Steve Braunias: The strange, sad case of Benjamin Swann comes to rest

Steve Braunias looks into the case of Benjy Swann, a flamboyant former teacher sentenced to jail for sex offences.

The strange, sad case of Benjamin Christopher Missi Swann has come to a kind of rest. Ever since the former teacher was arrested and charged with indecent acts on young boys, through to his first trial, which ended with the jury unable to reach a verdict, through the long wait for a retrial when he embarked on a really quite audacious plan to become a star of broadcast news, through to his second trial, which found him guilty, and right up to his sentencing last September, when Justice Moore jailed him for three years and said, “You have caused the victims great hurt”, Swann held fast to something precious: denial. He held on to it, too, during a long interview, the only one he ever gave, just before his sentencing. And now this, from a Parole Board hearing: “Mr Swann was in denial in the early stages of his sentence but told us that in November last year after he had had time to reflect on what he did, he accepted responsibility.”

Finally, at last. It comes as both a surprise and no surprise. Imprisonment has a way of altering a man’s thinking. But he had been so adamant that he was innocent of all charges. He carried himself with great pride during his court appearances, when he held on to something that was as important to him as denial: style. He wore a red hibiscus in the lapel of his black suit at sentencing, and a crisp white shirt open at the collar. He was less handsome than actually quite beautiful, a tall, striking 57-year-old Samoan man in fantastic physical shape, with high cheekbones and a jet black pelt of hair riding high on top of his head.

It was always his appearance, his manner, his flamboyant character, that made Swann interesting. The charges were the usual low and vile behaviour of all sex offenders – taking advantage, taking control, taking over someone’s body. Suppression orders prevent identifying detail but the gist of it is that Swann faced 10 charges of indecent acts on six boys, and was found guilty of five charges relating to four complainants. The scale of the offending was “moderate”, Justice Moore said at sentencing, but there had been “a gross breach of trust … The effect on the four boys you touched will affect them for a very long time.”

“Love you, Benjy,” cried his four sisters in the public gallery, when he was taken away; he blew them kisses, theatrical to the end.

Even the way Phillip Mills talked was physical. The executive director of Les Mills International, one of New Zealand’s great export success stories with its global network of cardiovascular gyms, was talking about a former employee and aerobics instructor when he suddenly remembered the last time he’d seen him. He said, “You know what? I actually bumped into him a couple of years ago. It was up in Kingsland. I was going to my osteopath just up the road from The Fridge. You know that bakery, The Fridge? And I parked the car across the road from the osteo, and here’s this guy walking up the street. He’s in a bizarre fluoro leotard or something, and he’s got a bizarre haircut, and he’s power-walking. I called out, ‘Ben!’

“He stopped and we talked. I said, ‘How are you doing, what’s happening in your life?’ He said, ‘I’m going into broadcasting.’ I said, ‘Good luck to you!’ I thought, ‘That is an unusual human being and maybe he’ll do great in broadcasting.’ Because even though I hadn’t seen him probably for decades, I recognised him straightaway. You can’t miss the guy. He’s such an unusual-looking character.”

The comment about “going into broadcasting” dates their brief encounter sometime in 2018. It was a peculiar year for Ben Swann, better known and widely loved as Benjy.

“I had no idea what I was in for,” Swann said later. “I felt I couldn’t breathe.” In late 2017, police charged him with sex offences. He denied the allegations and could have laid low while he waited to see whether the matter would go all the way to trial, but that wasn’t his style. His style was joyfully and flamboyantly out there; he loved stars like Kimbra, Rihanna, Pink, Ellen; he posted crazy YouTube videos of himself in a series of dyed hairstyles, hamming it up and wearing little shorts. Besides, he felt he had nothing to hide, so he enrolled in the New Zealand Radio Training School at the Queen St campus of Whitireia. He hoped his troubles would all just disappear and leave him free to pursue his dreams of stardom.

“He wanted,” said Larry Summerville, the training school’s programme manager, “to be famous.”

