The Case of the Disarming Santa

I'm feeling real warm inside right now.
I don't know, maybe it's the wonderful scent of burning wood that's in the crisp, wintry air. Maybe it's the way everybody seems to be wearing a big Christmas smile, the way good cheer and happiness seem to be all around us, like a fine, exotic perfume that we can only wear once a year.

Of course, it's because of all of these things that I feel so good, yet--on this particular holiday season--there's an extra ingredient in the mix: a story.

Christmas is filled with stories, from the amazing birth of sweet Baby Jesus in His humble manger to A Visit From Saint Nick (The Night Before Christmas) to even Santa Claus Conquers the Martians! But the story I'd like to share with you didn't happen 2,000 years ago in Bethlehem, or in a Victorian writer's mind, or even on the planet Mars.

It took place just a few days ago, right here in our own city. It's a story about people and feelings and Christmas. And people's Christmas feelings. And it's also about Santa.

We see Santas everywhere at this time of year: featured on TV commercials, on street corners ringing bells for charity, pictured beaming from cards and wrapping paper. Santas in department stores welcoming thrilled youngsters to their laps of red for a quick snapshot.

But this story is about a very special Santa indeed.

Every Christmas, thousands of Valley residents drive past Slacks n' Such on Laird Avenue in Phoenix. And, for some 25 seasons now, those busy shoppers have delighted in glimpsing a certain Santa Claus standing in front of the store, gleefully waving a Christmas greeting to one and all.

The fact that this Santa is mechanical doesn't matter a bit. The bright red suit, the thick, snowy beard that almost obscures his permanent grin, the constant back-and-forth wave of his raised right arm; these things have made this robotic Claus a beloved holiday landmark.

"Merry Christmas!" he seems to be saying to one and all.
Until last week, when this particular Santa provided a little holiday surprise of his own.

Slacks n' Such owner Vince Melb was busy opening the store one morning; he takes up the story.

"All I did was, I took Santa out front, and plugged him in as usual. I was trying to move him over, just adjust him a little, pulling on him like I always do. That's when his arm came off." Melb shudders, and is silent for a few seconds, his hand frozen in a demonstrative pulling gesture. "At first I thought, 'Oh no. I've got to put this arm back on here somehow.'"

But, as the cheery, one-armed Santa continued his mechanized swiveling, Melb looked a little closer at the velvet-clothed appendage in his hand.

There was a bone sticking out of it.
A humerus bone to be exact, whose job it is to connect the human arm with the human shoulder. Indicating that beneath the fading suit and dusty beard, this Santa was something more than just plywood, stuffing and a cheap electric motor.

"I took a good look at Santa's face," Melb continues. "I guess I've lugged him around for years but I'd never really paid much attention to what he looked like up close. I always thought his face was sort of waxy, kind of plasticy, but all of a sudden, you know, it looked different. Like skin, but dried up and old. I'd say, yeah, pretty much dried up, old, bad skin that had been stuffed or something. And stretched into a smile."

What did Melb think, standing there in front of Slacks n' Such as the morning traffic sped by, holding a Santa Claus arm with a human bone protruding from it?

"To be honest with you, I just thought, 'What the hell kind of Santa is this?'"

Phoenix Department of Police Inspector Phillip McKreviss has been on the Ninth Precinct Holiday Task Force for almost three decades. In that time, he's seen more than his share of seasonal crime. Thanksgiving turkey theft, eggnog related domestic situations, the bogus sparkler incident that stunned Phoenicians on the Fourth of July a few years back, and the infamous 1982 dreidel hijacking that involved a stolen truckload of thousands of the Hebrew tops.

His is not a pretty job, but an essential one. And McKreviss does it well; he has a reputation as a hard-nosed holiday cop, the kind of officer who instinctively knows who's naughty and who's nice. But when the call came in to report to Slacks n' Such, the seasoned, seasonal enforcer had no idea what he was in for.

"I'll tell you what, we don't even have a radio code for 'mummified human remains dressed in Santa suit,'" admits McKreviss. "It was a new one on me. I arrived at the store, and the manager hands me this arm with a bone poking out. I've dealt with some strange cases at Christmastime, even a couple Nativity crime scenes that would curl your ears to hear about 'em, but this . . ." McKreviss' voice trails off as he shakes his head. "What's more, I've driven by this Santa for a damn long time. He always appeared to be your nice, average, mechanical Santa."

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Peter Gilstrap
Contact: Peter Gilstrap