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Lawyer disputes story of teacher’s response to drowning student

March 19, 2014

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Johnathon Sails sits with his defense attorney, Robert Leonetti, during a pretrial hearing March 19 in the 38th District Court. Sails is charged with involuntary manslaughter in the drowning death of KeAir Swift, a 14-year-old East Detroit High School student.

Johnathon Lamonte Sails, the East Detroit High School substitute teacher who stands accused of involuntary manslaughter after a student drowned in his swim class last fall, will be back at the 38th District Court May 8.

Sails, 24, of Detroit, was charged Feb. 12 due to the drowning death of East Detroit freshman KeAir Swift last fall. Involuntary manslaughter is a felony that carries a potential 15-year prison sentence.

At a preliminary hearing March 19, Sails’ attorney, Robert Leonetti, said he had been going through the discovery with the prosecutor, Bill Cataldo, and the two sides felt that the May 8 date was reasonable.

“The discovery was lengthy. There were 20 witnesses that were students, staff and administrators,” Cataldo said. “The investigation is lengthy, but it is 90 percent complete, so we can identify witnesses we want to call.”

He said they were looking at requesting between 12-14 witnesses, and he added that the preliminary exam may need to continue for another day. Judge Carl Gerds was amenable to both dates, setting the initial time for 10 a.m. May 8 with a continuation the afternoon of May 9, if necessary.

Eastpointe Police Detective Matt Merlo told the Eastsider in February that Sails allegedly had been on the upper deck during the end of a remedial swim class when Swift starting having trouble in the water. Merlo alleged that Sails had brushed off students who said Swift was having trouble and that Sails went to the locker room to change before trying to pull up Swift.

After the March 19 hearing, Leonetti pushed back against that account, alleging that Sails blew the whistle for kids to get out of the water and had thought they were all out of the pool. He allegedly was in the locker room area at the end of the class with the students when a few told him that Swift was having trouble in the deep end of the pool.

He said that Sails quickly had dropped his clothes and got into the pool to help Swift get out.

“I want to dispel this myth that my client was changing his clothes in the locker room,” Leonetti said. “He was the first adult to jump in the pool, and when he couldn’t pull (Swift) up, he called for help. A security guard came in and couldn’t pull him up either. ”

It was three minutes later, when an assistant principal arrived, that they were able to get KeAir out of the water, Leonetti alleged. He said that there should have been a second teacher on hand with Sails, but Leonetti said that person had gone into the hallway without Sails’ knowledge.

Leonetti added that he believes the witness testimony and footage from the school will bear out his version of events. Leonetti said that Sails wanted to offer his condolences to Swift’s family.

Leonetti declined to make further comments at this time.

Merlo had confirmed in February that Sails has no prior criminal record or outstanding warrants, and that he has been cooperative during the investigation.

About the author

Staff Writer Kevin Bunch covers the communities of Eastpointe and Roseville, as well as Roseville Community Schools and East Detroit Public Schools. He has worked at C&G Newspapers since 2013, and is a graduate of Wayne State University and Henry Ford Community College. Kevin is also a 2015 Metcalf Institute for Marine & Environmental Reporting alumni.

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