We May Never Know What Happened the Night Melvin Swift Was Shot Dead

Melvin Swift tried to keep up, but something was weighing him down. It was a hot summer day last May, and Swift was trudging around the large field at Westbury Christian Athletic Complex in Fondren while wearing a 20-pound vest strapped over his lean chest. It was nearly 100 degrees outside, and the sinewy legs at the base of his six-foot-eight frame extended into long, slow strides. Swift stopped. Exhausted, he turned to Herb Baker. “Man, I can’t do this,” Swift told Baker. “This thing is heavy. I’ve gotta take this off. It’s slowing me down.”

Swift, 20, was coming off a strong season playing basketball at Trinity Valley Community College in Athens, Texas, about a three-hour drive north from Houston, where Swift was raised and won two state titles at Jack Yates High School. Swift was a highly sought-after recruit at Yates. When he committed to Xavier University as a high school junior, one recruiting service ranked him as a four-star forward, who cracked the class of 2014’s top 100 players in the country. But his grades kept him out of the Big East school, so Swift instead chose Trinity Valley, a junior college powerhouse known for feeding some of the country’s top teams. After one year in Athens, Swift was already receiving interest from elite D-I programs.

Everyone knew Swift for his infectious smile as much as his ferocious in-game windmills and gravity-defying alley-oops. But he was a raw talent, too raw to play out on the wing, where Swift wanted to be. He needed to work on his ball handling and his shooting first. That’s where Herb Baker stepped in. The two started training together after Swift’s senior year at Yates and they had grown close, like father and son.
“Melvin,” Baker said, “when you take that vest off, you’re going to be able to jump even higher than you do now.”

“Fuck it,” Swift said, and he took off running. To this day, Baker remains in awe of what happened next. Swift broke into a full sprint and tore around the perimeter of the entire field and back, passing the other players participating in the brutal conditioning drill, the ones who were not wearing a weight vest. After the drill ended, they went right to the gym, where Baker had heavy medicine balls waiting. Swift walked in and picked up a five-pound ball. He took one hard dribble, jumped off two feet, put the ball between his legs and dunked it.

“He was special,” Baker said in an interview almost a year later. “He could do anything. He just needed someone to show him the way. You hear about those tragedies, guys with extraordinary talent, but for one reason or another, they never reached their potential. I never thought that would be his fate.”

Baker knew the gym was the safest place for Swift. He constantly checked up on him, texting and calling, driving him to training sessions and to local college games. On December 29 last year, Swift was home on winter break from Trinity Valley, staying with his mother, Bertha, in southwest Houston. Baker was going to see Incarnate Word play at Rice University that night, and he wondered if Swift was interested in going. Baker was taking his 13-year-old son Cannon, who was close with Swift.

Baker called Swift at 9 a.m., but he didn’t respond. For a moment, Baker thought about going to Bertha’s house to pick Swift up, but he decided against it. He figured he would just see him the next day.

When Baker returned home, he turned on the TV and watched the final minutes of another college game, which ended with a buzzer-beater. He went to grab his phone to text Swift, who, he thought, must have been watching, too. But Baker had left his phone in his truck. When he went outside to get it, he saw 28 missed calls and even more unread texts. Damn, Baker thought. Somebody must have died.

Then he saw all the texts were about Swift.

Baker walked back inside and woke up Cannon. “I don’t know what happened, but Melvin is dead,” Baker told his son. “Somebody killed him.”

Over the next few days, news stories trickled out reporting the murky details surrounding Swift’s death, saying he had been shot and killed while attempting to burglarize a home on Jorns Street in southwest Houston, that he was caught inside a young girl’s bedroom with a knife. The man who shot Swift told police he feared for his life. The official police report reveals the shooter’s side of events:

“On Tuesday, December 29th at approximately 7:00 pm, the complainant and his family arrived to their home from out of town. When they entered the house, the complainant’s thirteen year old daughter walked to her bedroom and noticed her bedroom door was opened and not closed as she remembered she had closed it before they left. She is then alarmed and frightened by an unknown black male standing near her closet and holding a red kitchen knife.

