Rural roads of Minnesota remain last known location of 19-year-old Brandon Swanson
Search teams have worked diligently to cover the 140-square mile area of interest, but some landowners have refused to allow access to search parties working to find Swanson, missing since 2008.
Editor's note: This archival article was first published on Dec. 16, 2021. It was featured in a recent episode of the popular true crime podcast "My Favorite Murder," which aired Thursday. Forum News Service checked with law enforcement on Monday and was informed there remain no new updates in the Swanson missing persons case.
CANBY, Minn. — More than 14 years after the sudden disappearance of 19-year-old Brandon Swanson from the rural roads of southwestern Minnesota, the search for his whereabouts continues.
Brandon Swanson was last seen in the early hours of May 14, 2008 leaving a friend’s house in Canby, Minn. His destination was just 35 miles away — a straight shot to his Marshall, Minn. home.
At around 1:45 a.m., Brian Swanson and Annette Swanson received a phone call from their son indicating his Chevrolet Lumina had veered into a ditch. He was calling for help.
While remaining on the phone with their son, Brian Swanson and Annette Swanson headed out to locate him near Lynd, Minnesota, where Brandon Swanson believed he was stranded. He told his parents he was walking toward the small town and made plans to meet them at a local business.
Shortly after stating his intentions, Brandon Swanson expressed with an expletive that he might be in trouble — and the line went silent.
His vehicle was located the next day by law enforcement roughly 20 miles from where Brandon Swanson had indicated he had gone into the ditch.
Extensive searches in and near the area where he went missing have been conducted over the years, yet no new physical evidence related to Brandon Swanson has been recovered.
While search teams have worked diligently to cover the 140-square mile area of interest, there has been resistance by some landowners to allow access to search parties, including those associated with Emergency Support Services, an organization based in Minneapolis that provides assistance in search and rescue operations.
Still, efforts to uncover any new evidence or clues carry on — and Brandon Swanson’s family continues to wait for answers, while those involved in search efforts continue to wait for access.
The night Swanson disappeared
Having just wrapped up his second semester in wind energy at Minnesota West Community and Technical College in Canby, Brandon Swanson gathered with his friends to celebrate.
After initially attending a gathering in Lynd, located roughly seven miles southwest from his home, he made his way to his Canby destination, roughly 35 miles northwest of his home. While alcohol was being consumed at the gatherings, his friends indicated to law enforcement that he did not appear to be intoxicated when he left the party.
The drive from the gathering in Canby to Marshall is one he had made nearly every day during his commute to and from his college campus. Yet in the early hours of May 14, 2008, Brandon Swanson chose to drive on the back roads, rather than on the commonly traveled Minnesota State Highway 68.
While traveling along the 3900 block of Lyon Lincoln Road, Brandon Swanson veered off the road and became hung up in the ditch. Unable to move his vehicle, he reached out to his parents for help.
The couple remained on the phone with their son until they heard him yell a swear word, followed by silence. They called out to him and heard nothing. Calls back to his phone indicated the phone was still on, but Brandon Swanson did not answer.
“I can say that his phone was functioning into the next day. I mean, you could place a call and it would ring before turning over to voicemail,” Lyon County Sheriff Eric Wallen said. “That much I can say.”
Brian and Annette attempted to report their son missing that morning at 6:30 a.m., but because he was an adult, they did run into initial resistance. They continued to search for him on their own throughout the morning.
Law enforcement got involved that afternoon and located Brandon Swanson’s vehicle in an entirely different location than he believed he was when he initially placed the phone call to his parents.
“We were able to use the cellphone tower technology to have an idea of where his last communications or phone calls came from, so that put us on a cell tower up in that area,” Wallen said. “So then the search was focused there, and the car was located.”
No keys were found in or around the scene — and no obvious signs of foul play were present.
“The vehicle simply looked like it was stuck in the ditch, or partially in the ditch,” He said. “There was nothing odd about it. If a person passed by, they would think it was just parked there, or broken down and stuck.”
Extensive search, year after year
The initial search for Brandon Swanson included trained search dogs, hundreds of volunteers and air surveillance.
A canine unit led law enforcement agents to the Yellow Medicine River, a roughly 3-mile trip from the location of his vehicle, indicating that Brandon Swanson had traveled on foot to the rushing spring water. From there, the canines lost the scent.
“The dogs did follow what was believed to be Brandon’s scent to the river… and that was it,” Wallen said.
The Yellow Medicine River has been the subject of extensive searches over the years, including excavation efforts in areas where the dogs have led law enforcement.
“We’ve had excavators come in and sift through the dirt, looking for something, whether it’s remains or property,” Wallen said.
That type of excavation took place again as recently as the fall of 2021. With the river dried up due to drought, Wallen said the excavation crew went to work — and still came up with nothing.
