure this out,” Marvin added.
Shortly after the killing, Swartz’s ex-boyfriend, Troy Schulthies, was taken into custody. He was released days later after police found evidence clearing him of the crime.
After that, despite thousands of interviews, fingerprints and footprints collected and DNA analysis, the investigation came up empty. Decades went by without answers for Swartz’s family until Waters was arrested on Sunday.
“We told you we would figure this out,” Marvin said. “It took 35 years, but nobody ever stopped thinking about it.”
“I know the Three Rivers detectives that have worked on this case through the years, this was always foremost in their mind one they wanted to solve,” Christensen added.
The investigation took a big step forward in 2022. Three Rivers police, with the help of MSP, turned to an emerging technology that’s solving more and more cold cases. Forensic genetic genealogy, which pairs DNA analysis and genealogy research, brought the list of suspects down to a single family and then, finally, Waters.
“It took a long time, but really science solved this,” Marvin said. “There’ll be a lot more. It’s harder to hide. It’s harder to hide. The tools that are afforded law enforcement now will change a lot of these cases.”
Investigators had help from university students. Juniors and seniors from the cold case program at Western Michigan University — many of whom plan on going into law enforcement — spent four months on the case. They organized and scanned 10,000 documents, allowing investigators to easily access them online and quickly search for specific information. The documents included witness statements, crime scene pictures, autopsy photos and more.
“That case was so old, there were many times where the case was reopened,” Ashlyn Kuersten, a criminal justice professor and director of the cold case program, said. “So it was important for the current detectives to know what was in the file.”
Madi Price, who graduated WMU over the weekend and plans to join a police academy, helped work on the Swartz case.
“It was extremely important,” Price said. “A lot of our detectives like to tell us, ‘You know what you did was exponential(ly helpful) to us.’”
Students also told investigators their theories and who they thought should be interviewed. They examined similar crimes in the area as part of their research.
“We want to help families, victims, even just friends,” Price said. “We always want to get the best outcome for them possible. So to hear that our help actually was able to get the result that we have today, everyone’s thrilled. We can’t stop thinking about it and talking about it.”
Though the case has been broken open, it’s not over yet. Now the prosecution begins. Marvin plans on leading it himself.
“Then my job really begins,” Marvin said. “Now we’ve got to make sure he’s prosecuted.”
Waters has waived his right to an extradition hearing, so the St. Joseph County Sheriff’s Department is making arrangement to bring him back to Michigan.
Kuersten called her students’ investigative work helping break the cold case open an “important deed.”
“Which is giving closure to Cathy’s family,” she said. “Particularly her daughter, who was a baby when the crime took place. I hope she can rest easier tonight.