Cook: As terrifying as riding a bike

Cook: As terrifying as riding a bike

January 15th, 2014 by David Cook in Opinion Columns

David Cook

Photo by Ashlee Culverhouse/Times Free Press.

As he was clutching his throat and gasping for breath, hoping to God he wasn't dying, Anders Swanson thought things couldn't get much worse.

He was wrong.

"That was actually the least of it," he said.

It was Saturday. The weather was perfect. Swanson, a 30-year-old Chattanooga cyclist, went to ride the TVA reservoir on Raccoon Mountain, a place he's logged more than 25,000 road miles over the years.

"You feel safe up there," he said.

He was a few miles in when they first appeared: a black Chevy truck, with two teenagers inside. The truck buzzes him; Swanson thought he was going to get hit. From inside, somebody blares off an air horn.

"They were trying to mess with me," he said.

Swanson gets to a stop sign, gets out his cell phone and calls security.

The black Chevy comes back. Pulls up close. Revs the engine. Swanson gets out of the way, tells them to wait on the officers. The teens drive off, close enough that Swanson hits the back fender with his hand.

"This part is all on video," Swanson said.

He's recorded it, snapped pictures of the driver and passenger. The license tag is clear. The camo ball cap on the dashboard. The faces of the two teenage males inside.

"He flips me off as he drives off," Swanson said.

Chattanooga police arrive. The officer takes his story. Swanson pulls up the picture of the license tag, thinking to himself: It'll all be over now. He goes back to his ride.

The teens return. This time, in a white Toyota Four Runner with four occupants. Later, Swanson would hear from other witnesses there who noticed the spooky way the Four Runner was driving; one man told Swanson he immediately got in his car and left.

The Four Runner goes by him, then pulls over. Swanson rides by. They drive by him again, then stop. The routine continues several times until they drive off. Swanson gets back to the parking lot and begins to leave. It's getting dark. His Honda is the only car there.

Then the Four Runner pulls in.

Swanson, halfway out of his spandex bike suit, is by his car. The Four Runner drives up, just-so-close to him. Swanson looks inside the passenger side, realizes who it is.

"Aren't you the kid from earlier?" he asks.

Swanson then sees the teenager lift up his hand. Something's in it. A squirt gun.

"Full of mace," he said.

His face turns to fire as they drive away. An asthmatic, Swanson thought his lungs were about to squeeze in on themselves. His throat swells. He can't see. He's swallowed it, but doesn't know what it is.

"Kerosene? Anti-freeze?" he thinks, terrified.

He fumbles with his phone, somehow activating the emergency call button. An ambulance arrives, along with more officers. He tells them what happened.

"I know the passenger was the one who pepper-sprayed me and I know he was the driver of the first vehicle," he said. "Beyond a shadow of a doubt."

That night, he tells his story on Facebook, posting two pictures of the black Chevy, its passenger and driver. Soon, multiple people contact him, each identifying the males.

Sunday afternoon, a Chattanooga police officer calls him. She'd gone to the teenagers' houses. She tells Swanson they confessed.

"We can arrest them now," Swanson recalls the officer saying.

Then, somehow, the case is transferred to Marion County police, as the incident falls in their jurisdiction, not Chattanooga's.

That's when everything changes.

A Marion County officer calls him, tells Swanson to take down his Facebook posts -- "he said I was committing three felonies," Swanson said -- and that if he planned on pressing charges, then the teens' parents were going to press charges against him.

Swanson does what he is asked: He and his wife remove all Facebook posts. Monday morning, they arrive at the Marion County Sheriff's Office, ready to press charges.

The teens had already been there, telling the officers another version of what happened that day on the mountain.

"They say I reached into the car and tried to grab the kid," Swanson said.

Suddenly, Swanson is a possible attacker. The teens' parents are threatening to issue a warrant for his arrest, saying their children were threatened that day. That Swanson was the one cursing, the aggressor. That the pepper spray was on a key chain; the teen had only used it as protection.

As his wife begins to cry, shocked at what she's hearing, Swanson experiences this Kafka-esque moment: the victim, now the suspect.

"It's their word against his," said Detective Gene Hargis.

Hargis is gathering evidence and hopes to report to the district attorney by Friday: to prosecute or not. And who.

"We can't just take his word on it. Just like we can't take their word. We have to investigate these matters and pull any and all evidence together," said Hargis.

Swanson, the rowing coach at Girls Preparatory School, weighs less than 150 pounds. That afternoon, he was wearing spandex and cleated cycling shoes -- about as easy to run in as stilettos. And he assaulted the teens? And he on his tiny bike stalked them?

Swanson called law enforcement multiple times that day, calling for help. Did the teens ever call? Swanson said the parking lot has video cameras that would have recorded exactly what happened. He said one teen's mom called him, apologizing profusely.

The pepper spray was not aerosol -- like the kind in a key chain canister -- but liquid, like what you'd put in a squirt gun.

And why would one officer in Chattanooga obtain a confession and be ready to make an arrest while officers in Marion County now see Swanson as a possible suspect despite zero evidence against him save the words of the accused teens?

"At this point, I have no idea whose side is correct or not correct. I hope to determine that. I'm trying to be as impartial as possible," said Hargis, who had not seen the Chattanooga police report (they would not release it on Tuesday, either).

In this soon-to-be-Ironman town, this Boulder-of-the-East, the way this investigation is handled will represent so much. What will happen if cyclists think the roads -- on Raccoon Mountain, of all places -- are not safe? What does it mean when someone attacked is now on the defense? Will that influence whether others come forward if -- or when -- something like this happens again?

"I did everything I thought I was supposed to do," Swanson said.

That's the worst part.

Contact David Cook at dcook@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6329. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter at DavidCookTFP.