by Gail Farrelly
This story was published in Carols and Crimes, Gifts and Grifters, a 2007 holiday anthology of crime stories, edited by Tony Burton and published by Wolfmont Press, to benefit the Toys for Tots Foundation. The story was also read in 2010, by British voiceover artist Pearl Hewitt, on the radio as part of the Taping for the Blind show out of Houston, Texas.
Two weeks before Christmas, and I’m listening to holiday music from the fifties as I sit paying bills at my computer in the corner of the living room. When “Jingle Bell Rock” comes on, I have to pause for a moment and just enjoy it. That was what I was listening to on this same day a year ago when my 14-year-old daughter asked her forty-something widowed mom for a very special Christmas gift–helping to mount a defense in a case that seemed indefensible.
I look at the garland of tinsel and holly carelessly draped over my computer (lacking a decorator’s eye, I still try to do some decorating, really I do!) and recall how it had shook last year when my daughter Lily returned from her friend’s house and came storming in, slamming our heavy front door behind her. No hello or how are you. She simply took off her white ski jacket, threw it on a chair, and then draped her slim body on the navy blue velour couch next to the computer.
“It’s an outrage!” was her greeting. “They have Santa Claus in jail, and I’m sure he didn’t do anything.”
I had read the story in the local paper about a Santa Claus working a Christmas promotion at the local A&P. He’d been arrested on the charge of burglarizing the neighborhood church a few nights ago. “Oh, you mean the old guy who broke into the poor box at church?” I said. This was big news in a small, quiet town like ours in the suburbs of New York City.
Lily tugged at her ponytail in frustration. “They say he broke into the poor box, but I don’t believe it, not for a minute. No way.”
“Maybe he was desperate, honey. Sometimes people are, you know.”
Lily sighed. “Desperate, that’s how I feel, Mom. He’s innocent. Someone has to help him. His name is Kris Taylor, and he’s a Vietnam Vet, was shot twice there. He must be in his sixties. He’s been homeless a lot, jobless too. Now he lives in a rooming house in the Bronx. And he said the A&P might even keep him on after Christmas. He’s been such a hit as Santa, they may hire him to play other characters for different holidays. But now this. What rotten luck for him.”
“How did you find out all this stuff?” I asked, amazed and appalled that she knew so much about this total stranger, possibly a thief.
“He told me,” she said, a slight tone of belligerence in her voice. “I talked to him last week when I was working outside the A&P, selling chances for the raffle for our teen group. He’s a good guy, Mom. I’m sure of it.”
I hated to shatter her innocence, but I said, “Well according to the paper, they have a witness. And forensic evidence too.”
“I don’t care what they have. He didn’t do it. Someone claimed the thief was a Santa Claus. So what? Anyone can dress up as Santa Claus. Remember when I was a kid and you took me to Macy’s to see Santa? You said he was the real thing. That all the others around town dressed as Santa were just his helpers.” She paused, a little smile on her face. Her voice was louder when she continued. “What a crock!” Another pause. “But this guy is the real thing. A really good person, I mean. I could tell.”
I sighed and said, “But sometimes good people do bad things, honey.”
“And good people could do good things. Like you. You’re smart. You know a lot of cops, big shots, and a bunch of other people. You could look into the case, see what’s going on, maybe get him the help he needs. I’m sure he’s not guilty.”
I shrugged. “I’m really busy at work these days. I’m sure he has a public defender.”
“A public defender may not be enough.” She got up from the couch and looked me straight in the eye. She looked like she was going to cry. “This morning you asked me what I wanted for Christmas. This is it. I want you to see what’s going on and help people see who Kris Taylor really is. Then they’ll let him out of jail.” She let this sink in before continuing. “Yep, that’s my Christmas present. Get Santa Claus out of jail.” Not sure of how to reply, I kept my mouth shut. As she turned to leave the room, she fired a parting shot. “Daddy would do it if he were still here.”
The kid made a helluva closing argument.
The morning after that ultimatum I was sitting in a room at the county jail, glad that it was a Saturday and I didn’t have to miss work. Waiting to meet Kris Taylor, I thought about how the movie Miracle on 34th Street made helping Santa Claus seem charming and easy. In real life, it was probably neither. But still, as the widow of a New York City police detective killed on 9/11, I would have many doors open to me that would be closed to some others. Following the dictum of the late Tug McGraw, I told myself, “Ya gotta believe.”