Police lined up seven complainants against Swann at his first trial in May 2019. He was on a hiding to nothing. Patterns of abuse are often identified when there are multiple complainants; the Crown identified strong patterns in the case against Swann. The accused will often rather feebly claim they are the only one telling the truth, that everyone else is lying; Swann feebly said as much at his trial.
And yet the first jury were unable to reach a verdict. It was certainly a very conscientious jury; they asked for a whiteboard, for Sellotape, for Post-it notes; all that, and the best they could do but after three days of deliberating was to send they sent a folded piece of paper to Judge Alisa Duffy. It read “no progress”. Very well, said the judge, and gave the jury the option of finding a majority verdict. But they sent Judge Duffy another note: “split decision”.

Very well, said the judge, and gave them a Papadopoulos direction, that nice little piece of wishful legal thinking that encourages jurors to recognise that unanimous verdicts can often be reached through argument, through give and take, through civilised discourse. But still they weren’t having a bar of that, either, and were still unable to agree on any of the charges.

The Crown had the option of abandoning its prosecution, but it pressed for a retrial, even when one of the original complainants dropped out. Six complainants retold their stories – five via a videolink, one in the courtroom – when Swann appeared for his second trial, in August 2020.

Swann had been working in construction. He wore his work clothes to court, and was taken into custody immediately following the guilty verdicts. But before sentencing he was allowed bail to care for his terminally ill brother, and an interview was held at his sister’s townhouse. It is legally permissible to describe it as an interview with a paedophile.

Swann’s sister served sausage rolls and a pot of coffee, and made herself scarce. Swann wept and sighed heavily throughout our two hours; he was a soul in torment. Now and then he’d light up, and his favourite term of expression was: “Are you kidding me?”It was meant to register surprise and delight, like OMG, and it always sounded precisely and exactly camp. He was like a stately queen, with his soft voice and his graceful demeanour, and he presented as somewhere on the LGBTQ spectrum.His lawyer Sam Wimsett told the jury, “You may have noticed Mr Swann lives his life very much in the open.”

Well – yes and no. Swann said he wasn’t gay and seemed a little bit surprised to be asked.

“I’ve not really like honed in on being gay or anything else,” he said. “I don’t mind being labelled things … I probably could be gay. I’d just say I’m flamboyant, big-time.”

Phillip Mills had an interesting insight: “I would have said he seemed asexual.” He didn’t see Swann as particularly camp. “He was just … a bizarre human. I don’t know the detail of what he did or what he was convicted of.Was he convicted of sexual offences against boys or girls?”

Mills wrote him a character reference that went before Justice Moore; he was happy to be asked, and wanted to acknowledge that Swann had been one of the gym’s most popular instructors (“I can remember him having 100 people in class – we used to count everybody’s numbers”), who had improved the health of a lot of members at Les Mills in the 1980s and 90s.

“Very pleasant guy,” he remembered. “Nice, likeable sort of a guy. A big, tall, strong guy who always had very, very funny haircuts, unusual haircuts. A vulnerable sort of a guy. Friendly, very positive, gentle. A gentle giant I suppose is how I’d describe Ben. He never seemed like anybody who would hurt a fly.”

Swann was born in 1963 and grew up in Mt Eden. His father, who died in 2011, worked in the freezing works at Westfield, and ordered his kids to run around the block every morning before breakfast. “He was hard as nails and never showed emotion,” Swann said. “That’s how he was. But he was trying to make us better people. And to have real careers, and everyone has.”

Swann went into teachers college straight after school at St Peter’s. “I bump into people all the time who know him,” said Sam Wimsett. “Last year, the trial was hung on a Friday, and that night I went to a fundraiser at St Peter’s, and all these guys came up to me and said, ‘We remember Ben Swann!’ They all remembered him as someone super nice, and friendly.”

He lived in an apartment in Eden Terrace, and was a familiar sight on Khyber Pass Rd, power walking its length every morning to the train station at Newmarket, and back again after his work. There were the years moonlighting as an aerobics instructor at Les Mills; he was forever in Lycra, “in the loudest neon colours”, he remembered. He also modelled in fashion shows, and picked up occasional acting roles. In 1996, he played serial rapist Joseph Thompson, in the TV drama Out of the Dark. Swann was filmed in silhouette. He bent over young girls playing Thompson’s victims who were asleep in their beds, and hissed: “If you call out, I’ll cut your tongue off.” And: “Be quiet or I’ll slit your throat.”

