This story originally incorrectly implied in the first sentence that the three years it took to charge the Swezeys was due to delays in the Okanogan County Prosecutor’s Office alone. The error has been corrected in this version.
OKANOGAN — It took nearly three years for the Okanogan County Sheriff’s Office to investigate and the Okanogan County Prosecutor’s Office to file charges against the parents of Zachery Swezey, a 17-year-old Carlton boy who died from a ruptured appendix on March 18, 2009.
Officials say they were too busy with other cases to move this case forward, until now.
Gregory and Garnet Swezey — who told investigators they believe in faith healing, but didn’t force their faith on their son — have been charged with second-degree murder in Okanogan County Superior Court.
Documents filed with the charges say they were “criminally negligent in their responsibility to provide care for their child” by failing to seek medical attention. The Swezeys told investigators they are members of the Church of the First Born, and that elders from the church came to their home the day before Zachery died to pray and anoint Zachery with olive oil.
The Okanogan County Sheriff’s Office sent its investigation to prosecutors Sept. 3, 2010, about a year and a half after Swezey’s death. “This case was like in March of ‘09, and it was one thing after another,” Sheriff Frank Rogers said Thursday.
He said among other things, his two main detectives were just beginning to investigate the March 1, 2009 Michelle Kitterman murder when Swezey died. The 25-year-old pregnant Tonasket woman was found on the side of a remote road, and police initially had no suspects. Four people were eventually convicted of murder in that case. Two are serving life sentences.
Prosecutor Karl Sloan said that and other homicide cases, along with attorney staffing issues, contributed to the time it took his office to review the case and file charges.
“This wasn’t one we wanted to add to the pile,” Sloan said.
He said the Swezeys were not considered at risk of leaving the area, or a threat to the community.
“Where a violent homicide occurs, that’s a whole different thing, because you have a community safety issue,” he said. “This is not that type of case.”
To some, filing charges after such a long period of time comes as a shock.
“To dig this up after this period of time is outrageous, and I mean outrageous,” said John Hayes, a Winthrop land use planner and construction manager. He said he has known Greg Swezey for many years as business acquaintance, and always found him “honest and most capable.” “There are a lot of other people in the community who will not only be surprised but upset that our prosecutor would want to do this,” he said.
Hayes said waiting this long to charge the Swezeys just adds to the grief they’re already feeling over losing their son. “Their grief is deep. Why would he want to add to the grief of this family?” he asked.
He added that Zachery Swezey, just four months away from his 18th birthday, was old enough to decide for himself whether a doctor should be called.
Hayes contended there’s no punitive or rehabilitative value in charging the Swezeys for their son’s death. “It’s a waste of taxypayer dollars, and attacks a family that is wholely a part of our community,” he said.
Still, some are understanding of the length of time it took to file charges.
“I know that prosecutors and everybody involved in law enforcement are very over-burdened,” Rita Swan, president of CHILD Inc., a nonprofit group formed to protect children from abusive religious and cultural practices. “It takes an extraordinary degree of dedication to set forth the facts and document them in a forensic way for a court trial.”
Swan — who has followed this case since Swezey’s death — noted that most states, including Washington, have child abuse laws that allow some religious exemptions for parents who do not seek medical treatment when their children are sick. Washington’s law limits its protections to Christian Science faith.
“I’m grateful that Okanogan County is standing up for the rights of the child and saying this child’s life had value, and that children are not just the property of their parents,” Swan said.
Sloan said public sentiment is not the only factor in determining whether to file charges. He declined to talk specifically about charges against the Swezeys, but said a case like this is likely to spur everything from support for the family to outrage. “We don’t ignore the public, but you can’t make a decision based on who’s most vocal,” he said.
K.C. Mehaffey: 997-2512