They said he was a good man, a good friend and a good law-enforcer who gave his life for his community.
On Nov. 27, hundreds of friends and family members turned out at the Church of the Highlands to say goodbye to that man – veteran Eureka police investigator Charles D. Swanson, who died on November 21, 1996 from a massive heart attack while arresting a burglary suspect.
A senior police investigator, Swanson was serving a search warrant on a storage locker when a suspect identified as Steve Garland Christopher, 34, of Eureka arrived at the locker. Upon seeing the officers, he fled and a car chase ensued.
Christopher’s car ran off the road and he fled on foot with Swanson chasing him. Swanson was assisted by his partner and close friend, Detective Pat Freese, in arresting the suspect. Moments later, dispatchers received a call that an officer was down.
Freese administered cardiopulmonary resuscitation while an ambulance was enroute. Swanson was taken to the Arcata hospital, where he was pronounced dead. The autopsy revealed that he suffered from arteriosclerotic heart disease, said Coroner Glenn Sipma. He had undergone triple bypass surgery in 1989, and was later cleared by his doctor to return to work.
It’s unusual for a police officer to resume his career after such a major surgery, but Swanson couldn’t stay away, said his friend and colleague Frank Jager, an investigator in the District Attorney’s Office. “Police work was the love of his life,” he said. “He was just entirely too valuable a resource for anyone to lose.”
“I think he would be any employer’s dream,” said Jager. “He was always willing to go the extra mile for you. There was no time clock for Charlie.” Jager recalled how Swanson mastered the art of fingerprint identification, earning a reputation as an expert in the field at a time when other investigators often leave that work to lab technicians.
Tony Viegas, a deacon at the Church of the Highlands and Swanson’s friend, said the gathering also was a celebration of a much-loved man. “And a celebration it should be,” Viegas said. “For 47 years, Charles blessed us with his presence on this Earth.” He also spoke of Swanson’s well known, and somewhat mischievous, sense of humor.
“That sense of humor that manifested itself in a bunch of practical jokes,” Viegas said, eliciting smiles and some laughter from listeners. Chief Arnold Millsap said “We’re like a family here. We’re tighter than most families. We all share in this risk, and our wives share in it. It’s a nightmare come true.”
“He was just an all-around outstanding peace officer,” Millsap said. “He was what chiefs yearn for. I had such great respect for him.” But it was Eureka Police Department’s Capt. Murl Harpham’s heart-wrenching testimony about Swanson, his best friend, that was perhaps hardest to hear.
“I don’t know if I’ll be able to do this,” Harpham said, his voice cracking. “Forgive me, Cheryl, I’m supposed to be the one giving you strength.” The captain said he lost his best friend “and the citizens of Eureka lost one hell of a cop.”
He noted that Swanson was the only Eureka policeman to be picked as Officer of the Year two times.
Harpham said there were second-guessers who questioned why Swanson had returned to work if he had such heart problems. “Because that was Charlie,” Harpham said. “He would have it no other way.”
Deputy District Attorney Rob Wade said “Swanson was extremely conscientious, very bright and extremely hard working. The quality of his investigative work was first rate. I just thought he really embodied the virtues of a good cop.” He cracked cases that seemed hopeless. And at times, Wade said, was able to earn the respect of the most unlikely people. “He even had a good rapport with the defendants that we prosecuted in a lot of cases,” Wade stated.
Swanson was a graduate of College of the Redwoods and graduated with top honors from the Gilroy Police Academy. He had worked in the Eurekea Police Department for 22 years, joining the force as a reserve officer in June 1974 and was hired as a patrol officer in 1975. He was voted Rookie of the Year in 1976 and Officer of the Year in 1982 and again in 1986. He was promoted to the rank of detective in 1980 and to senior investigator in 1992.
Swanson worked homicides and other major crimes. He taught at the College of the Redwoods Police Academy and was especially proud to be an assistant scoutmaster with Eureka Boy Scout Troop 54. He was also known for his work with local news organizations. He was the officer who initiated the “most wanted” program – appearing in the Times-Standard weekly as Law Enforcement Bulletin – which publicized criminal suspects wanted by police and resulted in more than 250 arrests.
Swanson was 47. He is survived by his wife of 23 years, Cheryl, and his 19-year-old son, Ryan, as well as other family members. Christopher remained in jail on a felony burglary warrant, receiving stolen property and resisting arrest. His companion, Maria Elena Zimmerman, was released from jail.
The family has asked that memorial contributions be made to Boy Scout Troop 54 or to the Eureka Police Officers Association, both in care of the Eureka Police Department, 604 C St., Eureka, CA 95501.