[Noozhawk’s note: This is the first article in a three-part Noozhawk series exploring the 2013 death of Heidi Good Swiacki, who suffered from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS. Information for the stories was derived from statements and evidence presented during criminal grand jury hearings that resulted in the Solvang woman’s mother and her caregiver being indicted on first-degree murder and conspiracy charges. Not-guilty pleas have been entered for the defendants, who are to stand trial in November. Click here for the second article, and click here for the third article.]
Heidi Good Swiacki had every reason to want to die.
After eight years, the unrelenting ravages of Lou Gehrig’s disease had left the 52-year-old Solvang woman paralyzed, able to move only her eyes, and completely dependent on machines, medication and caregivers to stay alive.
The difficult existence carried huge physical, emotional and financial burdens for Heidi and her family.
But when her life slipped away the afternoon of March 25, 2013, Heidi reportedly was not ready to die.
Despite being trapped in a nonfunctioning body, she felt she was living a full life, and still had items to check off on her “bucket list.”
She did not get that chance.
An autopsy led Santa Barbara County sheriff’s investigators and prosecutors to conclude that Heidi was deliberately sedated before the ventilator that breathed for her was disconnected.
Death by asphyxiation came quickly, according to experts who deemed the circumstances a homicide.
Earlier this year, more than two years later, a criminal grand jury indicted Heidi’s 89-year-old mother, Marjorie Good, and one of her caregivers, Wanda Nelson, on charges of first-degree murder and conspiracy.
Transcripts of the nine-day grand jury hearings reveal a tragic tale — an alleged conspiracy borne out of the suspects’ hatred for Heidi’s husband, Stephen Swiacki, and driven by their financial interests.
After making several court appearances since the indictment was handed down and having not-guilty pleas entered for them in July, the trial for Good and Nelson is scheduled to start in early November.
Good was released from County Jail on her own recognizance, while Nelson remains in custody.
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More than eight years ago, Heidi, who also went by Heidi Good Swiacki, led an active life, including participating in a three-day walk for breast cancer research.
After admittedly ignoring symptoms for months, she finally went to the doctor and learned she had amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS. Often called Lou Gehrig’s disease, it is a progressive neurodegenerative affliction.
Over time, the effects worsened and she became unable to breathe, talk or move on her own. She communicated via eye movement using a computerized program.
In August 2012, Heidi decided to get a feeding tube and tracheotomy, which meant she would rely on a ventilator for breathing.
“Getting an invasive breathing apparatus is a life-changing event, not to be taken lightly,” she wrote on her blog. “I have no regrets for doing it. It has prolonged my life 4 years, which I am thankful for.”
After Heidi’s ventilator arrived, caretaker Sherrie Gibbs recalled discovering a disconnected oxygen line, according to the grand jury transcripts. She mentioned it to her client.
“I found it very odd, because it’s very hard to put on and off,” Gibbs said in her testimony.
She stated that she told Heidi to have the caretakers keep an eye on the ventilator’s lines.
A month before Heidi died, Gibbs testified, she found the line off again, and told her, “Heidi, this is not an accident.”
Then two weeks before Heidi’s death, Gibbs stated that she again found the line loosened.
“This is not an accident; somebody is doing this,” she testified.
A series of private caregivers plus Heidi’s husband were providing the round-the-clock care she required as she was confined to bed.
In March 2013, Heidi was maintaining her own blog, sending emails, handling her family’s taxes, and otherwise living a full life.
Just months earlier, her condition did not stop the family from all traveling to see her daughter, Ashton, graduate from college in Sacramento.
Yet, the ongoing cost of accommodating Heidi’s needs — estimated at $100,000 a year — took a toll financially and otherwise.
As time went on, caregivers hired by the family had their pay and hours cut back. According to the grand jury transcripts, Nelson revealed to others that she had car payment and tax problems after discovering she had been paid as an independent contractor, not an employee.
Likewise, according to the transcripts, Good believed she had been taken out of her daughter’s will — and would not get the $30,000 she expected — because a notary met with Swiacki and Heidi on the Saturday before she died.
Financial troubles weren’t the only stresses. Good at one point struck her grandson, Christopher Swiacki — an incident Heidi called “the last straw,” according to testimony from overnight caregiver Anita K. Wright.
There had been violence before. Good previously verbally lashed out at and physically struck Heidi’s husband, the transcripts state.
According to the transcripts, Heidi’s mother expressed concern that Swiacki could hurt himself or his wife, and told Wright “to be aware that he was unstable.”
After years of living together in the same house, Heidi decided to ask her mother to move out, but wanted to wait a few days “so they could have a peaceful weekend,” Wright recalled later in her testimony.
“She was going to tell her that she had to move,” she stated.
Wright also related a disturbing conversation she said she had with Good days before her daughter’s death.
“She told me that Thursday evening, that Heidi was going to die, and it was something she has never said, and it was strange that she would say it,” Wright told the grand jury.
Amid the underlying turmoil, the small army around Heidi fell into a routine, one in which her husband went to work, Good ran any needed errands, and Nelson handled weekday care.
On March 25, 2013, the routine inexplicably changed.
Nelson drove to Rite Aid Pharmacy, leaving Good alone in the house with Heidi.
(They weren’t completely alone on the property, the grand jury transcripts revealed, since Christopher and some of his friends were in the backyard, smoking marijuana.)
Good, also known as Midge, usually conducted the errands “so that Heidi Good would not be without a nurse, and because Midge is hard of hearing and doesn’t know how to work with the ventilator,” Gibbs explained in her testimony.
