Debra Joan Swanson was a warm, energetic person.
On one occasion, the 29-year-old chief ranger for Arches National Park spent the entire night counseling a young woman whose boyfriend had been killed in a hiking accident. She did it not because it was her job, but because she felt genuine compassion for the young woman.Three years after her death, compassion is the word most people use when they describe Swanson. It was a character trait that evoked respect and admiration from her co-workers.
On New Year's Day, 1986, Swanson was found dead: a bullet lodged in her head, her service revolver in her hand. An autopsy by the state medical examiner and an investigation by the Grand County sheriff's office both concluded the death was a suicide.
But three years later, Swanson's parents are still looking for answers, still refusing to accept the official findings.
"Joan's family feels very strongly that it wasn't a suicide," said Grand Junction, Colo., attorney J.D. Snodgrass, the spokesman for the family. "There has been a substantial amount of evidence that it was not a suicide."
The family hired a private investigator and paid for a second autopsy, this one conducted by a pathologist in Montrose, Colo. Tests concluded that it was "unlikely" Swanson fired the gun that took her life.
"The evidence indicates that it was unlikely Joan shot that gun herself, given the way she was holding the gun when her body was found," said Snodgrass.
There was no suicide note, and Swanson's parents say there was no motive for her to commit suicide. She was happy with her work, she had many friends and she seemed enthusiastic about everything.
"She never mentioned suicide, nor had she ever attempted it," said Snodgrass. "There was no indication she was even contemplating it. Why she would kill herself is a real problem."
Information garnered during the private investigation as well as the second autopsy report raised enough questions about Swanson's death that the death certificate was changed from "suicide" to "undetermined."
With the additional evidence, the family attempted to convince Utah authorities to look into Swanson's death a second time. But that never occurred, said Snodgrass.
"The local authorities feel it was a suicide and until there is evidence to the contrary, there is nothing to reopen the investigation," Snodgrass said.
Swanson's family is certain she was murdered. In fact, they believe so strongly in that scenario they have offered a $20,000 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the person responsible.
But many, if not most, of those who knew and worked with Joan Swanson now believe she committed suicide. Anna Marie Fender, the chief of interpretation at Arches and a close friend of Swanson, is one who now believes her friend took her own life. At the time, though, it was hard to believe. "It's easy after the fact to look back and see the evidences," she said. "But no one recognized them at the time."
Fender said Swanson was extremely frustrated with the federal bureaucracy ("the red tape gets to us all," Fender said). And there was evidence at the time she may have been planning to quit and move from the area.
During the weeks before her death, "She spent a lot of time making sure her co-workers knew things that only she knew, like boundary markers," Fender said.
Swanson's co-workers have spent a lot of time over the past three years talking about her death, wondering why they didn't recognize the signs.
"We found we all had a little piece of the puzzle, but unless we all sat down together no one would ever have realized there was a problem," Fender said. "There was no reason to sit down. She seemed very stable."
Fender believes there are still others who knew Swanson who have other pieces to the puzzle of why she took her life. And if all the pieces were known, Swanson's parents could lay their daughter to rest.
"Her parents are hurting a lot of people with that reward offer," said Fender.