published Wednesday, January 15th, 2014

Cook: As terrifying as riding a bike

As he was clutching his throat and gasping for breath, hoping to God he wasn't dying, Anders Swanson thought things couldn't get much worse.

He was wrong.

"That was actually the least of it," he said.

It was Saturday. The weather was perfect. Swanson, a 30-year-old Chattanooga cyclist, went to ride the TVA reservoir on Raccoon Mountain, a place he's logged more than 25,000 road miles over the years.

"You feel safe up there," he said.

He was a few miles in when they first appeared: a black Chevy truck, with two teenagers inside. The truck buzzes him; Swanson thought he was going to get hit. From inside, somebody blares off an air horn.

"They were trying to mess with me," he said.

Swanson gets to a stop sign, gets out his cell phone and calls security.

The black Chevy comes back. Pulls up close. Revs the engine. Swanson gets out of the way, tells them to wait on the officers. The teens drive off, close enough that Swanson hits the back fender with his hand.

"This part is all on video," Swanson said.

He's recorded it, snapped pictures of the driver and passenger. The license tag is clear. The camo ball cap on the dashboard. The faces of the two teenage males inside.

"He flips me off as he drives off," Swanson said.

Chattanooga police arrive. The officer takes his story. Swanson pulls up the picture of the license tag, thinking to himself: It'll all be over now. He goes back to his ride.

The teens return. This time, in a white Toyota Four Runner with four occupants. Later, Swanson would hear from other witnesses there who noticed the spooky way the Four Runner was driving; one man told Swanson he immediately got in his car and left.

The Four Runner goes by him, then pulls over. Swanson rides by. They drive by him again, then stop. The routine continues several times until they drive off. Swanson gets back to the parking lot and begins to leave. It's getting dark. His Honda is the only car there.

Then the Four Runner pulls in.

Swanson, halfway out of his spandex bike suit, is by his car. The Four Runner drives up, just-so-close to him. Swanson looks inside the passenger side, realizes who it is.

"Aren't you the kid from earlier?" he asks.

Swanson then sees the teenager lift up his hand. Something's in it. A squirt gun.

"Full of mace," he said.

His face turns to fire as they drive away. An asthmatic, Swanson thought his lungs were about to squeeze in on themselves. His throat swells. He can't see. He's swallowed it, but doesn't know what it is.

"Kerosene? Anti-freeze?" he thinks, terrified.

He fumbles with his phone, somehow activating the emergency call button. An ambulance arrives, along with more officers. He tells them what happened.

"I know the passenger was the one who pepper-sprayed me and I know he was the driver of the first vehicle," he said. "Beyond a shadow of a doubt."

That night, he tells his story on Facebook, posting two pictures of the black Chevy, its passenger and driver. Soon, multiple people contact him, each identifying the males.

Sunday afternoon, a Chattanooga police officer calls him. She'd gone to the teenagers' houses. She tells Swanson they confessed.

"We can arrest them now," Swanson recalls the officer saying.

Then, somehow, the case is transferred to Marion County police, as the incident falls in their jurisdiction, not Chattanooga's.

That's when everything changes.

A Marion County officer calls him, tells Swanson to take down his Facebook posts -- "he said I was committing three felonies," Swanson said -- and that if he planned on pressing charges, then the teens' parents were going to press charges against him.

Swanson does what he is asked: He and his wife remove all Facebook posts. Monday morning, they arrive at the Marion County Sheriff's Office, ready to press charges.

The teens had already been there, telling the officers another version of what happened that day on the mountain.

"They say I reached into the car and tried to grab the kid," Swanson said.

Suddenly, Swanson is a possible attacker. The teens' parents are threatening to issue a warrant for his arrest, saying their children were threatened that day. That Swanson was the one cursing, the aggressor. That the pepper spray was on a key chain; the teen had only used it as protection.

As his wife begins to cry, shocked at what she's hearing, Swanson experiences this Kafka-esque moment: the victim, now the suspect.

"It's their word against his," said Detective Gene Hargis.

Hargis is gathering evidence and hopes to report to the district attorney by Friday: to prosecute or not. And who.

"We can't just take his word on it. Just like we can't take their word. We have to investigate these matters and pull any and all evidence together," said Hargis.

Swanson, the rowing coach at Girls Preparatory School, weighs less than 150 pounds. That afternoon, he was wearing spandex and cleated cycling shoes -- about as easy to run in as stilettos. And he assaulted the teens? And he on his tiny bike stalked them?