Nelson claimed Heidi sent her on the errand.
Rite Aid logs show someone picked up an antibiotic for Heidi at 2:12 p.m. that Monday, but records and video are not available to reveal who retrieved the prescription.
Nelson told sheriff’s Deputy William Hollon that when she returned from the drug store, she could hear “a beeping sound coming from Mrs. Good’s room and recognized it to be an alarm system on the actual ventilator,” the transcripts state.
Upon entering Heidi’s room, according to the transcripts, Nelson discovered her patient was dead as the alarm still sounded.
“I walked in, she was peaceful, she was white,” Nelson reportedly told Gibbs, according to grand jury testimony.
“I said, was the alarm on? She said, yes,” Gibbs added. “I said, was the hose disconnected? She said, no.
“That really surprised me. I was like, why, unless she had a huge mucus plug, why would she be connected and the alarm going off?”
According to readings on the machines, the low-pressure alarm on Heidi’s ventilator activated at 1:58 p.m. and continued for 30 minutes. (Actual readings were off by five minutes.)
The transcripts state that Good told the deputy she had been discussing Easter plans with her daughter before going outside to garden. Some three to five minutes later, Nelson returned to the house and yelled, “She’s gone.”
Almost immediately, Heidi’s mother and her caregiver implicated Swiacki in her death.
“Marjorie stated that Mr. Swiacki wanted Heidi dead, and that he made that perfectly clear to her,” according to testimony from Hollon, who arrived at the house and took charge of the Coroner’s Office investigation.
When Swiacki arrived home from work at 3:30 p.m., a deputy initially prevented him from seeing Heidi’s body, although he eventually was allowed into the room.
“I hugged her, cried and just looked at her,” Swiacki testified. “She looked like she was asleep … Then I went out and just sat with Heidi’s friends, and the coroner took her body away.”
In announcing Heidi’s death on her blog four days later, he posted about being heartbroken.
“Even after eight years of ALS, it was sudden and unexpected,” he wrote.
The day after Heidi died, deputies interviewed her mother and Nelson, noting in later grand jury testimony that neither woman cried. Nelson eventually gets “a little upset” briefly and while she’s alone, detectives noted.
“But the devoted mother who has given everything, who is shocked and appalled and can’t believe this happened, has no emotion,” Senior Deputy District Attorney Cynthia Gresser commented to the grand jury.
Over the two years since Heidi was found dead amid suspicious circumstances, her mother and caretaker have given several conflicting accounts to authorities.
The day after Heidi’s death, Nelson reportedly claimed that Swiacki called her the day before, asking for a credit card, according to the grand jury testimony.
The transcripts state that Nelson reportedly replied, “I don’t have it. I gave it to Midge.”
Yet in the same hour-long interview, according to the transcripts, Nelson later said that Heidi had asked her to go to the pharmacy, claiming Good couldn’t have the credit card.
In her interviews, Good claimed to know nothing about feeding her sick daughter, but the grand jury testimony notes that she corrected a detective when he referred to delivering drugs through the tracheotomy tube, adamantly saying the medication was administered through the stomach tube.
And although the women initially told detectives that everything was fine with the ventilator and they didn’t know what happened, Nelson claimed in a July 2013 interview with detectives that the tube was loose.
In May 2014, Heidi’s daughter, Ashton, agreed to investigators’ request to wear a recorder during a meeting with her grandmother. In the course of the conversation, the transcripts state, she asked if she had any way of getting in touch with Nelson.
“I haven’t heard from her in months,” Good reportedly told Ashton.
But the wiretaps tell a different story. Good and Nelson had talked via phone twice in the days before the grandmother claimed she hadn’t heard from Nelson, the testimony states.
At another point, the grand jury was told, Good mailed a newspaper article about the investigation to Nelson, telling the woman to call her at the house of a neighbor of the Swiackis.
“She’s trying desperately to let her co-conspirator know that they’re looking into the investigation,” the prosecutor said.
On May 17, 2014, Ashton Swiacki again met with her grandmother, and asked if she has had any contact with Nelson, according to transcripts.
“I hope you’re not covering up for her,” Ashton was quoted as telling her grandmother.
A few days later, Ashton Swiacki called Nelson, who later changed the outgoing message on her voicemail.
Records show two more phone calls occurred between Good and Nelson on May 23, 2014.
If there was any doubt about the question being posed to Good or her intent, prosecutors said, it’s cleared up when she tells Nelson in a phone call, “Nobody knows where you are.”
“Keep it that way,” Nelson reportedly replied.
On Sept. 12, 2014, investigators conducted a ventilator simulation at the house where Good acknowledged, while standing outside, hearing the low-pressure alarm, asking “What is that?”
On the day of Heidi’s death, she reportedly was outside trimming hedges and was unable to hear the alarm.
Experts examined Heidi’s body, seeking signs of the normal causes of death for patients with ALS.
Dr. Dean Hawley, a forensic pathologist on the faculty at Indiana University School of Medicine in Indianapolis, testified that Heidi, like most ALS patients, likely would have caught an infection that would start with bed sores, then bacteria would spread to the lungs.
None of that was observed during her autopsy.
“There’s no skin breakdown at all,” Hawley said. “We photographed all of her body. The internal organs are completely normal; there’s no infection here.”
He added, matter-of-factly, “This was not her day to die.”
— Noozhawk North County editor Janene Scully can be reached at email@example.com and executive editor Tom Bolton can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.