Did This Man Kill His Wife?
04/03/2006 at 01:00 AM EDT
Richard and Lisa Tyre were at their home overlooking Rhode Island's Narragansett Bay when they got the call that would shatter their lives. Their daughter Shelley's husband, David Swain, was phoning from Tortola in the Virgin Islands, where the couple had been on a scuba-diving vacation. Something was terribly wrong, but David's voice—calm and flat as usual—betrayed no emotion. "David said, 'Shelley's no longer with us,'" recalls Lisa, her eyes filling with tears seven years later. "My first thought was, 'Well, maybe she's taking a side trip.' It really didn't quite sink in." Says Richard: "He never said 'dead.'"
Tragically, Shelley had drowned, but Swain could provide few details. Although both she and David were expert divers, they had apparently violated the cardinal rule of diving safety: Stay with your buddy. "I screamed at him," says Richard. "I thought dive buddies were supposed to stay together. He said, 'No, I was taking photographs and she was counting fish.'" British Virgin Islands authorities ruled the 46-year-old's drowning accidental. But disturbed by Swain's behavior—his apparent lack of emotion and his evasiveness, in their view, about details—the grieving parents filed a wrongful-death suit against Swain, a Jamestown, R.I., dive-shop owner, in Providence Superior Court. On Feb. 24 the jury found him guilty of killing Shelley—and awarded her parents just over $3.5 million in damages. "If he killed her, we wanted the world to know," says Lisa, 77, who hopes the verdict will convince authorities on Tortola to criminally charge Swain. Swain, 50, maintains his innocence. "I don't know what happened," he says, sounding as detached as if he were discussing a case he'd heard about on Court TV. "Sometimes people die and we never learn why."
From their first meeting in the spring of 1992—when Shelley went on a dive David organized—the two had an intense chemistry despite divergent backgrounds. By turns charming and unsettlingly cool, Swain was a high school graduate from a troubled family: His younger brother is in prison for beating their mother to death, he testified at the civil trial. Warm and outgoing, Shelley was head of the middle school at the exclusive Thayer Academy in Braintree, Mass. Financially, David had been wiped out by an earlier divorce; Shelley, with significant assets, had given in to her mother's insistence on a prenup before the couple's October 1993 wedding. "I've never cared about money," says Swain. "I had zero problem."
In the months before Shelley's death, David had been romantically pursuing Mary Grace Basler, a local chiropractor. (Basler rebuffed him when she learned Swain was married.) He insists that this flirtation was the wake-up call the couple needed and that Shelley—who a week and a half before her death accepted a new post at 55 percent of her Thayer salary so she could be closer to home—was committed to fixing the marriage. "We were perfectly on the upswing," Swain says. "Here we were off on this trip together. It was like, 'Wow, things are coming around.'"
In March '99 they rented a 42-ft. sloop with diving pals Christian and Bernice Thwaites and the couple's 8-year-old son Matthew. On the 12th they decided to explore two wrecks a few miles south of Tortola. Around 12:30 p.m. Shelley and David dove in while the Thwaiteses stayed aboard to watch their son. Thirty-five minutes later, Swain surfaced and Christian jumped in to begin his dive. Minutes later he shot out of the water, screaming "Emergency!" In his arms was Shelley Tyre.
At the civil trial in Providence, Miami-Dade County's chief medical examiner Dr. Bruce A. Hyma, testifying for the Tyres, deemed Shelley's death a "homicidal drowning." In his opinion, her broken dive mask indicated a "violent struggle with another individual." Also, she had never released her weight belt, one of the first things a diver in trouble would do—if able. Another expert called by the Tyres' lawyer J. Renn Olenn, underwater forensic specialist Craig Jenni, agreed. Jenni concluded Swain had attacked her from behind in 80 ft. of water, turned off the air valve on her tank and held her on the bottom while she struggled and drowned. Jurors also learned that after Thwaites had administered CPR for perhaps five minutes, Swain, a trained EMT, told him to stop. In a videotaped deposition played at the trial, Swain explained that he had cleared his wife's airway, tested to see how her pupils responded to light—and then determined that she was dead and further CPR would be futile. About 15 minutes later when dive operator Keith Royle, who had heard a distress call, pulled alongside to help, he was told that none would be necessary. "I was told by a gentleman aboard that he was an EMT, that he had seen dead bodies before, and there was no need to do CPR," Royle said in his deposition.
Swain, who acted as his own attorney, didn't offer jurors an alternate scenario to explain the drowning. Like many expert divers, he said, he and Shelley often split up underwater. As an EMT, he said, he recognized that nothing more could be done. Says jury foreman Robert Capello, 59: "This was, from the evidence, a very easy verdict to come up with."
Swain is appealing the case. Meanwhile, the multimillion-dollar judgment is moot: Shelley's $750,000 estate is gone, and Swain declared bankruptcy last year. As for his apparent lack of emotion, his ex-wife Sandra Wheeler, 49, an R.N., defends him. "He was just devastated when Shelley died," she says. "But when a person has a horrible childhood they develop their own ways of coping." Adds his daughter Jennifer, 30, the only witness Swain called on his behalf: "My father is a very complicated man. He refuses to share his pain. I know he was in shock when he got off that plane."
Because of the evidence presented at the civil trial, Tyre's case "is now active again," says Tortola's director of public prosecutions, Terrence Williams. Should Tortola authorities eventually decide to charge him with Shelley's death, "I'll be happy to go down and face it," says Swain. "Give me an equal playing field and I'll be happy to put my facts against their wild speculation."