A Santa accused of spanking a 5-year-old child who has special needs at Bloomington's College Mall may be seeking legal action after the child's mother told police she may have overreacted about the incident.
Santa's lawyer, Jeremy Schnepper of Evansville-based Schnepper Law, said his client faced threats and was advised to leave Bloomington after the boy's mother posted about the incident on Facebook.
Schnepper said in the coming weeks he will draft a lawsuit seeking damages and an apology from the mother, who comments have devastated the Santa.
"She doesn't understand what she's done," Schnepper said. "This is his life. His beard is real. He lives for this Christmas season."
The mother, Bloomington resident Jessica Chandler, first called Bloomington police Monday afternoon claiming her son, who was with a caretaker at the time, had been struck by Santa.
Police say criminal charges will not be filed, but the company that hired the Santa has placed their employee on suspension and launched an investigation.
“Beyond furious right now,” Chandler posted Monday on College Mall’s public Facebook page. “A stranger spanked my special needs 5 year old because he was laying on the floor and didn’t want to sit on his lap.”
Bloomington Police confirmed the incident, stating there were no injuries.
The mother called police Monday afternoon after speaking with the child's caretaker, said Lt. John Kovach of the Bloomington Police Department.
Kovach said Chandler was upset by how Simon Property Group, which owns College Mall, handled the incident and that she hoped by posting about the event on social media, the mall would become more responsive.
On Tuesday, police interviewed the child's caretaker, who visited the mall Monday morning with the 5-year-old and a coworker.
The caretaker told police the child became scared when approaching Santa to sit on his lap. The 5-year-old, who according to police has autism, instead laid on the ground in front of Santa, who responded by patting the boy "in a playful way."
"It was like a grandpa playing around with his grandchild," the caretaker told police.
The child's mother decided against pressing charges Monday evening, Kovach said, adding that he believed Chandler had reached a compromise with Cherry Hill Programs, a third-party “Santa Experience provider” for Simon Property Group.
Chandler posted Monday evening on Facebook that she had been in touch with Cherry Hill Programs. She said the company had spoken with the Santa, who did not intend to distress her son and invited the 5-year-old back for a personal apology.
In the post, Chandler said what mattered in this situation is that her son’s view on Santa hasn’t been destroyed.
“He didn’t want the Santa to be in trouble and said he would go back to see him so he could apologize,” Chandler posted. “The man recognized he shouldn’t have done that, is extremely remorseful and wants to make it right.”
The mother’s Facebook posts have since been removed. She did not respond to an IDS reporter's request for comment.
Kovach said although charges have not been filed, BPD has identified the Santa and reached out to him to follow up.
Some on Facebook were quick to defend the Santa, citing their own trips to College Mall where Santa did “an awesome job” and was said to be very dedicated to his job.
Schnepper said he's seen an outpouring of support for Santa's fans. Many have shared photos of their kids meeting Santa throughout the holiday season. Schnepper said his client has been playing Santa in various locations for 25 years.
While he could not share updates on Cherry Hill Programs' investigation of the incident, Schnepper did say Cherry Hill invited Santa back next year. Schnepper added with just days left before Christmas, his client will be sitting the rest of the holiday season out.
"Nobody's looking to sit on Santa's lap in April," Schnepper said. "This is his season. This is his week."
Feeling wounded by the experience, Santa is really just looking for an apology from the woman he believes slandered Santa's name. Schnepper said that apology has yet to come.
"The internet is written in ink," Schnepper said. "She might have deleted the posts, but it's still written out there."
While Chandler deleted many of her original posts, a screenshot of one of those posts can still be found as a comment on the College Mall Facebook page.
A Cherry Hill Programs spokesperson confirmed Tuesday via email that the company had received a complaint of a Santa acting out of character at College Mall and that this person has been suspended.
“Our guests’ experience remain our highest priority,” spokesperson Ruth Rosenquist said. “We are in contact with the family to reschedule their magical visit in the very near future.”
Cherry Hill was not immediately available later in the week to confirm the status of their investigation into this incident or if the Santa had been invited back for future holiday seasons.
This story will continue to be updated.