DETROIT (WJBK) - A former substitute teacher was sentenced Wednesday to 2 years probation for the 2013 drowning of a teen at East Detroit High School.
Johnathan Sails pleaded no contest to involuntary manslaughter in Macomb County court after 14-year-old KeAir Swift drowned in the high school swimming pool while Sails was monitoring the remedial swim class.
Police say on Nov. 8, 2013, Swift was struggling in the pool and other students called for help. According to prosecutors, Sails was in the bleachers with his back to the pool when KeAir Swift was drowning. Family says the students alerted Sails "again and again and again" and that it took him several minutes to check on Swift. They say Sails saw Swift, and returned to the locker room to change. By the time parademics arrived, it was too late.
Family had the opportunity to speak first prior to the sentencing. His sister spoke of the loss the family has felt for the past four years -- and for the rest of their lives.
"It's just unfair I have to sit and watch my mom go through so much about this every day. It's her first son. ... She prayed for son and went through five girls to get one. He's not going to get a chance to live his life," she said.
KeAir's aunt blamed Sails for taking a job he couldn't handle.
"He knew he couldn't swim. Why would you take this job? Not only do you have KeAir's life in your hands, you have a whole classroom," she said.
However, in court Wednesday, defense told a different story, saying Sails, who was 24 at the time of the incident, was captain of the Kettering High School swim team. He says Sails was such a good swimmer, he taught young kids in the Detroit area how to swim.
"It's a deep irony to find him to find himself making a mistake and being in this situation," defense said.
FOX 2 News Now streamed the sentencing early Wednesday morning. Click the video below to watch the full court proceeding, including comments from KeAir's mother, sister, aunt, as well as the judge, defense and even Sails himself.
Defense said Sails was a substitute teacher at East Detroit High School, teaching gym and health, when he was re-assigned to a swimming class after the teacher had quit. He had taught the class by himself for three weeks when the school hired a permanent teacher. Sails stayed on for another week to help out.
On the day of the incident, defense says the permanent teacher had decided it would be a pizza party day, so most students showed up not ready to swim, while a few others did show up to swim. Sails was in those bleachers with the students and the pizza, while keeping an eye on the kids swimming, including KeAir, defense says. He said Sails thought the other teacher was watching the kids in the pool as well.
Lawyers then said Sails blew the whistle to signal the end of class, which typically means everyone get out of the water. Defense says Sails takes responsibility for instead of making sure the few kids were out of the pool, focusing on corralling the other students out of the bleachers.
Defense says he then heard a commotion in the pool, but he had already blown the whistle to get out. He thought the kids were playing, trying to buy a few extra minutes in the pool. Defense says he returned to the locker room to see if it was locked, which would be a reason why the kids didn't get out of the pool.
By the time he understood KeAir was drowning, defense says that was when he jumped in the pool. The judge later added that Sails had difficulty pulling KeAir from the bottom of the pool, and even when he was joined by two others trying to pull him out -- they still had difficulty.
Lawyers said Sails won't deny his responsibility - he should have taken the kids more seriously and paid more attention.
"This man is willing to accept his part in what happened to that poor family."
Defense also says Sails did lie to police, saying he did have a lifeguard certificate.
Back in 2015, the charge was dismissed after Macomb County Judge James Maceroni tied his ruling to the legal standard set by the Michigan Supreme Court in a civil lawsuit in a separate drowning case.
The judge decided Sail's actions did not meet criminal culpability, even if the teacher hesitated before jumping into the pool to help the teen.
Prosecutors predicted back then that that decision would be appealed. Sure enough, the Michigan Court of Appeals reinstated the involuntary manslaughter charge in April 2017, ruling there was enough evidence to show that Sails was "grossly negligent."
Sails had the opportunity to speak before learning his sentence, where he apologized to the family and took responsibility.
"I can't quite understand the pain but I sympathize with the hurt because I live with it on a day-to-day basis," he said. "I know words will never be enough to heal any type of pain. I'm sorry."
As he handed down his sentence, Macomb Circuit Court Judge James Maceroni said Sails was obviously an advanced swimmer, and that he didn't know if having a certificate would have made a difference. He called the incident a lapse in judgement, saying there was no need for prison.
"I'm sure this incident is going to haunt you for the rest of your life but I don't see a justification ... in incarceration," Judge Maceroni said.
Sails was sentenced to 2 years probation and 60 hours of community service.
KeAir's mother, Lakisha Swift, says the story defense gave was a lie, and she had spoken to the kids, who said there was no pizza party.
"The choice he made was selfish. I understand everybody might tell a lie because they want a job, but to take that job was definitely wrong," she said. "He has ruined my family."
All parties agreed the incident was a tragedy, and KeAir will be missed.
"I can't bring my son back. It's not fair."
The Associated Press contributed to this report