“I refuse to apologize for being a asshole,” read the meme Charles Swindell had posted on his social media page some years ago. Perhaps he shouldn’t have been so foolhardy. His life might have taken a better turn away from the ruin he caused others. He was full of apologies today, at times tearfully so. “I just don’t know how to say I’m sorry enough for what I’ve done,” he said. “I’m so sorry. I can’t say I’m sorry enough. I don’t know where to begin to say I’m sorry.”
But it was too late. The damage was done, particularly to the 13-year-old stepdaughter he’d supposedly take out fishing night after night, after her seven siblings were asleep, only to rape her. Whether Circuit Judge Terence Perkins believed that Swindell was sorry or not is irrelevant, though Swindell’s history, fraught with felonies–a 1990 charge of attempting to sexually abuse a child that resulted in prison time, a charge of child abuse, of arson, a federal firearm charge, forgery–suggests his regrets short expiration times.
Perkins sentenced Swindell, 52, to 30 years in prison this afternoon, the maximum he could impose under a plea deal over three charges of raping children that took life in prison off the table.
Swindell’s victim, now 15, sat with her 17-year-old sister, her mother and a victim’s advocate only a few feet away from the man who’d been their husband and father, the closest they’d been to him, physically, since his arrest in Palm Coast in November 2020. The three charges were split between incidents in Putnam County and Palm Coast. The plea agreement consolidated the three charges and gave the judge a choice of sentencing Swindell to anywhere between 15 and 30 years on each of the three charges, but the sentences would have to run concurrently. The judge told Swindell he had benefited from the plea deal by having the life term removed, as if to suggest that that’s what the judge would have sentenced him to otherwise. Perkins gave him the maximum he could, after Swindell’s defense lawyer argued for 15, after Swindell himself argued for 15, saying that he will die in prison anyway even with a 15-year sentence because of a bad heart. Assistant State Attorney Melissa Clark argued for 30 years.
As had the girl’s mother in an impassioned statement she read to the court from the witness stand, regularly looking up from her text in stabbing-like glares at Swindell, who looked at her, hunched forward, hearing every word but looking as if stunned that this time, there would be no suspended, abbreviated or laughable sentence, as he’d been used to in the past.
“For the last 531 days, I have wondered what it would be like to confront the walking cesspool that molested my innocent daughter,” the child’s mother told the court. “I always envisioned this day and could think of nothing but the bittersweet taste of revenge as justice is served upon the social sewage sitting before us today. Sitting here before us today is a narcissistic, depraved predator, a rabid animal who has taken away his child’s innocence. A man who has poisoned countless lives and left 11 Children fatherless, all while relishing every minute of it. As such, there can be no justice harsh enough, or revenge bitter enough, in this world at least, to cause the pain and suffering in which a sexual predator like this has coming. Therefore, I have determined for the sake of my daughter, our family, friends and myself: Today it will be a day of celebration, not retribution.”
The mother then used a double-bladed rhetorical device to cut Swindell in pieces even as she positioned herself above the fray: ” If my focus for you is hatred, I would stare you down and call you a demon from hell. If I embrace bitterness, I’ll remind you that you are nothing but a despicable, impotent child predator pervert masquerading as a human being. If I was the animal you are, I would say that I relish the thought of you being treated to the same despicable brutal terror and agony at the hands of your soon to be fellow inmates that you relished inflicting on my defenseless daughter for years. If I were spiteful, I would remind you that it’s only fitting that a narcissistic psychopath obsessed with public attention would soon have his world reduced to an isolated solitary existence, in an 80 square foot cell doomed away to your miserable life alone. If I had your devil nature, I would delight in the fact that everyone has turned their back on you. Your friends have deserted you. I have disowned you. I have divorced you. Your own kids have disowned you. And then I will remind you that you will never have any warm loving human contact for the remainder of your choice to existence.”
She made clear she had no intention to buy Swindell’s remorse. Though she had agreed to the plea deal, when the prosecutor asked her what the sentence should be, she, too, asked for 30 years.
The abuse may not have come to light had mother and older daughter not developed suspicions. The girl’s older sister, who also testified, was 13 one day when she and her stepfather were on the way to the store. He put his hand on the girl’s thigh and asked her if she wanted to get in the backseat with him. She told him no. He told her he’d kill her mother if she told. The girl two years later wrote a diary-like, six-page note to herself about the incident. Her mother found the note. It was then that mother and daughter suspected something amiss with the younger daughter because of the way she was acting. “It never crossed my mind to think that he would do it to my younger sister,” the older sister said as she testified today, “but after many late night fishing trips–what he called [fishing trips], I told her that we need to follow the plan and put iPads in his truck.”
Mother and daughter decided to place two school-issued iPads in Swindell’s truck, recorders on, for one of his “trips” with the younger daughter. At least one of them recorded a sexual encounter. It wasn’t just what Clark, the prosecutor, called the mother’s “creativity” with the iPads that helped the case along, but also the detective work that followed. Florida law allows children to secretly record others when they are victims of abuse. But it does not allow their parents to make such recordings. Initially the girl was fearful of telling on her father because she feared he would hurt her mother, but she eventually did, making the recordings admissible. Swindell–who, according to one of the arrest reports, was found to have assaulted his daughter at least six times on six occasions, the first when she was 12–had also dropped other evidence that ended up helping the prosecution.
He told the court that when he was 6, his father was murdered in an arson incident, and the following year his brother was killed when struck by a vehicle. Between that, his weak heart and his COPD, his attorney tried to argue for a more lenient sentence. But Clark saw no room for leniency. “He’s done it before. He did it this time. He’s going to do it again,” she told the judge. “The only way we can ensure he’s not going to is by incarcerating him as long as possible.”
Swindell told the court that he agreed to the plea to keep his daughter and family from going through a trial. “I don’t want to put [her] through anything else, I don’t want her to suffer like I did,” he said, even then comparing the incomparable, “not have no one else to talk to, thank God she has someone to talk to.” (He’d bought his daughter Mountain Dew soda and Cheezits crackers after one of the assaults, before going home.)
Perkins commended the two sides’ attorneys for bringing the case to an end without a trial. He was visibly dismayed, however, when the family burst in loud applause when he pronounced sentence, before Clark and the victim’s advocate told them to stop. Moments later, Perkins told the family: “I understand that you wanted a specific result, and maybe you got closer to that result or not. I’m not sure. But please understand that I did today what I thought was fair, and certainly not easy for anyone, even in light of these horrendous circumstances. So all I can hope,” he said, addressing the victim by name, “I hope you just go on to an a normal life now, and understand that you can put this behind you.”
The mother in her statement to the court had begun by thanking the numerous individuals in law enforcement and the court system that led the case to its resolution, including the Flagler County Sheriff’s detectives Daniel LaVerne, Sarah Scalia, Darrell Butler, victims’ advocates Mary DiNari and the Palatka Police Department’s detective Sgt. Colton Lee and Holly Griffith.
Swindell will be designated a sexual predator. His 30-year sentence, minus a year and a half credited for his time served at the county jail, will have to be served day for day, since gain time does not apply to inmates serving sentences for sex crimes.