Family solves mystery of Lehi man missing for 3 years

Published: Tuesday, Sept. 24 2013 6:10 p.m. MDT

Daniel Swindler, of Lehi, is shown at left. The pack and belt in this photo match items found with his body in South Carolina.

Family Photo

LEHI — For three years, Lisa Campbell had no idea what happened to her brother.

She worried that he may have been living on the streets, in prison or possibly even left the country.

But the family's persistent efforts to find their loved one paid off with several major breaks in the case. Their investigation culminated Monday when a coroner from South Carolina confirmed that the remains of an unidentified man found in October of 2010 was indeed their brother.

For the family of 35-year-old Daniel Swindler, it was a bittersweet end to a mystery that had eaten at them for years.

"It was a huge relief to know that we finally knew at least where he was," said Swindler's brother, Joe Swindler.

"We feel relief and I feel like part of our lives are put back together a little bit — the part that we just never knew where our brother was," Campbell said.

The cause of Swindler's death could not be determined because his body was in such a badly decomposed state when authorities found it, family members said. But foul play was not suspected.

Swindler was someone who loved the outdoors and life in general, his brother said. "He was just very friendly with everybody."

When he was 8, he contracted encephalitis, an infection around his brain that started from a severe case of chicken pox. By his early 20s, Swindler was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. Later, he was additionally diagnosed with schizophrenia disorder. His family said his behavior in later years was becoming more erratic and he was having a "hard time making decisions that made sense."

When his mother died in 2001, his family said his behavior became worse. Taking off and disappearing for a while wasn't uncommon.

"He often would take off for a few days, not tell anyone. He'd go to another state for a month, or maybe more, and then he would always come back," Joe Swindler said.

As he had done before, Swindler hit the road again in August of 2010 to "go see the world and see where life took him," according to his brother.

In a blog recounting the events of the past three years, Campbell wrote: "We were not immediately alarmed when we found out he had left. He had no phone, computer, car, social media accounts, and hardly ever checked his email. He made himself nearly impossible to locate."

But after several months had passed without any word from him, the family started to get worried.

In January of 2011, one of Campbell's sisters hacked into Daniel's email account. She learned he had made a reservation at the Extended Stay America Hotel in Columbia, S.C., on Aug. 19, 2010. They also learned he had not checked his email at that point for several months. Swindler had checked out of the hotel sometime in October of 2010.

"The most important information we had we found out on our own," Campbell said.

Swindler was by that point listed as a missing person in Utah. But he did not appear in any national criminal databases. Unknown to the family, the body of a man was recovered Oct. 20, 2010, from a spillway off the Dreher Shoals Dam, just 10 miles away from the hotel Daniel had checked into.

"Nobody had any clue there was any connection to (Utah)," Joe Swindler said.

The next big break in the case came less than two weeks ago, on Sept. 13, about 11:30 p.m.

"I was just in bed and decided just out of nowhere that I needed to go search for unidentified bodies in South Carolina," Campbell said. All it took was a Google search and a few clicks and she found what her family had been seeking for several years.

Her father had even visited the same website earlier. But this time, after looking at an artist's facial reconstruction of what investigators believed the victim looked like, "I already felt like I knew it was him," she said.

When the family saw pictures of the backpack and clothing the unidentified victim was found with, they pulled up old pictures of him. "Right away I saw the belt, and later we saw the backpack, and it was clearly the same clothes," Campbell said.

The weave belt was what ultimately convinced Campbell that she had found her brother.

"I called the number on the website right at that moment, even though it was 12 a.m. by then, even later in South Carolina, and I didn’t expect anyone to answer. I barely finished leaving my message before I started sobbing. I had found Daniel. I couldn’t believe that I had actually found Daniel — and that he had been dead for almost three years," she wrote on her blog.

The family contacted South Carolina authorities, who were very helpful, Campbell said. Over the next few days, Daniel Swindler's dental records from Utah were sent to South Carolina. On Monday, they received word that the records matched.

Because Daniel Swindler was found with only a light backpack, his family believes he may have been out on a day hike. The most likely scenario is that he got injured while hiking or drowned, his family said.

On her blog, Campbell described her brother as someone who valued freedom and privacy and did not like taking his medication because of the effects it had on his energy. He would also try to distance himself from his loved ones when he was going through hard times.

In a letter he wrote to his sister several years ago, Swindler described what he called a "mountainous illness" that he has had to deal with.

Campbell said the family is now working to have her brother's remains returned to Utah so he can be laid to rest next to his mother. The family is also hoping that the incident may raise awareness that leads to a better way of family members finding their missing loved ones.

"We have so much technology now, why can't we match up a missing person from one state with unidentified remains from another state?" Joe Swindler asked.

Contributing: Ashley Kewish

Email: preavy@deseretnews.com

Twitter: DNewsCrimeTeam

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