Kathleen Swanson testified how the family desperately tried to get help for Michael, on trial in Iowa for murder.
CARROLL, IOWA - For nearly two hours Wednesday, Michael Swanson's mother sobbed as she told a jury about 18 years of near-misses with a son who from the very beginning was never like other kids.
They knew something was wrong early on, Kathleen Swanson testified. From birth, the boy never slept and never stopped moving. She had to quit her St. Louis Park day-care business after she found Michael, still a toddler, preparing to jump on top of an infant lying on the floor.
He was only 11 when a psychiatrist told her that he was a lost cause and needed to be locked up. His grandmother, his aunt, even his own mother feared he was going to hurt them -- and he usually admitted thinking about it, she said.
But always, it seemed, Swanson was caught before someone got hurt. Until Nov. 15, 2010.
"It all changed when I woke up that Monday," she testified, her shoulders heaving as she described the morning she awoke to discover her Jeep, her debit cards and her very troubled 17-year-old son all missing. That night, Swanson drove from St. Louis Park to northern Minnesota to Iowa, where he allegedly shot and killed two convenience store clerks.
His mother's testimony marked the third day of Swanson's first-degree murder trial for the slaying of Humboldt, Iowa, clerk Sheila Myers, 61. He will be tried separately for the slaying of clerk Vicky Bowman-Hall, 47, of Algona, Iowa.
'I felt powerful'
Kathleen Swanson was the first defense witness. The prosecution rested its case following the playing of a two-hour videotaped interview that the defendant gave Iowa criminal investigators shortly after the shootings.
In the video, Swanson's calm demeanor struck a chilling contrast with his mother's raw emotion on the stand. He described in an unaffected tone how Myers had given him cash before he shot her in the face from 2 feet away.
"I felt powerful. I just didn't care," he told Special Agent Mike Krapfl with the Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation in the early morning hours of Nov. 16.
"My adrenaline was going good. I just felt like, 'Well, sometimes people get shot.'"
He talked about how, after not sleeping for four days, he chose the Humboldt Kum & Go store to rob because Myers was the only person there. He put on his ski mask, packed a handgun and pointed it at her while setting the bag on the table. She put the money inside it, he said.
"Then I shot her," said Swanson, now 18. "And I left. I just walked out."
His voice on the videotape reflected little emotion, but he smiled and scratched his head when re-enacting the noise that Myers made when he shot her, a "half-scream, half-gasp."
He shot her in the face, he said, because "it was final."
"If I was just gonna shoot to injure, why would I shoot her at all?"
Years of pain, pleas for help
The slayings marked the culmination of years of attempts to get help for their son, Kathleen Swanson testified -- psychiatric care, commitment, even time in a juvenile facility.
He'd been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, oppositional defiant disorder and more. Incident after incident, he bounced between juvenile facilities and temporary inpatient psychiatric care. He was kicked out of the St. Cloud Children's Home before his evaluation was complete, she testified.
As her husband, Robert, listened, Kathleen tearfully repeated the common refrain they used throughout their son's youth: "What are we gonna do with this kid?"
When he went with an aunt to do community service at Pioneer Park in Annandale, he stole $250 from the nonprofit. The aunt demanded he return the money and apologize. Then after returning home, she found two of her deceased husband's shotguns in the trunk of her car and a hatchet, baseball bat and handguns in the bed of her four-wheeler. She called Kathleen to pick him up immediately, fearing he was going to hurt her.
He admitted he was angry at her and was charged with felony gun theft following the incident. He spent 10 days in the Anoka County Juvenile Center in Lino Lakes before a judge ordered him to go home under his parents' supervision in 2006.
The Swansons installed locks that required a key to get out from the inside, and Robert Swanson locked the boy's clothes away. They gave their son a towel and safety pin to wear around the house.
"If he was gonna break a window and run away, he was going in a towel," she said.
Hope, and then gone
By 2008, after more problems, a probation officer recommended Michael Swanson be sent away for six to nine months. After a second opinion from a psychiatrist, his mother agreed. They went to Hennepin County District Court, and at the last minute the probation officer changed his mind. Sometimes it was worse for a kid to take him out of his home, the probation officer told her.
Foreshadowing his alleged crime, in April 2010 Swanson stole his mother's Jeep, credit cards and took one of the dogs south on Hwy. 169. When he ran out of money, he called home and asked them to pick him up in St. Joseph, Mo.
Suspecting her son was bipolar, she struggled to get him on medication. Doctors who diagnosed him while he was in custody wouldn't, or couldn't, help when he was home.
By July he was sentenced to the Hennepin County Home School, a residential treatment center for adolescent offenders. She was told he would receive treatment there, but she said he never did.
He came home in early November, and things looked up for a time. They enrolled him in a clinical trial at the University of Minnesota. He was working at Cub Foods and even going to church.
"We felt like we were hopeful," she said.
Then he was gone.
Abby Simons 612-673-4921 @ajillsimons