Robert Waters wasn’t put on suicide watch after his arrest in the 1988 murder of Cathy Swartz. His death likely occurred during a shift change.

Three Rivers Deputy Chief Sam Smallcombe (right) addresses media during a press conference Thursday, May 11 at the Three Rivers Area Chamber of Commerce. (Beca Welty|Watershed Voice)

The Three Rivers Police Department (TRPD) held a press conference Thursday to provide an update on the 1988 murder of Cathy Swartz, and the subsequent jailhouse suicide by the lead suspect in her murder. Robert Odell Waters, 53, of Beaufort, South Carolina was taken into custody on Saturday, April 30 in connection with Swartz’s homicide, and was later found dead on Saturday, May 6 in his jail cell. The St. Joseph County Sheriff’s Department was making arrangements for Waters to be transported to Michigan prior to his death.

TRPD Chief of Police Scott Boling said he first learned of the cold case when he took office in January of 2022. “Officers told me stories of how this unsolved crime was part of their field training process, and I was really touched by the motivation to keep this investigation ongoing and see if we could identify a suspect,” Boling said. “Learning the details of the crime was truly moving. I have a 19-year-old daughter, which was the same age as Cathy Swartz, and I just can’t imagine what the family and friends were going through not knowing who committed this horrific crime.”

Cathy Swartz

Boling said he met with Det. Sgt. Sam Smallcombe and they decided to make the case a top priority for the department. After coming to the conclusion they would need to use genealogy as an investigative tool, Smallcombe informed Boling a blood sample was recovered at the scene of Swartz’s murder, and when the sample was entered into the Combined DNA Index System (CODIS) there had not been a match for 35 years.

Smallcombe said evidence technicians located a footprint, and one fingerprint in blood on a telephone in Swartz’s bedroom not associated with her friends or family. “At that time DNA was in its infancy, so they were only able to do blood-typing to eliminate a suspect,” he said. 

In 2012, now-retired Det. Sgt. Mike Mooney was contacted regarding the blood sample found on the telephone, and the evidence was entered into CODIS, however, no match was made from the DNA or fingerprint.

In May 2022, Smallcombe said he was contacted by the Michigan State Police (MSP) Forensic Lab in Grand Rapids. The lab had received a cold case grant for doing Familial Genetic Genealogy (FGG), and offered to run Swartz’s case through FGG testing. St. Joseph County Prosecutor Dave Marvin agreed, and the sample was sent to forensic genealogy corporation Othram in Texas for testing.

Through the Othram testing, Smallcombe said the FGG testing identified one family who used to live in Michigan; the children of John and Judith Waters. “We quickly eliminated one brother who already had his DNA in CODIS, so we were able to eliminate him,” Smallcombe said. “From there (MSP) Det. Sgt. (Todd) Peterson and I made contact with the two brothers who still lived in Michigan, obtained their DNA, and were able to eliminate them as suspects.” Smallcombe said the department submitted the DNA back to Othram, who was able to tell law enforcement the suspect was 100% a sibling of the brothers who had already been tested.

The remaining brother, Robert Waters, was living in Beaufort, South Carolina, where Smallcombe said intelligence informed officers he was firmly established there, owned his own business, and owned his home. For these reasons, Smallcombe said officers did not see Waters as a flight risk. 

Robert Waters (Courtesy of Beaufort County Detention Center, South Carolina)

In April, TRPD made contact with the Beaufort Police Department and Investigator Nicole Anderson who was assigned to assist with the case. “With Investigator Anderson’s assistance we obtained search warrants for Robert Waters’ DNA, fingerprints, and footprints,” Smallcombe said. “On April 30 Chief Boling and I, along with detectives from MSP and with assistance of the officers and detectives from the Beaufort Police Department, made contact with Robert Waters at his residence in Beaufort. He was then brought in for a collection of the DNA, fingerprints, and footprints.”

Fingerprint examiners from the MSP Grand Rapids Lab assisted with the investigation and confirmed Waters’ fingerprint did positively match the fingerprint found on Swartz’s phone. It was at that time Smallcombe said he submitted the warrant request to Marvin who authorized the complaint against Waters for the murder of Cathy Swartz. Waters was taken into custody by Beaufort officers and lodged at the Beaufort County Jail. His DNA and footprint were then transported back to Michigan where they were taken to the MSP Grand Rapids lab for testing. “I can tell you examiners confirmed that Waters’ DNA and footprint matched those found at the scene,” said Smallcombe. 

