Monte Swanson sat quietly through his birthday dinner with Phil and Kay Eldeen last year, fidgeting and ignoring the intrusion of the ever-beeping cellphone lying next to his plate of half-eaten chicken.  

He was dirty from living in a transient camp near the Kim Williams Trail and when he went to leave, the 260-pound-man wrapped up the remnants of the chicken and took it with him.

It was a curious move.

As his biological father and his stepmother, the Eldeens were quite familiar with Swanson's healthy appetite.    

"The last thing he said to me was 'I love you, Mom,' " Kay Eldeen recalled. " 'I'm with good people, they will look out for me.' "

Two weeks later, when the body of transient Gilbert "Jack" Berry turned up floating in the Clark Fork River, Eldeen responded to the nagging unease she felt when Swanson left with the chicken: He was in danger and the traveling group that he had been swept into wasn't going to look out for him.

They weren't good people.

"I texted him and said there's something going on in Missoula," she said. "You need to get back to me." 

As Eldeen sent the message, the 25-year-old man was already headed to Louisiana in a stolen car full of pitbulls and his newfound traveling companions, with Berry's murderer, Kevin Lino, at the helm.  

It's been more than a year since anyone in Missoula has seen Swanson, and his family and friends, with the help of Missoula County Sheriff's Capt. Mike Dominick, are trying to sift through a convoluted web of traveler stories to find him. 

This is the first case Dominick has investigated in which an adult male vanished. He said he's been working on the case for more than a year, and he's personally invested in finding Swanson, or at least discovering what's become of him. 

"It's like the string is unraveling and I can't tie it up," Dominick said. "It's disconcerting to have an innocent person disappear." 

***

The sequence of events that prompted Swanson to get into a car with Lino, Lino's one-legged girlfriend Angela Marchese and another younger man, Jonah Cook, is complicated and partially predicated on Swanson's "teddy-bear" type personality.  

It also may have something to do with Swanson's potential connection to the murder weapon, a gun that he bought with his last paycheck and traded to Lino for a pitbull puppy.

"I think he was convinced they were his friends," Eldeen said.  

When Swanson left his job at Spectrum Aquatics last July, he decided to move to the Kim Williams Trail transient camp with his high school friend Kenny Hickman and his wife Mechailiah Tembreull. Like Swanson, the couple were also Missoula residents who made a conscious choice to live outside, away from modern conveniences.  

Another Hellgate High School graduate, Brandon Seitz, found himself homeless during the same time and moved into the camp with his former classmates. 

It wasn't Swanson's first brush with the homeless life. Swan Swanson, Monte's adopted father, told the Missoulian last week that Monte had lived in the homeless camp in 2013 and enjoyed the lifestyle.

"It was kind of his thing," Swan Swanson said. "He was off for a couple months that summer. That part was his personality. He liked feeling no responsibility."

But a month before Berry's murder, another more sinister camper moved in: Lino.

Also known as "Phoenix," Lino was a traveler from Massachusetts who exhibited some nasty habits. He allegedly had ties to a gang, the OGC Crips out of Lowell, Massachusetts. He was consistently abusive to his partner and at one point threw her prosthetic leg into the Clark Fork River, Dominick said. He also liked to terrorize and rob other transient groups, particularly older people.  

According to Seitz, Phoenix was not well liked within the camp, but he was tolerated, partly out of fear. 

"Phoenix was crazy, legitimately crazy," Seitz said. "He would sleep outside regardless of what kind of weather. It could be zero degrees outside. He was not all there. He would talk to himself. He was a compulsive liar."

When the camp was evacuated by county and state officials in July 2014, the whole crew, with the exception of Seitz who found a job and a place to live, relocated to the Reserve Street homeless camp.

On July 30, Lino turned his drunken rage on the 36-year-old Berry. According to court documents, Lino sadistically tortured and beat Berry. He cut off his victim's hair and extinguished cigarettes in his nose.

The court documents said Hickman was Lino's accomplice, and together they stomped him and carved gang symbols into his body until he was unrecognizable.

But other people, like Seitz, put Cook at the scene of the crime. Cook had been traveling with Lino for well over a year by the time they arrived in Missoula.

For a while, Cook had evidence on his Facebook page that he was a "shot collar" gang member, or in other words, he was a high-ranking member, Dominick said.

Ultimately, Lino used Monte Swanson's gun and put a bullet through Berry's head "because they didn't know what what to do, they had beat him so badly," Dominick said.

When Swanson came back to the camp, they had already dumped the man's body into the river.

On Aug. 5, law enforcement officers found the body. Lino's group left town in the middle of the night. Swanson's wallet was found in Cody, Wyoming.

"It's been over a year now," said Swanson's best friend, Cory McLaughlin of Stevensville. "So I have a bad gut feeling about it. He just got caught up with the wrong people and I'm worried he had to pay the price for it."  

***

After a month and a 100-officer manhunt involving police dogs, Lino was found in a river bottom near Shreveport, Louisiana, and subsequently extradited to Montana to face a deliberate homicide charge. Marchese was also picked up, but those charges were later dismissed.  

While Lino was facing extradition for the murder charge he denied, Swanson and Cook remained in a camp outside Shreveport. The last time the Eldeens spoke with their son, a Shreveport sheriff's deputy agreed to go out to the camp and give Swanson a phone.

It was early September 2014, and he told them he was fine and they were moving on to Maine.

According to interviews Dominick conducted with Marchese later, Cook told her that Swanson disappeared in Mississippi. He told Marchese that Swanson went to go panhandle and never returned, leaving a puppy unattended in the camp. 

Cook didn't return a request for comment for this story. His court-appointed attorney, Bill Boggs, also declined to comment. 

"I worry that since Monte Swanson was the link to the pistol, someone may have wanted to cut that link," Dominick said. "I worry that Cook's loyalty (to Lino) may have affected Monte Swanson."

In other words, Swanson could have been called to testify about the gun used in the murder, had Lino continued to plead not guilty.

Lino eventually entered a no-contest plea and last month was sentenced to 40 years in the Montana State Prison.  

Dominick said there have been no records of a John Doe matching Swanson's description in Mississippi, nor are there any records of Swanson being arrested for panhandling.   

Further, it's not even clear in which county or even area Swanson disappeared, so it's harder to direct the missing person's case to a specific jurisdiction. 

Dominick's hope is that Swanson is fine, traveling and enjoying his newfound freedom, but his friends and family say it's uncharacteristic for him to leave and have no contact.

Mostly, everyone wants to know what happened to Swanson.   

"I always told him, I would always keep track of him and I always did," Kay Eldeen said last week, wiping away tears from her eyes. "This was the hardest thing for me, because I lost a son there." 

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