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Continued: Did the system fail a budding killer?

  • Article by: JEREMY OLSON , Star Tribune
  • Last update: July 25, 2011 - 11:56 AM

The more Dr. Jon Jensen learned about Michael Swanson, the more worried he became.

The 17-year-old seemed rational when they first met last fall. Yet Swanson was confined to the Hennepin County Home School for a drunken crash in a stolen car. And then there was his history -- drug abuse, recklessness and, lately, delusions that someone was out to get him.

In notes from an October meeting, Jensen, a University of Minnesota child psychiatrist, first wrote "possible bipolar affective disorder." Then he crossed out the word "possible."

"He poses a risk to society if unmedicated," the doctor wrote.

It was prophetic. Four weeks later, on Nov. 15, Swanson stole his parent's Jeep and two guns, drove to Iowa, robbed two convenience stores and killed two clerks at point-blank range.

In the view of Swanson's parents, the killings came after a string of missed opportunities by the juvenile justice and mental health systems to intervene in his downward spiral.

A week after Swanson was sentenced to life in prison, his parents spoke of the family's ordeal in their first interview. Kathy and Bob Swanson, who live in St. Louis Park, said they're not looking for pity. They just want people to know how easy it was for their son to slip through the cracks, and that it could happen to someone else.

"He should have been in a mental health facility when this whole thing happened," his mother said. "It just makes me sick."

Swanson gained infamy for what a judge called the "cold-blooded" murders of Sheila Myers and Vicky Bowman-Hall, and for his seeming lack of remorse, including the haunting smiles he flashed at witnesses and others during his trial last month.

His case file is filled with references to services he needed but never received -- from residential care to the antipsychotics that Jensen recommended but never prescribed. Jensen, who evaluated the teenager at the home school's request, said he held off because he wanted Swanson's regular physician to prescribe and monitor such potent drugs.

'We had to put our knives' away

To understand Swanson, one must start at the beginning -- with a toddler who would knock the food away from other children in day care.

At 3, he would rise quietly at night and roam the house. Once, he gathered all the chocolate and Starbursts in the house and split it with the household dog. Another time he grabbed a knife and slashed the kitchen chairs.

"We had to lock every cupboard," his mother said. "We had to put our knives in a plastic container and put it at the top of the refrigerator."

As a preschooler, Swanson was diagnosed with conduct disorder -- a label often reserved for dangerous adolescents. By kindergarten, he was in therapy and taking stimulants for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.

Nightmares drove him to sleep on a mattress in his parents' room. "It was always that people were after him," his mother said. "People were going to kill him."

At 13, he stole cash and his father's gun from a safe to buy marijuana. Once, he was so high that he roamed the neighborhood with a knife.

Swanson left home without permission so often that, in the summer of 2006, his parents double-locked the doors and hid his clothes, virtually imprisoning him except for family activities and therapy.

Finally, his parents thought they had found a way to get him help. In July 2006, he was placed in a psychiatric hospital after he wrapped a belt around his neck to get a high from asphyxiation, and threatened and stole money from his grandparents. The hospital transferred him to St. Cloud Children's Home for 30 days of treatment.

But Swanson was forced to leave after 13 days, after spraying a counselor with a fire extinguisher.

His mother was shocked. The facility had secure rooms for deviant kids, and counselors had told her that misbehaviors were breakthrough opportunities to connect with kids.

She suspects that another factor was behind her son's early release: Her health insurance had a cap of 10 days of residential care, and the home had just learned of this.

The St. Cloud facility did not respond to calls to explain Swanson's early release.

Privately, Michael's mother worried that he had bipolar disorder. The chronic disease causes swings from depression to mania, and it ran in his family. But no doctor had mentioned it yet.

His behavior only got worse. As a seventh-grader, he took LSD before school on Nov. 15, 2006, and was arrested for exposing his genitals in class.

It was the final straw for St. Louis Park school authorities, who had dealt with a long string of Swanson's behavior problems -- from threats to a first-grade teacher to the flooding of a sixth-grade classroom.

When they tried to expel him, an advocate for the Swansons persuaded the district to give him another chance, noting that the schools had not lived up to their obligation to provide routine psychological assessments, according to his mother.

'Not in his best interest'

The Swansons resolved to get their son in long-term care in December 2006, after he stole a gun and cash from what they thought was a foolproof safe at home.

Michael's social worker, Joe Halpern, tried to get him admitted to Eau Claire Academy, a residential treatment center for kids with behavior disorders. However, his mother said, Michael wasn't admitted because there wasn't a court order to require the placement and her health insurance wouldn't cover the cost. The juvenile court could have ordered him into long-term treatment, but by the time a judge made a determination on his case in mid-2007, he appeared stable and sober.

His records show that a probation officer wrote: "Removing Michael from the home during a period of stabilization is not in his best interest."

The next chance came in the summer of 2008, after a frustrating school year in which Michael had repeated the seventh grade. His mother suspected he was hanging out with drug abusers again. Kathy Swanson hoped her son would benefit from a week's stay with a favorite aunt in Annandale, with whom he planned to volunteer at historic Pioneer Park.

