2 months after driveway attack, killer of Arlington woman, 83, still at large

Posted Saturday, Sep. 21, 2013  comments  Print Reprints
How to help If you have information on the case, call Arlington police at 817-459-5375 or Tarrant County Crime Stoppers at 817-469-8477.

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Jeanne Keenan peered out from a closet where she was painting shelves and said a quick goodbye to her mother, Leona Faye Swafford, an active, tech-savvy 83-year-old who had announced that she was making a morning run to the doughnut shop.

“Whatever you think you can eat,” Keenan said, reminding her mother of recent dental work. “Bye.”

June 4 began as a typical late spring day in the modest neighborhood of 1970-era ranch homes off Vandergriff Park, where whites, blacks, Asians and Hispanics live side by side.

“It’s like the United Nations,” said longtime resident Doni Lucero, who said that although a burglar might have once targeted a car stereo now and then, the neighborhood has been quiet — and safe — in recent years.

On that day, mother and daughter hadn’t put their recycling bin in the right place, so Roy Mitchell, a semiretired Arlington police officer married to Swafford’s oldest daughter, stepped from his squad car and rearranged it.

It was just after 8 a.m., a few minutes before Swafford would head to the doughnut shop on Collins Street.

“What are you doing?” Swafford called out to Mitchell with feigned annoyance. She made small talk until the departure of her son-in-law, a fellow congregant at the tiny, nondenominational Dayspring Church.

A spirited, self-educated woman married at 14, she had lived in California and Germany, worked years in clerical jobs, and earned pocket money in retirement by baking cakes and sewing children’s clothes.

In less than 90 minutes, Swafford — mother to four and “Granny” or “Nanner” to 15 grandchildren, 20 great-grandchildren and six great-great-grandchildren — would be dead, a victim of callous violence that began in her driveway after she returned from buying sausage rolls.

Witnesses made clear that she did not give up without a fight. Two others, her daughter and a total stranger, risked their own lives in the 400 block of Sussex Drive to try to save the beloved matriarch of a large extended family.

Keenan had shifted her painting to the back yard when, at about 8:30, she heard “horrific, bloodcurdling screams” from the front of the single-story house.

“It was loud enough, strong enough, for me to know someone was being hurt,” she said. “I came shooting through the house thinking someone had gotten hit on the street.”

In disbelief, she watched as her mother’s secondhand 2010 Lincoln slammed into a neighbor’s car across the street. It was jerking forward a few feet, then backward again, repeatedly ramming a 1998 Nissan Altima.

“I thought she had lost control of the car, but then I saw there was a man inside,” Keenan recounted. “She evidently was fighting with him, kicking him. I shot out of the house.”

When she reached the driver’s side of the Lincoln, the door was ajar.

“I grabbed hold of him. I tried to pull him out of the car. He pushed me off. When he shoved me again, I said, ‘You are hurting my mom! You are hurting my mom!’ I looked over at my mother. Her face was bloody.”

Swafford said nothing but made eye contact with her daughter and pointedly looked toward a point behind the attacker. Keenan believes that her mother was trying to warn her that the man was armed.

“When I wouldn’t let go, he pulled out a gun and put it into my face and said, ‘I will shoot you. I will shoot you.’”

Keenan let go and ducked around the Lincoln to try to free her mother.

Walking up Sussex Drive from Vandergriff Park was Lucero, oblivious to what was happening. The street noise was drowned out by rock tunes blaring in his ear. The 49-year-old was concentrating on his exercise regimen, doctor-ordered rehab after heart bypass surgery exactly three months before.

“I had my head down and the music was going,” Lucero recalled.

Then he saw the Lincoln striking the Altima, over and over.

“My first thought was that something mechanical must have failed. Maybe they got their bumpers intermingled.”

The windows were tinted and he couldn’t tell whether anyone was behind the wheel of the Lincoln.

“The driver’s side door is open. I hear a lady screaming. I think, ‘What the heck?’ She was laying across the front seats. Her face is bloodied, and she is fighting and kicking and screaming.”

The man, Lucero recalled, was trying to control the car as Swafford kicked at him and the gearshift.

“Hey, what’s going on? Get out of the car! Get out of the car!” Lucero shouted.

The attacker, a man of medium build with a short Afro, dressed in a T-shirt or polo shirt and jeans, did not reply.

(Police would later release a description of the suspect as a black man in his late 20s or early 30s, about 6 feet tall with a muscular build, although Lucero said he appeared to be merely in average condition.)