“As the suspect is attempting to get away, family members confront him and a fight begins to break out while attempting to pin him onto the living room floor. With knowledge of the suspect being armed with a knife and fearing for the safety of himself and his family members, the complainant shoots the suspect in the leg approximately one time. Sometime during the struggle, the suspect was also hit in the head with a bat.

“Houston Fire Department Paramedics arrived on scene and performed CPR on the suspect before transporting him to Ben Taub General Hospital where soon after his arrival, he was pronounced deceased at approximately 8:06 pm.”

People who knew Swift remain skeptical of that account. They said he would never threaten anyone with a knife. They doubted he was really there to rob a house — Swift had a clean criminal record in Harris County, and although he had been in trouble before, it was never for anything as serious as an armed burglary. (Swift was accused of swiping an iPod in 2012, but the charge was dismissed.) Swift, they said, was not perfect, but he did not deserve to die that night. How could human fallibility alone serve as justification for a fatal shooting?

No one has been charged in Swift’s death, and the case will soon be heard by a Harris County grand jury. If the grand jury indicts the shooter, then details of what happened could emerge during a public trial. But if the grand jury declines to indict the shooter, then the true story behind Melvin Swift’s death will likely remain forever untold.

Melvin James Swift was born on October 22, 1994, in Kodiak, Alaska, where Bertha was stationed in the military. His father, Melvin Sr., was a star basketball player, too. He wasn’t athletic like Swift, but he could shoot the ball, and played at a Division-II school in Oklahoma. There’s a photo of a young Swift, still in Alaska and celebrating his first Christmas, sitting under a decorated tree with a big smile on his round face. His hands are already big for a baby, and he is holding an orange ornament. It’s a basketball.

“Basketball was his life,” Bertha said in an interview. “He had always played basketball. He liked video games, movies. He’d try any sport, any little dare or challenge. But the love of basketball, once he knew that he had this God-given talent, he just went straight after it.”

The family soon moved to the Houston area and Swift kept growing. Bertha said that by the time he was in elementary school, he was already almost as tall as his teachers. “He was energetic, loved people, loved life,” Bertha said. “He had that closed-eyed, big, bright smile. Everybody he met, they automatically just gravitated toward him. He had been like that since he was a child.”

His corny jokes always made her laugh, and she said he had always been “the daredevil type.” When Swift was about eight years old, Bertha remembered, he jumped into their pool before he knew how to swim. They had to dive in and save him.

In eighth grade, Swift hit a huge growth spurt, and by the time he left middle school, he could already dunk.

When Swift entered Yates, the Lions were coming off back-to-back state titles. Swift’s friend and teammate J.C. Washington remembers that he and Swift, both six-foot-six freshmen on the varsity basketball team, walked around the hallways like kings. “It was fun,” Washington said. “He was just enjoying life. He would’ve been a professional basketball player, easily. All he had to do was develop his game and it was there for him. It was in his body.”

In his four years at Yates, Swift never lost a district basketball game, and the Lions won back-to-back Class 3A state titles his junior and senior years. Baker said Swift is one of the most decorated players ever in the history of Texas high school basketball.

He also made a name for himself on the Amateur Athletic Union circuit, playing on Houston’s top teams and wowing crowds with his dunking ability. He has dozens of highlight reels on YouTube, showing Swift catching alley-oops where his head is near the rim and posterizing helpless defenders. Even among a crowded Houston hoops scene, Swift stood out.

“He was just a big, happy kid dunking the ball,” Baker said. “I’ve never seen anyone dunk like that. His opponents would be filming him dunk during warm-ups. Even as an eighth grader, he was dunking on pros in Italy. He was an AAU event.”

