Photo via Beaufort County (S.C.) Detention Center
53-year-old Robert Waters, a resident of Beaufort, S.C., was found dead in his South Carolina jail cell Saturday, following his arrest last week by police in the 1988 death of Cathy Swartz in Three Rivers. A cause of death has not been officially determined as of press time.
By Robert Tomlinson
THREE RIVERS — The man arrested Sunday in connection with the 1988 murder of Cathy Swartz in Three Rivers was found dead in his South Carolina jail cell.
According to the Three Rivers Police Department, Robert Odell Waters was found dead Saturday, May 6 at the Beaufort County Detention Center in Beaufort County, S.C. The South Carolina Law Enforcement Division (SLED) was requested to conduct the in-custody death investigation.
The investigation into the death is ongoing, and a final report has yet to be filed. However, in a press conference Thursday morning at the Three Rivers Area Chamber of Commerce addressing the case as a whole, Michigan State Police Det. Sgt. Todd Peterson said investigators from SLED “do not see anything suspicious” regarding his death.
“They believe the injuries that led to Mr. [Waters]’ death were self-inflicted,” Peterson said, acknowledging that SLED investigators are still waiting for pathology reports and review of jail video before issuing a final report on Waters’ death. The specific injuries that led to Waters’ death were not elaborated on, as Peterson said it is part of the investigation.
Peterson also confirmed that Waters was alone in his cell at the time of his death, and that he’s confident there were no “outside actors” involved in his death.
Waters was arrested in Beaufort County, S.C., Monday on a charge of open murder in Swartz’s death. Swartz, who was 19 at the time, was murdered inside her apartment at Riverside Townhouses on Dec. 2, 1988. Her fiancé at the time found Swartz’s body when he came home from work that day, with Swartz’s then 9-month-old daughter in the next room unharmed. Investigators at the time said Swartz fought her attacker, but she was overcome by stab wounds, a beating and strangulation.
Investigators at the time were able to locate fingerprints, blood and a footprint that was believed to belong to the suspect. After interviews of thousands of people and collecting fingerprints and footprints, according to police, decades went by without a match to the evidence located at the crime scene.
In 2022, through a partnership with Michigan State Police and the Cold Case Project at Western Michigan University, forensic genetic genealogy was utilized to narrow down the suspect pool to one family, and eventually Waters. A search warrant was issued, and police made contact with Waters Sunday night, and enough probable cause was gathered to arrest him.
Peterson said Thursday that Waters’ demeanor at the time police showed up to his residence was “cooperative right from the beginning.”
“Things kinda slowed down at that point, and he had contacted an attorney, which we then began to communicate with to have him come to the police department with us that we could collect the evidence we needed from our search warrants,” Peterson said. “Even when he was advised by [Three Rivers Police Department] Detective [Sam] Smallcombe of the charges, he seemed very calm about it, and he was cooperative during that time.”
Waters reportedly waived extradition and was in the process of being transferred to St. Joseph County at the time of his death. Smallcombe said Thursday the St. Joseph County Sheriff’s Department would have come to South Carolina that Monday or Tuesday to transfer Waters to Michigan.
When asked if there was any reasoning why it couldn’t have been done sooner, Smallcombe said while he couldn’t necessarily speak to why, since the Sheriff’s Department handles extradition in the county, he noted there have been “staffing issues” at the department that could have influenced a delay in making arrangements.
Waters, according to police, was not placed on suicide watch at the detention center. Peterson said there are usually checks made at the jail on all the inmates, but that the incident may have occurred during a shift change at the jail.
“There’s checks done on all the inmates; I believe it was close to a shift change, so as soon as the new shift comes on, there was another check made, and that’s when he was discovered,” Peterson said. “Typically, around 30 minutes to an hour would’ve passed between that time.”
Peterson added that he hadn’t heard any information as to why Waters was not placed on suicide watch.
“Typically, if someone is claiming they’re suicidal, or they’re seeing signs – severe depression or comments made – they can be placed in a cell that’s accessible and visible to the jailers,” Peterson said. “I don’t know what their policies are there as far as someone being charged with a certain crime, doesn’t mean specifically that they’re going to go on a suicide watch. It depends more on the interactions they have with them and the information they gather.”
As for the murder of Swartz itself, Smallcombe said it was a “lot of relief” to have some sort of closure in the case, despite the death of the suspect.
“I think for a lot of the community that remember the case, it’s a relief. That’s one of the things the Swartz family told us, they never knew if the killer was walking amongst them, that they might pass them in the grocery store and not know that this was the person that killed their family member,” Smallcombe said.
Three Rivers Police Chief Scott Boling said learning of the details of the crime when he first started as chief in 2022 was “truly moving,” and led to the case being a “top priority” for the department.
“I went over details and read articles and thought, ‘Okay, how are we going to get there? How are we going to bring some closure to the family and friends and community for something that’s been unanswered for 35 years,’” Boling said, noting that police came to the conclusion that looking into genealogy to try to solve the case was a good idea.
“I truly believe without [genealogy testing], we would have never solved this case,” Smallcombe added later.
Boling said finding out that Waters was dead made him and the department “upset.”
“Obviously, we were upset. We’re upset, because we were hoping to get some answers and we were hoping to pass those answers along to family and friends,” Boling said. “Unfortunately, there’s a lot of questions right now that will never be answered.”
As for the family, particularly Courteney Swartz, Cathy’s daughter who was 9 months old at the time of the murder, Boling said she expressed she’s “very thankful,” but that she’s more than likely going through “a range of emotions.”
“I’d say that, as to be expected, it’s an emotional roller coaster,” Boling said.
Smallcombe said the Swartz murder is the oldest case the department has worked on and solved, and noted it was the only open homicide case in the city at the moment. At this time, police said they’re waiting for the outside reports before officially declaring the case closed.
“The forensic evidence and investigation indicated that Robert Waters acted alone and was responsible for the death of Cathy Swartz,” Boling said, reading from a prepared statement. “Three Rivers Police Department is waiting for reports from outside agencies before closing out the case at the department level.”
Robert Tomlinson can be reached at 279-7488 or firstname.lastname@example.org.