WHAT HAPPENED? (1)
I have written about a lot of disappearances because I am extremely fascinated by them. That fascination started with this case. I remember hearing about it and was so shocked and confused, and from there, I delved into more weird, mysterious disappearances. But for today, let's jump into the story that started it all: Brandon Swanson.
Just after midnight on May 14, 2008, Marshall, Minnesota 19-year-old Brandon Swanson drove his car into a ditch while on the way home from celebrating the end of the semester with his college friends. He was fine, and got out of the car to call his parents. He wasn't exactly sure where he was, but gave his parents an estimate of his location so they could drive out to pick him up.
They were unable to find him, but he stayed on the phone with them. 45 minutes after placing the original call, he said "Oh, shit!" and the call abruptly ended. He has never been seen or heard from again.
His parents reported him as missing the next morning, but police advised them to wait because such behavior was "not uncommon" for young men. Things got even more confusing when his cell phone turned up about 25 miles in the opposite direction of where Swanson said he thought he was. His car was found in that area.
No one will ever know why he was so far off. Perhaps he said the name of the wrong town, but even though he wasn't sure exactly where he was, he certainly should have been able to give them an idea within 25 miles.
Though foul play has not been ruled out, it has been suggested that he may have fallen into the river near where his car was found. However, extensive searches have not turned up a body. Land searches continued for several years, but have turned up nothing.
Brandon's disappearance prompted Brandon's Law, lobbied for by his parents, which requires police begin searching for missing adults immediately once reported missing.
Brandon was from Marshall, a town in southwestern Minnesota. He graduated from Marshall High School in 2007, and then went to Minnesota West Community and Technical College to study wind turbines for a year after high school. (1)
Classes let out for the year on May 13, 2008, and so Brandon stayed in Canby, the city where his campus was located, to celebrate with some friends. He was observed drinking at 2 different parties, but his friends said he was not drinking enough to be very intoxicated, and he didn't seem visibly drunk at either party. (1)
Brandon left Canby before midnight. It was a 30 mile drive between the campus and his home. Though the route was easy, one he made every day, he decided, for some reason, to go through the backstreets. Those roads were gravel and not well lit, and they zigzagged quite a bit. On top of having a few drinks, Brandon was also legally blind in one of his eyes, making it a pretty rough ride home. (2)
At 1:15 AM, he got his car stuck in a ditch. If he had left just around midnight, that means he had been driving for an hour and 15 minutes at the time, for what was only a 30-mile drive. Anyway, he called his friends to come pick him up, bot nobody answered. He tried to get his car out, but couldn't. He decided to call his parents. (2)
Because he said he thought he was pretty close to home, they climbed into their car to come pick him up. He said he wasn't sure exactly where he was, but gave them a general vicinity. However, they couldn't find him. (1)
Despite keeping him on the phone and flashing lights on and off, Annette and Brian were not able to locate Brandon, which lead to a lot of frustration. Discouraged, he said that he was going to walk toward some lights. He believed the lights to be in the town of Lynd, a small town about 7 miles southwest of Marshall. He asked his father to drive to the parking lot of a local bar and wait there, and his father did as he was told, staying on the phone with his son the whole time. (1) While walking and talking, he said he had to climb 2 fences and heard water near him. He was certainly walking through grass or fields, not following the gravel road. (2)
At around 2:30 AM, after being on the phone for 47 minutes, Brandon interrupted himself while talking and said "Oh, shit!" The connection on the call was lost immediately after, and he was never heard from again. (1)
His parents reported him missing a few hours later, at 6:30 AM, to the Lynd police. Despite the unusual circumstances of his disappearance, police said that it was not uncommon for a young man his age to stay out all night after classes ended. Annette recalls specifically that an officer said Brandon had the "right to be missing". (1)
Later in the morning, however, the Lynd police began a search, but found no trace of him inside the town or close by outside of it. To help them pinpoint where Brandon was, they got his cell phone records, and what they found made an already strange case even stranger: He'd been on the phone from the town of Taunton...25 miles away from Lynd. (1)
They searched the area and found Brandon's car in the ditch, just as he said. The car was not that badly damaged, but was in a position where it would have been nearly impossible to get it back on the road without help. Nothing else was amiss in the car or the surrounding area, and there were no discernible footprints or tracks to indicate which way Brandon began walking. (1)
Further investigation of his cell phone revealed that he was within 5 miles of a tower near a small town called Minneota, and searches focused their efforts within that radius. Authorities noticed a light atop a grain elevator in Taunton that they thought may have been the light Brandon was referring to when he said he thought he was close to Lynd. (1)
Searches were conducted, including search dogs and a flyover by an aerial team. Bloodhounds followed a trail that lead to the Yellow Medicine River. His father recalls Brandon mentioning passing fences and hearing water, leading to the theory that he may have accidentally ended up in the river and drowned. Unfortunately, none of the original searches turned up anything, and a more extensive search was rejected. (1)
Efforts were discontinued after the original failed searches. One of the Sheriffs continued to walk the 2 mile trail in Yellow Medicine every day for 30 days. The family still leaves their porch light on at night as a symbol of hope. (1)
A search resumed in the fall, after some fields planted after the disappearance had been harvested. Dogs helped with the searches, and 122 square miles were searched with nothing ever found. Though by 2015, a tip line has received over 90 leads, there is still no sign of what may have happened to Brandon Swanson. (1)
Though one of the most popular theories is that Brandon had drowned, Annette does not think that to be the case. His last words seem to indicate that something surprised him, perhaps that the land was no longer land and he was in water. That would also explain why the phone call disconnected immediately after. However, extensive searches of the river turned up nothing, and Brian said that he did not seem disoriented, confused or drunk at all during their phone conversations, leading them to believe he wouldn't have just stumbled into a river, and if he had, that he wouldn't have been able to get out.