Swift traveled to China and Europe and across the United States playing AAU ball, and his personality made him as much of an attraction off the court as his dunks did on it. Washington, who was also Swift’s teammate in AAU, remembered one tournament when he and Swift stayed up all night, running around the hotel and knocking on doors until the early morning.

After his senior season, Swift played for Baker’s AAU team. On one road trip to a tournament in Dallas, Baker said Swift and another teammate were blowing up his phone with texts and calls late at night. Baker was exhausted — they had played games all day and had to get up early the next morning. “Coach, where you at?” Swift asked him. “We’ve gotta show you something.” Baker bit, and he walked over to their room. Inside were a pair of adult women, hanging out with the 19-year old Swift and his friend.

“He was a charmer,” Baker said later, shaking his head and cracking a smile. “Girls loved him. He had a beautiful spirit. But no one really understood what was going on in his life. They only saw him on the court, when he was happiest.”

Swift told his mom that after he graduated from college, he’d be drafted by the NBA, and then he could take care of everyone. One time, he called Baker and said he needed $5. Baker told him he couldn’t help — his truck had broken down, so he couldn’t get to him. “That’s okay,” Swift told Baker. “Pretty soon, I’ll get you a new one.”

As a junior, Swift visited Xavier and committed on the spot. The decision was a surprise to recruiting analysts and even to Bertha, who said she found out her son’s college choice when Xavier’s coach called her later that night.

“Everybody thinks of athleticism when they think of Melvin Swift,” Yates assistant coach Juwan McClellan told the recruiting news service after Swift announced his commitment. (The Yates basketball department did not respond to our interview requests for this story.) “Now that he’s playing on the wing at 6’7 [sic] he has a really bright future when the rest of his fundamentals continue to come together.”

Swift seemed to be on his way up. But fate quickly pulled him back down.

It was almost as though Swift were wearing a weight vest his whole life. Some things he just couldn’t outrun. His parents divorced in 1996, and after that, Bertha said, Swift’s father became a much smaller part of his son’s life. (Melvin Sr. declined to comment for this story.)

“There was not always a male role model for him, and he wanted that for his father,” Bertha said. “I had to find positive male role models to keep him in line. I was a single parent and I had to work, work, work. Everything was on me. It was a struggle for him.”

When Swift was a senior at Yates, he had a daughter, Peyton. By all accounts, he was a dedicated father, but he struggled to balance school with raising a child. Bertha said he would skip class to take his daughter to doctors’ appointments and to help out at home. “He wanted to be in his daughter’s life because he didn’t have that full-time father figure with his own dad,” she said. But Swift’s grades slipped, to the point where he no longer qualified academically to play for Xavier. The school rescinded its scholarship offer. Swift was still receiving interest from top basketball programs, but it was clear he wouldn’t be on a D-I roster anytime soon. Once one of the top high school players in the nation, Swift suddenly seemed to be facing an uncertain future.

When Swift graduated high school, Baker told him he had a fresh start. Baker helped him find a spot at Trinity Valley, where Baker had a good relationship with the coach, Kris Baumann. Baker knew it would be a good fit for Swift. He trusted Baumann to develop Swift as a player, and to make sure he kept his grades up and stayed out of trouble.

Bertha trusted Baumann, too. He met with her before Swift signed, and was in constant contact with her throughout Swift’s time at Trinity Valley. “Coach, when he’s with you, I’ve got no worries,” Baumann said Bertha would tell him. “I’m just always worried when he’s down here [in Houston] and you guys aren’t around.”

When Swift first arrived at Trinity Valley, Baumann took the team on a fishing trip. Swift had never gone fishing before, and he kept losing different baits and hooks; after about two hours, he still hadn’t caught a thing. “Coach, I know there’s one down there,” he told Baumann. Suddenly, he reeled in a massive bass. The city kid was completely out of his element — he immediately dropped his pole, and the fish fell back into the water. Baumann jumped in and retrieved it. When they put it on the scale, it weighed seven pounds, the biggest fish they’ve ever caught to this day. “He was just so proud,” Baumann said later.

