THREE RIVERS, Mich. (WOOD) — Without any solid suspects in the December 1988 murder of 19-year-old Cathy Swartz, the list of possibilities was long: hundreds, if not thousands of potential killers.
On Thursday, Three Rivers police acknowledged that Robert Waters, the man recently charged in the murder and who later died by suicide in jail, was on that list, but was eliminated as a suspect years ago without being interviewed.
Police had a bloody fingerprint on a phone and a bloody footprint on a tile.
And, one by one, they took fingerprints and footprints of those on their list, and eliminated them.
“Over time, thousands of footprints and fingerprints were taken, with no match,” Three Rivers Police Detective Sgt. Sam Smallcombe, the most recent investigator to work on the case, said during a Thursday news conference.
WATERS WASN’T FINGERPRINTED BACK THEN
Three Rivers police said the detectives back then didn’t ask to check Waters’ fingerprints or footprints.
And, since Waters had never been in trouble before or after, criminal justice databases didn’t have his DNA or prints on file.
“The only time that Mr. Waters was listed was that he moved to Arizona in September before the murders, so I think as far as the original detectives were concerned he moved out of the area before the crime occurred,” Smallcombe said.
The victim’s fiance told Target 8 that Waters, his childhood friend, had visited their apartment — where the killing happened — about a month before the Dec. 2, 1988, murder.
He said he told that to police back then, though he never suspected Waters was the killer. He said Waters had moved out of state, but had returned to visit family.
However, police on Thursday said they never saw that in any of the 10,000 pages of the case file.
“Obviously, in hindsight, they should have (pursued Waters), but I can’t criticize gentlemen who are no longer here to answer those questions for us,” Smallcombe said.
Most of those who worked the case originally have since died, police said.
Last month, DNA genealogy tests led police to Waters’ family. It had to be one of four brothers.
Police arrested Waters on April 30 in Beaufort, South Carolina, where he was living, after taking his fingerprints and finding they matched the bloody print on the phone.
Waters, who had a family and owned a plumbing company in South Carolina, died by suicide six days later at the Beaufort County Detention Center.
Since then, police said tests have confirmed it was his DNA in that bloody fingerprint, and that he had left the bloody footprint.
“For a lot of the community that remember the case, it’s a relief,” Smallcombe said. “That’s one of the things that the Swartz family told us was they never knew if the killer was walking amongst them, that they might pass them in the grocery store and just not know this was the person that killed their family member. So it’s a lot of relief to have that closure.”
Swartz was found dead by her fiance in her Three Rivers apartment on Dec. 2, 1988. Her daughter, 9 months old at the time, was in the next room.
Investigators found self-defense wounds and signs of attempted rape.
Her ex-boyfriend was taken into custody but was released days later.
CASE REMAINED A PRIORITY
During the a news conference Thursday morning, Smallcombe acknowledged people who couldn’t see the closure of the case, including Swartz’s parents.
Three Rivers Police Chief Scott Boling said when he first became chief in January of 2022, several officers and detectives told him about the case, the only open homicide case Three Rivers has.
“I was really touched by the motivation to keep this investigation ongoing and see if we could identify a suspect,” he said.
“I can’t imagine what the family and friends were going through, not knowing who committed this horrific crime,” he added.
He said they made the case one of the top priorities for the department. Investigators started looking into using genealogy testing for the case.
Smallcombe said a bloody fingerprint was found at the scene in 1988 that “was not associated to Cathy’s friends or family.”
The fingerprint was entered into Michigan’s automated fingerprint identification system, the fifth fingerprint to be entered, but detectives found no match. In 2012, a blood sample was entered into the Combined DNA Index System, but again investigators had no match, Smallcombe said.
In May of 2022, the MSP Forensic Lab contacted the department and offered to run the case through genealogy testing. In January of 2023, a report identified Waters’ family.
“I truly believe without (genealogy testing), we would have never solved this case,” Smallcombe said.
WATERS WAS NOT ON SUICIDE WATCH
MSP Detective Sgt. Todd Petersen said Waters had been cooperative when he was arrested. His wife had a lot of questions.
“I don’t know if there was conversations between he and her, I don’t know what happens behind closed doors. That’s an awful long time to have knowledge of something and to have a life separate from that,” Petersen said.
On the morning of April 6, police in Beaufort contacted Petersen and said Waters had died in his cell that morning. The jail is run by a private organization.
“They do not see anything suspicious and believe the injuries that led to Mr. Water’s death where self-inflicted,” Petersen said at the conference, adding he was alone in his cell when it happened.
Petersen said he didn’t believe Waters was on suicide watch. Police in South Carolina are investigating.
CLOSURE, UNANSWERED QUESTIONS
At the news conference Thursday, police said they are still asking “why?”
“Unfortunately there’s a lot of questions out there that will never be answered,” Chief Boling said.
Swartz’s daughter, who was 9 months old when her mother was killed, has said she is thankful but is feeling a lot of emotions, Boling said.
“It has to be expected that it’s an emotional rollercoaster,” Boling said.
“We were happy that … we’re finally getting some closure. We got the right person,” Smallcombe said.
Reading a written statement to close the conference, Boling said the department is still waiting for outside reports before closing the case.
“The forensic evidence and investigation indicated that Robert Waters acted alone and was responsible for the death of Cathy Swartz. The Three Rivers Police Department is waiting for reports from outside agencies before closing the case at the department level,” he said.