Swanson case still unsolved

MARSHALL — Ten years have gone by and Brandon Swanson is still missing.

Reflecting on the last decade, however, those closest to the investigation and search efforts remain hopeful that concrete answers will come someday. The most-recent search took place in early May.

“Ultimately, we all want to find Brandon,” Yellow Medicine County Sheriff Bill Flaten said. “It’s crazy to think it’s been 10 years. But there’s hardly a day that goes by that you don’t think about him and the family. (His parents) Brian and Annette have been through a lot and they deserve closure.”

In reality, one solid lead could solve the mystery.

“It’s been 10 years and we’re continuing to follow up on leads that come in,” said Derek Woodford, Bureau of Criminal Apprehension special agent. “The case is open and just last week, I got another lead or two. Sometimes you need a break in the case. All it takes sometimes is one thing, so we’re not going to give up.”

Swanson was 19 years old and reportedly heading home to Marshall from a college graduation party 30 miles away in Canby when he got his car hung up in a ditch along a gravel road on May 14, 2008.

Swanson reached out to his parents at 1:54 a.m., asking them for a ride. The Swansons searched for him around the Lynd area, where Brandon thought he was. Frustrated, they continued communicating via cellphone as they tried to find their son.

At one point, Brandon decided to get out of his car and start walking. According to his parents, Swanson was cutting through fields in order to save time. A few times during the 47-minute cellphone conversation, Brandon told his parents that he could hear the sound of running water and that he kept having to climb over fences.

Then all of a sudden, Brandon reportedly said, “Oh, s-!” and the phone went dead. No one has seen or heard from him since.

“We’ve gotten some leads continually throughout a 10-year period,” said Derek Woodford, Bureau of Criminal Apprehension (BCA) special agent. “Some of them are not good leads and some we thought were good possibilities — we’ve gotten a range of leads. We don’t have any evidence at this point to indicate foul play. People have reported that this or that could’ve possibly happened, so we have to leave open the possibility. There’s just not a lot of evidence one way or the other.”

Authorities initially suspected that Swanson fell into the Yellow Medicine River. Scent-detecting canines reportedly indicated on one location along the bank of the river, but then appeared to follow scent away. It was as if he slipped into the water, likely dropping his cellphone in the process, but then climbed back out and continued walking. Succumbing to hypothermia could’ve been a real threat. But then why hasn’t Brandon been located?

“There were a lot of people who came out those first few years to really work those areas,” Woodford said. “The searching has slowed down because so much of the area has been searched and researched. The river has been searched dozens of times.”

Swanson’s parents reported him missing just after sunrise. Law enforcement located his Chevy Lumina in the rural Taunton area about mid-afternoon.

“Both Lincoln County and Lyon County were initially running the investigation,” Woodford said. “Where (Swanson) went into the ditch was right on the county line. Eventually, it got to be a lot and they came to me and asked if we could take the lead.”

The BCA has served as the overall agency in charge since a few months after Swanson vanished.

“Anything that comes to our office would be relayed to BCA,” Flaten said. “It’s easier than having three different sheriff’s offices with limited resources taking it on. The BCA has a good way of handling investigations. That’s their thing.”

The search area is massive, spanning 122 square miles.

“It’s a huge area,” Flaten said. “If you take that immediate area where the car was and then the time frame when he was talking on the phone with his parents, who knows what direction he went and how far he traveled?”

Swirling winds that are common in southwest Minnesota have further complicated the process. Search managers Jeff Hasse and Ken Anderson have led searches for Swanson for several years. Anderson calls the area where Brandon went missing the toughest terrain there is with the exception of Canada. Despite all the time, financial commitment and emotional toll, both refuse to give up.

“Jeff and I are the ones who’ve been sustaining the search,” Anderson said. “There’s probably less than a handful of search managers across the country who continue searching for five years and we’re now at 10 years. We’re continuing the search and it’s because of the involvement of the Yellow Medicine County Sheriff’s Office and especially Bill Flaten. If it wasn’t for Bill, searches like this wouldn’t continue.”

Most recently, searchers have concentrated on an area northwest of Porter because certified search dogs repeatedly indicate the presence of human remains in the area.

“I’m ultimately in charge of the ongoing searches in Yellow Medicine County,” Flaten said. “Jeff and Ken have put a lot of data together using the search dogs and that has led them down a path where they think there may be remains or clues in Yellow Medicine County, so we’ve worked with landowners to make that possible to search in those areas.”