Swift scored 29 points in his first game for the Cardinals, nailing five three-pointers, and helped Trinity Valley reach the NJCAA Tournament in Hutchinson, Kansas. Just before the team left for the tournament, Swift dyed his hair bright red, for the Cardinals’ colors. In the first round, Trinity Valley was down 15 points early in the first half against Monroe Community College, but stormed back in the second. Swift hit a big three and had an electrifying windmill dunk down the stretch. “He became a celebrity,” Baumann said. “The next day, there was a line of kids waiting to get his autograph. Everybody was talking about the kid with the red hair.”

His impressive freshman season landed him back on the national recruiting radar. He was one of the top junior college prospects in the country, and teams were lining up with scholarship offers waiting in the wings. By the time his sophomore season started, Swift was attracting interest from high-major D-I programs like Memphis, Maryland, North Carolina State, Texas A&M and Arkansas. He had helped Trinity Valley recruit talented transfers like his friend Washington, from University of Houston, and former AAU teammate Leon Gilmore, from Creighton. The Cardinals were expected to compete for a national title in 2016. Swift was a big part of the reason why.

“He was a good kid, a hard worker; he just needed a place to be,” Baker said. “If you showed him a gym, he was good. That’s why he loved Trinity Valley. Things could’ve been better, but he knew what was on the horizon. I used to tell him, ‘Keep your nose clean and just stay out of felony court.’ He had offers. He passed all his classes. He was doing good. He was set.”

But Trinity Valley wasn’t the answer to all of Swift’s problems. When Swift was home, he would often call Baker and ask him to lend him some money. Sometimes it was to buy diapers for his daughter; other times, it was for little things, like a $2 Valentine’s Day card for his mother.

“When that kid would have problems, he’d pick his phone up and call me,” Baker, 44, said. “I had to always be there for him to keep him straight. He just needed to hear the right words — I had to pull him out to keep him from doing something crazy. We had some days where I was about to slam Melvin’s ass because I just couldn’t understand. [I was] like, ‘Man, you’ve got all these gifts.’ But I’m older. I’ve already made my mistakes. He hadn’t had a chance to learn from his.”

Baumann and Swift would often have long talks in his office. Swift would be bothered when his daughter’s mother would get on his back about not financially supporting their kid. Bertha helped out when she could, but Swift was living three hours away and more often than not, his pockets were empty.

“He was constantly worried about being a good father and taking care of his daughter,” Baumann said. “That was one thing that really stuck with him. It’s hard for a lot of kids who are 18, 19 years old going to college, who don’t have any money and have to take care of responsibilities with their child. It’s a tough situation.”

In the fall before his sophomore season, Swift got in trouble. Baumann heard that one of his players had stolen some money from someone on campus. He had it narrowed down to three players, including Swift. He called them into his office and told them they had two days to bring the money back. Swift showed up with the money. He told Baumann he made a mistake and that he was sorry. But his daughter’s mother said she needed money, and he didn’t know what else to do. Baumann kept him on the team, but told Swift that this was his one chance. Swift seemed to understand.

The Cardinals were 10-1 heading into Thanksgiving break when Baumann got a phone call from the campus police. They said one of Baumann’s players was suspected of stealing a BB gun from Walmart. At first, Baumann thought it was only a teammate of Swift’s who had taken the toy. But he found out Swift was there with him. They had both taken the gun out of the package and tried to smuggle it out of the store. This was Swift’s second offense, so Bauman had no choice but to suspend him from the team indefinitely.

Still, Swift showed up to every practice, every study hall, every weight room session and every game. He was barred from participating, but he went anyway. Before Baumann sent the team home for Christmas break, Swift came into his office and begged him to let him back on the team. Baumann said he’d have to think about it, and told Swift they would sit down and talk when he returned from break. Two weeks later, Swift was dead.

