Victim's mom: 'They got away with murder'
Seventy witnesses, dozens of suspects and one dead 20-year-old.
Five years ago, Kane County prosecutors began sorting through a mess of evidence to bring justice to the family of Nicholas Swanson of Elgin.
It was a complicated case that State's Attorney John Barsanti said reminded him of an "aggravated bar fight," where facts can be distorted by the sheer chaos of the crime.
"You'll have a hundred different versions of what happened - literally," Barsanti said. "There are a lot of people doing a lot of things and kind of watching out for themselves and not looking at the whole picture. You get bits and pieces of what happened, and try to put them altogether. They are some of the hardest cases to prosecute."
An estimated 50 people were involved in the Feb. 12, 2005, melee that led to Swanson's death and came to be infamously known as the Plato Township brawl. The fatal fight led prosecutors to take the rare step of convening a special grand jury, which leveled charges against 17 participants after hearing testimony over two months.
Though no one was ever convicted of delivering the fatal blow to the back of Swanson's head, two men initially charged with first-degree murder pleaded guilty to reduced charges and served time in jail and probation. Three more were convicted of involuntary manslaughter, and the rest were found guilty of lesser charges, including mob action and misdemeanor disorderly conduct.
"The largest challenge was trying to get witnesses in their late teens and early 20s to give up their friends and, in some cases, themselves," said Assistant State's Attorney Greg Sams, who was lead prosecutor. "On any case, that can be a daunting task, but the media scrutiny this case brought, I think, added pressure to witnesses not to cooperate."
On the night he was killed, Swanson had been summoned from bed around 1 a.m. by his younger brother, Eric, who told him he was about to confront a group of men who had called and harassed him and his friends. The friction stemmed from the breakup of a Burlington Central High School football player and a St. Charles North High School cheerleader more than a year before.
The rival factions ended up fighting - some with baseball bats, bottles and planks of wood - near Corron Road and Oak Tree Lane in Plato Township. When the fighting ended, Swanson, who was hit in the head with a blunt object, did not get up.
No one ever claimed responsibility.
"I don't think there was any chance anybody in that case could have been convicted of first-degree murder based on the facts," said attorney Kathleen Colton, who defended brawler David L. West of Geneva. "There were so many conflicting stories about what actually occurred, how the fatal injury was inflicted, and what the instrument of death was."
Swanson's mother, Debbie, said the involuntary manslaughter charges "still get to me."
"They came with weapons. There was intent to do bodily harm," she told the Daily Herald. "I think they got away with it, I really do. They got away with murder."
Attempts to reach West for comment were unsuccessful, as were attempts to reach others accused of being on the front lines of the brawl, including St. Charles residents Timothy D. Campbell, Brett VonEyser, and Brian Halling, and Christopher Leon of South Elgin and Leif Johnson of Elgin. Jack Mokrousov of St. Charles, who was convicted of aggravated battery, declined to be interviewed.
More than half of the defendants got back into trouble with the law in the weeks and months after their convictions, resulting in probation extensions, jail time and other sanctions.
In 2007, the Swanson family filed suit against 15 of the defendants, but it was later dismissed under the statute of limitations, according to court records.
"It's still pretty emotional, to think it's been five years and nothing's happened to the people," said Debbie Imse, who was close friends with Swanson at the time of his death and attended prom with him in 2003. "Someone killed someone and they're walking free."
Because there is no statute of limitations on murder, Sams said, new charges would be possible in the off-chance new evidence about the fatal blow comes to light.
"However, depending on what the evidence was and who it pointed to, we might have to contend with double-jeopardy issues," he said.
Barsanti said he always believed prosecutors had evidence beyond a reasonable doubt for murder charges, but he couldn't be sure a jury would agree.
"If some kid had said, 'I hit Swanson, I saw him fall and he didn't move after that,' well, that would have been easy. But no one admitted anything," he said. "My job is never to put as many people in prison as we can; it's to get as much justice as we can, and we came as close as we could."
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