Reflections on the Death of My Brother:
Thirty-Five Years Later
Early this month, the Chelan County Sheriff arrested two people, a man and a woman, and charged them with first degree murder in the death of my older brother, Steve Smith. 35 years ago, Steve was living in Cashmere. He disappeared, and his body has never been found. Apparently the sheriff has uncovered new evidence in the case, evidence sufficient for him to bring charges against the accused.
I instinctively think of Steve as my older brother. But he was only 30 when he died. I’m 62, shaped and changed by three and a half decades of experience since Steve disappeared. It’s strange to imagine him dying so young. I wonder what life might have taught him had he lived.
Growing up, Steve and I weren’t close. Three years older, he attended junior high when I was in elementary school; he entered high school when I reached junior high. When I was a high school freshman, he was a senior preparing to graduate. And our interests were different; I liked school and loved books, while Steve barely tolerated school and loved cars. I ran track and played basketball; Steve wrestled.
He graduated high school in 1970, which meant, for a young man with no college deferment, receiving a letter of “greetings” from Uncle Sam. Fortunately for Steve, in the Nixon years the Vietnam War was winding down. Steve served his time in the Army without going to Asia.
After high school I saw Steve less than ever. I left the valley for college about the time Steve was discharged from the service. Two weeks after college graduation, Karen and I married, and in three months we left for California. From a distance we learned that Steve had “settled down,” marrying Dawn. On a vacation to the valley—1980 I think—we met Dawn, the only time we ever saw her. Later Steve and Dawn had a daughter, Crystal. In 1982, a few months before Karen and I moved back north, Steve disappeared. In the meantime, a divorce proceeding granted Steve primary custody of Crystal; Dawn had visitation privileges. I can only guess as to the reasons for that arrangement. After Steve disappeared, my parents were given custody, and later they adopted Crystal. Crystal is at once my niece and my sister.
Absent a body, my parents hoped for a time that Steve would turn up. Gradually they accepted the almost certain truth, that he was dead. Other challenges took over their lives. Mom was diagnosed with leukemia, and after four years of struggle she died. In 1989 a new woman entered the picture: May. I had the privilege of performing their wedding. Dad’s second wife took on the task of stepmom to Crystal. I will always be thankful for May, for her love for Dad, and for her mothering to a little girl who had lost so much.
There is another, worse, aspect to the story. After Dawn and Steve divorced, Dawn married a man named Bernie Swaim. According to the Sheriff’s account, Dawn and Bernie conspired together to kill Steve. Sometime later, they separated.
In her life’s first decade, Crystal’s father was murdered and her grandmother/mother slowly lost her battle with cancer. Her birth mother faded from her life. And now that woman is accused in her father’s death. You can see why I am so grateful to May and why I pray for Crystal every week.
I hope that Bernie and Dawn receive a fair trial. More than that, I hope that the process of the trial produces incontrovertible evidence of what happened to Steve. Ideally, Bernie and Dawn would tell all that they know and take responsibility for whatever they did. I hope that somehow, in the course of the trial, whatever its outcome, there can be freedom and healing for Crystal. Other than memories and a few pictures, there is nothing that speaks of Steve’s years on Earth. Nothing, that is, except his daughter.
Like me and unlike Steve, Bernie and Dawn have lived the last 35 years. Judging by their arrest photos (published in the papers), the years have not been kind to them. I imagine they’ve lived hard lives. If the sheriff’s accusations are proved, they may well spend their remaining years—the years sometimes called “golden”—in prison. Washington state taxpayers will supply their retirement facilities, quite probably until they die. Is there an irony here? If so, it’s heartbreakingly sad.
It is no surprise that human beings often do stupid and evil things. We pray that divine grace will take our brokenness and redeem it. After 35 years I don’t know how that might happen in my brother’s story. Nevertheless, I pray for a triumph of justice and love. When we pray for God’s kingdom to come, we’re not just imagining a far-away neverland. I hope for some measure of healing for Crystal (and others, including Bernie and Dawn) in this life.