“I don’t think I’ll ever get over it,” Baumann said of Swift’s death. “It’s something I’ll live with every day. In the future, when I decide to discipline young men, in the back of my mind, he’ll have a part of it. Some of these young men are not from the safest places. Sometimes it’s better to try to find a way to keep them on a college campus. I don’t think that will ever go away from the back of my mind.” Baumann, like many who knew Swift, also said he doubts the police version of events. “Him being at the wrong place at the wrong time? That’s happened before. While he was here, he was never involved in a fight, never involved in an assault, never had a weapon on him. He was a terrific kid. Misguided at times — very impulsive, wouldn’t always think things through. But he would never hurt a fly. That’s not who he was.”

So what happened? It’s been hard for Swift’s family and friends to swallow the bitter pill that he may have been involved in an attempted burglary, but the few alternative theories are, unfortunately, unconvincing. One rumor widely accepted by his friends is that he was in the house with a girl, and when the girl’s brother walked in on them, he shot Swift. It’s easy to believe given Swift’s well-documented love for women, but there’s just no hard evidence showing the shooting went down like that.

Still, there are a number of points in the police report that raise legitimate questions. For example, it’s certainly strange to bring a kitchen knife to an attempted burglary. And who would burglarize a house at 7 o’clock on a weeknight? Why, when Swift tried to run, didn’t the homeowners just let him go? Why did they shoot him and then beat him with a baseball bat? It’s also unlikely that the shooter didn’t recognize Swift, since his mother’s home was just around the corner. But no one knows for sure what happened except the people inside that house on Jorns. Whether they told police the truth remains unclear.

“I almost wish it’d just go away,” Baker said. “I just don’t want it to be what they said. It doesn’t make any sense.”

On a warm, sunny evening in early May this year, the block on Jorns where Swift was shot was bustling. Children played on front lawns. The rental home where Swift was fatally shot already had a new tenant — the last family left immediately after the shooting and never returned. That family could not be reached for comment. (Neighbors said they didn’t know what the family’s last name was, and the family’s name was redacted from the police report.) The house is a single-story structure in a suburban development, with a large attached garage out front and a grill out back and the main entrance on the side, only a few feet from the home next door, which has a mirrored layout. The doorways face each other.

Janice Grace, 54, was sitting in her bedroom next door on the night Swift was shot. It had been quiet that week, so she knew her neighbors and their young children were out of town. The silence was broken at 7 p.m., when Grace heard someone scream, “This motherfucker is in my house!” She heard scuffling, which she said must have been right outside the front door. It sounded as if more than two people were fighting. Then, a gunshot.

Grace was raised in Third Ward, so she knows what a gunshot sounds like. She said she grew up with Swift’s father — they are Facebook friends — and she said she knows Bertha from the neighborhood. She had never met Swift, but she knew he was a good basketball player at Yates. Ten minutes after the gunshot, she heard the ambulance arrive, and she figured whoever was hit would be all right. When she heard it was Swift who was shot, and that he had died, she said it hurt her.

“I believe Melvin Swift had a promising future, but he didn’t know how to go after it,” Grace said in an interview. “I wish he would’ve been able to get himself together and get out of here. I wish they both made better decisions — I wish Melvin was never there that night and I wish this man wouldn’t have shot him.”

When Washington got a text saying that Swift had been shot, he and the rest of his Trinity Valley teammates initially thought it was just a bad joke. They gathered together in the dorms on campus as they watched news of Swift’s death spread on social media. Twitter was flooded with the memorial hashtag #RIPSwift. When Washington finally confirmed that their teammate had died, everyone sat in stunned silence.

Baumann was at home watching a college basketball game, and had dozed off. He woke up to find his wife, in tears, telling him that Swift had been shot and killed. He, too, thought it was just a bad joke. But as it became clear that Swift was, in fact, gone, it hit the close-knit Trinity Valley community hard. The men’s team dedicated the rest of their season to Swift, and the women’s team made up black T-shirts in his memory: “Fly high” written in cursive above a pair of angel wings.

