A Man Killed A Woman And Her Unborn Child In A Car Crash, But Her Bereaved Husband Befriended Him

As bereaved husband Erik Fitzgerald steps out of the store he sees something unexpected. Across the parking lot, Matt Swatzell – the killer of his wife and unborn baby – steps out of his vehicle. Fitzgerald walks over with only one intention. As his eyes meet those of Swatzell’s, he reaches out and grabs him.

In 2006 Erik Fitzgerald was much like any other young father. He and his wife June already had a young daughter named Faith, and a second child was due in a matter of weeks. But early in the morning of October 2, he was awakened by someone knocking at his door.

It was a local pastor, who then proceeded to tell Fitzgerald that his wife and daughter had been involved in a vehicle collision. So Fitzgerald rushed to the hospital to be with them. But when he got there, the news wasn’t good. Mercifully, his daughter was unharmed – but there was nothing the doctors could do for his wife.

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In his time of inestimable loss, there was one figure Fitzgerald knew he could turn to in order to see him through – God. The young widower opened his Bible to help navigate past his mind-shattering grief. But two years later, a chance encounter would ultimately test his beliefs and everything that the Bible had taught him.

A day short of the two-year anniversary of his wife’s passing, Fitzgerald happened to be in the parking lot of a grocery store. And there, right in front of him, stood her killer. So, as he recalled a particular religious sermon in his mind, Fitzgerald reached out and grabbed hold of the man.

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In 2006 Matt Swatzell was 20 years of age and working as a novice firefighter. It wasn’t unusual for him and his colleagues to work 24-hour shifts, and October 1 was no different. Of course, he would usually grab some sleep between callouts, but it doesn’t always work out that way.

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October 1, 2006, was a particularly busy day for Swatzell’s firefighting crew. So on the morning of October 2, he headed home in Dacula, Georgia, in a state of presumable exhaustion. Not only had his shift been full-on, but he had only managed to get around 30 minutes shuteye all day.

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Despite having slept so little in the previous 24 hours, Swatzell felt fine driving home. As he told Newspring Church in 2011, “I didn’t really feel that I needed to pull over.” The young firefighter did, after all, have only a short distance further to drive. However, life would change forever just moments later.

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Swatzell was roughly two miles away from his home when an unimaginable tragedy struck. As he recalled to Newspring Church, “I ended up falling asleep at the wheel and crossing the center line.” As Swatzell drifted off, he veered out of his lane and directly into the path of oncoming traffic.

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Driving in the opposite direction to Swatzell that morning was 30-year-old June Fitzgerald, who had been traveling with her one-year-old daughter Faith. It only took a few seconds for the firefighter’s car to veer across the road and into the path of the mother and daughter. Their vehicles collided head-on.

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June’s husband Erik Fitzgerald had first been made aware of the situation with an urgent knock on his door. He told Newspring Church, “I had just woken up that morning and I heard a pounding on the front door.” A familiar face greeted him when he answered, but the news was devastating.

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“I went to see what was going on,” Fitzgerald described. He, like his wife, was 30 years old, and he worked as a pastor. “The senior pastor from the church where I serve [was at the door] and he told me that my wife and daughter had been in a car accident.”

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Fitzgerald headed to the hospital. But when he got there, a grief counselor approached him – and he quickly realized that the situation was bad. He was taken to a private room, where a doctor proceeded to describe his wife’s condition to him. And as it turned out, June’s injuries were horrific.

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As Fitzgerald painfully recalled, “June had sustained severe head trauma and some broken bones. The steering column had actually been crushed in towards her abdominal area. Due to the injuries that she sustained, she had gone into cardiac arrest almost immediately.” There was nothing doctors could do and June succumbed to her injuries.

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Yet Fitzgerald still had his daughter to think of. Thankfully the toddler’s injuries were minor, suffering only a little bruising and minor cuts. Nevertheless, he went to Faith’s room and approached her bed, where she was playing with a nurse. He didn’t know if his daughter could properly comprehend what was happening.

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Naturally, when Faith saw her daddy she reached out for him to hold her. It’s a memory that still caused Fitzgerald to break down when he described it to Today 12 years later. However, what the toddler did next was a relief to her dad, who was presumably still struggling to process what had happened.

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“[Faith] crawled into my lap and then she just went to sleep,” Fitzgerald described to Today in December 2018. “And I was thankful because I didn’t have to pretend that everything was okay.” Indeed, things were far from okay. And Swatzell, who was receiving treatment elsewhere in the hospital, also learned how bad the situation was.

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A police officer informed Swatzell of the seriousness of the incident. “He said, ‘I don’t know if anyone’s told you, but June didn’t make it,” the firefighter described. And if the young mom’s passing wasn’t a hard enough situation for him to deal with, there was a further sting in the tail.

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Swatzell continued, “And then [the police officer] also told me, ‘And by the way, she was seven months pregnant. And the baby didn’t make it either.’” The news had a devastating effect on the firefighter. After all, he worked in a role of public service. Yet suddenly he found himself on the flip side.

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“I’m supposed to be the helper,” Swatzell described to Today. “[It’s] the EMT and the paramedic and [the] fireman that helps in these tragic situations. And here I am, [I] caused this.” And what was worse, the novice firefighter faced prosecution for the incident. His future as a firefighter lay in Fitzgerald’s hands.

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Due to the consequent prosecution, Swatzell and Fitzgerald weren’t permitted to make contact with each other. And for the next two years, both struggled to cope with their grief. As Fitzgerald described to Newspring Church, “Hearing the news, just trying to process it, not only did I lose my wife and best friend, but I also lost a son.”