Swanson called law enforcement multiple times that day, calling for help. Did the teens ever call? Swanson said the parking lot has video cameras that would have recorded exactly what happened. He said one teen's mom called him, apologizing profusely.

The pepper spray was not aerosol -- like the kind in a key chain canister -- but liquid, like what you'd put in a squirt gun.

And why would one officer in Chattanooga obtain a confession and be ready to make an arrest while officers in Marion County now see Swanson as a possible suspect despite zero evidence against him save the words of the accused teens?

"At this point, I have no idea whose side is correct or not correct. I hope to determine that. I'm trying to be as impartial as possible," said Hargis, who had not seen the Chattanooga police report (they would not release it on Tuesday, either).

In this soon-to-be-Ironman town, this Boulder-of-the-East, the way this investigation is handled will represent so much. What will happen if cyclists think the roads -- on Raccoon Mountain, of all places -- are not safe? What does it mean when someone attacked is now on the defense? Will that influence whether others come forward if -- or when -- something like this happens again?

"I did everything I thought I was supposed to do," Swanson said.

That's the worst part.

Contact David Cook at dcook@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6329. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter at DavidCookTFP.

about David Cook...

David Cook is the award-winning city columnist for the Times Free Press, working in the same building where he began his post-college career as a sportswriter for the Chattanooga Free Press. Cook, who graduated from Red Bank High, holds a master's degree in Peace and Justice Studies from Prescott College and an English degree from the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. For 12 years, he was a teacher at the middle, high school and university ...

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HimJim37 said...

In addition to being implausible, there is nothing to corroborate the story of the Forerunner drivers or reduce the situation to a "his word against theirs" judgment call. Anders obtained photographic evidence, called the police, suffered a subsequent attack, and called the police again with a positive ID of the original harasser. Right? Anders should hire a P.I. to assemble evidence concurrently with the police. He should bring a civil suit against the attackers for assault, battery, defamation, and intentional infliction of emotional distress, regardless of whether they are damage-proof. He should also bring a sec. 1983 suit against the Marion Cnty Sheriff's Dept. for violation of his due process and equal protection rights. It's his responsibility now to make an example of these people. Hikers and bikers in Tennessee should also consider carrying a sidearm, and drivers should be aware that many do already.

January 15, 2014 at 9:29 a.m.
matt_from_chatt said...

We should organize an open carry group ride event around chattanooga to show that this is a cycling-friendly, freedom-loving city.

January 15, 2014 at 1:34 p.m.
AgentX said...

It's that small-town mentality. The sheriff probably knows the family or one of the kids. The parents want to protect the kids, so they come up with a story to twist things around. As a parent, I understand that instinct to protect your children. But, if one of my kids is ever involved in something like this, I'll make sure there is some form of punishment at home too. Probably with a nice leather belt for starters. I used to ride my bike through Middle Valley, and there were occasions when people would throw trash or even glass beer bottles at me.

January 15, 2014 at 2:25 p.m.
teamsmith said...

If the story ends with these juveniles getting off without consequence, I fear it will encourage more random acts of violence against cyclists from the youth of the area. Will it become a rite of passage in area high schools to run a cyclist off the road or hit them with mace or a paintball? The counties of Tennessee have long held that cycling on the road is legal but if there is no consequence to this event, I see it as open season against cyclists. I, for one, will be keeping my road bike on the hook and sticking to the trails. I hope the public exposure from this article will help the cause.

January 15, 2014 at 4:38 p.m.
VisaDiva said...

Some questions that come to my mind: How does a 146 pound man threaten a truck and some teenagers? How afraid of him would the teens be to come back a second time? Is pepper spray out of a bottle considered a weapon? Can the guy in the truck produce the can he said he used? Is the TVA security footage being made available? Since this occurred on their federal property what part of liability does TVA share? Will the feds get involved? Does Marion County want to get a reputation like South Pittsburgh as far as fairness and honesty? Can the law enforcement there be objective? The sad truth is that this guy will be out a lot of money defending himself, paying for EMT services, and paying an attorney for doing nothing more than trying to have a fun, relaxing ride.

January 15, 2014 at 8:52 p.m.
Kerry said...

I did not know it but now I do. Marion County, Tn is corrupt as three dollar bill !!!

January 15, 2014 at 9:25 p.m.
DigitalOz said...

I would recommend that the biker contact the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation regarding Maury Co Sheriff's office, the local press and an attorney for a civil suit against these guys.

January 20, 2014 at 10:47 a.m.
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