1 YEAR LATER, MURDER OF ABC7 PRODUCER IN BELIZE STILL UNSOLVED
A year after ABC7 executive producer Anne Swaney was murdered while on vacation in Belize, the case remains unsolved.
Swaney's family and friends have had a year of anguish because the 39-year-old was gone, but also because her murderer has not been caught.
Police in the Central American nation of Belize are in charge of the investigation, but there has been no apparent progress in the search for the killer.
Swaney was executive producer of online operations at ABC7, where she had worked since 1999 after graduating from Northwestern University.
"It's still not reality for me," said Ji Suk Yi, a friend and co-host of Windy City Live. "I still feel like Anne went away on vacation and I'm still waiting for her to come back."
An avid adventure traveler, Swaney went to Belize in mid-January 2016. The Missouri native loved to ride horses and was making a return visit to an eco-resort and ranch in the Cayo District of western Belize.
"She was really excited to go back. She had met people there previously, she loved horses. This was her type of equine adventure. And she was excited to go back to a place where she felt comfortable going by herself," said Sandi Moleski, a friend and sorority sister.
On Jan. 14, 2016, Swaney went missing. She had apparently been by the Mopan River, which runs next to the eco-resort property, after ranch workers said there weren't enough horses for everyone to ride that morning.
Swaney stayed behind.
Her yoga mat, shirt and backpack were found on a deck near the river where she was last known to be.
The next day, searchers found her partially clothed body a short distance down river.
She had been strangled.
Belize police officials said a year ago there were signs of sexual assault but forensic tests did not confirm that, according to sources familiar with the investigation. Her cellphone was missing, police said.
"If, in fact, the perpetrator took the phone with him, that would be the biggest piece of evidence. The next thing you'd look at is the physical evidence from the body. Because it's a manual strangulation it's a very physical crime. The odds are that DNA was left in her fingernails because I'm sure Ms. Swaney struggled," said Robert Milan, a former Cook County and federal prosecutor.
Milan, a cold case expert, said key questions are how well Belize police handled the crime scene, retained and processed evidence and identified potential witnesses.
"Guests at that hotel, people involved in the horseback riding, anybody else that was around that scene. You'd want to know the rap sheets and here's why: The odds are this individual attacked women before and has a rap sheet," Milan said.
A year ago, a Guatemalan national near the murder scene was arrested and for a time was a suspect in Swaney's death. However, he was quickly cleared.
Authorities questioned eco-resort employees, the property manager and his father, the owner, who was among the last to see her alive. Both told the I-Team in Belize that they had no knowledge of what happened to her.
A year later, no one has been charged in her murder and there appear to be no prime suspects.
Milan said that it's possible that someone randomly came upon Swaney while she was doing yoga in the remote location, but it is unlikely.
The not knowing has made the last year difficult for Swaney's loved ones.
"I want to know specifically why she didn't end up going on that horse ride, why were they a horse short...We feel like it had to have been someone, we believe, someone there that knew her," Suk Yi said.
"Being a year now, I think I've come to the terms of the fact that we'll probably never know," Moleski said.
Swaney's father died not knowing. His health took a bad turn after she was murdered and he died in February. Her younger brother told ABC7 he still isn't ready to talk about what happened.
The FBI is still involved in the case, but not the lead agency. Belize police are in charge.
ABC News Chicago