ELGIN — Less than a day after Freddie Grant ended the search for Gabrielle Swainson by showing authorities where he buried the girl, authorities are preparing to hunt for another missing woman linked to the man.
Kershaw County Sheriff Jim Matthews, Elgin Police Chief Harold Brown and agents from the State Law Enforcement Division will meet next week to plan a search for Adrianna Laster, a Florida woman who was living with Grant before she disappeared without a trace around Labor Day in 2011.
The renewed search efforts come after Grant, now charged with murder in Gabrielle’s death, led Richland County investigators to her grave as part of a deal with the 5th Circuit Solicitor’s Office.
The girl’s body was found beneath 5 feet of earth less than a quarter-mile from Grant’s home, where investigators found duct tape with the girl’s blood and hair nearly a year ago.
The Richland County Coroner’s Office on Friday afternoon confirmed that the body was Gabrielle’s.
The discovery devastated and crushed Elvia Swainson, Gabrielle’s mother, said her pastor Marcia Bailey after spending hours with the grieving woman Thursday.
Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott announced Thursday that deputies had flown Grant to the Midlands from a federal penitentiary in Kentucky, where Grant is serving 17 years on firearms charges, so he could lead authorities to Gabrielle’s body.
It was all part of a deal with prosecutors that led to Grant’s 27-year-old daughter, Dominique Grant, being released from jail Friday morning and having her charge of accessory after the fact of a felony dropped. Dominique Grant was arrested in June after police placed her near a Myrtle Beach Piggly Wiggly around the time that a truck driver found Gabrielle’s phone there.
Grant, who won’t face the death penalty in Gabrielle’s death, appeared before a Richland County magistrate judge Friday, where he was officially charged with murder.
Another search begins
With the end of the search for Gabrielle comes renewed hopes in the search for Laster.
The woman lived with Grant in his half-burned-out Elgin home for at least six tumultuous months. Grant was convicted of criminal domestic violence in April 2011 after he slammed her head into a wall, dragged her across the ground and poured fuel on her, according to an incident report. Neighbors also told Elgin police about other multiple incidents of abuse.
Then, in September 2011, Laster was reported missing, but she was found a short time later staying with a woman who lived down the street from Grant.
That was the last time anyone saw her alive, but she wasn’t reported missing again until March, when a woman who had custody of Laster’s child asked police to check on the 28-year-old. There were no traces of the woman. Grant was named a person of interest in the investigation, but no one has been arrested.
Brown said the search will be a massive effort and has asked for cadaver dogs and extra manpower. The search is expected to start in the place where Gabrielle’s body was found and will likely go outward from that spot, he said.
“By this, it’s narrowed down to a few acres – not a few thousand acres,” Brown said. “At least that’s our hope.”
But if Laster’s body is buried somewhere underneath the pine trees where Gabrielle’s was discovered, finding it could be difficult.
“Many, many people walked that area and many, many people looked in the exact place where we found (Gabrielle),” Lott said. “But the way she was concealed, you just wouldn’t know.”
Matthews and Kershaw County deputies were at the scene to assist Richland County crews in recovering the body of the teen, who was kidnapped from her Richland County home last year. Typically, Matthews said, suspects dig shallow graves that are easily found by hunters, animals and search crews.
But the five-foot-deep hole where Gabrielle’s body was found was so well concealed that FBI cadaver dogs couldn’t pick up the scent.
“We were standing over it with no idea,” he said.
Initially, a few men dug into the sandy Midlands soil with shovels, but Matthews said it quickly became clear that heavier-duty equipment would be need to excavate Gabrielle’s body.
At first, an excavator was called in to dig an area about six times the size of Grant’s hole. Broken roots as narrow as a pencil and softer soil let investigators know where Grant’s hole was, and probes were used to figure out how deep the body was buried.
Once it became clear they were close to Gabrielle’s body, the process became much more meticulous. Crews from the coroner’s office worked to recover her body without causing any damage.
But, Lott said, the recovery wouldn’t have been possible without Grant showing them where to look.
“There was just no way we would have been able to find it without someone doing what they did (yesterday),” Lott said. “And that’s Freddie Grant taking us to the exact location and saying, ‘That’s where I buried her.’”
Picking up the pieces
Though the search for Laster is about to begin anew, the community is preparing to grieve for Gabrielle.
A funeral date hasn’t yet been set, according to Bailey, who preaches at Right Direction Church International, where Gabrielle used to sing and play guitar. Several congregation members have come to see Elvia Swainson, who Bailey said was trying to process the news.
“All of a sudden she has to plan a memorial,” said the Rev. Herbert Bailey. “She’s not quite there yet.”
Still, several of Elvia Swainson’s family members are making their way to Columbia to be with her.
A vigil planned by the church on the anniversary of Gabrielle’s disappearance was cancelled Friday. But a memorial gathering has since been scheduled for 8:15 p.m., Wednesday at Elgin Town Hall.
And at Ridge View High School, where Gabrielle was a cheerleader and a standout student in the school’s bio-health magnet program for students interested in medical fields, students who had banded together in hopes that she would be found safe will return to school Aug. 21 grieving the loss of a classmate.
The school’s principal, Brenda Mack-Foxworth, said counselors will be available to students and staff members, and the school will plan a tribute with the input of students once the school year starts.
Nicole Walker, Gabrielle’s English I teacher, said she hopes students and teachers continue to support each other the way they did before the girl’s body was found.
“Gabbiee, she was a very strong person,” Walker said. “It would be her expectation that we be strong and support each other.”
She remembered assigning a three-to-five page essay on William Golding’s “Lord of the Flies” and Gabrielle coming to her with more than 13 pages of outlines and notes that were so thorough, she had a hard time telling her student what to change.
Walker said she was hit hard by the news that Gabrielle had been found.
“I have to keep reminding myself that her mom gets closure,” she said.