St. Paul 'car surfer' falls to his death in NW Wis.; driver arrested

  • Article by: PAUL WALSH , Star Tribune
  • Updated: August 16, 2012 - 11:11 PM

Mother of dead 21-year-old doesn't blame driver.

Shawn Swanson with Katie Basel
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Shawn Swanson with Katie Basel

Photo: Photo provided by Katie Basel,

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Just as they have for the past several summers, Shawn Swanson and his buddies from St. Paul Johnson High School headed to northwestern Wisconsin for a weekend of boating, fishing and hanging around the bonfire.

On Saturday night, they took up car surfing -- and it cost Swanson, 21, his life and leaves one of his friends facing the prospect of prison.

Authorities in Burnett County say that the thrill-seeking practice of standing or draping yourself atop a moving vehicle is what killed Swanson on a dark road in Oakland Township.

The 21-year-old driver was arrested on suspicion of homicide by intoxicated use of a vehicle. He was released from jail after posting bond on Monday and awaits charges.

"My last text to [Shawn] before he left was don't do anything dumb ... I told him I love him, have a good time and be safe," said Swanson's mother, Renee, before sending him on his way to "the highlight of every summer with him."

Shawn Swanson was on his stomach atop the SUV -- his four friends below inside -- and they were "going faster than they should've been," his mother said, when he fell off and hit his head on the pavement.

"One of his best friends and [the driver] carried him" back to the SUV, she said. They went for help, but their efforts were in vain.

Renee Swanson said "my heart goes out" to the driver because "he's taking the rap for everything. He was the driver, and that's terrible, but now he's got to live with that the rest of his life."

Swanson's mother spoke with pride about how he worked his way up to manager after four years at McDonald's and was about to start studying business at Century College.

"It was so unintentional," she said of the stunt that claimed her son. "They were such good friends. I know all of them, and if they could go back, they wouldn't do it."

Not surprisingly, car surfing has been captured on video and posted on the Internet, with the riders shown on the roof standing or on their stomach. Other videos show riders grabbing the side or the back bumper of moving vehicles.

The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that its analysis of news media reports identified 58 car-surfing deaths and 41 people injured in the United States from 1990 to August 2008. The agency added that most of the car-surfing reports came from the Midwest and the South and that most involved males and those ages 15 to 19.

In one of those cases, David Weyrens, 19, fell to his death car surfing in Sheboygan, Wis., in July 2005. A passenger told authorities that Weyrens yelled to driver and lifelong childhood friend John McKenzie, "Is that all you got?" McKenzie was sentenced to 60 days in jail and a $300 fine.

In northwestern Minnesota's Red Lake County in November 1999, Davis Gustafson, 19, of Grand Forks, N.D., was standing on a van when the 18-year-old driver braked and Gustafson flew off. He suffered severe head injuries and died a week later. The driver, Timothy Sigdahl, of Grand Forks, pleaded guilty to leaving the scene of an accident and was sentenced to four years in prison.

Paul Walsh • 612-673-4482

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Shawn Swanson with Katie Basel