He claimed he also auditioned for roles in Hollywood during visits to Los Angeles. “I was taken to the set of Lois and Clark. I was like, ‘Are you kidding me?’ And I also went to the set of The Drew Carey Show. I was like, ‘Are you kidding me?” His last trip to LA was in 2017 when he auditioned for a role in a film that he claimed was Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. Last year, awaiting his retrial, he claimed he had “a feature role” in the New Zealand TV series Brokenwood Mysteries (“It took my mind to another place”) although his name doesn’t feature in any of the show’s credits.

In 2018, he studied broadcasting and journalism at the New Zealand Radio Training School. He’d been arrested, but had faith that the charges would be dropped.
“I just didn’t think it would last very long,” he said. “I thought, ‘Well, I’ll use this time wisely.’ And I always wanted to be in broadcasting.

“And as soon as it started, I realised that this is my thing. Like, when I found I’d been accepted, I knocked on the door at Radio New Zealand and asked if I could come in and observe. I was there for a whole month. One day I was asked to go downstairs to the Checkpoint office and there was John Campbell! I was like, ‘Are you kidding me?’

“And the more I did it, and learned about broadcasting and journalism, the more I thought, ‘I love this world. I love this world’. Because you’re actually teaching the world about themselves.”

Asked whether he remembered Swann, Larry Summerville from the training school said, “I do indeed … He’s an interesting character. He’s obviously gay, obviously flamboyant; he loved his shorts. In the winter, in the summer – always with the shorts, that’s just how he was.”

Advised that Swann said he wasn’tgay, Summerville said,”Isn’t that interesting. While he was with us, we all– well, actually, maybe that’s an assumption we had.”

Swann claimed he was open with the school about his arrest the charges against him. Summerville confirmed that was the case. “I felt that we basically needed to make sure the class and everyone was aware of things, and he was open to that. We sat down and we had a very open discussion with him and the class. But there was no conviction at that point, so away we went.

“He was always upbeat, you never saw him in a down frame of mind. He was very upfront about the case and believed he would be exonerated.He just got on with what needed to be done. All he wanted to do was improve. He was prepared to put himself out there, he’d go after opportunities, and stretch himself. He was prepared to give everything a go. He wanted to be famous. That’s probably what he set out to do.”

Asked whether Swann had the potential to launch a successful career in broadcasting, Summerville said, “He could probably have gone a very long way. Yeah.”

As well as Radio New Zealand, Swann also interned at Newshub. It was an exciting year and he plainly loved every second of the experience. He wrote on Twitter, quoting Frank Sinatra, “The best revenge is massive success”. He posted photos of himself on social media with celebrities he met that year (Jane Fonda, James Rolleston), and noted the advice and encouragement he received from Hilary Barry and Paddy Gower. When he was on bail awaiting his sentence, Swann went to Newshub and asked if he could see Gower, that he had a letter for him. It was a request for Gower to write him a character reference for Justice Moore to consider at sentencing. Gower declined. He said he met Swann for only about five minutes.

“I didn’t actually have that much to do with him,” Gower said. “I remember he was very striking. I was like, ‘Okay, this is interesting.’ He was tall, big, athletic and I’m pretty sure he was wearing shorts.”

A retrial is like a badly acted play. There’s a kind of emptiness to the performance – it’s dutiful, over-rehearsed. Swann’s retrial followed much the same pattern as his first trial in 2019. The prosecution, led by former ski instructor David Stevens, laid out patterns of abuse. For the defence, the bald and bouncy Sam Wimsett dismissed the allegations as “a devious combination of truths, half-truths and outright falsehoods”.

The court were played videos of the boys being interviewed by child psychologists in a bland office with grey carpet and a big round clock on the wall. “Tell me all about the touching from start to end … Have a good think about the last time the touching happened to you … How was he touching your private parts … Explain that in more detail … Don’t leave anything out”, etc.

The court was told that police made forensic investigations of Swann’s mobile phone, and his PC; more than 400 pages of texts and searches were produced, but nothing remotely incriminating was located.

A compact disc was seen on the Crown’s desk. It contained a compilation of Swann’s amazing YouTube videos, which depict him clowning around, usually in shorts and sporting quite colourfully dyed haircuts. Wimsett knew all about it and talked it over with Stevens.

