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A Year of Wrenching Crime

Tough first year for a young prosecutor

Patrick Sullivan - January 6th, 2014  

You thought you had a tough 2013? Meet Sara Swanson. The first of the big cases came in May, when a 23-year-old was found dead on the side of a road.

The death of Justin Smith was believed to be the fourth recent overdose death in the county, and officials wanted to put in prison whoever sold him the heroin they believed caused his death.

The investigation led to charges against a local drug dealer, but it was no clear-cut case.

Swanson, Benzie County’s young prosecutor who was just months into the job, would have to wade into Northern Michigan’s underworld to build a case against Smith’s dealer.

Swanson and investigators depended on witnesses who were criminals or the associates of criminals to sort out what happened and bring charges. The case would eventually end in a no-contest plea and the defendant is scheduled to be sentenced later this month.

But for Swanson, the case was just a minor prelude of what was to come. Swanson, who at 30 is one of the youngest prosecutors in Michigan, found that other, more challenging cases would follow: cases fraught with tough calls, wrenching circumstances, and enough moral ambiguity to challenge even a seasoned prosecutor.


Those cases came in the summer, one more tragic and confounding than the other.

First there was the case of Alyce Morales, an 18-year-old from Cicero, Ill. who gave birth to a baby girl in a tent while she was camping with her family at the Platte River Campground near Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore.

Morales and the newborn arrived at Munson Medical Center on July 23 and the infant died of injuries eight or nine hours after her birth.

Morales apparently didn’t know she was pregnant and allegedly assaulted her newborn in a panic. She has pleaded not guilty.

Doctors at Munson worked to save the baby, who was named Marie, to no avail.

Swanson reviewed the case and charged Morales with open murder. The case is still pending.

The Morales case made news statewide and in Illinois, but that case would be overshadowed by the circumstances surrounding Kelli Stapleton, who is accused of attempting to take the life of her 14-yearold daughter along with her own.


Stapleton, the Elberta mother of an autistic child with violent tendencies, is accused of trying to commit a murdersuicide through carbon monoxide poisoning by igniting a charcoal stove inside a van parked on a two-track in rural Blaine Township.

The absence of Stapleton and her daughter, Issy, did not go unnoticed, however, and police launched a search that found Stapleton and the girl before they died.

Stapleton was recently ruled mentally fit to stand trial by a psychologist at the state forensic center and she waived her prliminary hearing.

Stapleton had blogged for years about the challenges of raising a daughter like Issy, whose medical condition made her prone to violent outbursts. The family had just learned that Issy would not be able to attend a school last fall where the family believed the girl could get the help she desperately needed.

Stapleton wrote on her blog, The Status Woe, shortly before the incident: “I have to admit that I’m suffering from a severe case of battle fatigue.”


Even as Stapleton faced attempted murder charges and friends and neighbors were horrified about what happened, support for her in her home town of Elberta and in Frankfort swelled. Neighbors launched fundraising drives and the case caused a national conversation about the challenges posed by having to raise autistic children.

Through the media storm, Swanson remained level-headed.

She said she knew at the time it was her responsibility to look at the case through the lens of the law.

And that’s what she set out to do, from an office in Beulah which consists of her, a chief assistant prosecutor, Jennifer Tang- Anderson, an office administrator and a victim advocate.

She said she knew her opinions of the Stapleton case or any other case didn’t matter.

“At some point we have to separate ourselves from the emotion of this job or else I don’t know how I could do this job,” Swanson said. “Ultimately, it will come down to the jury, and maybe they’ll agree with me and maybe they won’t.”


Swanson downplays the events of the year, though she acknowledges that both the Stapleton and Morales cases are terrible situations.

“I think we’ve handled it,” Swanson said he said the cases seemed to pile on top of each other.

“It seemed like they all came at once,” she said.

Still, asked if she got more than she expected from the job of a small-town prosecutor in a quiet and beautiful county, she said she came prepared for anything.

“I don’t know if you can ever anticipate when crimes are going to happen,” she said.

One of her opponents in the courtroom, Jesse Williams, who represents Alyce Morales, gave Swanson high marks for her first year as prosecutor.

Williams said he believes Swanson is more concerned with justice than with winning convictions.

“I think that that office is literally a shining beacon for prosecutor’s offices and the decisions they make,” he said. “Her decisions are very mature. She’s very reasonable. She’s very fair. I really appreciate the approach.”

Williams is in negotiations with Swanson for a plea in Morales’ case. The plea could be reached this month and Williams said he didn’t want to comment about details in the case until it is resolved.


Swanson said she always wanted to become a lawyer, but she didn’t know right away that she wanted to go into criminal law.

“I thought I wanted to be an environmental lawyer, but then when I went to school I found that I really liked criminal law,” she said.

She attended Cooley Law School after undergraduate studies at Central Michigan University. It was at Central where she met her future husband, who the Macomb County native moved north to be with once she finished law school. The couple were married this year.

“I love it up here. It’s beautiful in the summer. It’s like I’m on vacation every weekend,” she said.

She practiced criminal law in Benzie County for several years until she saw the opportunity to run for prosecutor. At the time of the election she was 29.

When her predecessor, John Daugherty, decided to run for judge instead of reelection, she hopped into the race and said she enjoyed the foray into politics.

“I definitely wanted the job,” she said.

“It was the summer so I went to all of the events and it was a great opportunity to meet a lot of people. ... I’m glad I don’t have to do it again for a few more years, but all in all it was fun.”


In January, Swanson will get more into the nuts-and-bolts of small-county politics in an era of tight budgets.

She has collected crime statistics for the county that show crime across the board has been on the rise for the past three years.

The numbers show crime spikes in the summer, she says.

In June, July and August of 2013, there were 91 felonies charged in the county. In 2011, there were just 42 in those same months.

Swanson wants to hire an intern for the summer of 2014. She has already approached the board of commissioners and she said she expects they will take up her request some time this month.

Having to ask permission to fund things in her office is one of the biggest adjustments of being prosecutor, she said.

“When I was in private practice, if I wanted to buy new chairs that matched, I just bought new chairs that matched,” Swanson said.

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