PORT ANGELES — Eight years after rampaging his bulldozer through neighbors’ property, Barry Swegle is warming hearts as this city’s newest Santa and doer of good deeds.
Swegle’s thick white beard and hefty stature did not go unnoticed by the children at Diane’s Daycare.
While playing outside, they noticed his mythical visage as he walked by, not far from the motor home he now lives in near Hurricane Ridge Road, running over and calling him Santa when Christmas was a wish on the calendar.
Swegle, also Santa for The Answer for Youth (TAFY) homeless services agency, finally regaled the children in that role Dec. 16, even charming those fearful of other St. Nicks, daycare owner Diane Curtis said.
“They just thought he was off-season Santa,” she recalled Thursday.
For Swegle, 59, the role is one pace in a quickening two-steps-forward, one-step-back struggle with addiction and wayward behavior.
“I’ve got nothing to hide, not anymore, in my life,” Swegle said. “It’s all got to be put out in front of you, whether it’s wrong or it’s right. The only way you can deal with it is if you admit it and put in out in front of you.”
He feels like he is finally on the right path, he said Wednesday morning, after feeding his neighbor’s three goats, unbidden he said, with food he gets from Grocery Outlet and Saar’s — they like potatoes.
Playing Santa is a reinforcing part of that journey.
Swegle recalled Diane’s Daycare children giving his Santa a group hug.
“Nothing felt better, nothing,” Swegle said Thursday.
“I love kids. They are the greatest to me.”
Swegle, who gets Supplemental Security Income, volunteers at TAFY and takes care of the 84-year-old owner of property where he parks his 40-foot motor home.
He cooks her meals and promises he will read and act on the Bible’s teachings in return for rent. She knew him as a child, he said.
After burglarizing Port Angeles High School as a 15-year-old teen and committing a string of thefts, he opted for 19 months of hard time in a state prison, wanting the taught lesson, he told Peninsula Daily News at the time.
In May 2013, with Swegle three days clean from smoking methamphetamine, an early morning property line dispute boiled over following a middle-finger-fueled morning confrontation with Gales Addition neighbor Dan Davis.
Swegle said he drove to Sequim and back, drank a few beers, then laid waste to the landscape.
The Port Angeles native commandeered his bulldozer through Davis’ and adjoining property, terrorizing neighbors, leaving a flattened pickup truck, two damaged houses and a downed utility pole in his wake.
When a neighbor started snapping photos, Swegle thought, “you want some pictures, I’ll give you some real pictures,” he recalled, almost flattening a house he grew up in, he said, before saying, “enough,” and looking over his shoulder at a deputy crouching, a gun pointed at him.
The rampage generated international news coverage as well as an episode on neighborhood disputes on ABC TV’s “20/20” news magazine.
During a 19-month prison stint beginning in May 2014 at the same place he was incarcerated as a teenager — the Washington Corrections Center at Shelton — Swegle immersed himself in the Bible to get where he wants to be, he said this week.
He has not had alcohol or drugs for three years, when he started growing his Santa beard, he said.
“The bulldozer incident was kind of, it was a way to take everything I owned to prove that your own deeds come back upon your own head,” he said, sitting in a couch in his motor home, with a Bible, dictionary and a book on who’s who in the Bible within arm’s reach.
“Long story short, out of all this, to me it’s school. I’m back in school in my life and being schooled by the Lord,” he said.
“I didn’t realize it’d ever be this much of a chore. It appears that it’s going to be the rest of my life,” Swegle said.
“I was headed down the wrong path, the path of destruction,” he said.
“I really felt at the time, with my frustration, there was no way out of this.
“I was sorry for what I done,” he said.
“I got a second chance. I got a chance to prove myself, to use the maturity that’s been gifted. I just never realized that I had that maturity in my life.”
Swegle acquired the motor home he lives in with his cat, Paws, after he gave up his Gales Addition property to satisfy a $734,566 civil judgement against him. It settled a case filed by neighbors Barbara and James Porter and Mary and Daniel Davis.
His property was transferred to the Porters and Davises in 2016 in a Clallam County Sheriff’s sale for $250,000.
Port Angeles lawyer Lane Wolfley, who represented the neighbors, said this week they wanted Swegle to get on with his life without having the settlement hang over his head.
“When I did last see him and talked to him couple years ago, it was clear he was determined to turn his life around. It was clear he was on his way,” Wolfley said.
Port Angeles lawyer Craig Ritchie, who was county prosecuting attorney when Swegle was sentenced in 1979, said Thursday that even as a 16-year-old, Swegle understood he had a problem that needed to be addressed.
“He thought he should be punished, which is interesting,” Ritchie recalled.
“You don’t see too many defendants who feel that way,” he said.
“He just had those problems, those demons, that he couldn’t get rid of.”
Susan Hillgren of TAFY said Swegle helps an older man once a week, taking him for a shower, and cleans the TAFY center on First Street where Gross’s Florist and Nursery once did business.
“He tries to interact with people who need someone to talk to,” Hillgren said.
Swegle has been the bad guy “and now gets to be the good guy,” she said.
“He’s soft spoken and he’s caring,” Hillgren said, adding children love him as Santa.
“He allows the kids to walk up to him. He’s not aggressive at all. He’s very patient.
“He just wants to make people smile,” she added.
“Everybody deserves a chance.”
Senior Staff Writer Paul Gottlieb can be reached at 360-452-2345, ext. 55650, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.