Brother's Keeper

When Butch Pratt was murdered, two brothers were set on a collision course neither wanted.

The parole board decides this week whether 14 years - is long enough for Michael Swiger. - Courtesy of Michael Swiger
Courtesy of Michael Swiger
The parole board decides this week whether 14 years is long enough for Michael Swiger.

For the first 19 years of his life, Michael Swiger was a good kid: an altar boy, a B student, co-captain of his high school football team. In his first two years at Case Western Reserve, he studied engineering, joined the Phi Kappa Tau fraternity, and got elected class president.

The only thing he couldn't seem to achieve was his big brother's acceptance. Ed Swiger, two years older and always bigger, seemed more interested in beating Michael up than in hanging with him. "My whole life, I wanted him to like me," Michael says.

It was only when they were in college -- Michael at Case, Ed at tiny Thiel College in western Pennsylvania -- that Ed made a stab at friendship. "It seemed like he was making an attempt," says Michael.

So when Ed called, in the spring of 1988, and asked him to come to Pennsylvania, Michael went. Ed said the furniture store where he worked needed a security system installed. But when Michael arrived, Ed's real plan became clear. He wanted to torch the store so that his girlfriend, a partial owner, could get the insurance money. Stupidly eager to impress, Michael helped; police believe he sprinkled the place with lighter fluid.

Michael was naive enough to assume that would be it. But three weeks later, his brother called again. This time, Ed was frantic, almost suicidal, Michael says.

Ed explained that his roommate and best friend, Butch Pratt, had been arrested. Michael knew Butch: Ed had roomed with him all four years at Thiel. Cheerful and athletic, Butch was the perfect sidekick to the abrasive, mercurial Ed.

Ed explained that he and Butch had swiped stereo equipment from their fraternity brothers. But the two friends had a falling out, and Butch was caught soon after. While Butch hadn't fingered his friend for the thefts, Ed was worried. He was planning to go to law school in the fall. If Butch told all he knew -- particularly about the arson -- it would destroy Ed's future.

Ed told Michael he needed him. They would meet with Butch and bribe him to keep his mouth shut. "I said I'd come," Michael says.

Two friends of Ed's, Teresa Wakulchik and Caroline Luli, were enlisted in the scheme. Promising a party, they persuaded Butch to take a bus from Pennsylvania to Akron. From there, they drove him to a remote spot in Hudson Township, where the Swiger brothers were waiting. The girls dropped Butch off and sped away.

Then Michael watched in horror as Ed attacked Butch, first with his fists, then slamming his head into the ground and jumping up and down on his chest, laughing. Michael "appeared to have frozen up," Ed would later write. "I had to shout directly into his face to get him to snap out of it and retrieve the car."

Butch was motionless when Michael helped load him into the trunk, bound and handcuffed. Michael thought he was dead. The brothers picked up Ed's girlfriend, Linda Karlen, and drove to a farm in Pennsylvania, where they buried Butch in a shallow grave.

Then they waited.

Ed went to Philadelphia, moved in with Wakulchik, and started law school at Temple University.

Michael returned to Case for his sophomore year. He bought a house in Euclid and got engaged. But he wasn't doing well.

"It was the most terrible 16 months of my life," he says. "I thought about it every day." His blood pressure rose; his grades dropped. He was worried about the Pratts, he says, but he was also worried about how an arrest would hurt his father, a Jefferson County commissioner. He knew his brother could face the death penalty.

And, he says, he was terrified that his brother would come after him, too. He avoided family gatherings: "If Ed was going to be home for the holidays, I wouldn't go . . . I was so afraid he would show up here. I lived in constant fear."

It was almost a relief when the case broke. Police were questioning Karlen about an unrelated arson when she fingered her ex-boyfriend for Butch's murder, leading police to the body and the brothers. When the cops swarmed Michael's driveway in October 1989, "I knew immediately," he says.

The arrest of two good-looking college kids made for a high-profile aftermath. But the trials were brief, held back-to-back in Akron just four months after the Swigers' arrests. Ed claimed the killing was an accident, but the jury didn't buy it. He was convicted of aggravated murder.

