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Brother of victim says it's not hatred of the killers, but hatred of what they did that drives him

Monday, July 29, 2002

By Jonathan D. Silver, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Michael Pratt's home in Warren, Ohio, sits not five miles from the prison holding a man who helped to kidnap and kill Pratt's brother, hide him in a grave and cover up the crime.

Rose Pratt holds a photograph of her son, Roger "Butch" Pratt from his college days. The index card tucked in the corner reads: "Roger 'Butch' Pratt. Oct. 8, 1965-June 17, 1988. Murdered by classmate and was missing 16 months." Pratt, along with her son, Michael Pratt has mailed hundreds of petitions across the country asking people to oppose parole for Michael A. Swiger, one of the people who helped to kidnap and kill Roger Pratt. (Andy Starnes, Post-Gazette)

Some might call it too close for comfort, but Pratt said he doesn't let it bother him.

If anything, Trumbull Correctional Institution is an ever-present reminder of how Roger "Butch" Pratt of Munhall was betrayed 14 years ago by another pair of brothers, the Swigers.

The younger sibling, Michael A. Swiger, will come up for a parole hearing in September, when he'll get to plead his case for an early release from his sentence of 21 to 53 years.

Pratt's single-minded goal is to foil any chance of that happening, just as he worked to thwart Swiger's clemency appeal in 1994.

Joined by his mother, Rose, of Munhall, Pratt has mailed hundreds of petitions across the country asking people to rally to their cause.

"Butch was the only brother I have, and if the shoe was on the other foot, I'm sure he would have done this for me," Pratt, 39, said in a recent interview. "We miss him. What happened to him was so unfair. These people did this to him. I think they need to serve their punishment for what they did."

What they did is not a short or easy story to tell. In its simplest terms, Swiger, 34, of Euclid, Ohio, and his older brother, Edward Jr., 36, of Tiltonsville, Ohio, befriended Butch Pratt, broke bread with his family and then turned on him.

Butch Pratt, a standout athlete from Steel Valley High School, went to Thiel College in Greenville, Mercer County, where he roomed with his fraternity brother Edward Swiger.

Prosecutors believe Pratt was lured into a trap and killed because of fears that he would implicate the Swigers in a $200,000 warehouse arson and two burglaries.

At the time he was murdered, Pratt faced arraignment on charges in the burglaries, in which several thousand dollars worth of electronics equipment was taken from two fraternity houses.

On June 16, 1988, Pratt arrived in Akron, Ohio, with the intention of visiting his friend, Teresa Wakulchik. She picked him up at the bus station along with her roommate, Caroline Luli. They drove Pratt to Hudson, Ohio, turned down a service road and tricked him into getting out. Then they drove off.

The Swigers were waiting for Pratt. Prosecutors said every bone in Pratt's head was broken. He was handcuffed, stuffed in a car trunk and driven to Pennsylvania.

Along the way, the brothers picked up Linda Karlen, Pratt's one-time boss and Edward Swiger's former lover.

Pratt was buried in a shallow grave at a farm in Crawford County. Sixteen months later, Karlen broke her silence and led investigators to the site.

Wakulchik and Luli pleaded guilty to conspiracy, but in exchange for testifying against the others, they did not serve any prison time. Karlen was sentenced to seven to 15 years for conspiracy; the Pratts have twice fought her efforts for early release.

Edward Swiger was given life imprisonment for aggravated murder and kidnapping. Michael Swiger's sentencing for kidnapping and involuntary manslaughter came in June 1990.

Michael Swiger's attorney, Mark Stanton of Cleveland, believes his client is ready to be released from prison. He characterized Swiger's remorse as "unyielding and gargantuan" and said it would be "criminal" if he were not allowed to re-enter society as a productive member.

Stanton claimed that most prisoners in Ohio do not serve even the upper limit of their minimum sentence for the crimes of which Swiger was convicted, so his client should be able to go free with 13 years already served.

"There are few if any inmates that I have seen that have performed more admirably, dedicated themselves to rehabilitation and tried to express their remorse more consistently than this fellow has over the years. He has a sterling, sterling record in the institution. I don't think he has a black mark against him," Stanton said.

"There is no one who has suggested, much less implied that Mike Swiger had any knowledge of what his brother intended to do or if, in fact, his brother intended to do it beforehand. Mike was involved in the cover-up. He has been punished. He has been punished severely for a bad crime, a violent crime. He was not part of the violence."

To date, Rose Pratt said she hasn't personally heard an apology or a word of remorse from either of the Swigers, though Stanton said his client has been rebuffed in attempts to contact the family. She waves off arguments from supporters of Michael Swiger's bid for freedom that he was manipulated by his brother and did not participate in the actual killing.

"He could have said 'no' to his brother, and he wouldn't be in this predicament now. Where's your conscience?" she said. "He has a mind of his own. He had free will to do whatever he wanted to do. As far as I'm concerned, he made the wrong decision."

Pratt, 63, who refers to Edward Swiger as "the desperado" or the "wicked one" and Linda Karlen as "the witch," can speak about her son's murder in gruesome detail.

She said the first thing she asked a police officer after her son's body was found was whether they had buried him alive. She knows the grave was only 22 inches deep because it became hard to dig in the clay.

A retired nurse, she read her son's autopsy report and looked at his post-mortem photos, which she described in unsettling detail.

Pratt keeps a blown-up color photograph of her son from his college days in a silver frame. An index card is tucked in the corner. It reads: "Roger 'Butch' Pratt. Oct. 8, 1965-June 17, 1988. Murdered by classmate and was missing 16 months."

In a black folder she maintains news clippings about the case. A white three-ring binder serves as the repository for the petitions protesting Michael Swiger's parole. She has sent petitions everywhere, from the Munhall barbershop where Butch got his haircuts to out-of-state chapters of Parents of Murdered Children.

So far, the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction has received 341 letters or signatures opposing Swiger's early release and 110 in support.

It seems that this time around, Swiger has not been able to line up the kind of heavy-hitting backing he received during his clemency attempt in 1994. Then, former U.S. Rep. Douglas Applegate, D-Steubenville, wrote to then-Gov. George Voinovich supporting Swiger's early release, as did Mercer County District Attorney James Epstein.

Applegate is no longer a congressman, and the current politician filling the seat has not heard from the Swiger family.

Epstein said he had not been contacted either. He had asked Voinovich to consider commutation in exchange for Swiger's testimony against his brother and Karlen on charges in Pennsylvania of arson and burglary.

"I characterized Mr. Swiger in a letter to his attorney as the best in a bad lot, and I stand by that -- the best in a very bad lot," Epstein said. "He still committed a horrific crime."

All the letters sent to Ohio corrections officials are read and catalogued and will be weighed in the parole decision during Swiger's hearing on Sept. 26 or Sept. 27.

Before that, though, Michael and Rose Pratt will get a chance to make their pitch. They will be joined by Kathleen Lehner, director of victim's services for the Summit County prosecutor's office, who has known the family for more than a decade.

"For Mike Pratt, it's something he needs to do," Lehner said. "He wants to see justice."

Asked how he feels about the Swigers, Pratt, a 911 dispatcher, has trouble pinning down his emotions, even 14 years after his brother's murder.

"I don't really know how to say that," he said. "Obviously I'm not happy for what they did. I don't hate anybody. We're Christian. We're Catholic, and I don't hate anybody. I hate what they did."

But he said he has not forgiven them, either.

"At least not yet," Pratt said. "But I hope that someday I might be able to."

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