Police share new details in 1988 cold case murder of Three Rivers woman

Published: May. 11, 2023 at 10:05 AM EDT
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THREE RIVERS, Mich. (WNDU) - The Three Rivers Police Department held a press conference on Thursday morning to give an update on a murder that went unsolved for nearly three and a half decades.

Cathy Sue Swartz, 19, was brutally murdered at the Riverside Townhomes back on Dec. 2, 1988, while her 9-month-old daughter was in the next room. Police say Swartz was beaten, stabbed multiple times, and strangled to death. Investigators also found self-defense wounds and signs of attempted rape.

A suspect was finally arrested in connection with the crime nearly two weeks ago in South Carolina, but he was found dead in his jail cell this past weekend.

Cathy Swartz
Cathy Swartz(Three Rivers Police Department)

Three Rivers police didn’t know who they were searching for until early this year using a technique that also closed another 30-plus-year cold case in Niles in 2022.

Investigators used forensic genetic genealogy (FGG) to test some DNA from a bloody fingerprint found at the scene of Swartz’s murder. The results suggested Robert Odell Waters, 53, or one of his siblings as a possible match.

After clearing his relatives, investigators focused their efforts on Waters in South Carolina where they confirmed his DNA matched the evidence.

You might remember forensic genealogy being used just last year to crack the Roxanne Wood murder case in Niles that also went unsolved for more than three and a half decades.

Three Rivers Detective Sgt. Sam Smallcombe explained why they decided to use this strategy for the first time ever when trying to solve this case.

“Because we had exhausted every other lead we had in the case, and we like everyone else had seen on the news that FGG was being used to solve these old cold cases where everything else hasn’t worked,” Smallcome said. “So, I truly believe without FGG, we would have never solved this case.”

Robert Odell Waters
Robert Odell Waters(Beaufort County, South Carolina)

There’s little doubt from the Three Rivers Police Department that Waters was the person who killed Swartz, but his death raises new questions about how he died, as he takes any answers to a motive to his grave.

Detectives said Waters was found dead in his cell on the morning of May 6 at the Beaufort County Detention Center in South Carolina.

MSP Detective Sgt. Todd Petersen said there doesn’t appear to be anything suspicious about his death and that his wounds appeared to be self inflicted. However, they’re still waiting on an official cause.

According to a conversation with the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division, Petersen learned that Waters was alone in his cell and that they’re going through video surveillance to get more insights. It’s worth noting that there were no surveillance cameras inside the cell.

Petersen couldn’t go into detail about what injuries led to Waters’ death.

“They’re waiting for pathology from the autopsy and 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,” Petersen said.

You can rewatch Thursday morning’s press conference in the video attached below:

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