Peterson was contacted on Saturday, May 6 by Investigator Anderson who advised him Waters was found deceased in his jail cell that morning. Plans had been put in place for the St. Joseph County Sheriff’s Department to come to Beaufort to retrieve Waters that following Monday. South Carolina Law Enforcement Division (SLED) has taken over the in-custody death investigation. Peterson said the Beaufort County Jail where Waters was lodged prior to his death is ran by a private organization, not the local sheriff’s department, and therefore the investigation is taking longer. 

“I can tell you with quite a bit of confidence that I’ve spoken with the investigators from SLED, and they do not see anything suspicious and believe that the injuries that lead to Mr. Waters’ death were self-inflicted,” Peterson said. “They’re waiting for pathology from the autopsy and for review of video that was inside the jail before they can make anything official, but we have every confidence that it’s going to show those injuries were self-inflicted.”

Peterson said he could not elaborate on the nature of Waters’ injuries because the pathologists who performed the autopsy have not released a statement regarding the cause and manner of death. “I can tell you he was alone in his cell,” he said. “I believe with all confidence they’re going to find that there was nothing suspicious about it, and that there were no outside actors involved with his death.”

Michigan State Police Det. Sgt. Todd Peterson speaks to the media Thursday, as Three Rivers Police Chief Scott Boling looks on. (Beca Welty|Watershed Voice)

Waters was not on suicide watch at the time of his death, though Peterson said there were checks routinely done on all inmates. “I believe it was close to a shift change, so as soon as another shift came on there was another check made and that’s when he was discovered,” he said. Every jail protocol is different, but Peterson said typically between 30 minutes to one hour is how much time would have passed between those checks, and before Waters was found. 

Answering why Waters was not originally placed on suicide watch, Peterson said it is usually implemented if an inmate is claiming to be suicidal, or if jailers have seen signs of severe depression. In those instances, the inmate is usually placed in a cell more accessible and visible for jailers. “As far as someone being charged with a certain crime, it doesn’t specifically mean that they’re going to go on a suicide watch,” Peterson said. “It depends more on the interaction they have with them and the information they are gathering from that inmate.”

Peterson reported Waters’ demeanor during his time in custody was cooperative “right from the beginning.” Even when he was advised by Smallcombe of the charges being brought against him, Waters seemed “very calm about it.” Because he invoked his right to attorney once TRPD made contact with him, officers were unable to interview him about the case and, therefore, no motive was ever determined. 

Smallcombe said officers spoke with Mike Warner, Swartz’s boyfriend at the time of her murder, regarding Waters being a suspect in the case. “He told us that, yes, he knew Robert Waters. They had been classmates at Park Elementary and then once they got to middle school and high school they kind of drifted apart,” Smallcombe said. “They didn’t really hang out, but he did tell us that Robert had shown up to the apartment with a girlfriend about a month prior to Cathy’s death. From there, he never had contact again with Waters.”

Smallcombe said Waters was not questioned in the initial investigation because he moved to Arizona in September 1988 before Swartz’s murder. “I think as far as the original detectives were concerned, he moved out of the area before the crime occurred,” he said.

Boling said law enforcement is “obviously upset” by Waters’ death and, as a result, the new trajectory of the case. “We’re upset because we were hoping to get some answers and we were hoping to be able to pass those answers along to family and friends,” Boling said. “Unfortunately there’s a lot of questions out there right now that will never be answered.”

Smallcombe said he believed the members of the community who remember the 1988 murder are relieved to have answers of some kind. “That was one of the things family members told us is that they never knew if the killer was walking amongst them. It’s a lot of relief to have that closure.”

In regards to whether TRPD will use the motivation gained from solving this cold case to solve similar and older cases Smallcombe said, “Thankfully, this is the only open homicide case that we have right now.”

Boling closed the press conference with the following statement: “In conclusion, the forensic evidence and investigation indicated that Robert Waters acted alone and was responsible for the death of Cathy Swartz. TRPD is waiting for reports from outside agencies before closing the case at the department level.”

Beca Welty is a staff writer and columnist for Watershed Voice. Executive Editor Alek Haak-Frost also contributed to this report.