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Bri-anne Swan, who went to high school in Orillia, will travel to Texas in November to witness her pen pal’s execution

Andrew Philips

By Andrew Philips, Special to Postmedia Network

Moonstone, Ont., native Bri-anne Swan travelled to Texas earlier this year (2016) to meet with death-row inmate Ramiro Gonzales, who confessed to murdering an 18-year-old woman 15 years ago.

Submitted Moonstone, Ont., native Bri-anne Swan travelled to Texas earlier this year (2016) to meet with death-row inmate Ramiro Gonzales, who confessed to murdering an 18-year-old woman 15 years ago.

A former area resident has found an unconventional pen pal.

For the past two years, Bri-anne Swan has enjoyed a writing friendship with a death-row inmate jailed at a maximum-security prison in Texas who only recently avoided execution.

It all started when Swan was "very" pregnant with her second child and having trouble sleeping. The singer-songwriter started surfing the Internet and came upon a story regarding a recent stateside execution.

"I've always been opposed to the death penalty," said Swan, who grew up between Moonstone and Coldwater and attended high school in Orillia, graduating from Park Street Collegiate Institute in 2001.

From there, she visited a website for prisoners seeking pen pals. While many of the profile posts were from inmates seeking romantic relationships, Swan was taken by convicted murderer Ramiro Gonzales's plea to have someone to write to on a purely platonic basis.

"I talked to my husband about it and he was OK with it," said Swan, who now lives in the Toronto area with her husband, Jason Meyers, and their two sons, four-year-old Isaiah and two-year-old Simon.

Since that initial 2014 letter, the pair have struck up a friendship through regular correspondence that has been built through a "slow, organic, natural progression," with Swan even travelling to Texas earlier this year when Gonzales asked her to attend his execution, which was postponed to later this year.

"It wasn't a stay, it was a withdrawal, which means a change of date," Swan said, adding the withdrawal allowed her to meet with Gonzales for several hours during a visit to the Allan B. Polunsky Unit, where the state's estimated 300 death-row inmates reside.

Gonzales, who, like Swan, is 33, confessed to kidnapping, raping and murdering an 18-year-old woman in Texas in 2001. He was sentenced to death 10 years ago.

"He was six weeks past his 18th birthday," Swan said, adding she has read the entire court transcript relating to the crime and finds it difficult at times to reconcile Gonzales's past crimes with the gentle person, who creates wonderful drawings for her eldest son, he is now.

"The Ramiro I know is very kind and very sweet," she said. "He is a very spiritual person and an amazing artist. By his own admission, he is appalled by his own actions."

But since starting to write about the experience on her blog, Swan hasn't been immune from hateful comments, with someone named Sharon Ann Henderson telling her, "You are a disgusting person for supporting this murderous scumbag."

To which Swan replied: "I hope you and your family have a wonderful day!"

Another fellow called Phil Cofell told Swan she should introduce herself to the victim's family.

"I am sure they will be thrilled," he wrote. "I would have liked to have been pen-pals with her except your buddy raped her and shot her in the head. I hope no one does that to your children imagine the pain. I look forward to his execution and there is no way the governor will spare this garbage."

Swan said she has heard this kind of response often since she began writing about her experience. While she's able to let the comments roll off her back, her husband has had a more difficult time hearing the attacks on his wife.

"There has been a lot of backlash with a lot of angry, hateful comments about me being a disgusting piece of filth," she said. "But there have also been some very supportive comments. I've been trying to be really nice to people because I get that it's very polarizing."

Still, Swan plans to head back to Texas in November to witness Gonzales's rescheduled execution. But this time, her mother, Debra, is a little worried since she will be heading into the heart of Donald Trump's Texas base near the U.S. election date.

"I feel so strongly since (Gonzales) wants me to be there," Swan said. "I admire the bravery and humility it takes to be so open about the worst thing you have ever done."

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