I nervously ran my fingers through my short brown hair, wishing that I was at the beauty parlor getting my gray roots covered. Oh heck, I wished I was anyplace else but here. I focused on what I had read in the newspaper that morning as well as what I had been able to squeeze out of a ‘source’ at the D.A.’s office in an early morning phone call. Apparently the assistant D.A. in charge of the case was sure she had the goods. They had a witness who claimed she could identify him as the thief. In addition, Kris’s fingerprints were on the raided poor box. Most damning of all, they found several hundred dollars in his possession when he was picked up. And this was a man who appeared to live from paycheck to paycheck. Three strikes and he was out.
I tried not to stare when a female jail attendant opened the door and escorted Taylor into the room. She told him to take the chair across the table from me and said she’d be right outside the door. “You have only a few minutes,” she said, glancing at her watch, adding “It’s almost lunch time.”
He looked like a character right out of central casting. Call and say you needed someone to play Santa Claus and this guy would definitely fit the bill. The perfect Santa, even though he was garbed in a prison jumpsuit of dull gray, rather than the traditional red-and-white suit with the black belt. I found myself tongue-tied at first, but I did get my act together, shook his hand and said, “I’m Roberta McHugh. My daughter Lily met you last week with her teen group outside the A&P. She asked me to come here, see if I could help.”
He sat down and said, “Call me Kris. Thanks for coming. Yeah, I remember Lily. The one who wants to be an attorney.” I was taken aback. This guy knew something about my daughter that I didn’t. I was grateful for the heads up and decided then and there to put more money in her education fund. Law school was expensive.
It was hard to focus, as I took in the red cheeks, the round stomach, even the beard. That beautiful, perfect, fluffy white beard. Maybe the staring gave me away or perhaps he could read my mind or something, because suddenly he gave his beard a tug, grinned, and said, “Yep, it’s real, there’s nothing phony about me.” He shrugged but smiled as he did so. Amazing that he seemed quite calm.
Time for me to get down to business. “The paper says they have a witness.”
He nodded agreement. “Apparently an old lady praying in the back of church says she saw Santa Claus steal from the poor box and swore it was the A&P Santa.” He sighed. “Why wasn’t she saying her prayers at home in the middle of the night? The police say the robbery happened at about 2 a.m. I was asleep in my rooming house in the Bronx but have no witnesses. It’s not the kind of place where you mind the other guy’s business.”
“Got it. But your fingerprints were found on the poor box, right?”
“Yeah, but apparently there were a number of prints. At least that’s what I heard through the grapevine. Also heard that the box had been polished earlier in the day. If it hadn’t been, I’m sure there would have been many more prints. I was in the church that day and put some change INTO the poor box, so sure my fingerprints were there. So what? Believe me, I didn’t do anything wrong.”
“Okay. Now, about the money they found on you. You have to admit that over $300 in cash was an awful lot to be carrying around. And it is kind of suspicious that you wouldn’t reveal where you had gotten it.”
For the first time, he looked positively furious. “That’s my money. That’s all I’ll say. I’ve watched Perry Mason and know it’s my right to keep my mouth shut. Plain and simple, I’m no thief. I did not break into that poor box. Sure I’ve had some scrapes with the law over the years. Did some panhandling where I wasn’t supposed to, stole some food when I was hungry, but steal from a poor box? Fughedaboutit. And if I was gonna rob a church, I sure wouldn’t wear my Santa gear.”
Seemed reasonable, but maybe that was because I kept thinking about this guy as Santa Claus. Still, if he hadn’t stolen it, what was so secretive about the money he was carrying? I said, “But maybe if you told them where you got the money, this whole matter could be straightened out.”
He wasn’t impressed with my suggestion. “I’m not going there. It’s my business, no one else’s.”
“Well yeah. But you’re the one stuck in jail. You might have to make a choice about your right to privacy or your right to freedom.”
He gave a sad smile. “Yeah, I realize that.” A pause. “My past isn’t lily white, so it’s easy to jump to conclusions. That’s how they’re able to hold me here. And of course they came and arrested me the very next day after the robbery. But still–I know my rights.”
“I’ll tell you this. If Lily were running things here, she’d release you in a minute. She says you’re one of the good guys.”
“Tell her thanks from me. Maybe I’m crazy, well, probably I am crazy, but I have this feeling things will turn around and someone will help me out.”
I squirmed a little, since I figured he was targeting me. I wanted to scream, “Speak up. Spill the beans about the money in your pocket.” But instead I said, “I’m willing to see what I can do but won’t make any promises. You do have a public defender, don’t you?”
