TWO HARBORS, Minn. — Embattled Mayor Chris Swanson, who is facing an aggressive recall campaign, is breaking his silence after years of rumors that he sexually abused a 5-year-old girl when he was a teenager.
Swanson acknowledged that he received a sentence related to the allegations but wouldn't address them in detail. He added that he complied with terms of his probation and maintains that he grew up to become a good citizen. Juvenile court records are sealed.
"How long do we want to dig up people's pasts?" Swanson asked.
Rumors of the allegations swept through the town of 3,600 for years, but as Swanson became mayor and the recall campaign picked up support, the family of the girl he abused took their story to social media and to the steps of City Hall.
"We just wanted him to be gone," her father, Greg Christenson, said. "Not even necessarily gone, just not mayor anymore."
Her mother, Nancy Christenson, added: "Out of the public eye."
The stakes could hardly be higher for Swanson, whose political future is in the hands of Two Harbors residents. They will vote Tuesday on whether to recall him midway through his second term.
The recall campaign — stemming from concerns about Swanson's commingling of his business interests with mayoral duties — along with the Christensons' abuse story have loomed large among residents of the tourist town about 25 miles north of Duluth on the shores of Lake Superior.
City Council members, who unanimously voted to ask Swanson to resign in June, have stopped answering questions from the media. Swanson hasn't attended a council meeting since June 13.
Swanson initially gained attention after a flashy but longshot idea to build an underwater hotel in Lake Superior. Soon questions surfaced about what some city officials and residents found to be troubling overlap between his businesses and political roles.
City Attorney Tim Costley offered a written opinion that the mayor had used his role for personal gain and violated the city's communication policies. The state auditor investigated and agreed with the city's assessment.
In one instance, Swanson solicited a donation for a new bandshell using his mayoral e-mail address. Then his company, Garage Starts, billed the organizing group behind the bandshell $65 an hour for fundraising.
In another case, a resident asked the mayor for help reopening a landmark fish shop that had shut down. Months later, Swanson's wife bought the building and his daughter Ashleigh Swanson, then 16, opened Lou's Fish House.
The Resign or Recall group collected enough signatures to get the mayor's recall on the ballot, based largely on conflict-of-interest concerns.
Swanson has refused to step down from the part-time position. "I can't abandon the vision," he said after the recall vote was scheduled. "Nor can I abandon the many people who believe that what we're doing in the community is finally working."
As the uproar continued, he released a campaign video last week titled "The Truth About Mayor Swanson" — a more than 16-minute response to Resign or Recall.
"I am here today to tell you a little more about the truth in all of the allegations that have been thrown around about me and my family," he said with his wife, Rebecca Swanson, at his side. "It's been a challenging and difficult road."
He offered defenses for the conflict-of-interest allegations but did not mention the abuse allegations.
The Christenson family, whose daughter Lindsey was abused by Swanson, has been coping with the effects of the assault for the past 30 years.
Lindsey, now 35, is under the legal guardianship of her parents, who opted to speak for her for this story.
Family on their block
In 1992, Greg and Nancy Christenson turned to a family on their block in Silver Bay, Minn., for child care for their young daughters Lindsey, 5, and Melissa, 6. The Swansons were not part of their friend group, but they had four cleanly dressed boys and were known Christians, Nancy Christenson recalled. Swanson's family provided day care for several months while the parents worked.
Members of the Christenson family said they believe Lindsey purposefully picked a time when her father was incapacitated — unable to physically retaliate — to tell him about the abuse. Greg Christenson was recovering from back surgery in August 1992 when she told him about the things that then-15-year-old Swanson had repeatedly done to her in a bathroom and bedroom.
Nancy Christenson called the police.
Richard DeRosier, now retired, was a Lake County deputy sheriff at the time and remembers the case — though it was handled by the Silver Bay Police Department.
"I remember the allegation, and I remember when the chief arrested Chris," DeRosier said. "There was inappropriate stuff going on between him and a young child in the neighborhood. Sexual contact."
The Christensons were asked to weigh in on whether Swanson should be charged as an adult in Lake County District Court. Not wanting to ruin his life, they opted for leniency. The court records were sealed because he was a juvenile, which has kept the case out of the public view. The family has copies of the records but is not releasing them.
On Nov. 17, 1992, a judge sentenced Swanson to probation, and the Christensons said he was briefly sent away from the neighborhood because of his proximity to the victim.
Not long after he returned, the Swansons moved 28 miles southwest to Two Harbors.
Open letter to Swanson
The Christenson family lost track of Swanson for decades. Then he ran for mayor of Two Harbors in 2016. Before the election, Melissa Giles wrote an open letter to him on her Facebook page about what had happened with her sister — abuse Giles witnessed once without immediately understanding what she was seeing.
"Do you think about the years of pain you brought upon our families?" Giles wrote in her post. "My sister would like answers because she never recovered the way you did."
Giles' post was widely commented on and shared on social media. Still Swanson won easily. In 2020, he ran again — that time unopposed.
In August 2020, Swanson stood on a stage at a Duluth rally with then-Vice President Mike Pence and delivered a letter endorsing President Donald Trump's re-election bid. It was signed by four other pro-mining Iron Range mayors.
Giles saw video of the event and left a message on Swanson's voicemail.
"No matter how big you get, I'm always going to talk about what you did to my sister," she recalled saying. "Why can't you just tell her story, or validate what happened?"
Three months later, a mediator for Swanson invited the Christenson family to the Center for Restorative Justice and Peacemaking in Duluth. The program works with people who have been harmed and those who contributed to the harm, according to director Emily Gaarder. She cannot comment on specific cases.
Greg Christenson said the program has offered more healing than in all the years before. They worked parallel with Swanson, never in direct contact.
Swanson said he has done everything that was asked of him when he went to court as a teenager, including apologizing and serving probation. He said he initiated the work with the restorative justice program to see what could happen.
Then without explanation, the Christensons said, he ended his involvement last May.
They are at a loss for why, and Swanson has declined to say.
Her story is told
About a month later, on June 13, Nancy Christenson and Giles each asked for a three-minute slot to share their story during the public comment period of a Two Harbors City Council meeting. They were denied. President Ben Redden said they were raising issues from before Swanson was mayor.
Nancy Christenson had her say anyway. She stood on a makeshift stage backed by friends and family and told their story to about 50 people in the City Hall parking lot as the council prepared to meet.
Swanson was inside council chambers that day and would not comment about what was happening outside. He hasn't returned to a meeting since.
After an initial Star Tribune interview about the abuse allegations, Swanson did not respond to repeated requests to answer additional questions.
During that brief interview last week, he said he has changed his life for the better and always tried to help people.
"I'm a success story," he said.