THREE RIVERS, Mich. (WOOD) — The 1985 Three Rivers High School yearbook shows Mike Warner, then a freshman, just a few years before he would find the murdered body of his fiancee, Cathy Swartz. Two faces to his right is Warner’s longtime friend, Robert Waters.
They had been friends since elementary school, Warner’s family said.
“I just knew him because he would come here,” Warner’s sister, Shannon Hardesty, said. “He would spend the night and hang out with my brother.”
Thirty-five years later, that childhood friend is now accused of Swartz’s brutal murder, connected through DNA and a bloody fingerprint.
Waters, now 53 and living in Beaufort, South Carolina, remains locked up at the Beaufort County Jail. He’s expected back in St. Joseph County next week to face a charge of open murder.
“I was in shock,” Hardesty said. “I couldn’t believe it. He seemed really nice in school; never had no problems.
In 1988, 19-year-old Cathy Swartz already had a baby girl when Warner, also 19, asked her to marry him, his family said.
“He was excited,” Warner’s sister said. “He was very excited. He had got her a ring and they got engaged and they were supposed to get married that following June.”
But at 3:30 p.m. on Dec. 2, 1988, Warner returned home from work, saw blood on a stair railing and called out Swartz’s name, court records show. He found her 9-month-old daughter Courteney in her crib in one room.
“He said the baby was crying upstairs,” Warner’s mom Gloria Warner said. “Courteney was just a baby and so he went upstairs and he couldn’t figure out why Courteney would be crying because her ma should have been there.”
Then, according to court records, he discovered his fiancee’s body on the floor in another bedroom.
“He was just a mess,” his mom said. “He would take roses to her cemetery because he always brought her roses from work.”
An autopsy showed Swartz had been beaten, strangled by hand and suffered three cuts to the throat. It listed the cause of death as strangulation and one of those cuts. It also found cuts on both hands, “indicative of defensive wounds.”
The killer, according to newspaper reports, left messages at the scene in her blood, including the words, “I was here.”
The Michigan State Police crime lab also found an unidentified fingerprint in somebody else’s blood on Swartz’s pink GTE telephone.
Not surprisingly, police looked at Warner, the fiance who discovered her body, but they quickly confirmed he was working at the time.
“They looked at all of us,” Warner’s sister said. “They footprinted us, fingerprinted everybody in the family. Me, my mom, my dad, my brother. Her parents, her brother, all of them, and they cleared all of us.”
A short time after the death, prosecutors charged a former boyfriend with her murder. He was later cleared.
But a source close to the investigation has said that Waters, the fiance’s childhood friend, who was then 19 and has no criminal history, was never a suspect. The case went cold.
By early 2023, though, at the prompting of Michigan State Police, forensic genetic genealogy tests of DNA from the bloody fingerprint pointed to one of four sons of a St. Joseph County couple. Police eliminated one son, whose DNA already was in a national criminal database. Voluntary DNA tests of two other sons crossed them off the suspect list, leaving one: Robert Waters.
One of his fingerprints, taken through a search warrant on April 30 at the Beaufort Police Department, matched the bloody print on the phone. Police arrested him the same day.
The former fiance heard the news from his sister.
“I woke him up and I told him,” his sister said. “He just looked at me, like, dumbfounded. He couldn’t believe it.”
“Why would anybody do anything like that to begin with, let alone to your friend’s, or your supposed friend’s fiancee?” she said.