THREE RIVERS, Mich. (WOOD) — The man who found the body of his fiance, Cathy Swartz, in their Three Rivers apartment 35 years ago said he never suspected his childhood friend was the killer, though he said he gave the man’s name to police back then.

The fiance, Mike Warner, said he was looking forward to the suspect, Robert Waters, returning to Michigan this week to face a murder charge in the 1988 case before learning over the weekend that the man had died by suicide in a South Carolina jail.

Warner was 18 when he came home from work on Dec. 2, 1988, and discovered Swartz’s body. She was 19.

An undated image of Cathy Swartz released by the Three Rivers Police Department on May 1, 2023.
An undated image of Cathy Swartz released by the Three Rivers Police Department on May 1, 2023.

He called 911 and grabbed her 9-month-old daughter from her crib in the adjoining room.

Swartz had been beaten, strangled and had her throat cut. The killer wrote, “I was here,” in her blood.

“It was smeared all over,” Warner said of the blood. “Walls. Everywhere. I mean it was like painted on. That bad, yeah.”

“I’d never seen such a thing. Terrifying. I thought they were still in there maybe. I didn’t know,” he said.

He said he was working at a market in Three Rivers when he met Swartz. They planned  to marry the following June and raise her daughter, Courteney, together.

Warner said he loved “everything” about Swartz: “We just had fun together, all the time.”

He said he often brought roses to Swartz. Later, he left them at her gravesite.

He said police at first suspected him, but quickly confirmed he’d been working and that the fingerprint left in the killer’s blood on a phone wasn’t his.

“They were on me every day,” Warner said. “They thought I knew who did it. I didn’t, you know? They kept pressuring me, ‘Tell us who did that?’ You know?”

He’s never married and said he hasn’t been able to hold a job. He lives with his mom.

“It turned me into an alcoholic is what it did,” he said. “Pretty much, yeah, for a while.”

In the days after the killing, he said, he gave police the name of his childhood friend, Robert Waters.

They had been friends since elementary school, though they later grew apart, he said.

“He stayed the night here (at Warner’s home) a few times when we were younger,” Warner said, who remembered building forts with Waters.

He said Waters was visiting the Three Rivers area in late 1988 when he ran into him and invited him over to their apartment. He recalled that Waters had already moved to South Carolina.

He said he told police that Waters and his girlfriend spent a few hours at their apartment about a month before the killing.

But, he said, he never suspected Waters.

“I had told the police that he had visited the apartment, you know?” Warner said. “Because back then they wanted to know who all was there. I let them know that he was there.”

“I never heard no more,” he said.

That’s the last time he heard from Waters.

Former St. Joseph County Prosecutor Jeff Middleton, now a district judge, said he was recently told by police that Waters’ name was on one page of the 10,000 pages of reports on the case but that he never became a suspect. Police had determined he’d moved to South Carolina a few months before the killing, Middleton said.

On April 30, police arrested Waters in Beaufort, South Carolina, where he was living, after DNA genealogy tests led them to his family. His fingerprints matched the prints left at the scene.

“I was shocked,” Warner said. “I was shocked. I just would have never thought him.”

Then, he learned of the suicide on Saturday at the Beaufort County Jail.

“Easy way out for him, I guess,” he said. “He had to have been thinking about that every day, you know? He had to have. How can you live with yourself after doing something like that?”