CARROLL, IOWA - Danny Cegla had just gotten off the bus in St. Louis Park last fall when Michael Swanson pulled up in his mom's Jeep and told him to get in.
Even on good days, Cegla said, his friend of three years was impulsive and dangerous. He didn't want to ride with Swanson, but he agreed to meet him at a nearby park.
They talked and smoked cigarettes. Swanson showed him the gun he stole from his grandfather's cabin and told them it was likely the last time they'd see each other. He had violated probation for stealing ramen noodles from Cub Foods, and he wasn't going back to jail. Instead, he was heading for Amsterdam or Mexico.
Cegla urged his friend to check in at a hospital to get some help. Swanson refused and said goodbye with an ominous prediction.
"You'll see me on the news," Swanson said, according to Cegla. It was the last time Cegla would see Swanson in the flesh before he testified Tuesday at the St. Louis Park man's first-degree murder trial for the Nov. 15 slaying of Sheila Myers, 61. Myers was finishing her shift at the Kum & Go convenience store along Highway 169 in Humboldt, Iowa, when Swanson, then 17, allegedly shot her in the face after she complied with his demands for cash and cigarettes.
Swanson's prediction came true. After his arrest for allegedly shooting and killing Myers and Algona convenience store clerk Vicky Bowman-Hall, 47, Swanson's laughing face was splashed across newspaper pages and TV screens across the country.
"Y'all are funny," he told the swarm of reporters as he was escorted to his first court appearance in November.
Swanson, now 18, flashed the same smirk Tuesday at Cegla. That was the extent of the emotion he showed in the courtroom as 13 witnesses took the stand during the first day of testimony. Prosecutors began presenting the ample evidence they have linking Swanson to the crime, which they claim was not only deliberate but calculated and cold-blooded.
Swanson's defense attorneys don't contest that he did it, but they claim that he was insane when he did. They argue that mental illness from a young age prevented him from knowing right from wrong.
"His mind ain't like everybody else's, right?" defense attorney Charles Kenville asked a trembling Cegla.
"I wouldn't know," Cegla said.
"His behavior certainly reflects that, right?"
Tried as an adult
Swanson was 17 last November when he allegedly stole his mother's Jeep and credit cards, then drove to his grandfather's cabin on Napoleon Lake near Bigfork, Minn. He broke a window with a rock and crept in as the deaf man slept, testimony revealed, and stole a rifle and handgun before he headed south.
He ended up in Iowa, where he allegedly shot and killed the clerks. Swanson will stand trial separately for Bowman-Hall's death. His attempt to transfer his case to juvenile court was denied in February.
Myers' daughters, Robin and Mandy, and her husband, Roger Myers, hugged one another and dabbed their eyes as a graphic photo was shown in the courtroom of Myers dead behind the counter of the Kum & Go with a gunshot wound to the cheek and a massive pool of blood beneath her. A single tooth lay at the bottom of a shelf next to her head.
Swanson's parents, Robert and Kathleen Swanson, along with Swanson's older brother sat in the front row. Kathleen Swanson hung her head and cried when the photo was shown.
But both sides were stoic when Special Agent Chris Callaway of the Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation pointed at a close-up autopsy photo of Myers' face. The wounds, he said, indicate she was shot from about 2 feet away.
Swanson, a boyish-looking 18-year-old even in his gray shirt and tie, diligently took notes and watched what his attorneys wrote as Assistant Iowa Attorney General Becky Goettsch questioned witnesses.
'Afraid of their son'
According to testimony, it wasn't long after the shootings when police put out an all-points bulletin searching for a dark-colored Jeep with Minnesota license plates. Kelly Wallen was working at the Webster City McDonald's that night when she and other employees recognized the Jeep as Swanson pulled into the drive-through at about 11 p.m.
In an effort to stall him until police arrived, they told him they were out of meat, she testified, and offered him chicken instead. He agreed to wait. He ignored police as they approached his car and stared into the drive-through window, Wallen testified. They handed him his iced tea just before he was ordered out of the Jeep with his hands up.
Officer Trevir Michehl, formerly of the Webster City police department, testified that Swanson was calm -- more than people he stops for minor traffic violations. According to his dashcam video, Michehl asked Swanson where he was headed.
"Movin' around," Swanson replied, adding that he had no destination. He told the officer he came from Minneapolis and said he may have been through Humboldt. He didn't protest or even ask why he was under arrest when they handcuffed him and placed him in the back of the squad car.
For a man with a gun pointed at him, Hamilton County Sheriff's Deputy Gary Johnson testified, Swanson's calm demeanor "was unusual."
Police found a .40 caliber Beretta between the front seat and center console. It matched a casing found at the Kum & Go and the bullet taken from Myers' body. They also found a rifle, ski mask and carton of cigarettes.
Later, St. Louis Park police searched his parents' Sumter Avenue home. Some of his father's hunting gear was missing, including camouflage shirts and sleeping bags.
The guns, locked in a high-quality vault, were safe, St. Louis Park Police Officer Matthew Reilly testified. There was a reason for that, Robert Swanson told him. "His wife and himself were afraid of their son," Reilly said.
Testimony is set to continue Wednesday morning.
Abby Simons • 612-673-4921