GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — The man now accused of murdering 19-year-old Cathy Swartz in 1988 was never on investigators’ radar for decades despite the fact the two knew each other, a source close to the investigation told News 8.
Robert Waters, 53, was arrested for open murder in South Carolina Sunday, breaking open a Three Rivers cold case that was a mystery for three and a half decades.
In December 1988, investigators say, Waters viciously beat Swartz, stabbed her multiple times and then strangled her to death while her 9-month-old daughter was nearby. Investigators believe Swartz fought back: They found defensive wounds and signs of attempted rape. Her fiancé later found her body on her bedroom floor in her apartment. Despite thousands of interviews, fingerprints and footprints collected and DNA analysis, the investigation came up empty.
The source said Waters was not on the investigators’ radar until they turned to forensic genetic genealogy. That brought the list of suspects down to a single family and then Waters, leading to his arrest.
The source close to the investigation said detectives have interviewed Waters, but he hasn’t told them anything. Investigators currently have no motive for the killing, the source added.
St. Joseph County Prosecutor David Marvin also told News 8 he believes Waters and Swartz knew each other.
News 8 has learned Waters attended Three Rivers High School as a freshman in 1985. Swartz was a student in nearby Mendon then. She didn’t attend Three Rivers High School until two years later, her senior year.
Sometime after Swartz died in 1988, Waters moved to South Carolina and got married. He has no criminal record in Michigan nor in South Carolina. Since 1999, he and his wife have owned and operated a plumbing business in Beaufort, South Carolina, called Waters Plumbing of the Lowcountry.
When News 8 called the business on Tuesday, the answering machine played a message that said, “Thank you for calling Waters Plumbing. Due to a family emergency, we are no longer scheduling calls.”
The person who recorded the message provided her email and said she would be checking it periodically.
“Please keep our family in your thoughts and prayers,” the woman said. “Thank you.”
After that, an automated message said, “The person you have called is not accepting messages at this time. Please try your call again later. Thank you, goodbye.”
FORMER CHIEF: FAMILIES NEED ANSWERS
Word of Waters’ arrest was a surprise to many, including one of the first police officers to arrive at Swartz’s home the night she died.
Tom Bringman, who became the Three Rivers police chief in 2007 and retired in 2021, was 14 years into his career when Swartz died. He and fellow officer Mike Mohney were the first to see her body.
“You can tell that she had put up a fight,” Bringman said. “It was a horrible scene to see, something people don’t want to see.”
He said they cleared the home before getting Swartz’s baby out of the next room. Then they provided security while Michigan State Police investigators worked the scene.
“What we did is … one of us guarded the front (and) the other one guarded the back,” Bringman said.
As the case went unsolved for years, Bringman said the Three Rivers community and police department wanted to find closure.
“As officers, you want to make sure everything’s solved. Families need to have answers. Friends need to have answers. So it was a very important thing to us,” Bringman said. “Eventually, it came down to the point that we realized it was going to have to be through DNA.”
He said without the DNA, it’s likely the case would never have been solved.
He was relieved when he learned investigators had made an arrest.
“I was like … the person is finally going to be held accountable,” Bringman said. “As an officer, I feel bad that it wasn’t able to be solved while both parents were still alive, but it wasn’t able to. It’s just good that it finally was solved.”
Marvin told News 8 that Waters waived his right to extradition. The St. Joseph County Sheriff’s Department was making arrangements to bring him back to Michigan and he was expected to be arraigned later this week, the prosecutor said. If convicted, he could spend the rest of his life in prison.