“We agreed between us it was a two-edged sword,” he said, during an interview over a glass of Church Road at Vivace on Fort St. “My position was going to be, ‘So what?’ Because if you were committing this kind of offending, it would be a hell of a thing to carry on like that in full view of everybody drawing attention to yourself. It’s more likely you’d be completely hiding that side of you. Whereas I think the Crown’s competing argument might have been that this is not a guy who was constrained by norms.”

In the event, the Crown decided not to introduce it as evidence. (Stevens declined to be questioned for this story, as did Police, who issued a statement: “This offender abused the trust of his victims and we hope the outcome will give them some form of closure going forward.”)

One thing differed markedly between the two trials: Swann’s performance on the witness stand. “His evidence in the first trial was really good,” said Wimsett, “apart from the fact he was wearing a tuxedo jacket.” His instructions to Swann in the retrial was to simply repeat what he’d said in the first trial. It didn’t happen like that.

Swann took his seat in the witness box and splayed his hands out in front of him. They didn’t move the entire time he was cross-examined; it was as though they were gripping the box for dear life; his tension showed, and he went off-topic, at one point raving about a “protruding protudence” to describe a boy who he claimed had an erection. It wasn’t a subject he’d mentioned in the first trial or at any time and it gave Stevens the opportunity to tell the jury that Swann was making things up as he went along.

Certainly he didn’t make it easy on himself.

“No,” he agreed. “No. I didn’t.”

He mucked up.

“I did.”

What happened?

“I don’t know. I just think I talked too much.”

Did he remember sitting there with his hands spread out in front of him the whole time?

“Did I do that? Oh gosh. I must have been nervous. I do that when I’m nervous.”

It may or may not have been critical or even meaningful to the jury. They deliberated for three days before delivering the verdict. Swann said, “I couldn’t even comprehend want was happening. I just went into shock. Sam was speaking to me downstairs and I was like, ‘Are you kidding me?’ I couldn’t even speak. I was just nodding. Then I was handcuffed and taken straight from there in a police van to Mt Eden [jail].

“I’m so upset we’ve got this outcome but I’m not going to let it– it could actually destroy me if I let it, and I don’t want it to, so I’m coping by keeping calm. And praying. A lot of praying.”

Prayer is one thing; remorse is another. Two months after his imprisonment, Swann changed his story, and “accepted responsibility”, as the Parole Board describe it. It’s an important step towards release. Swann is in a good position to pick up the pieces; he can return to the loving embrace of his family, and one of his character references at sentencing was from his boss at a construction site, who said he’d welcome Swann back to work.

At the time of his sentencing, though, Swann refused to accept responsibility. His lawyer Sam Wimsett said, “I’ve acted for sex offenders who have served the whole time because they’re either innocent, or they can’t bring themselves to admit it, and are too deep in a hole of denial.” The catch-22 was that to seek early release meant having to admit to the crimes. “It’s an interesting conundrum.”

Larry Summerville at the New Zealand Radio Training School had said, “It’s very hard to reconcile. If you are guilty, why would you continue to put yourself out there as he did, and continue to want a public face? There’s no easy answer. It certainly provided a conundrum for us throughout that entire time.”

That word again: “conundrum.” Who was Swann? “Unusual”, “bizarre” … Swann, with his dyed hair, his camp mannerisms, his little shorts; Swann, for so long burrowed deep inside a complex system of delusion and fantasy.

In sentencing, Justice Moore told Swann, “For as long as you continue to deny your offending and are not prepared to confront the drivers which led to it, you will have difficulty moving forward. Use your time in jail profitably. Undertake the courses recommended by the Probation Service. And when you are released you will do so a better and safer man.”

The Parole Board stated, “He has been waitlisted to attend the Short Intervention Programme [for sex offenders] and it seems from what we were told today that he has been somewhat impatient to attend and complete that programme … It is essential in the board’s view that Mr Swann successfully participates in the programme before we could be satisfied that his risk to the safety of young children in the community was other than undue.” His appeal for parole was denied. He will next be eligible in June next year.

Swann had only picked at his food over lunch on the day of that interview. Tears streamed down his face. And then he described his days on bail: keeping fit, following a rigorous exercise programme. “I power walk up Mt Eden,” he said, “and do push-ups and sit-ups and burpies and star jumps, then I walk around the Domain and do stretches … ” He straightened his back, stopped weeping; even talking about exercise took him to a better place. Just as he did when his dad made him run around the block before school, the most important thing in life was to keep moving.

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