Homicide hearing: Daughter testifies to helping dad hide murder of unfaithful stepmother — (The Mercury News)

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The Mercury News

By Tracey Kaplan tkaplan@mercurynews.com

Posted:   01/17/2012 07:10:21 PM PST   Updated:   01/18/2012 05:10:59 AM PST

Gary Swierski, left, and Reina Swierski

By the time Sunnyvale resident Gary Swierski strangled his mail-order bride – and then ordered his daughter Eva to help him dispose of her body in the Santa Cruz Mountains – the young woman already had plenty of reasons to be terrified of her dad, she testified Tuesday.

Swierski had been slapping and hitting Eva with his fists, a hanger and a belt “kind of all my life,” Eva said with a shaky voice during her father’s preliminary hearing. He is charged with killing Reina Swierski in March 2005 after he found out she was having an affair.

Reina’s skull was discovered in 2008 in the Santa Cruz Mountains by a couple of hikers. But it wasn’t until last year, when Eva reported the crime, that Swierski was arrested. Tuesday’s hearing allowed prosecutor Matt Braker to persuade Judge Edward F. Lee there was enough evidence to put Swierski on trial. As is typical at such a hearing, Swierski’s attorney did not put on any witnesses or reveal much about her defense strategy.

The defendant, now 51 and nearly bald with a silver mustache, looked on impassively while his daughter — alternately trembling and sobbing, her left hand shielding her face so she didn’t have to look at him — recounted a litany of abuse that she said made her a pliable accomplice in the years-long cover-up of her

Eva, now 26, described a time when she said Swierski tried to get her to stop sucking her thumbs by taping socks over them. When she refused, he choked her until she nearly blacked out and then cut off her hair. She was in ninth grade at the time in special-education classes because of a learning disability.

Then, Eva said, she saw her father strike a pregnant Reina Swierski so hard she had a miscarriage. The couple “met” through a magazine containing ads placed by women in Central America seeking American husbands.

So when her father told her a few days before Reina was killed to go to Big 5 in Sunnyvale and buy big trash bags and a shovel, she readily complied, she said. Eva also testified that her father repeatedly said he was “going to do something” about Reina and that he might need her to drive him somewhere.

Body disposal

On the evening of March 8, 2005, she testified, he called her and demanded she come to their Polk Street house from the grocery store where she’d gone with her friends. When she arrived, she testified, he told her he had choked Reina and left her body in the bathtub.

“I said we should just call the ambulance or the police, that she was probably all right,” Eva testified. “He said, ‘No, it’s too late’ and started yelling at me that I needed to help him, and that I could not tell anybody or he’d kill me.”

Eva said she helped her dad carry a bag she believed contained Reina’s body down the stairs. He tucked the bag and a shovel in the trunk of his red Honda and drove far into the hills above Saratoga. She stared straight ahead at her seat belt while he disposed of the body, she testified.

When police asked about Reina’s dental records, Swierski became alarmed, she testified. To protect himself from Eva reporting what she knew, her testimony suggests he may have retrieved the head from the decomposing body and taken it to a spot Eva didn’t know about. But that’s where hikers stumbled upon it.

About six years after Reina was killed, Eva decided to drive her mother and her then-3-year-old daughter to Michigan where they could hide while she finally reported the crime to police.

“I just didn’t want to feel scared every day or feel like I did something wrong,” she said.

But fearing that she didn’t have enough gas to make it to the Midwest, she wound up telling police in Auburn instead.

Last year, Eva tried to lead police to the spot where she says she and her father drove the body that night, but she couldn’t pinpoint it. However, the area she indicated was in the same general vicinity as the skull.

Information blocked

On cross-examination, Swierski’s lawyer, Mondonna Mostofi, tried until the judge blocked her to elicit from Eva information that Reina was the one who had been violent with her father, including throwing things at him. Mostofi told the judge the information could bolster a possible claim that Swierski acted in self-defense.

Mostofi also got Eva to acknowledge she was high on alcohol and pot when her father called her to help him, and she was using meth and ecstasy around that period of time. Eva also acknowledged that her learning disability affected her memory and she had difficulty sometimes distinguishing reality from fiction. Eva testified earlier in the day that she is taking the antidepressant Zoloft and another medication called Geodon, an anti-psychotic used to treat bipolar disorder or schizophrenia.

Mostofi also drew attention to several other key elements of a possible defense, including that Swierski was actually a good dad and she was jealous that he treated her half-sisters better. The lawyer also underscored that Eva supposedly benefitted from being in a witness protection program that included free rent at one point, and still provides her with $200 a month.

Perhaps the saddest but most telling moment of the hearing came shortly before the judge found there was enough evidence to hold Swierski over for trial, when Mostofi asked Eva how she felt about her father.

Choking out a sob and grimacing in anguish, Eva quickly glanced at him and said, “I love my father.”

Contact Tracey Kaplan at 408-278-3482.