OXFORD — Carol Swan’s life was defined by hardship. She grew up in foster homes, endured abusive relationships and lost custody of her four children, only to spiral deeper into drug use and forced prostitution.

Five months ago, the man she said forced her to trade sex for drug money was arrested. She met another man, Chip Wyman. He knew she had a past, but to him she was sweet and selfless. She would cook him dinner, serve him and then clear his plate before she had a chance to finish hers.

When Wyman asked Swan last year to come live with him at his house in Oxford, she was glad to move away from Lewiston, the site of much of her struggles. For the first time in a long time, Wyman said, Swan felt safe.

Last Monday morning, Wyman called police to report that Swan had died in her sleep – one day before she had been scheduled to testify at a trial against Martin Gerding, who was charged with aggravated sex trafficking.

Swan was 38.

Wyman, who spoke about her Thursday from his home in a rural part of Oxford about a half-hour west of Lewiston, said he wishes they’d had more time together.

Before her eviction last year, Carol Swan lived at this apartment building at 90 Ash St. in Lewiston. Neighbors called her “sweet as could be,” but said she “bumped into the wrong crowd” and her life spiraled into drug use and forced prostitution. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

“She loved being here,” he said, pausing to fight back tears.

Swan’s sister, Shanna Bartlett, said that although Swan’s life was filled with sadness, she deserved better.

“I don’t want people to think this is what she was, some prostitute,” said Bartlett, 34. “That’s not who she was.”

Police have not released Swan’s cause of death. A spokesman for the state medical examiner’s office said last week that they were still awaiting test results.

Maine State Police are assisting Oxford police, and the state police spokesman, Stephen McCausland, referred to the investigation as “complicated” but wouldn’t provide more details. Her death is not considered suspicious, he said.

Chip Wyman at his home in Oxford. Wyman was dating Carol Swan in the months before her death and she lived with him at his home. Swan was set to testify against Martin Gerding in a sex trafficking case, but was found dead on March 11 at Wyman’s home. “She deserves justice,” Wyman said. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Both Wyman and Bartlett, though, said Swan had been suffering from a traumatic brain injury that they believed was related to previous domestic abuse. Wyman said he thinks that’s what killed her.

“She knew this was coming,” Wyman said. “She told me doctors couldn’t help her anymore.”

With Swan’s death, Androscoggin County prosecutors had to drop the most serious charge against Gerding. Police had alleged that he forced her into prostitution to make money to support their drug habits. Swan also told police that he “got physical” with her when she couldn’t produce the money she had earned from prostitution.

That dynamic of control is common, according to victims’ advocates.

“Traffickers and those who exploit look for any vulnerability in a potential victim as a way to recruit,” said Beth Earle, high-risk response coordinator for Safe Voices, an Auburn organization that provides resources to victims of domestic violence, including sex trafficking. “Oftentimes substances are used as part of the recruitment, either in introducing individuals to substances or using their disease as a way to further their control.”

Elise Johansen, executive director of Safe Voices, said she couldn’t talk about Swan’s case directly but said it highlights the risks women can face and the devastation that can result.

“Human sex trafficking and sexual exploitation happens in Maine in staggering numbers,” she said. “Hundreds of women and girls are exploited and victimized in Maine every year.”

Gerding pleaded guilty last week to four felony charges of violating bail – for allegedly having contact with Swan before the trial. He also pleaded to a new charge of attempted sex trafficking, a misdemeanor. He was sentenced to time already served and released from jail.

His attorney, Verne Paradie Jr., said nothing like this has ever happened in a case he’s been involved in.

“Nobody wants to see things resolved this way,” he said. “I know my client feels badly about her death. It’s very sad.”

Paradie said Gerding has struggled with substance abuse and hopes to enter treatment now that he’s out of jail.

IMPRESSIONS FROM NEIGHBORS

Three neighbors who lived in the same Lewiston apartment building as Swan – until she was evicted last year – gave similar accounts of her life there.

She lived in a third-floor apartment on Ash Street, steps from the Cathedral Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul, with a disabled veteran. Sometime in the last two years, the man died, and Swan was heartbroken. Her life began to unravel, as she increased her drug use and lost custody of her children.

Tammy Caron, who has lived in the building on and off for more than a decade, said Swan was “sweet as could be,” but things changed when her former companion died. She didn’t know his name or how he died.

“I think she bumped into the wrong crowd after that,” Caron said.

At some point, Swan met Gerding, who became her boyfriend and eventually her fiancé. They used drugs together, the neighbors said, and often with others. People were constantly coming in and out of the apartment. Sometimes people slept or passed out in the hallways, Caron said.

A young man who lives at the apartment where Swan used to live declined to give his name but said he knew her.

“She was stable when I first met her, really quiet,” he said. “Then she started to go down a slippery slope.”

Early last year, Swan was evicted from the apartment. The building’s landlord, Leonard Lidback, declined to say much except that she was several months behind on her rent. He hadn’t had any prior problems with her as a tenant.

In May, not long after she was kicked out, Swan was arrested for shoplifting at Hannaford in Auburn. Police said she tried to steal six bottles of Grey Goose vodka and some other items.

Neighbors said Swan still hung around the Ash Street area after she was evicted. She sometimes stayed with her sister in Auburn.

“I knew about the drugs. I knew she was working the streets,” her sister said. “I told her I would help her however I could, but I wouldn’t give her money.”

