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Despite criminal history, swim coach still with SD team

WATERTOWN -- A former head coach of the Mitchell Aquatic Club has been allowed to continue coaching in the state despite a history that includes drunken driving, assault and other crimes.

Chuck Baechler, 55, is the head coach for the Watertown Area Swim Club. He resigned from the head coaching position with the Mitchell club, known as MAC, in September 2010. That was one month after being arrested for an incident involving an alleged domestic dispute, for which he was later convicted of disorderly conduct and obstructing law enforcement. Both swim clubs are affiliated with USA Swimming, the sport's national governing body.

According to numerous court documents and news reports, Baechler's criminal history goes back more than a decade and includes multiple convictions for drunken driving and other offenses in South Dakota during his time as the MAC's head coach.

Baechler is still serving jail time two days each week for his latest drunken driving conviction, according to a jailer at the Davison County Jail.

Baechler was accused in 1999 of sexually assaulting a woman who appeared in his court while he was serving as a judge in Washington. Baechler never admitted to the allegation but did accept a plea agreement that led to a fourth-degree assault conviction.

In January, The Daily Republic received an anonymous tip that USA Swimming was investigating Baechler. The Daily Republic later contacted Karen Linhart, USA Swimming's public relations and social media director, with an inquiry about the alleged investigation, but Linhart refused to comment beyond a brief statement.

"USA Swimming is unable to comment on ongoing investigations," she said in a Feb. 19 email.

USA Swimming's background check policy says anyone who has been convicted of a felony involving violence, firearms or animal abuse will be automatically disqualified from membership, which includes coaches. Also disqualified from membership is anyone convicted of any felony or misdemeanor including all sexual crimes, drug possession or drug use within the last three years, and other drug-related crimes. Anyone convicted of a crime involving child endangerment, neglect or abuse is also disqualified from membership.

All non-athlete members of USA Swimming, including coaches, are subject to a national database search for criminal convictions, as well as a Social Security trace and identity verification, a search of "other watch lists from various national and international databases," and a criminal search for the past seven years in their current county of residence, the policy says.

Coaches are also subject to an additional criminal search in each county of residence for the past 10 years.

Baechler has not been disqualified from coaching with USA Swimming, but he has at least two items in his criminal history that could have placed him in danger of disqualification. He faced a possible felony conviction for repeat drunken driving but got the charge reduced to a misdemeanor, and he was convicted of fourth-degree assault for an incident that included allegations of a sexual nature.

Baechler, who lives in Flandreau, declined a request for an extended interview with The Daily Republic but did offer a brief statement in an email received in May.

"I have struggled with clinical depression and I take full responsibility for not successfully managing that condition during the period of 2008 through 2011," he said, referring to several arrests that occurred during that time.

Baechler refused to discuss the allegation he faced in Washington.

"I fail to see how it qualifies as a news story," he said, "and you'll excuse me if I decline to help you turn it into one."

In an email to The Daily Republic received in May, the Watertown Area Swim Club acknowledged it was aware of Baechler's history before hiring him as head coach.

"USA Swimming cleared him with their background check," the email says. "The (Watertown Area Swim Club) board felt it was reasonable to give him an opportunity."

Since Baechler was hired as head coach, he has caused no problems for the swim club, the statement says.

Calls made by The Daily Republic to Allan Miller, who was MAC president during much of Baechler's tenure as head coach, were not returned.

Washington allegation

According to a Nov. 18, 1999, news release from the Washington State Attorney General's Office, Baechler -- then a district judge in Washington -- was charged with fourth-degree assault on Nov. 17, 1999, for allegedly sexually assaulting a woman at his cabin.

The charge, the release says, stemmed from an incident that began when a woman appeared as a defendant in Baechler's courtroom on Aug. 25, 1998, on drunken driving and hit-and-run charges.

After the hearing, Baechler served the woman with divorce papers filed by her husband and then Baechler offered to let her stay at his cabin at Diamond Lake, the release says. Diamond Lake is located about eight miles southwest of Newport, Wash.

A Dec. 7, 1999, report in The Daily Record, an Ellensburg, Wash.-based newspaper, recounts the alleged sexual assault.

"Baechler drove her to the cabin, where the woman said he tried to kiss her and rub against her. He pulled her into a bedroom while the woman protested that 'this is not right,' " the newspaper story said, quoting court documents.

