CHILD'S BRUTAL KILLING STUNS TWO TOWNS
While Chester, Ill., grieves at the death of a cheerful and caring 8-year-old girl, people in Perryville, Mo., wonder how a neighbor could do what police say: Sexually assault and then murder his own daughter
BY MATTHEW FRANCK
ST. LOUIS POST-DISPATCH
With a donated tombstone and a funeral bought and paid for by grieving strangers, they buried a little girl Wednesday whose murder was big enough to consume two towns. In remembering Kendra Marie Swan, family members recalled an 8-year-old girl who taught the neighborhood children how to do cartwheels and wanted to be the kind of doctor who never asks for money.
But at the ceremony, the details of her death were an unspoken subtext.
According to police, Kendra, who lived in Chester, was sexually assaulted and murdered by her father, Jamie Swan, on a weekend visit to nearby Perryville, Mo. Swan then took his own life by hanging himself in a barn along a rural road, police say.
The murder-suicide has rocked the two towns separated by about 15 miles and the Mississippi River. And both Chester and Perryville -- each with about 8,000 residents -- appear to be coming to terms with the deaths in different ways.
While Chester mourns the loss of a smiling second-grader, Perryville wonders how something so sinister could happen so close to home.
Police pinpoint the murder to Kendra's grandmother's house, right next door to the chief of police in a neighborhood of tidy ranch homes. And yet, Perryville's long-standing citizens say it's as if the crime happened somewhere else.
Many describe Jamie Swan as a stranger, seeming to cast him as an outsider and relegate his crime as an aberration in the town.
"To me it's not representative of our community, " said Perryville Mayor Robert Miget.
Residents point out that although Jamie Swan was a graduate of the local high school, he had often lived elsewhere, including in St. Louis. Along the way he accumulated a criminal history, with offenses ranging from assault to bouncing checks. At the time of the murder he was serving five years of probation for burglary.
Mayor Miget prides himself on knowing the town's residents, if not by name at least by face. Miget had expected that a photo of Jamie Swan would shake loose a hint of familiarity.
"But I didn't even recognize him, even in this small town, " he said.
Miget guesses that most people in town had no personal connection with Swan. But he said all of Perryville is suffering over what the incident has done to the town.
"There's nothing that comes to mind that even compares to this, " he said.
Perryville is the kind of town where the local newspaper's police blotter reports cases of residents using obscene language. But the town has gradually learned it is not inoculated against the evils of big-city crime.
Police Chief Keith Tarrillion said Perryville saw only three murders before 2000. Then five occurred in 2000 alone. And in the past four years, two other murder-suicides have eroded the small-town confidence of "that doesn't happen here."
Most notably, the town was rocked three years ago by the murder of a husband and wife who ran a local motel.
Even so, the other murders were crimes residents could explain, with familiar motives like money, drugs, lust and jealousy.
Kendra's murder comes from a darker place. And it has left Perryville with little more than speculations and rumors for explanations.
"The only thing I can think of is (Jamie Swan) wanted to take everything with him - his daughter and everything, " said Kathy McCune, who works in the local bakery.
A town's grief
While the murder-suicide has Perryville searching for answers, in Chester it has produced a more direct grief, after having claimed one of the town's youngest.
In Chester, town leaders and residents organized a collection to pay for the funeral. One woman pitched in for a tombstone; another bought purple lace dresses for Kendra's younger sisters.
The elementary school faculty met within hours of Kendra's death to discuss a crisis management plan they had hoped they would never need.
Hundreds of Kendra's schoolmates were told the news in the simplest of terms - learning that she had died while visiting her dad. They could talk with parents or counselors if they had more questions.
Jodie Mehrer's daughter was among those who wanted the kind of details the mother simply could not provide.
"My 6-year-old wanted to know what really happened, but what can you tell her?" said Mehrer.
On Tuesday evening, many of the children joined their parents at a visitation. By Wednesday morning, they had taken magenta-colored paper to fashion a 4-foot-high condolence card bearing their signatures.
Kendra's teacher, Debbie Guebert, said Kendra had attended the school for just a year but was known as a girl who smiled constantly and was bothered when other kids argued.
Family members said Kendra had recently developed a desire to get to know her father, who was never married to her mother and had previously had virtually no contact with his daughter.
After a few daytime visits, the families agreed to let Kendra spend the night with her father and paternal grandparents in Perryville. Police say the murder took place on the second such weekend visit.
During Kendra's funeral, Chester police stood guard to make sure members of the father's side of the family did not try to attend.
In the end, the unwelcome guests stayed away.
At the simple, 30-minute ceremony, the only speaker was Pastor Tommy Foster Jr., of the Loyalty Missionary Baptist Church in Sparta, Ill.
He spoke of resurrection as a guarantee. He promised that Kendra was taken home without even having to knock on heaven's door.
But the pastor didn't pretend that his answers could entirely replace the loss.
"I don't have the words that make everything alright, " he said. "They are not there."
And in a day when so little could be explained, perhaps nothing was more unknowable than the depths of a mother's grief.
Still, Gina Darwin managed to write in a eulogy the things she lacked the strength to say about her daughter at the funeral.
Her written tribute, read by the pastor, recalled a "sweet and smart and beautiful" young girl whom she imagined as still grasping her family firmly in a hug.
"If I close my eyes tight enough, I can still see her smiling and waving and wearing the wings of love, " she said in the eulogy. "We love you Kendra, and miss you."
return to matthewfranck.com