FEAR, DOMINATION, CONTROL

Bartlett said she and Swan had grown up together mostly in foster homes all over the state. Some of the homes were rough. As a teenager, Bartlett said, Swan was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and depression. She struggled with both into adulthood.

Prosecutors dismissed an aggravated sex trafficking charge, a Class B felony, against Martin Gerding, 36. Chris Williams/Lewiston Sun Journal

Swan graduated from Windham High School and worked for many years, at a linen service business, as a housekeeper at a nursing home and then on the cleaning crew at a hospital.

Bartlett said they saw each other often but visits had grown less frequent over the last few years.

Lewiston police are familiar with the area around Swan’s apartment. They had been conducting undercover sting operations beginning last summer targeting customers who engaged prostitutes, with the goal to crack down on human and sex trafficking.

In an affidavit, police wrote that Gerding bragged to an undercover officer posing as a prostitute that he provided protection to “girls” and that he had two working for him. He said he wasn’t afraid to get physical with some or “put a gun in someone,” according to the affidavit.

Gerding also provided tips to the undercover officer, including how to avoid going to jail, police said. The conversation was recorded on the officer’s cellphone.

A few days later, on Sept. 16, police brought several suspected prostitutes in for questioning, including Swan. She spoke with an advocate for victims of domestic and sexual abuse and then told police she had met Gerding on the streets after getting involved in drugs and losing custody of her children.

She told police that she had been working as a prostitute, at Gerding’s suggestion, to make money to support their drug habits. She said he sometimes forced her to go out even when she didn’t want to and that Gerding sometimes assaulted her when she didn’t turn over money. After that, she told police, she was afraid to stop.

Detective Thomas Murphy of the Lewiston Police Department wrote in an affidavit that Swan was upset talking about it. She then told him that she was feeling suicidal and was taken to St. Mary’s Regional Medical Center.

“For many survivors of trafficking, their trafficker is someone they are in an intimate relationship with,” said Rebecca Austin, director of advocacy for Safe Voices. “These abusive individuals will use their dominance over their partner to force them into trading sex for money or substances. Oftentimes they will coerce their partner into doing this with manipulation or threatening them, and then use the fact that they engaged in the sex trade as a way to control them with the threat of reporting them to law enforcement.”

BETTERING HER LIFE

Gerding, who has amassed a number of prior arrests or summonses – and at least eight convictions – on charges including criminal mischief, theft, burglaries and domestic violence assault, was arrested last October on charges of aggravated sex trafficking, a Class B felony punishable by up to 10 years in prison.

He pleaded not guilty and the case was headed for a trial. Swan’s testimony was the most important piece for prosecutors.

By that time, she had met Wyman, 39, and had moved away from Lewiston.

Bartlett said she started dating Wyman a few weeks after Gerding was arrested.

“She was excited about it,” she said. “She wanted me to French-braid her hair.”

Bartlett said Swan didn’t come home after that first date with Wyman but told her she was happy and had stopped using drugs.

“I didn’t know too much about him,” she said.

Wyman said she wanted to testify at the trial to put that part of her life behind her.

Johansen, the executive director at Safe Voices, said getting victims like Swan to come forward is a major challenge.

“Although I can’t speak to Swan’s situation, I can say that the fear of not being believed is often something we hear,” she said. “Further, trials are arduous and complicated, and often stalking, abuse or threats of violence escalate when a woman flees from the abuser or trafficker. Speaking up and asking for help takes immense strength and we understand the complexity that a survivor faces when coming forward seeking support.”

Although Wyman was still getting to know Swan, he knew of some of her struggles. He knew she had gotten into drug use. He knew that she had lost custody of all four of her children, although he didn’t know exactly when that had happened.

“I didn’t ask her too much about things,” he said. “I don’t think she wanted me to look at her differently.”

According to probate court filings, Swan’s mother, Mina Chadwick, petitioned for guardianship of one of Swan’s children in 2014. Swan objected, and Chadwick later withdrew the petition.

“The state was really hard on her,” Bartlett said.

She said Swan’s 14-year-old son lives with his father. Her three daughters, who had a different father, have been adopted.

Bartlett said she doesn’t think the girls, who are 5, 7 and 11, know that their mother is dead. And she doesn’t know how to reach them.

“I think they deserve to know,” she said.

Wyman’s mother, Saleta McClure, had spent significant time with Swan over the last few months. McClure said the woman had a kind heart and was good for her son.

Wyman works as a flooring installer and said she sometimes accompanied him to jobs to help out. They listened to ’80s music in the car. At home, she watched the TV show “The Big Bang Theory” but was interested in history programs as well. She got along well with his own son, who’s 11. She always put his needs above her own, even as her health worsened.

Bartlett said one of her previous boyfriends used to beat her regularly, including in the head and that she suffered bleeding in her brain from it. Wyman said Swan told him the same story and there was nothing doctors could do. He said there were days before Swan died where it seemed “like her body was there but her mind was somewhere else.”

Lewiston police said when they interviewed Swan last September she talked about being abused but there were no obvious injuries. Gerding was never charged with assault.

When she died last week, Wyman said he was both prepared and devastated.

“She deserved better than this,” he said.

He has talked to Swan’s family about her funeral arrangements. He believes Swan will be cremated, for financial reasons mostly.

“I don’t know, though,” he said. “I’d like to have a place where I can visit her.”

Bartlett said she’s been trying to raise money through GoFundMe. The page had generated only $25 as of Saturday, but she expected to hold at least a small service for her sister.

“It makes me sad to think about her life,” she said. “Everything about this is sad.”

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