Originally created 12/19/06

Santa's actions frightful to family



A South Carolina man is in jail after he dressed up as Santa Claus, put a stuffed Rudolph into his motorcycle sidecar and snatched a young Augusta girl from a gas station, authorities said.

John Michael Barton, of the 400 block of Laura Brodie Road in Batesburg-Leesville, was charged with kidnapping late Sunday evening.

Lexington County authorities said the 55-year-old man put on a Santa suit and kidnapped the 8-year-old girl from a gas station near Interstate 20 after luring her to his motorcycle with the stuffed Rudolph.

Tripp Morris, the girl's father, said it started out as a "Hallmark moment" with his three young daughters squealing over a Santa who played along with their childish glee. Then, he said, everything turned scary.

"I don't know what the man's intentions were," Mr. Morris said. "I just know that taking my daughter and endangering her life was wrong."

Mr. Morris, who did not want his daughter's name published, gave this account of the events:

He and his wife, Venus, and their daughters - ages 8, 6 and 5 - stopped at a gas station on Bush River Road shortly before 8 p.m. Sunday to get gas. They spotted Mr. Barton also pumping gas.

Decked out as Santa, he was joking with others at the station, Mr. Morris said, and was "laughing and nice looking."

While he was in the store, Mr. Morris said, his middle daughter rolled down a window and wished Mr. Barton a Merry Christmas, and he "ho, ho, hoed in a perfect and sweet and innocent moment."

After Mr. Barton entered the store, Mrs. Morris let the three girls go inside to greet the Santa impersonator and give him hugs.

Mr. Morris said Mr. Barton played along and told them he knew what they were getting for Christmas.

When they walked outside, Mr. Barton asked the three girls to walk over to his 2003 Triumph to see Rudolph.

Then Mrs. Morris heard the motorcycle start up and drive away, and her oldest daughter was in the sidecar.

Mr. Morris sped off after the motorcycle, flashing his lights and hitting 80 mph to catch up with the impersonator.

Mr. Barton eventually pulled over into a church parking lot near Ashland Road and stopped, and Mr. Morris confronted him.

"I said, 'I need my daughter back,'" Mr. Morris recalled, and he demanded a reason for the abduction. "He said, 'I'm sorry. I was just in Santa mode.'"

Mr. Morris grabbed his daughter and drove back to the gas station. Nearly two hours later, Lexington County deputies found Mr. Barton's motorcycle parked outside a bar on Bush River Road in Richland County. A Santa Claus hat was on the bar counter, along with a glass of wine.

Mr. Barton was found hiding inside a utility room in the bar. Authorities say he had been drinking for several hours, both before and after the the incident.

Maj. John Allard, spokesman for the Lexington County Sheriff's Office, said Monday evening that Mr. Barton is not a professional Santa Claus but has been portraying the jolly old elf for friends for several weeks, even giving children rides in his sidecar and posing for photographs.

Investigators do not yet know the motive for Sunday's incident, Maj. Allard said.

"He has not given us a concrete answer on that," he said.

A judge set Mr. Barton's bail at $100,000 on Monday afternoon. Maj. Allard said that Mr. Barton had not yet posted that bail.

"I don't wish him any harm," Mr. Morris said. "He apologized at the arraignment, and I accept his apology."

Still, Mr. Morris said he thinks Mr. Barton should get counseling.

His daughter seems all right with what happened, he said, and he said he made sure the girl understood something important.

"I explained that was not Santa," the father said. "That was just a man in a Santa suit."

Reach Sandi Martin at (803) 648-1395, ext. 111, or sandi.martin@augustachronicle.com.