“Yeah, an earnest, overworked young man who seems to think my case is hopeless.” He gave a wry smile and added, “I think he’s one of those guys who doesn’t believe in Santa Claus.” I was thinking of a reply when the jail attendant arrived back in the room and indicated that our time was up. Good. Interview over. With a swift “Thanks for coming,” Kris was gone.
I sat there for a minute planning my strategy. I looked at my watch and then fished my cell phone from my pocketbook. First things first. A fool thinking she could rescue Santa at least should not look like an old fool. Two minutes later I had booked an appointment at the beauty parlor for later that day to get my hair colored.
“So you think you can do something for him, Mom?” Lily asked that night, in between bites of pizza and salad, a hastily prepared supper. By the way, your hair looks cool.”
“Thanks, honey. I’ll do what I can for Kris, but it won’t be easy. And I doubt we can expect too much from his public defender.”
I then spent a few minutes filling her in about my meeting with the public defender. I had been able to see him in the time between the jail visit and my hair appointment; our meeting confirmed what I had suspected. An exhausted-looking young man, toiling away on a Saturday in a tiny cubicle cluttered with unfiled papers, post-it notes, and all sorts of evidence of an enormous caseload, would probably not have a lot of time or resources to devote to this one particular case. Of course he reminded me that his client had pleaded not guilty, but his eyes told me what his lips didn’t. He definitely thought his client was guilty.
Lily listened to my public defender report and then said, “He’s a jerk. That’s the establishment for you.”
“Tell me about it,” I said, as I reached over for another slice of pizza. “But not having a formal connection to what you call the establishment could work to our advantage. Knowing all the people around town that we do, maybe we can sniff out some important points.”
“Way to go, mom,” said my delighted daughter.
I smiled at the compliment but held out my right hand like a traffic cop and said, “Save the congratulations. We’ll have to see what develops.”
“Okay, so tell me more about what happened today,” Lily said.
“Well, I don’t really think the eyewitness thing will hold up. The old lady must have seen a Santa Claus…”
“But not necessarily our Santa, right?” an excited Lily responded.
“Exactly. The witness has terrible eyesight.”
“Of course, Mom. I could have told you that. I talked to Meredith, that girl from the teen club, and she knows who the old lady is. She lives down the street from her. Meredith says the old lady’s glasses are really, really thick. And she’s a pesty old biddy, always complaining about noise or something or other. Loves attention.”
“Hey, you’ve been busy,” I said.
Lily smiled. “I wasn’t going to sit by and let you do all the work. But I’m glad we both found out the same thing about that so-called witness.”
“Yeah. A good defense attorney could rip her to shreds. Even a not-so-good one could probably do the job.”
“Right,” Lily responded. “Next up, the fingerprints on the poor box. I read about it in the paper. What gives?”
“Kris explained the prints by saying he had put some put some change into the box, but that may be a tough sell to a jury. The detectives are checking a variety of fingerprint databases to see if they can find a match for any of the other prints found on the poor box, but so far no luck.” I then went on to explain about the money found on Kris when he was arrested and the suspicions raised when he wouldn’t say where he had gotten it.
“But it’s not against the law to carry a couple of hundred dollars around, and it’s not fair that he should have to make an accounting.” Lily sighed. “It’s just not fair.”
“Tell me about it,” I said, as Lily reached for the last slice of pizza, cut it in half and give me one of the pieces.
Then she announced, “It’s up to us. e have to figure out where Kris got that money. That’s where we have to start. It’s our only chance. His only chance.”
She was probably right–unfortunately. I munched on the last of my pizza, thought of Kris, and wondered what he was eating for supper. I also wondered how long he’d be in jail, especially with the likes of the two of us working to free him!
But guess what? It wasn’t that long. It was just ten days later that Lily made a discovery that set in motion the events that would get him out of jail. Here’s what happened.
I had twisted the arms of just about every source I could think of–at my firm and among my friends and acquaintances–to come up with ways of figuring out where Kris had gotten the several hundred dollars found in his pocket. Lily and I were convinced that his freedom depended on it, and we figured that he would never reveal where he had gotten it. Maybe it was an illegal source, maybe not; but in any event, he would never tell.
I was busy at work at that time and could only give a limited amount of time to the ‘Kris’ project. I helped to direct the search; but it was Lily who did most of the searching. She was relentless, devoting hours every day to work on behalf of her new friend. Finally, on the tenth day of searching, she hit pay dirt. She had read an article on the Web about someone whose life changed when she had received a settlement in a malpractice case. Lily wondered if something like that could have been the source of Kris’s money.