Both the BCA and YMC Sheriff’s Office have facilitated searches on homeowner’s land.

“I’ve helped Ken and Jeff get on some properties,” Woodford said. “They’ll call me and I’ll help facilitate the search. They’re doing their own searches because the family asked them to come in and help.”

When it comes to cropland, search times are limited.

“The search group has the spring before planting and then after harvest in the fall,” Flaten said. “They avoid hunting time and avoid all that growing season. We understand that (landowners) are protective of their property, but outside the growing season, they’ve been great to work with for the most part.”

In the days after Swanson disappeared, hundreds and hundreds of volunteers helped search for him. Along with extensive ground searches, there were also air searches and water searches.

“There were water searches everywhere,” Woodford said. “There were a lot around the Yellow Medicine River and all the water in that area was checked. A ton of searches were done, by ground crews, law enforcement, fire departments and volunteers.”

The concentrated searches in recent years, however, have only required a smaller group of highly-qualified individuals and certified canines

“We are continuing the search effort, utilizing experienced trained resources that have worked on this case over the last few years,” Anderson said. “And we’ll continue to work with landowners for access. Our constant battle is with landowners — when they plant, when they harvest and could anything we do damage any part of their crop harvest, their income?”

The search managers are meticulous and do extensive planning prior to the searches. They’ve built a reputation for being considerate to landowners as they try to be as minimally invasive as possible while still trying to complete explorations.

Brandon Swanson was last seen wearing baggy jeans, a blue-striped polo shirt, a black hooded sweatshirt, a white Twins baseball cap, wire-rimmed glasses and a sterling-silver chain necklace. The 2007 Marshall High School graduate was carrying his cellphone at the time of his disappearance.

“After 10 years, it’s kind of like searching for a needle in a haystack,” Flaten said. “There’s always that hope that he bumped his head and he’s going to show up someday, but it gets less likely as time goes on. The searchers are doing what they can. We’d all like to find him for the family.

Landowners especially, are asked to be on the look-out for final remnants of blue jeans and other clothing that might fit the description. If anything looks suspicious — like it doesn’t really belong there — people are asked to call their local sheriff’s office or the BCA.

“Over the years, a lot of people have gone out and looked for Brandon,” Woodford said. “If someone is out and finds something, we ask that they don’t move anything or touch anything. Call law enforcement right away.”

There has never been a memorial service for Swanson. Shortly after his disappearance, Brandon’s sister, Jamine, graduated from high school. Years later, she married and Swanson now has two nephews — Eli and Leo — whom he has never met.

“I’ve heard so many people say, ‘I just can’t imagine if this was one of my family members,’ “ Anderson said.

With today marking the 10-year anniversary of Swanson’s disappearance, Anderson said it is a good time to reflect on all the community support over the last 10 years.

“There have been so many people in the community who have supported the searches or have wanted to help,” he said. “There are people who donated to the Swanson’s fund and that money made possible a lot of resources. The money was managed by a third party so there was no mishandling of funds.”

The Jacob Wetterling Resource Center continues to play a role. Named for 11-year-old Jacob Wetterling, whose remains were found in September after being abducted and missing for nearly 27 years, the organization has helped bring a lot of missing people home.

“Now that Jacob’s case has been closed, it doesn’t change their direction,” Anderson said. “There are other cases that have been closed only because of the continued involvement from various resources, including the efforts of organizations like the Jacob Wetterling Resource Center. They’re instrumental in helping families and organizations like law enforcement and others continue to work toward it’s closure.”

Anderson extended his gratitude toward the Porter Fire Department and especially its fire chief, along with Bethel Lutheran Church in Porter. The facilities have served as headquarters for several of the searches.

In the latter years, a Pohlad Family Foundation contribution was vital to the search efforts.

“We put in a request for communication equipment and they funded a lot,” Anderson said. “We’re still using that for searches. They donated many thousands of dollars so we could have safe communication.”

Working with then-House Representative Marty Seifert, the Swanson channeled the pain of having a missing loved on into making a positive difference for others. A year after their son disappeared, Brandon’s Law was signed into law in Minnesota, requiring law enforcement to take a missing persons report without delay after being notified that someone is missing under dangerous circumstances — regardless of their age. Prior to Brandon’s Law, there was often a delay in response unless the individual was under 18.

As leads continue being followed up on and searches are still taking place, it could just be a matter of time before Swanson is found.

“A case like this doesn’t dry up — we just haven’t found enough to lead us to him yet at this point,” Woodford said.

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