Karlen was convicted of conspiracy to commit kidnapping and given 10 to 13 years. The two drivers, Wakulchik and Luli, both pleaded guilty to the same offense and got probation.

Michael Swiger waived his right to a jury. Though he was charged with involuntary manslaughter and kidnapping, his trial didn't last even a day -- something that amazes his current lawyer, Mark Stanton. "It's the most pathetic thing I've ever seen in a murder trial," he says.

Early newspaper accounts claim the brothers beat up Butch together. In her interviews with police, Karlen would say much the same thing. But Michael sailed through a prosecution-administered polygraph: He hadn't planned to kill or even attack Butch, he never struck him, and he believed he was dead when he helped load him into the trunk. No court testimony contradicts it.

Indeed, the prosecutors alleged only that Michael had helped Ed Swiger conceal the murder. Michael's lawyers didn't contest those facts. They argued solely that he should have been charged with a lesser offense.

Summit County Judge Mary Spicer disagreed. She sentenced Michael to 21 to 53 years in prison. Even with good behavior, he wouldn't be eligible for parole for 13 years -- and then he'd have to serve at least one year in Pennsylvania for the arson.

At first, Michael was bitter. In prison, he ignored his brother's letters. "In hindsight, I felt manipulated in every sense," he says. Unlike the other guys in the slam, he was an innocent man, he believed. "My feeling was, I shouldn't be here."

It's a jailhouse cliché, but a church service changed him, Michael says. He went for the free candy; he didn't like the sermon at all. The pastor said they were all sinners, and Michael would have none of it. "He doesn't even know me," he thought.

The former altar boy returned to his cell, intent on looking up the Bible passage from the sermon in order to refute it. He didn't know where it was, so he started at the beginning of the New Testament. By the time he found it, in John 4, he'd read three gospels. "I saw that not only had he been right about that, but there was a lot more he was right about," he says. He went back to church the next week. With time, his attitude changed.

"I started realizing my own influence on things," Michael says. "No matter what my brother did, I still had choices, and I made the wrong choices each time." Eventually, he forgave his brother. They still haven't talked -- as co-conspirators, they aren't allowed. But they write letters.

After 14 years in prison, Michael Swiger still seems like nothing but a nice young man, complete with a bashful smile and an awkward politeness around women. Even in his beige scrubs, he looks more like an engineering student than a prisoner; somehow, it doesn't seem ironic that his high school class voted him "Most Caring."

"I was a real productive citizen for 19 years," he says. "For two months everything went crazy, and here I am, 35 years old."

By all accounts, Michael has been a model inmate. He's done thousands of hours of volunteer work, earned a four-year business degree from Ohio University, and published two novels. He's in the chapel band, and he's working on his master's degree -- at a seminary.

None of it has brought him freedom. In 1994, the governor denied his request for clemency. Last year, he was eligible for parole for the first time. Denied.

He has the support of a state-appointed psychologist, a former congressman, and even the Akron detective who investigated the case. Now retired, Bruce Van Horn has written a letter that may be the strongest argument for Michael's release.

"I can state emphatically and passionately that Michael Swiger has been sentenced and punished unfairly and disproportionately when the facts and circumstances are reviewed objectively," Van Horn wrote. "I write this letter in utter disbelief that Michael Swiger remains incarcerated. He never deserved the sentence which was imposed and, in my opinion, he should have been released many years ago."

Van Horn admits to gaining sympathy for Michael during their interviews before his trial. He even discreetly called the prison over the years, just to make sure Michael was okay. "After 35 years as a cop, you get a feeling," he says. "It was a family thing . . . If you and I were in his position at the moment, we probably would have gone right along with the program too."

Still, Michael remains behind bars. Stanton says it's not uncommon for convicted murderers to be paroled in 10 years. But he knows Swiger's case is different. The slaying was big news. It even inspired a made-for-TV movie -- Murder in a College Town, starring Kate Jackson -- which still runs regularly on Lifetime.