That’s not surprising to Ken Anderson of Emergency Support Services, who has focused his team’s efforts on the area northwest of Porter, Minn, a zone that has proven to be of repeated canine interest. Porter is located roughly six miles from where Brandon Swanson's vehicle was discovered.
While his team’s investigation has been extensive, relying on trained professional canine handlers and search dogs with advanced capabilities, there are still portions of land in that area that Emergency Support Services has not been allowed to access.
The roadblock to access has come down to landowner permission.
Geographic holes in the search
When Emergency Support Services initially took over the majority of search efforts for Brandon Swanson in late 2008, they ran into the issue of landowner permission, particularly among cattle farmers who took issue with search canines present on their property.
It's a complication they're still trying to solve today.
“In at least a couple of circumstances, that (problem) is still in existence,” Anderson said. “They will not allow us on their property. We don’t dispute the reason why. We try and work out a method that would make it acceptable, and we’ve not been able to come up with a working compromise.”
That’s a troublesome issue for those leading the search party. While sympathetic to the concerns of cattle farmers, Anderson acknowledges it still leaves holes in a search that has received the dedication of many.
Yellow Medicine County Sheriff Bill Flaten has worked closely with Emergency Support Services throughout the years, particularly when it comes to seeking landowner permission. He said most landowners are more than willing to make it work, as they're dedicated to their community and the Swanson family. In situations where landowners have declined, Flaten said probable cause has not existed for law enforcement to step in.
"They know their property, and they search it and look around as well," he said.
With each passing year, different types of search dogs are required to pick up on aging scents. For those working on behalf of Emergency Support Services, it’s still important that they continue to try to access untouched property, yet they also know that the number of dogs trained to help them, at this point, is dwindling.
“The problem is that as time goes on, it becomes much more complicated to fulfill the search because you need to have canines that have experience in aged scent,” Anderson said.
In Minnesota alone, roughly three dogs possess the capabilities to carry out this type of search, although Anderson said it’s not uncommon for his team to utilize canines from other states.
If given the opportunity to move onto cattle property that has not yet been searched, Anderson said they’d be quick to accept that offer.
“We would take that opportunity very, very quickly,” Anderson said.
Anderson and his team aren’t strangers to working around the needs of landowners, particularly in the search for Brandon Swanson. With the search area located among plenty of farmland, Emergency Support Services has worked diligently with farmers to create an access schedule that works around the shifting planting and harvest seasons.
“They are extremely careful about anything that could damage the least amount of income to them, and we’ve worked out some pretty creative access to some areas during the summer,” Anderson said.
Still, he admits that the farming terrain has provided unique obstacles to this particular search.
“The farmers pretty much have this thou shalt not between this time and this time, and we still work it out as best we can, but it has exacerbated our search abilities,” Anderson said.
An ongoing investigation
On the law enforcement investigation end of the case, Wallen said tips continue to come in. While none have, at this point, led investigators to his whereabouts or remains, they keep the case from going cold.
Within the last year, the Sheriff’s Office and BCA have received additional tips, although he points out that not all tips are new for investigators.
“That doesn’t mean that the tips aren’t redundant, or that they come from a different person, but include the same information that we’ve previously received,” he said.
Many tips revolve around the events leading up to Brandon Swanson’s disappearance, including claims that he was involved in an argument at the time he went missing. In many circumstances, this is third-hand information. Wallen would not indicate specifics regarding an alleged argument.
Wallen said all tips are followed up on, regardless of how many separate people have come forward. Yet those tips haven’t led to the break in the case investigators have been hoping for.
“It seems that every tip that we receive, we investigate and we run into a dead end,” he said. “It was either false or the information wasn’t accurate… they all seem to run into a dead end.”
To date, no physical evidence related to Brandon Swanson has been uncovered, including his cell phone, eyeglasses, car keys and clothing.
Left in the wake of their ongoing tragedy, Brian Swanson and Annette Swanson identified roadblocks they ran into in their effort to immediately get law enforcement involved in their son’s missing persons case.
Eliminating those roadblocks for other families was the goal behind Brandon’s Law, a Minnesota law passed in 2009 that requires law enforcement to immediately take a missing persons report— and begin an investigation — for all situations, regardless of the age of the person believed to be at risk.
While Brandon’s Law doesn’t necessarily help the Swanson family and the search for their son, it does correct an issue they believed hindered what could have been a search conducted much sooner.
It was their way of turning their intense grief, pain and frustration into something useful for other families in the future.
Citing the emotional toll of their son’s disappearance — and the accompanying difficulty of the holiday season — Brian Swanson and Annette Swanson chose not to comment for this story. Brian Swanson did indicate that 14 years after the disappearance of their son, the pain still remains.
Search efforts for Brandon Swanson will move forward when the weather allows, Anderson said — and they’ll continue to wait for access to areas that could hold answers to their investigation.