June 05, 2019
The man known as the "Swiss Cheese Pervert" sat in the third row of a Berks County courtroom on Tuesday morning with his wife at his side. Over the course of a half hour, they spoke to one another sparingly.
The hair that sat atop Christopher Pagano’s head in mugshots of old is entirely gone. He habitually ran his hands through his gray beard – when he wasn’t adjusting his glasses or red tie – as Judge M. Theresa Johnson took the bench at 9:30 a.m.
Despite a courtroom packed with about 30 defendants appealing summary offense convictions in Reading, the case of the 47-year-old man who lives near the Montgomery/Berks County line would be called within two minutes.
At that point, Assistant District Attorney Jackie Hamer announced the withdrawal of the harassment charge Pagano was there to appeal – and one for which he already served 63 days in jail.
There would be no additional fanfare, for a change.
His time in court was done … for now.
For most, that would be a cause for celebration. But celebrating isn’t something that Pagano, his wife or his family have been able to do in recent years.
In an immediate sense, Hamer said she was only withdrawing the charges so that the Reading police could file weightier ones against a man already found guilty of verbally harassing a woman in May 2018. (Word of those new charges remained pending later Tuesday.)
From a longer view, that case could reopen a years-long saga that put Pagano in the sort of limelight that destroys reputations and leaves them branded with scarlet-letter nicknames in their communities and far beyond.
After a 2014 guilty plea to indecent exposure and harassment charges in a Philadelphia courtroom, Pagano was sentenced to eight years of probation and ordered to undergo sex-offender counseling.
Pagano's penalty, which came after other offenses in neighboring counties over the years, might not have been the worst part of the experience.
Rather, the headlines that followed reports from community groups and media outlets – and drew police into the fray – left him dubbed the “Swiss Cheese Pervert.” This, because he exposed himself to women while holding slices of cheese, asking if they would accept payment to watch him rub the food on his exposed genitals.
“It’s not a sex-offender thing. It was an addiction. Inappropriate behavior was the rush." – Christopher Pagano
One victim snapped a picture of Pagano holding a piece of Swiss cheese. It went viral. The nickname stuck and he said Tuesday, in his first extensive interview, that it haunts him to this day.
Most of it is his fault, he said, but he doesn’t think he shoulders all the blame.
“I’m not denying that it happened. What I’m saying is how everything was handled is a crime,” Pagano said. “The police got involved after the media and (the Mayfair Town Watch) made a lot of noise about it. I consider that a civil-rights violation.
“Being a jackass and doing inappropriate behavior is not criminal. It’s not appropriate at all, but it’s not criminal. If you’re drunk and say, ‘Hey, you want to blow me?,’ they could say, ‘Get the hell out of here.’ That happened. People thought it was funny. Being an a****** is not a crime.
“With the whole thing in the car, my genitals were partially covered (by the cheese), but when the media got a hold of it and turned it into what they turned it into, the police had to react harshly," he added. "I understand weirdness and kink sells and draws attention.”
Still, the recent charges speak to a man who did not learn his lesson, and in fact still grapples with an “addictive personality” that left him repeating behavior that he knew he shouldn't, but that he couldn’t control.
Case in point: according to the non-traffic citation issued to Pagano, he asked a woman, “I have a fetish when a girl sucks cheese off my d***. Will you do it?”
The victim, whose name was not made publicly known on Tuesday, called police. The case landed him behind bars for two months.
Despite the charges being temporarily withdrawn on Tuesday, Pagano will soon return to a Philadelphia courtroom to answer charges that the act represented a violation of probation from the 2014 plea.
If so, he could find himself back in custody.
After the couple walked out of court on Tuesday, Pagano was asked to talk about being branded as the “Swiss Cheese Pervert.”
His initial reaction: stating his preference that the term not be used in this story, but understanding why it would.
Then, he spoke for about 20 minutes about life since he became infamous.
He said he’s addressed a social anxiety disorder that triggered a "fight-or-flight response sometimes triggered by talking to a woman." Medication, therapy and meditation helped him discover better impulse control. He likened battling those urges to being a drug addict.
“The reason I got over it is because I didn’t want to hurt anyone,” he said. “It’s not a sex-offender thing. It was an addiction. Inappropriate behavior was my rush."
That had a major impact on his life, and those of his loved ones.
“My mother supported me, but I’ve been ostracized by other members of my family. I’ve lost job opportunities,” he said. “I’m a person facing injustice because of how that story just blew up.”
“All we want is peace.” – Christopher Pagano's wife
Looking back, he regrets what happened to his family because of his actions.
“My wife can’t go anywhere without getting harassed about it. My daughter can’t go anywhere without getting harassed about it,” he said. “People think it’s all a big joke, but it isn’t. Our lives have been destroyed because of all the attention.
“When you’re on my side of this, you see just how people set out to destroy other people’s lives. It’s just horrible. All I want to do is try to live my life within the confines of the law, but people always think about that nickname when they find out who I am.”
Defense attorney Richard J. Fuschino Jr. of Philadelphia, who is new to the Berks County case, said Tuesday’s decision was “a victory for Mr. Pagano.” The withdrawn matter could help him avoid a bad verdict at the upcoming probation-violation hearing in Philadelphia, he added.
Still, Fuschino worries that should Berks County file new charges, Pagano’s previous cases could be brought into court in relation to that case, and his probation.
Should Hamer bring a new case – as she told PhillyVoice she’s already called police to do and reached out to the victim for more details about the harassment – Fuschino will likely fight it on double-jeopardy grounds.
“I don’t have a crystal ball, but the charges filed against him have now been withdrawn, and that bodes well for Mr. Pagano,” he said. “He’s already been on trial in this case.”
To Pagano’s wife, who did not want her name used or photograph taken for this story, it all boils down to wanting to get past a challenging time.
She knows all too well what it’s like getting put through the public wringer, and doesn’t want to see it happen again.
That’s why she asked a reporter not to share where they live, identifying information about their daughter or any other sensitive information that could draw unnecessary attention to them.
Moments before the couple and attorney got on the seventh-floor elevator to leave the courthouse, she summed up the message she wanted to send out into the world: “All we want is peace.”
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