Eureka! She was right. The discovery took many hours of work by Lily and the assistance of a skilled and dogged librarian friend of mine. (God bless friends, especially those who happen to be librarians!)
Turns out that a couple of years before his A&P gig, Kris had spent some time in a little town on the Jersey shore and had ended up suing the town, claiming that he had been falsely arrested for loitering. The suit had been settled out of court, and Kris had received a payment of $200,000. Both sides had agreed not to make the details of the settlement public. Yeah, sure, is there anything these days that can be completely kept out of the public eye? Good thing, too, because mention of the lawsuit appeared in an obscure little document (minutes of some committee or other of the town council) Lily unearthed online while she was searching under the direction of my librarian friend. Lily never tires of reminding me, of course, that it was originally her idea to check out lawsuit settlements, although she does admit that she never would have been able to find the information without the help of my friend. Hey, no problem. I give credit where it’s due. I admit it. My contribution, in comparison to theirs, was minimal.
The finding that Kris had a nice nest egg didn’t mean he was definitely not guilty, but it did indicate that the couple of hundred dollars in his pocket may not have come from the poor box after all. Chances are this information would have eventually been unearthed by the authorities. Or at some point Kris might have given in and spilled the info about his lawsuit bounty. But without our intervention I don’t think this would have happened before Christmas. Searching for information to clear Kris was certainly not a high priority of anyone in the justice system, since the police felt they had their man. Things have a way of not being found if you’re not looking for them. A stubborn but innocent person could have spent Christmas in jail as a result. And jail just isn’t the place for Santa Claus at Christmas.
Anyway, armed with this new information, Lily and I visited Kris in jail to try to convince him to tell the authorities where his money came from. His reaction was mixed. On the one hand, he was annoyed that we had violated his privacy; on the other, he was touched by our concern.
He described the $200,000 settlement as “nobody’s business but mine” and “my pension for a lifetime of panhandling and holding down menial, low-paying jobs.” He said most people didn’t reveal to the public the details of their pension, so why should he? He had a good chunk of cash with him on the day he was picked up, because he was planning to stop off at Sears that night and buy himself a Christmas present, a portable DVD player.
We didn’t press our luck and tell him that Lily’s research had also unearthed the fact that Kris had donated $50,000 of his settlement to an organization for disabled veterans here in New York. He really was such a study in contrasts.
We finally persuaded Kris to explain the source of his money to the detectives on the case. This didn’t get him an immediate release; but it set the wheels in motion so that he could be released on bail. And it breathed new life into the investigation by raising the real possibility that he wasn’t guilty.
In our computerized world, we assume that it’s relatively easy for needed information to reach the proper people at the proper time. Wrong! This whole episode was a textbook example of how easy it is to take evidence and slot it into categories based on preconceived notions.
Kris put up bail and was released on Christmas Eve. Lily and I picked him up at the jail and invited him to our home for dinner. He looked at us as if we were crazy and said, “Of course not, this is the busiest night of the year for me.”
Now it’s a year later, but I still smile when I think of that response from Kris to our Christmas Eve invitation. And how, after we had dropped him off at his rooming house, Lily turned to me and said she thought maybe he was taking this Santa thing a bit too seriously.
There was a startling turn of events in February of this year. A guy (a drug addict high as a kite) in a Mickey Mouse suit was nabbed at a church in Connecticut, attempting to pry open the poor box. His fingerprints matched one of the sets of prints taken on the poor box involved in the crime Kris was accused of. Confronted with the evidence, the guy owned up to the Santa Claus caper in our neighborhood. Whew! Kris Taylor was completely off the hook. A happy ending to last year’s Christmas adventure.
Kris has been doing well. For the past year, he’s had a full-time job at the A&P as a greeter playing a variety of cartoon characters. A feature story on him recently appeared in the local paper. He’s been to our home several times for dinner. In fact, Lily already asked him to join us for this Christmas Eve, but he declined, giving the same excuse (busy, busy) as last year. I think he’s seen “Miracle on 34th Street” one too many times!
I sometimes wonder if he’s given any thought to suing for false arrest regarding the poor box incident. Probably not. Been there, done that.
What Lily wants this year for Christmas is more of a challenge than last year’s gift. Want the truth? I wouldn’t mind a ‘do-over’ of last year’s adventure. I’m secretly hoping she’ll meet another Santa in need and once again ask for my help as her Christmas gift. That would be easier than giving her what she’s currently demanding to make her Christmas merry–a tattoo and a belly button ring.
Check out more of Gail’s short stories in our mystery section.