Crime & Courts

Retired Anchorage teacher gets 2 years for sex abuse

A former Anchorage School District teacher was sentenced to two years in prison on Friday for sexually abusing one former student and attempting to abuse another.

David Schwantes, 74, pleaded guilty and was sentenced to six years prison time with four years suspended on second-degree charges of sex abuse of a minor and attempting the same offense on a second young boy.

Assistant district attorney Patrick Sherry argued that Schwantes used his position of authority as a teacher to groom then violate children.

Schwantes' defense attorney Danee Pontious said the crimes for which her client was being sentenced only reflected a portion of a man who committed the majority of his life to serving the community.

An investigation into Schwantes began in September after a former student, who is now an adult, reported to police that Schwantes had sexually abused him. That man, who according to the state's comments is currently in Afghanistan serving in the military, listened over the phone to Friday's hearing.

The man told police he met Schwantes at Mount Spurr Elementary School during the 1988-89 school year, when Schwantes was named Anchorage teacher of the year. Schwantes befriended the boy and molested him during the 1990s at school and elsewhere, according to the account given to police.

Schwantes worked as a third- and fourth-grade teacher at Mount Spurr on what was then Elmendorf Air Force Base from 1968 to 1993. Between 1993 and 1996, he worked as a substitute teacher in the school district. From 1999 to 2000, he was involved in after-school activities at Muldoon Elementary School, police said.

Authorities originally charged Schwantes with seven felonies, but that criminal complaint was replaced by the two sex abuse charges. The charges say he abused at least two minors while employed at the school district.

Anchorage Police Department Detective John Vandervalk said in March that another alleged victim came forward following Schwantes' arrest but didn't want to face public scrutiny and declined to testify before a grand jury.

Sherry brought up the third victim in the state's sentencing remarks, and the defense objected, arguing Schwantes wasn't being sentenced for those allegations.

The prosecutor said the two boys tied to the charges were "forced" to touch Schwantes' genitals. He argued the former teacher's actions made parents question whether they should instill in their children that schools are safe places.

Sherry asked the judge to impose six years. He said he regretted not being able to ask for a longer sentence, but the state's hands were tied. Schwantes' sentence was imposed under laws in effect when the crimes were committed. The Alaska Legislature has since significantly increased the penalties for sex crimes.

Outside the courtroom, Sherry said under current laws Schwantes would have faced five to 15 years behind bars. That's still on the low end, as Schwantes lacked a criminal record.

Pontious asked the court to impose a sentence that didn't include jail time -- some form of supervised release, for example. She said six years for Schwantes, an elderly man who lives with a number of ailments, would be a life sentence.

She also asked the court to consider the totality of Schwantes' life, not just the abuse.

Superior Court Judge Michael Wolverton said he would consider Schwantes' significant list of good deeds, and he recognized no penalty would fully restore the lives of the abused boys. But he called sexual abuse in Alaska an "epidemic."

Judge Wolverton said he was currently preparing for another child sex abuse case, which generally requires a jury pool twice the normal size. That's because about one-third are unable to handle the evidence in those cases due to personal experience, he said.

Speaking during the sentencing, Schwantes apologized to his friends and family, the school district and those he abused.

"You were faultless. You were only children," he said.

Schwantes said he was abused when he was about 11 or 12 years old, but that "doesn't excuse what I did."

The judge later noted that it's unfair to simply label people victims. To make his point, he read a sentence from a letter submitted by the man who initially came forward about Schwantes' abuse.

"I am not a victim. I am a survivor," Wolverton quoted from the letter.