Following Swift’s death, the Cardinals climbed to the top of the national junior college rankings, and they didn’t lose a game until their season came to an end, at 33-2, in the quarterfinals of the NJCAA Tournament in Hutchinson, Kansas, on the same floor where a red-haired Swift had wowed fans with his windmill dunk a year earlier. Baumann said he and the players couldn’t make it through their postseason banquet without bursting into tears. They framed Swift’s No. 2 jersey and hung it up in the school’s athletic complex. But there remains the uncomfortable uncertainty of what exactly happened to Swift. That lack of closure still lingers.

“Whether it’s good or bad, it would be nice to know what happened that day [he was killed],” Baumann said. “But it’s also important for people to know how influential he really was. Everybody knew who Melvin was. This isn’t just another star basketball player dying. He wasn’t perfect, but none of us are.”

Bertha is struggling to cope with the death of her first-born son. When the doctors told her Swift had died, she said she “lost it,” and trashed the family room at Ben Taub Hospital, flipping over tables in an uncontrollable rage. For the next few days, she was stuck in a daze. News cameras flooded her front lawn as Houston’s basketball community came to pay respects to the family of its fallen star. Bertha emerged from her fog to find her family in need. She and Swift’s brothers, 17, 13 and nine, have gone to grief counseling together. She said that has helped a little.

And Bertha is helping raise Swift’s daughter, Peyton, who was there during an interview at Bertha’s home in May, a short walk from where her father was shot to death. Old photos were spread over the dining-room table. Swift as a fifth grader, the tallest one in his class. Swift as a toddler, wearing a crisp white suit. Swift wearing his graduation cap from Yates. His wide smile was ubiquitous and remained somehow unaltered throughout the old photos spanning 21 years. There was only one picture of Swift and his father, from when he was a baby. The pamphlet from the funeral was propped up on the breakfast counter, and a framed photo of Swift, in a golden Yates Lions jersey, hung on the wall near the front door.

Bertha left the room for a moment to search for some of Swift’s basketball trophies that she had packed away, and the two-year-old, already tall like Swift had been as a child, picked up Bertha’s iPhone. She started flipping through her photos and stopped on a large picture, Swift’s head shot from Trinity Valley. “That my daddy,” she said softly. “He been died-ed. He been dead.”

In March, as Baker gingerly lowered his six-foot-nine, 230-pound, arthritis-riddled frame onto the low metal bleachers that ring the basketball court at north Houston’s Fonde Recreation Center, he began to cry. “Every time I step in this gym, I think about him,” Baker said. “I know he’s in heaven right now, repping Yates, Third Ward High. He loved Trinity Valley. He loved his family. He loved me.”

When the police arrived at Janice Grace’s door the night of the shooting, she peeked outside for the first time since she heard the gunshot. Her neighbor’s front door was wide open. There was a lake of blood, but it wasn’t outside on the porch where she heard the scuffle take place. It was inside the house, trickling down and pooling at the threshold before the door. When she remembered that detail during an interview in May, she suddenly stopped, and her eyes grew large as she put the pieces together.

“That’s right…I heard them scuffling outside, then the gunshot later, but the blood was on the inside,” Grace said. “So from what I heard, they had to have pulled him back inside the house and shot him. He must have been running. I think he was trying to get away.”

Swift was trying to get away, just as he had been his entire life, pushing hard through endless shooting drills and dribbling drills, sprinting though empty fields below the scorching-hot sun, trying to make something of himself on the court, for his mother, for his daughter, for Baker. But with one misstep, he slipped underneath the weight of life outside the gym. Then a single bullet escaped the barrel of a gun, and Melvin Swift never had the chance to pick himself back up.
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Leif Reigstad