Yanni and Dina Panagiotakis say they were only looking for a unique family experience and a little exposure for their restaurant when they accepted the proposal made by ABC to appear in the reality show Wife Swap.
Unfortunately, the family got a little too much exposure when Yanni, owner of Athens Family Restaurant on Franklin Pike, struck his 13-year-old daughter during an argument in his car about her behavior during the taping. Metro police reported initially that the camera crew witnessed the girl being struck five times in the face, but that account was later changed once Metro police explained that the camera crew was in another vehicle at the time of the incident.
Now the Panagiotakis family is planning to take ABC to court for manipulation, and violating the rules of the reality show. "I should be compensated for my dignity and my fatherhood being stripped away from me," Yanni says.
The Tennessee Department of Children's Services put him on a nine-month probation and ordered him to attend 16 anger management courses after pleading guilty to the charges. After the nine months pass, assuming no more incidents, the charge could be expunged from his record.
A Greek immigrant who just recently opened his restaurant, Yanni says his business is suffering as a result of what he characterizes as inflated charges against him. "I know that my business dropped 35 percent ever since the incident," he says.
He insists that what happened was a result of the pressure and stress of discovering that his exchanged "wife" had been tying up the restaurant take-out phone line with calls to her husband in California. According to Yanni and Dina, participants weren't supposed to contact their spouses once the shooting began, but Yanni caught his daughter helping his "wife" cheat.
Police reports stated that the girl told the television crew Yanni had slapped her because she wasn't wearing a coat. Yanni explains that the 13-year-old was just back from the hospital where she was diagnosed with bronchitis. "The doctor suggested good covering, clothes and rest," Yanni tells the Scene. After asking his daughter several times to put on a coat before leaving for a friend's house to play, the girl still forgot to take a jacket.
"Once we...entered the car, three or four minutes later...she ignored me once again. I am speaking to her upsetvery upset. As I am driving along, I am thinking about all the misbehavior she has performed over the past week. I'm driving, and my blood is boiling. The reaction...was a result of the show. That's when I backslapped her. I was so upset that I couldn't control myself," he says.
Yanni pulled the car over when the girl's nose started bleeding, and that's when the camera crew took her to the hospital. Although the police report indicated that the camera crew saw bruising, Dina and Yanni insist the girl only had a small scratch on her nose and was helping in the restaurant the next day.
Yanni says that the ABC camera crew deliberately urged the surrogate wife to antagonize and harass him at work and that they knew exactly what would push his buttons.
"When they came to me, they knew I was the 'general' type," Yanni says. "In my house, there is law and order. Deliberately, they set me up in order to have a show."
"That's what they were doingmanipulating," Dina says. "That's not reality."
The Scene reached ABC for comment, but producers did not return the phone calls by press time.
The Panagiotakis' family lawyer, Bryan Lewis, says that he's currently requesting a copy of the contract Yanni and Dina signed to ascertain whether there's a basis for a lawsuit.
"Yanni is saying that ABC placed an inappropriate woman in the household who was violating their own rules," Lewis says. "This caused Yanni a lot of mental anguish as a result.... I think he was put in a compromising situation."
"What I did to my daughter, the [emotional] wounds are still there," Yanni says. "I didn't want to do that. It wasn't me. But I guess we were both victims under the circumstances."
The specifics of the lawsuit have not yet been determined, Lewis says. His main focus at the moment is Yanni's probation. "We're not going to start throwing rocks while we're living in a glass house," Lewis says.
Probably good advice for all reality show participants.