2009-11-05 / News

Islanders divided on Swain verdict

By Eileen M. Daly

Scuba shop owner and former town councilor David Swain’s recent murder conviction is the subject of much contention in Jamestown. Although many islanders expressed firm beliefs about the verdict, most were hesitant to voice their opinions on the record for fear of offending friends, neighbors or customers.

Convinced of Swain’s guilt in what was originally ruled an accidental death, Tyre’s parents, Richard and Mary Tyre, pursued the case against their former son-inlaw, first civilly and then criminally. That pursuit came to an end last week, when a unanimous British Virgin Islands jury found Swain guilty of drowning his wife, Shelley Tyre, on March 19, 1999, during a diving trip to Tortola.

Swain’s supporters in Jamestown were much more willing to state their opinions than his detractors were.

Slice of Heaven Owner Steven Liebhauser expressed strong support for Swain by insinuating that the guilty verdict was more a matter of finance than guilt.

“The long arm of American justice reaches all the way to Tortola, where the guy with the most money wins,” Liebhauser said.

He declined to elaborate on his statement.

Long-time Swain supporter Norma Willis expressed her dismay at the verdict.

“I was shocked by the verdict. I served on the town council with David and campaigned with him and I just never felt he had it in him to murder someone,” she said.

Describing her relationship with Swain as “motherly,” Willis called Swain “a kind and generous person.”

Although she acknowledged that you “never really know anyone entirely,” she remains steadfast in her support.

“I met David shortly after the tragedy happened and I know a lot of people said, ‘How can he run for office when his wife just died so tragically?’ but I felt like he needed to get out and do something worthwhile and not just sit at home,” Willis said. “I know he had a lot of emotion over it. Sometimes he’d just grow quiet and I would wonder if he was thinking about her.”

Willis unequivocally stated her firm belief in Swain’s innocence.

“You meet some people and think, well, they could be an ax murderer, but never David Swain,” she said. “I still believe he is innocent.”

Another long-time Swain supporter, Bill Munger, also reiterated his belief in Swain’s innocence.

“I’ve known David Swain since 1980, when he was renting space on Narragansett Avenue. David was not one of those ‘all about me’ kind of people. He was the reverse of that,” he said.

Munger referred to Swain’s propensity to volunteer his time as indicative of his generous nature.

“David was very active on the town council and with the chamber of commerce. He chaired the boat show for a number of years, served on the harbor commission and donated a lot of his time to this community. So much of his life, really all of his life, was spent helping people. At the end of the day, I just don’t believe he is capable of such behavior,” he said.

Munger also took exception to what he feels were biases in the legal process.

“The video the prosecution used was purposely dramatic and riveting,” he said, referring to a re-enactment video presented by the prosecution. He also alluded to the fact that finances may have played a role in Swain’s guilty verdict.

“The prosecution seized all of his assets. He had five bucks in his pocket and no assets to defend himself,” he said.

Munger expressed his opinion that Tyre’s death was “a horrible, horrible accident” that may have resulted from underlying health factors. As evidence of this, he referred to reports of dive book logs that purportedly indicated Tyre had a history of both panic attacks and possibly seizures during previous dives.

“In her dive log record, it said that at least five times she suffered panic attacks and seizures,” he said. Munger also questioned why there wasn’t more physical evidence of the violent struggle that the prosecution alleged had occurred.

“During the autopsy, there were no marks found on her body. If this was such a violent struggle, why weren’t there any marks?” he said.

Not unaware of the controversy surrounding the case, Munger said, “I may be the only one on his side, but at the end of the day, I come down on the side that it was an accident. Everyone is hurt. The Tyres lost their daughter and David, in my opinion, was the scapegoat for that hurt.”

Former town councilor David Long was less than certain regarding Swain’s guilt or innocence, but leaned toward accepting the guilty verdict.

“As for his guilt or innocence, I don’t know what to say. It is totally possible with the way the facts add up, and David certainly engaged in some questionable behavior,” he said.

He also described the entire episode as tragic.

“It’s horrible either way. If he is guilty, it’s horrible that he did it. If he’s not guilty, it’s horrible that Shelley’s tragic death would be compounded like that,” Long said. “The legal system took its course and that should be commended. It took 10 years, so there was certainly no rush to judgment.”

Several area businesswomen supported the guilty verdict, but wished to remain anonymous for fear of offending those who continue to support Swain, describing the case as “very sad.”

One of the women asked a question that many islanders have: “Shelley was a very experienced diver. If he didn’t do it, then how did it happen? There was no evidence of an accident and if it were an accident, there would have been evidence,” she said.

Kay McAleer, a real estate agent at Lila Delman Realty, offered a much more direct opinion.

“I agree with the verdict,” she said. “I think he did it.”

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