Mother on uneasy mission

Miss Denise wants her son's killer found and an end to violence.

Published June 4, 2007

ST. PETERSBURG - For days after her son's death, Denise Swisher couldn't eat or sleep. She spent hours by his grave, sinking into a private hell like so many other mothers of slain teenagers.

Then she fought back. She began walking the streets, handing out fliers and talking to the city's most troubled youths: students afraid of being beaten or shot, girls who had gone too far with their boyfriends, teens whose street personas melted as they awaited a prison sentence.

She begged them to stop the killing.

Don Quixote had better odds tilting at windmills. But when Miss Denise spoke, the city's toughest kids actually listened. They wept with her and called her at night. She shooed away bullies and settled their disputes.

"P-Nut" Swisher's mom became a mother to the city's youth, a warrior against murder.

By all accounts, she succeeded. For seven months after she began her crusade, not a single person was killed by gunfire south of St. Petersburg's Central Avenue.

"Not having a shooting death in that area in that length of time is pretty much unheard of," said Sgt. Mike Kovacsev, the head of the Police Department's homicide unit. He calls Swisher's impact "profound."

Miss Denise isn't surprised. She believes in the kids everyone else dismisses at first glance.

Even if they still haven't come forward with the one thing she wants more than anything.

She went to high school near Tallahassee, worked as a nursing assistant and had five kids.

Forbes "P-Nut" Swisher was born on the way to the hospital. His chubby cheeks looked like they were full of peanuts, earning him the nickname. He grew up playing football and flirting with girls. He was 18, a prom court member who won acceptance to Bethune-Cookman College.

He had his mother's large, dark eyes and smooth, rounded cheeks. And a smile so bright that it was voted the prettiest at St. Petersburg High School.

He was close to his father and stepfather. But everyone knew he was a mama's boy.

"He was the only one of my boys who would slow-dance with me," said Swisher, now 36.

On May 31, 2006, he visited her in the hospital, where she was having tests for asthma complications. He crawled on her bed and goofed around before asking for $20 for McDonald's.

A couple of hours later, Swisher got some visitors: police officers and a chaplain.

Did she have a son who went by the nickname P-Nut?

Grief, then anger

A friend had called P-Nut, asking for his help. Dozens of kids were fighting. At some point, a couple started firing guns. P-Nut was hit in the head.

For city police, 2006 was unfolding as a bloody year. Tensions were flaring between kids from Childs Park and Bethel Heights. P-Nut's death marked the department's 11th homicide investigation of the year, part of a string of killings of young black men. And a hot summer lay just ahead.

A little over 20 homicides a year had been the norm in St. Petersburg. In 2005, the death toll shot up to 30. Police were concerned, said Maj. Michael Puetz.

As the feud escalated, Miss Denise turned half of her living room into a memorial to her son. A huge poster of him hangs on the wall, next to dozens of photos. Stacks of thick binders hold mementos from P-Nut's life.

Her grief turned to anger as she spent her days in her apartment and at his grave at Woodlawn Cemetery: "I couldn't let this happen to any other child."

So she made photocopies of a flier and recruited other mothers of slain children to walk the streets, like her cousin Alicia Roberts.

"Hi sweetie, how are you doing? I'm P-nut's mom. You know how he was killed," she would say. "Don't let another mother bury her child."

She kept at it for months, until her asthma forced her into the hospital. But kids kept calling.

"Miss Denise, can you help?"

"Miss Denise, can I come over and sit?"

"Miss Denise, Miss Denise ..."

The killings slowed. The city recorded 21 homicides in 2006, but no shooting deaths south of Central Avenue after August.

"She somehow found a way to take this egregious loss of her own and turn it into something positive," Puetz said. "At the end of the day, seeing the grief of a mother helped abate these issues."

Witnesses needed

Diontae "Smoke" Lovett, 20, has been arrested on cocaine possession; his brother was killed. Miss Denise understands.

"She knows how to talk to me," he said. "Anybody else, I can't talk to."

Shellie Long, 25, is another one with a reputation. He comes over to her apartment, visits her in the hospital.

When he and his buddies listen to her, they think: "That could have been me that got killed."

So why won't the kids who know about P-Nut's killing come forward?

"I don't know," Lovett said.

"I can't tell you why," Long said.

Miss Denise knows teenagers who go to the police can be branded as snitches and turned into outcasts. But she wants her son's killer to be prosecuted.

"I hear of other mothers who are going to court to receive justice for their sons," she said. "Why isn't there any justice for my son?"

Kovacsev, the head of the homicide unit, said police think they know who killed P-Nut, but can't make an arrest because witnesses won't testify.

The lack of cooperation is frustrating, said Detective Ron Noodwang, the lead investigator into P-Nut's death.

"It's sad to know that nobody's taking responsibility for the death of your child," he said. "It's sad to know that your own kid's best friends were out there. They'll tell her and their parents stuff. But when they come to speak to us, it's completely different."

'This is my job'

It's Saturday night. About 500 teenagers are in Campbell Park for a Rest in Peace party for P-Nut and Antonio "Pac-Man" Roberts, Swisher's cousin. Pac-Man was killed in 2005.

Miss Denise can't walk more than a few feet at a time. One teenager begs her to talk to a young woman who's drinking even though she's pregnant.

"Can you promise me you're not pregnant?" Miss Denise asks.

The girl silently stares at the ground. Miss Denise snatches the drink, dumps it on the grass and throws the cup away.

"This is my job," she says.

More kids come up to her with hugs, like 17-year-old A.D. Harris. "Miss Denise, I love you, I got you," he tells her.

As she walks through the party, she reaches out to kids with hugs and smiles. She rubs their cheeks.

She used to touch P-Nut's cheeks every day.

"I've touched so many boys' faces since the time my son has died and I still haven't found that touch, that feel," she said. "I need to feel that feel, and I know it's not possible."

Times researcher Carolyn Edds contributed to this report. Abhi Raghunathan can be reached at araghunathan@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8472.

Fast Facts:

To help

Anyone with information can call police at (727) 893-7164 or (727) 892-5545.