Cook: The wheels of justice begin to spin

Cook: The wheels of justice begin to spin

January 28th, 2014 by David Cook in Opinion Columns

David Cook

Photo by Ashlee Culverhouse/Times Free Press.

For two weeks, the Marion County, Tenn., detective has been investigating the events of Jan. 11, which left Anders Swanson stumbling half-blind in his bike cleats and Lycra, fumbling for the emergency button on his cell as his face burned like fire and his eyes swelled shut atop Raccoon Mountain.

The detective has identified witnesses and interviewed suspects. He's taken statements. He's got audio, video, pictures.

"I've got everything," said Detective Gene Hargis.

Around 4 p.m. Monday afternoon, he handed it all over to 12th Judicial District Attorney General Mike Taylor, who will now make the biggest decision yet: which charges to file and against whom.

"I'll have to review it and see what we've got," Taylor said.

It was 17 days ago: Swanson was riding his Litespeed on TVA's Raccoon Mountain -- he goes there to keep clear of dangerous traffic -- when two teenagers buzzed and airhorned him from inside their older model black Chevy.

You know the story. Half of the American cycling community does too (Outside magazine just wrote about it). The teens swapped out their Chevy for a white 4Runner, returning to Raccoon Mountain with pepper spray and finding Swanson as he was undressing in the parking lot at the end of his ride.

They drove up close, and shot him with liquid out of what Swanson remembers as a dark blue squirt gun. At first, he thought it was urine.

Then, his face and lungs erupted.

"I thought I was going to die," Swanson said.

The next day, they confessed to Chattanooga police: yes, we airhorned. Yes, we swapped vehicles. Yes, we maced him. And not one word of that initial police report mentions anything about being harassed by Swanson.

Yet when Marion County authorities assumed jurisdictional powers, that's exactly what the teens told Hargis: Swanson was the aggressor; they were the victims who pepper sprayed in self-defense.

"Their story to me remained consistent," Hargis said.

For Swanson, a leader in the Chattanooga cycling community and the rowing coach at Girls Preparatory School, the event was so traumatic, he has yet to get back on the bike. He's not even cleaned out the back of his car.

"I had never called 911 until that day," he said.

Since then, he's called and called authorities, investigators and prosecutors, offering help, giving names of possible witnesses, handing over video and photos he took of the incident, almost begging to know how he can help them further.

Guilty people don't act that way.

As Taylor reviews the case, I hope he also considers two other factors:

  1. What were the exact chemicals they sprayed on Swanson?

Pepper spray -- a term used interchangeably with Mace -- can be a lethal weapon. The Chemical Weapons Convention has banned its use during war, and multiple studies have shown how pepper spray can lead to death, especially when sprayed on people with previous health conditions.

"Like asthma," states a 2011 Time report.

Swanson is asthmatic, which means the teens could have killed him that day.

  1. What is the charge for lying to police?

The teens told Chattanooga authorities one version, then rearranged their story when Marion County authorities got involved.

Both versions cannot be true, and if the teens are charged, will they also be charged with lying to authorities? And will their parents -- present during the initial confession, and assumedly there as the teens altered their story -- be charged as well?

Taylor, who is traveling to Nashville today, said he won't make his decision on the case today and probably not Wednesday. By the end of the week?

"Possibly," he said.

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