His first night away, Michael stole $120 from the park's register but returned it when his aunt discovered the theft. He then took guns, a hatchet and a baseball bat from his aunt's home and stole her car in the middle of the night intending to drive to Mexico. A chance encounter with a police car scared the 15-year-old, and he turned back.

When his aunt discovered the items he had taken, she locked them in her bedroom and told her sister to retrieve her son as soon as possible. She barely slept that night, worried that her nephew would break down her door.

Why take the hatchet and bat from his aunt? His mother recalled him telling her: "Just in case I needed to hurt her."

Sleeping, armed with a stick

He was placed in a psychiatric hospital, then moved for two weeks to juvenile detention in Lino Lakes. His parents requested that charges be filed against him, because officials said that would demonstrate to a judge that their son needed long-term treatment.

"The whole goal was to get this kid help," his mother said.

Michael's newest probation officer, Ben Wagner, drafted a plan to have him confined for six to nine months at Gerard Academy, a treatment center in Austin, Minn. A psychologist's report agreed. But in court days later, Wagner made a different recommendation -- and convinced the judge that Michael could function at home with restrictions and counseling.

Wagner and county authorities declined to comment last week on this reversal, citing the confidentiality of juvenile court proceedings.

Dejected, the Swansons brought their son home. He got a job with an older brother at a Papa John's restaurant and seemed happy with a move to a special school for kids with behavior problems.

But he grew bored, staying home alone playing World of Warcraft at all hours. One night in April 2010 he drank a bottle of vodka -- ending two years of sobriety. He stole a car and crashed it.

Later that month, he stole his parents' Jeep, debit card and dog and drove south, calling home from Missouri.

He later told his mother: "I had to go. I was thinking of killing you."

Kathy Swanson wasn't sure if he meant it, but she started sleeping with a stick, just in case. His psychiatrist, according to court records, concluded that Michael's behaviors were due to poor impulse control, not mental illness. Kathy Swanson doubted it.

'You betta kill me'

Finally, she sought an assessment at a PrairieCare mental health center. The center confirmed her fear: Her now 17-year-old son met criteria for bipolar disorder.

As Michael grew more bizarre, his father, Bob, called every residential care facility he could find. None was willing to take him.

At one point, the Swansons even considered staging an attack -- Bob would punch Kathy in the face and they'd blame the violence on their son to force him into treatment. Michael started making "nests" in the house, stashing blankets, food, water and a hammer behind a sofa and in a basement cedar closet. He told his parents that people were after him.

Electronics started disappearing from the house as Michael pawned them for drug money. One night in May 2010, he and a friend used a stun gun on a drug dealer and stole marijuana and cash.

A judge confined him in July 2010 to 90 to 120 days in the county home school for the stolen car incident.

His parents were upset because they thought Michael was supposed to get six to nine months of residential treatment for violating his probation. But they were assured that he would receive mental health care at the school. Michael stabilized and appeared to be a model inmate, records show. He was on his way to early release when staff discovered his writings -- adapting lyrics by Detroit rapper Anybody Killa about rape and homicide.

"You betta kill me or you die," Michael wrote. "I was put here to kill people that's the only reason that I'm alive."

Worried, school officials called in Jensen, their consulting psychiatrist. Along with a colleague, Dr. Katie Cullen, Jensen assessed Michael and concluded that he was bipolar and needed an antipsychotic, Abilify, to reduce his risk of violence.

In an interview, Jensen said it would have been inappropriate for him, as a consultant, to prescribe antipsychotics because he wouldn't be around to monitor the effect of such potent drugs.

"You can get better, you can get worse or you can stay the same on any one of those drugs," he said.

Home, after 104 days

Instead, he recommended that Michael enroll in the university's mood disorder clinic, which would prescribe the drugs and provide necessary oversight -- and make him a candidate for clinical research there.

Jensen notes that, at the time, he was not told some key information. He hadn't seen the earlier PrairieCare assessment that Michael was bipolar, nor had the parents informed him that the teen had admitted to thoughts of killing his mother.

The Swansons had expected to leave a Nov. 3 meeting with Jensen with a prescription and treatment plan in hand. Instead, they reluctantly agreed to sign their son up for the mood disorder clinic.

Michael returned home after 104 days in the home school -- even though his parents had asked county officials to find other living arrangements for him because they no longer felt safe with him there.

His first appointment at the mood disorder clinic was set for Dec. 16.

On Nov. 14, he watched "America's Funniest Home Videos" with his mother, shoveled the driveway for his father, and went to sleep at 10:12 p.m.

The next time his parents saw him was in jail, after the killings.

Kathy Swanson teared up during her son's murder trial as a psychiatrist said the teenager didn't have a mental disorder.

"He was fully capable of understanding the nature and volatility of his acts and capable of knowing right and wrong," testified Dr. Michael Taylor, the prosecution's expert witness. "This tragic event has been brewing in this young man's head since he was 13 years old, he told me."

It was just another reminder to Kathy Swanson that the system failed to understand her son and come to his rescue before it was too late -- both for him and the women he shot.

"What do you do when you have a problem kid?" she asked. "Where are you supposed to go?"

Jeremy Olson • 612-673-7744

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