December 19, 2006
AUGUSTA, Ga.---It's a story that's gained national attention.
John Michael Barton was arrested for taking a girl away on his motorcycle from a gas station. He was dressed as Santa Claus at the time and had a Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer stuffed animal in the sidecar.
The girl's father recovered her safely down the road.
Barton was released on bond earlier today. Now he says he is hanging up his red suit for good.
John Michael Barton says he is not a bad Santa, but one who made a very serious mistake.
Now he is apologizing to an Augusta family.
Barton says it was a reindeer ride meant to spread holiday cheer.
"It's not just kids I give rides to," he told News 12 in an exclusive interview. "Adults, black, white, yellow, it doesn't matter. Tall, short---it makes people smile."
But no one was smiling Sunday when Barton left a Lexington gas station with an eight-year-old Augusta girl.
"I watched Santa take my child," Venus Morris told News 12.
"My wife was hollering, 'Tripp, go get him, go get him! He's taken our daughter!'" recalled Tripp Morris.
Tripp did just that, jumping into their SUV and racing up to 80 miles an hour to catch up with Barton.
"I did something very wrong," Barton said. "But I did not abduct a child, not knowingly."
Barton says he confused the girl with another group of adults who were taking photos.
But Venus and Tripp Morris say that while other people were around, they were the only family.
"I asked him, 'What were you doing? You took my daughter!' He said, 'I'm sorry, I got caught up in Santa mode," Tripp said. "Very scary."
"It was a mistake, a terrible mistake on my part. I should've checked more closely which child was with which adult," Barton said.
That mistake put him behind bars in an orange suit.
Now he says he will retire his red one for good.
"My wife of many, many years died after a very long illness, and this is the only thing that keeps me going, once a year when I get to do this," Barton said. "But I guess I won't be doing this anymore."
And now this part-time Santa says his only Christmas wish this year is for forgiveness.
"I hope they can forgive me. As far as anything else that happens, that's between law enforcement and me."
Barton was reluctant to talk, and he was very emotional, but he wanted the family to know his side of the story.
News 12 spoke with the Morris family, and they say they are devastated and upset over what happened but are very glad their daughter is okay. While they still don't understand why Barton did what he did, they want him to know they forgive him.