But there is a more important distinction between Swiger's case and most others. "Those cases are anonymous," Stanton says. "The victim is dead and the family isn't watching." The same could not be said of Butch Pratt's brother, Mike.

Mike Pratt and Michael Swiger met just once before the murder, at their brothers' graduation from Thiel in 1988. After four years of rooming together, Butch and Ed were going their separate ways: Butch to Penn State to get his MBA, Ed to law school.

The two families went to dinner together after the ceremony. The restaurant was "real elegant," Mike Pratt remembers, a jacket-required place inspired by Gone With the Wind, complete with huge white pillars and faux Southern charm.

Pratt recalls hitting it off with the younger Swiger. "He gave me his address and his telephone number," Mike Pratt says. "We made plans to contact each other, to go out at some time, socialize or whatever. He seemed like a nice man to me and my family."

Three years older than Butch, Mike Pratt had been the responsible brother. He worked after school while Butch hung out with his buddies. In family photos, Butch was the one giving his sister bunny ears or mugging for the camera. "He made everyone laugh," says mother Rose Pratt.

Mike, in turn, was his brother's keeper. "I saw to it that he had something to eat, that he did his homework, that he wasn't hanging around with a bad crowd. I looked out for him," he says. He's still doing it today.

Every few years, Mike Pratt gets a letter from the parole board or a call from a reporter. They came when Michael requested clemency, when Karlen was twice up for parole, and again last year, when Michael had his first parole hearing.

Each time, Pratt has been ready. He left the small Pennsylvania town where he grew up years ago, but he remains a familiar figure there, standing in the town square in Butch's old baseball jacket, armed with petitions. People in Munhall remember Butch: He was the catcher on the baseball team, a lovable prankster. They ask how they can help, and Pratt is glad to give them the parole board's address.

"My brother is not able to appeal for justice for himself," he says. "This is where we come in."

Rose Pratt has some sympathy for Michael Swiger. She believes his personality and Butch's were "identical." Both looked up to the confident Ed. Both suffered serious childhood illness: Butch wore braces on his legs; Michael suffered from a birth defect called spina bifida, which resulted in "a peculiar duck walk," as he once wrote. Both would eventually triumph in high school athletics.

But sympathy only goes so far. The Pratts hold Michael fully culpable in Butch's death, and they've successfully portrayed him that way in the media. Newspaper headlines call him a "killer," and the Pratts' petitions claim that both Swigers participated in the beating. They are determined to keep Michael behind bars for at least 21 years.

"He was not given the death penalty or even a life sentence," Mike Pratt says. Twenty-one years "is what the punishment is -- and that's all we've ever asked for, from the beginning."

Last month, the parole board unexpectedly granted Michael Swiger another hearing. He'll meet with the board this week.

Once again, Mike Pratt has mobilized. The board reports getting 16 letters in favor of Michael's release. More than 100 arrived opposing it. Pratt promises that more are on the way.

The Pratts had their interview with the board three weeks ago; they argued strenuously that Michael must serve his entire sentence. Their plea was seconded by Summit County Prosecutor Sherri Bevan Walsh.

The Pratts' suffering has affected her, Walsh admits. So have Michael's actions. "He was present when the victim was killed. He assisted in putting him in a garbage bag. He assisted in burying the body. And then he kept quiet for more than a year," she says. "He's trying to talk about the positive things he has done, and that he talked to police. But he only started to talk when he got caught.

"Here we had the victim's family with a missing son and a missing brother for more than a year, and Michael Swiger knew what had happened to him, and he did nothing. That's what really bothers me about this case."

Michael Swiger says he now feels terrible about the Pratts' suffering. He looks back on his actions, and he cringes. Still, he knows why he did what he did: "I loved my brother, and I wanted him to love me."

Swiger has written to the Pratts, asking for forgiveness. They don't write back. Once, Michael sent Rose Pratt a book on grieving. He tried to do it anonymously, but the package betrayed its origin. She returned it without comment.

"I don't need a book on grief," she says. "I'm living grief every day."