However, many theorize that he was more intoxicated than he let on. To end up 25 miles away from home, climbing fences and walking through fields to get to a light in the distance all sounds like something a drunk person would do. Further, he probably didn't just randomly decide he wanted to go on a long, leisurely drive through the back roads that night... He may have been doing so to avoid police, as he was driving drunk. Also, he crashed his car, which seems like another indication he may have been under the influence.
This doesn't mean that he was completely wasted by any means, but just drunk enough to take the back roads to safely evade police detection. Back roads, a route you're not used to, pitch black and intoxication is a recipe for a wrong turn and a crash. He starts to walk, talking to his parents so not drunk enough for them to think he was severely under the influence, notices an embankment in front of him, says "oh shit!", falls into the cold, 2 AM May river water, and dies. His body is dragged down the river, far enough to not be found. Perhaps he hit his head, or the water was cold and he went into shock or got hypothermia.
One person said they heard on True Crime Garage that 40% of the likely area that Brandon could be in hasn't been searched, partially because of a bunch of swamps, rivers and bogs, but also because of tall crops and because landowners haven't allowed their properties to be searched so their crops wouldn't be damaged. So, there is a chance that he was in the river and got out, but continued wandering and died elsewhere in the area and he has just not been found yet.
Another strange detail is that when the call dropped, his parents were able to call him back and it kept ringing, but he didn't answer it. If the phone died or went into the river, it probably would have gone straight to voicemail. He could have dropped his phone and not been able to find it, and fell into the river or got lost elsewhere later on.
Of course, like all disappearances, some people have more out there theories, which are still certainly plausible, but not as probable. Perhaps he was met with foul play: the wrong person drove by at the right time and abducted him, his "oh shit!" exclamation was when he saw another person. Or similar, but he may have run into an animal, though people native to the area have said that bears or something that would kill a person weren't extremely common in the area.
And again, like in all disappearances, some believe that he decided to leave on his own accord, but it seems incredibly unlikely given his crashed car. If he was going to willfully disappear into the night, that would have to mean that the car accident was pre-planned, which seems extremely unlikely.
Though the exact course of events can never be known, it is fair to assume that he was a bit more drunk than let on by friends (who may have just not known how drunk he was, this does not mean they were lying), drove back roads to avoid police, made a wrong turn and crashed his car, started walking because he thought he knew the area and then was met with his fate, perhaps in the river or perhaps in some other un-searched area. He probably didn't make himself disappear or get abducted by a perfectly-timed kidnapper... He probably just tragically, and little drunkenly, stumbled too far in the wrong direction.
BRANDON'S LAW (1)
After the searches concluded and it became clear that their son was probably not coming home, Annette remained appalled by the response of the police, especially their take that he had "a right to be missing". She knew something was horribly wrong, and not just because she's his mother and knew her son, but because she was on the phone when the call dropped under strange circumstances. She and her husband began lobbying for changes in legislature that would require investigations to begin as soon as they are reported, as is custom for missing children.
It makes sense why missing adults are treated differently. Children don't have the autonomy adults have. They can't just drive off to clear their head, or drunkenly end up at a friends' house instead of going home one night. (The exception is that many times, missing teens are thought to just be runaways). However, and this is just my assumption, but I wouldn't imagine most people would report an adult missing if it was common behavior. Parents, siblings and friends know their loved ones, and they know when their behavior is out of the ordinary.
As an example: If your child is 21 and they go out regularly on the weekends, crash at other people's houses, let their phone die and sleep in late the next morning, red flags wouldn't be raised if you don't hear from them for 24 hours. But if your child is 21 and doesn't drink much on weekends, is always home on time and is generally very responsible, it would be more alarming if you couldn't get in contact with them. Adults shouldn't be generalized. Just because the latter example is 21 doesn't mean it is normal for her to be un-contactable. If the people closest to her say that it is completely out of the ordinary to not be able to reach her for hours on end, it should be treated as such.
All of this to say, I understand where the law was, but am very happy for people like the Swansons who worked hard to make the law what it is now.
Anyway, Annette met with the minority leader of the state House of Representatives, hoping to get the bill off the ground and help parents and loved ones of missing adults in the future. The bill Brandon's Law was proposed, that changed the state's Missing Child Program to Missing Person Program. Discussions about privacy were had, specifically around cell phones. When can they ping your location from your phone? If they hadn't been missing for what was historically "long enough" to be taken seriously, is it a breach of privacy to trace a location? But everything was eventually decided upon, and in May 2009, Brandon's Law was signed into law, with Annette, Brian, and Brandon's sister Jamine in attendance.
Beyond requiring authorities to act immediately in the event of a missing adult, Brandon's Law also required that the agency taking the report be the lead on the case, but to notify other nearby law enforcement agencies promptly. This distinction would have helped in the original search for Brandon. Police were also no longer allowed to refuse a report for other reasons beyond length of time missing, including: belief that no criminal activity was involved, the possibility of intentional disappearance, and a lack of relationship between reporter and missing person.
After Brandon's Law was signed in Minnesota, 4 other states have passed similar laws. Marty Seifert, who penned the original bill, said: "I consider it to be one of the most important bills I authored in my 14 years. It will save lives."
We may never know what happened to Brandon Swanson, but we do know that his parents chose to take the hardest thing that has ever happened to them and make something good out of it, something that will most certainly save lives in the future. Their porch light remains on every night as they hold out hope that one day, their beloved son will make his way home.