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Perhaps understandably, Fitzgerald turned to God to help him through. He explained, “Here I was, I just had the worst day of my life. I opened my Bible and I said, ‘Okay, God, what do you have?’” And if anyone believes in divine intervention, maybe that could explain what happened next.

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Despite his grief, Fitzgerald was under pressure over Swatzell’s prosecution. Although it was an accident, Swatzell nonetheless needed to be held accountable for what happened. A maximum penalty, should Fitzgerald have wished to pursue it, could have meant jail time. It would almost certainly have destroyed any chance Swatzell had of remaining a firefighter. Fitzgerald, however, saw the light.

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“I remembered somebody said this in a sermon,” Fitzgerald recalled to Today. “In moments where tragedy happens… there [are] opportunities to demonstrate grace or to exact vengeance. Here was an opportunity where I could do that.” So what did the man who lost his wife and unborn son do?

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“I chose to demonstrate grace,” Fitzgerald concluded. Despite his grief, then, the now-single father knew a harsh sentence wouldn’t bring June back. And he didn’t feel the need to ruin someone else’s life as well. Besides, here the man had a chance to exercise the forgiveness that he propagated in his role as pastor.

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Swatzell was hit with a fine and community service. However, that did nothing to ease the guilt that wracked him over what had happened. “Initially I went through every emotion possible,” he explained to Newspring Church. “For the first couple of weeks it really broke me down to the lowest of the low.”

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But Swatzell couldn’t do the one thing that might ease the pain. As he described, “It was tough not being able to talk to Erik because of legal issues. All I wanted to do was make sure he was okay and express my emotion of sorrow to him.” This pressure was present for two years.

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It took a chance meeting at the grocery store for Swatzell’s hurt to ease. He intended to pick up a sympathy card for Fitzgerald. The firefighter wanted him to know, two years on, that he hadn’t forgotten and his remorse hadn’t abated. Then, Fitzgerald walked out of the store and spotted him across the parking lot.

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“Erik starts walking out of the grocery store and [then] starts walking towards my truck,” Swatzell described to Today. And in that moment, the firefighter found himself in a moment of complete vulnerability. Two years of pent-up guilt, grief, sorrow, regret and despair burst through the floodgates and came pouring out.

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Fitzgerald recalled the moment he approached Swatzell. “He was just bawling,” he told Today. “So I just walked up and I just hugged him. What do you say? Sometimes things are best said with no words.” It’s a moment that still chokes Swatzell up when he looks back more than ten years later.

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“That was the biggest relief I’d ever felt,” Swatzell admitted. “He just said from the start that he [forgave] me. Just hearing him say those words, it just impacted my life completely.” From there Swatzell and Fitzgerald continued to chat for two hours. They realized the tragedy had given them an unlikely bond.

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As Fitzgerald recalled, “I said, ‘Man, I don’t know what you’re going to say to this, but I just feel like in my spirit that I’m supposed to stay connected to you somehow.’ And he’s like, ‘Dude, I feel the same way.’” From that chance encounter, the two men formed an unexpectedly close friendship.

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Meetings between the two men became a regular occurrence. They had conversations about what was going on in their lives. And they also talked each other through the tragedy. “[Fitzgerald] said, ‘Don’t let this define you,’” Swatzell described. “Meeting with Erik, it gave me hope that we’re going to be okay.”

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Fitzgerald went as far as expressing gratitude for the opportunity to talk to Swatzell, that it was even necessary in order for both men to move on from what happened. He told Newspring Church, “Had we not met and had this conversation, we wouldn’t be where we are today.” He also implied his belief that there was a lesson there for others, too.

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As Fitzgerald described, “It was an opportunity that God used to not only heal and bless us, but we feel like it’s going to be [a lesson] that he uses to heal and bless others as well.” The pastor seemingly saw it as an exercise in forgiveness and the role it plays in moving forward.

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Indeed, over the next decade, Fitzgerald and Swatzell’s friendship grew deeper. Swatzell forged a friendship with Faith, who wasn’t even two years old when the accident happened. Fitzgerald witnessed Swatzell fall in love, get married, and start a family of his own. And even though Fitzgerald now lives in Florida, the men remain close.

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Fitzgerald and Swatzell reportedly often get together and hang out during the holidays. As Swatzell explained, “[Fitzgerald is] like a big brother to me. We have a lot of fun together. As weird as it may sound… we do. It’s unique.” And the friendships apparently don’t stop with Swatzell and Fitzgerald.

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Swatzell is particularly warmed by the bond their kids have formed. “Just seeing Faith holding my kids, it puts a smile on my face,” he described. “It hurts to see that, but it’s the cards we were dealt.” Indeed, Fitzgerald may have forgiven Swatzell, but the crash is something Swatzell still struggles with.

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“I can’t say, ‘This is a beautiful story and it’s got a great ending.’ It doesn’t,” Swatzell admitted. “It’s nasty, it’s real and it’s something I’ll struggle with for the rest of my life.” However, he remains pragmatic. He said, “It’s our story together. It reminds me that there’s grace and there’s hope and there’s good.”

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Moreover, Fitzgerald now has a new wife with a child of their own. Coincidentally, their baby arrived on the very date that June’s unborn child had been due. Fitzgerald views the whole situation as God’s work. He said, “June’s in heaven. And one day, we’ll get to all hang out. God’s a big God and I think that’s going to be a great day.”

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