MOUNT VERNON – Nearly one year after Paul Swanson was arrested for sexually victimizing an 88-year-old woman in a local nursing home, the former Mount Vernon Nazarene University volleyball coach received his sentence Thursday: no jail time.
Instead, Swanson received one year of community control, pending the successful completion of a residential rehabilitation program in Chillicothe.
Swanson, 67, was facing 6 to 18 months in prison, five years of probation and a $5,000 fine. A Knox County jury found him guilty Aug. 5 of one count of gross sexual imposition, a fourth-degree felony. The conviction stemmed from an incident that occurred Sept. 21, 2019, when nursing home staff testified they observed Swanson using an elderly woman’s hand to pleasure himself inside the facility.
Swanson, who coached and taught at MVNU for 35 years, was arrested and charged three days later. He was put on administrative leave before retiring from the university earlier this year.
Prior to Swanson’s sentencing Thursday, both the prosecution and defense had one final chance to address Knox County Common Pleas Court Judge Richard Wetzel. Swanson had also completed a pre-sentence investigation following his conviction.
Swanson’s attorney, Brian Bowen, noted his client had “led a law-abiding life” to this point, with only three traffic tickets and no criminal convictions to his name. He argued that Swanson’s actions did not cause physical harm to the victim, and that he would not pose a recidivism risk, given his clean record.
Additionally, Bowen noted the court received “well over 100 letters” of support for Swanson in the month since his conviction, and that 10 people came to support him at the courthouse that day. He touted Swanson as a respected, trusted, longtime community member, and said witness testimony during the trial proved that fact.
“I believe Mr. Swanson is an excellent candidate for community control,” Bowen told Wetzel. “This is not someone who needs the terms of incarceration.”
Bowen told the judge Swanson had planned to potentially appeal the conviction following sentencing.
Swanson also addressed Wetzel Thursday.
“I have all my life been a law-abiding citizen,” he said. “I’ve lived a life of truth and transparency, and with total integrity.”
Swanson noted that he’d coached young women for 35-plus years, and had never had any issues. He had cared for the elderly victim in this case (an extended family member) for years before the incident last September, and no problems had arisen.
Despite being convicted last month, Swanson maintained his innocence Friday. He classified his actions last fall as “allegations,” and the broader situation as a “misunderstanding.” He spoke about the toll this case has taken on his family, and he pleaded for mercy.
“This whole situation has destroyed my life, my career, and my Christian reputation,” Swanson said.
Knox County Prosecutor Chip McConville argued that incarceration would be appropriate for Swanson, given the “seriousness of the factors involved with this case.” He added that Swanson might pose a recidivism risk, given the lack of remorse he seemed to show for his actions during the trial phase.
Some of the people who wrote in support of Swanson seemed to think he was wrongfully convicted, McConville noted. He assured the judge that “jury trials have settled cases in this country for hundreds of years,” and that this case should not be viewed any differently.
The victim in this case did not appear before Wetzel on Friday, and she did not testify during the criminal jury trial last month. She was also not interviewed by detectives in the immediate aftermath of the crime last fall, as nursing home staff had advised investigators that she suffered from dementia and Alzheimer’s.
Upon hearing statements from both sides, Wetzel sentenced Swanson to one year of community control, citing the offender’s low recidivism risk and the relative seriousness of the crime.
Swanson was also given 90 days in jail, but Wetzel said those would be suspended upon his completion of a rehabilitation program at the Alvis House in Chillicothe. Swanson was ordered to report to the Knox County Jail on Friday morning, where he will be booked and transported to the facility, located two hours south of Mount Vernon.
The length of Swanson’s stay at the Alvis House will be determined by his progress.
“Your work will determine your release date,” Wetzel said.
Bowen told Knox Pages that Alvis House sentences truly are variable. He couldn’t predict how long Swanson might stay at the facility, but he noted that an assessment and counseling early on would play a role.
“I’ve had other clients go there who have been there for four or five or six months, and those are usually people with more severe substance-abuse problems, or who have minimum sentences that they have to work off …” Bowen said. “It’s more sort of rehabilitation-based than corrections-based, if that makes sense.
"There’s a lot of counseling, there’s various programming that they want people to go through.”
Because Swanson has no history of substance-abuse issues, and he’s not working off any prior convictions, Bowen believes his stay might be relatively short.
“It’ll be an assessment to see what, if any, kind of services they can provide,” he said. “I would imagine that if they say, ‘You’re fine, there’s nothing here, really, that we can provide for you,’ that his stay there may be relatively brief. But again, there’s really just no way to know that for sure.”
If Swanson completes the Alvis House program successfully, he will not have to spend 90 days in jail. If he does not violate the terms of his probation by Sept. 3, 2021, he’ll be released from court supervision on that date.
The terms of Swanson’s probation are still unclear. Wetzel said nothing in court Thursday about continuing the previously established terms of Swanson’s release – namely, that he cease contact with the victim and stay off the grounds of the Ohio Eastern Star Home, where the incident occurred.
“If that were a term of the probation, I would expect that the judge would’ve said something to that effect,” Bowen said.
Both Bowen and McConville noted, however, that even if Wetzel never mentioned those terms specifically, they could still be imposed separately by the probation department. They could also be included in the judges’ written sentencing entry, which will be filed in the coming days.
If Swanson violates the terms of his probation, he could face up to 17 months in prison.
In addition to being placed under community control, Swanson will have to register as a tier-one sex offender for the next 15 years. This provision is applied to all who are convicted of gross sexual imposition.
Because Swanson did not receive mandatory jail time as a part of his sentence Friday, Bowen said he is now reconsidering whether or not to appeal the case.
“I think the sentence surprised him a little bit in terms of maybe not being as severe as we’d feared it would be,” Bowen said. “So now he has to decide whether the risks of potentially having a new trial outweigh the unpleasantness of getting through this.”
McConville seemed surprised by the sentence as well, given how the court has handled similar cases in the past.
“It is a little more usual in our court for someone who is convicted of a hands-on sex offense to go to prison,” McConville said.
Still, McConville noted that Wetzel’s sentence was “certainly within the legal range for that offense.” He added that Swansons’ criminal background, or lack thereof, “obviously weighed heavily in his favor.”
Bowen felt confident that Wetzel made his decision based on the evidence presented at the trial.
“You heard the evidence, obviously the judge heard the evidence as well,” Bowen said, “and I think his sentence today reflects his take on what it is that he heard.”