“The man’s left hand is on the steering wheel,” Lucero said. “I grab him by the forearm and try to pry it off the wheel. I then try to use the car’s [door] post to leverage him out of the car. I thought, ‘Maybe I can dislocate his elbow.’”

Lucero spotted another woman crawling near the car. It was Keenan, he later learned. Lucero had never met the family.

“He’s got a gun,” Keenan told him. “He’s going to kill her.”

Lucero was holding the attacker’s arm as the man finally got the car moving forward.

“While the car was moving, I tried to pull him out. My hand was sweaty, and his arm’s sweaty, too. His arm slipped from my grasp as he pulled off, tires squealing. The daughter was sitting in the street, wailing.”

Neighbors, including Lucero, called 911, and Arlington police were soon on the scene.

At about 10 a.m., construction workers found Swafford’s battered body beside a vacant house on Kimberly Drive, about 3 miles away.

The medical examiner’s report said she died at 9:50 a.m. from being shot in the head, beaten and choked.

Her silver Lincoln was found abandoned around 11 a.m. at an apartment complex about a mile away.

Keeping their secrets

Leona Faye “Lee” Swafford was born June 7, 1929, in Brawley, Calif., one of six children in a family that had moved from Uvalde in South Texas after her father, a carpenter, found work on the West Coast.

When her 17-year-old sweetheart, Edward Carson (one of seven children), was pressured by neighbors to enlist in 1943, he proposed and Leona became a wife while barely in her teens. She moved to the family’s ancestral home in Uvalde during the war years, relatives said.

She never advanced beyond the 10th grade, but her children said she was a quick learner, later taking courses at a technical school. She became a medical transcriptionist and held clerical and office management jobs at the Veterans Administration, clinics, doctor’s offices and elsewhere, picking up new skills that made her an easy hire, they said.

Swafford had picked up so much medical knowledge that friends and family called her first when baffled by an unfamiliar ailment.

After the war, her husband took a job at a magnesium plant in Angleton, and she was a housewife until her kids were grown. She then took the job at the VA.

After the couple divorced in 1962, a sister introduced her to Roy Swafford, an Army sergeant based in San Antonio. Their union would last 48 years.

Among their postings was a three-year stint in Germany. They returned just before his retirement in 1973, when they bought a new home on Sussex Drive. Roy Swafford would become a familiar face behind the counter at Arlington’s main post office until his retirement. He died in 2010.

Leona Swafford’s own retirement wasn’t for resting, her children say. She picked up part-time work, volunteered at church and sewed children’s garments that one of her nieces decorated and sold.

She and a daughter, Debbie Bohannon, created Deborah Faye Enterprises to bake special-occasion cakes for a local Putt-Putt course and others. Swafford baked every relative’s wedding cake, Keenan said. For years, her back porch was home to a giant industrial mixer.

Swafford’s own mother lived to 99, and everyone expected that Swafford’s good health and industriousness would see her well into her 90s, relatives said.

She was killed three days before her 84th birthday.

She kept up with current events and was particularly keen on right-wing commentator Glenn Beck, even attending a book signing in recent years. She was adept at electronic gadgetry, said Keenan and another daughter, Judy Mitchell.

She used two smartphones (one for video games), a tablet, a laptop and a PC.

But among her most important traits was being there for close family and friends, who could confide the most personal issues knowing they’d get sage advice, Keenan said.

“And she would never divulge a confidence, never shared a secret.”

An open investigation

More than two months after the killing, the suspect remains at large.

Arlington police Detective Ben Lopez said police received more than 200 tips after releasing a composite sketch of the killer.

“We still get one or two a week,” he said.

Each is followed up, but the department declined to say what evidence has been collected or what progress has been made. The investigation remains open, Lopez said.

Crime Stoppers has offered a reward of up to $1,000, and Oak Farms Dairy of Dallas announced a $10,000 reward, both for information leading to the man’s arrest or indictment.

“We still want the public to come forward if they know someone they suspect,” Lopez said.

Richard Carter, a former Arlington municipal judge, is married to Swafford’s niece.

“Somebody out there must have the information,” said Carter, now director of legal services for Crime Stoppers USA. “They may be afraid of the person, or [he] might be a loved one whom they are trying to protect. And some might not realize they have crime-solving information.

“They can use an anonymous tip line and do not have to identify themselves.”

Police and relatives remain perplexed as to why Swafford was attacked.

Was the man trying to steal the car? Why didn’t he wait until she got out?

Did he plan to force her to withdraw money from an ATM?

He would have found that Swafford, though adept with computers, never used a cash machine.

Barry Shlachter, 817-390-7718 Twitter: @bshlachter

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