"Baechler removed his clothing and the woman's clothing, while the woman objected. They had sex, then got dressed and left the cabin," the newspaper story continued, again quoting court documents.

Court documents dated Dec. 4, 1998, obtained by The Daily Republic show Baechler did not admit any wrongdoing to the Washington Commission on Judicial Conduct, but did resign from his judicial position months before he was charged with a crime in connection with the allegation.

Baechler eventually entered an Alford plea -- which is a guilty plea made by some defendants who wish to complete a plea agreement but still deny the allegations against them -- to fourth-degree assault, a misdemeanor charge. He was sentenced to 30 days of electronic home monitoring and two years of probation, according to a Dec. 7, 1999, report in The Daily Record. He also agreed to have no contact with the victim and to pay her an unspecified amount in restitution, the newspaper reported.

South Dakota convictions

Baechler was arrested on Jan. 20, 2007 -- several years after he started coaching for the MAC -- for first-offense drunken driving in Mitchell when, according to court documents, an officer saw him parked against the flow of traffic with his vehicle's engine running in the 600 block of South Edmunds Street.

He pleaded guilty on May 31, 2007, and was sentenced to one year of probation, fined $700 and had his driver's license revoked for 30 days.

On March 29, 2007, Baechler had been arrested again, this time in Hughes County for disorderly conduct and obstructing a law enforcement officer, according to a criminal record obtained by The Daily Republic from the South Dakota Unified Judicial System. He pleaded guilty to obstructing and was sentenced to a suspended 60-day jail sentence, fined $200 and put on unsupervised probation for two years. He was also ordered to complete an alcohol evaluation.

On June 17, 2007, less than one month after pleading guilty to his first DUI, Baechler was again arrested for drunken driving, court documents say, after driving a moped in the 900 block of North Main Street in Mitchell. An officer saw him turn and park facing west in the eastbound lane of West Ninth Avenue, according to court documents.

He pleaded guilty Nov. 7, 2007, and was sentenced to 180 days in jail with 160 days suspended, put on probation for two years, fined $450 and had his driver's license revoked for one year.

The incident that preceded Baechler's resignation from the MAC began with an Aug. 29, 2010, domestic dispute. According to court documents, an officer responding to a report of the dispute arrived on the scene and ordered Baechler to move away from the victim sitting in a white car. Baechler, who was reportedly heavily intoxicated, repeatedly refused and was eventually taken to the ground by two officers.

Before the officers' arrival, Baechler had gotten into an argument with his live-in girlfriend because he wanted to drive her car, court documents say.

Baechler pleaded guilty Oct. 14, 2010, to disorderly conduct and obstructing a law enforcement officer, but the charge of domestic simple assault was dismissed. He was sentenced to a combined 210 days in jail, all suspended, fined $2,000 with $1,600 suspended for obstructing and $150, all suspended, for disorderly conduct. He was also ordered to have no contact with the victim and to participate in the South Dakota 24/7 Sobriety program.

Felony avoided

On Oct. 16, 2011, Baechler was arrested for third-offense DUI, a felony charge, after an officer saw him about 10 miles north of Mount Vernon driving with the right side of his vehicle in the ditch, according to court documents. Baechler performed poorly on a series of sobriety tests and was found to have a blood alcohol content of 0.118 around the time of his arrest, court documents say. The legal limit for driving in South Dakota is 0.08.

Baechler was sentenced to a reduced charge of second-offense DUI, a misdemeanor, on Nov. 13 and ordered to serve 180 days in jail with 90 days suspended, put on probation for one year, fined $400 and had his driver's license revoked for one year.

At sentencing, Baechler's attorney Scott Podhradsky, of Wagner, said the charge was reduced to keep a felony off Baechler's record, which would disqualify him from coaching in Watertown.

Baechler spoke fondly of his coaching position while in court.

"It's the one area of my life I've been able to keep together," he said.

Podhradsky noted at the hearing that Baechler had already completed intensive outpatient treatment for alcohol addiction and was working to complete aftercare.

"I don't think about alcohol," Baechler said. "I know what alcohol has done to me personally."

At a later hearing March 12, Baechler was given permission by Judge Tim Bjorkman to choose two days per week -- the same two days every week -- during which to serve his jail time. He is still serving that sentence.

Bjorkman also allowed Baechler to adjust his requirements with the state 24/7 Sobriety program during swim meets.

"It's not a matter of my convenience," Baechler said. "It's a matter of being able to maintain my employment."