December 19, 2006
AUGUSTA, Ga.---When you tell your kids not to talk to strangers, you don't think twice about talking to Santa Claus.
But an Augusta family is learning you can't trust everyone...even if they're dressed in a red suit.
The story was so far-fetched even to deputies that the family says when the call went out to the sheriff's office other deputies were laughing because they thought it was all a joke.
The Morris family was on their way home from a family gathering in Lancaster, SC when they stopped at a Circle K in Lexington for gas.
That's where they spotted 55-year-old John Michael Barton, dressed as Santa.
He looked like Santa and even talked like Santa.
"My littlest, my second youngest daughter rolled down the window and said in the sweetest voice, 'Merry Christmas, Santa!' and he gave out a big, 'Ho, ho, ho'," recalled father Tripp Morris.
But this was no jolly old St. Nick.
"I watched Santa take my child," said mother Venus Morris.
In a split second, their eight-year-old daughter was gone.
"I thought, 'How sweet is this guy? He's spending all this time with my kids; he's taking pictures with people behind us.' In one second he's gone with her," Venus said.
Their eight-year-old daughter says Barton asked her to look at the stuffed Rudolph sitting in the sidecar of his motorcycle.
"He told me to get in the cart and he drove off," the Morris' daughter said. "I asked him to go back two times, and he said 'Wait a minute' and kept on going. I asked him go back."
But he didn't.
Instead he sped up, going more than 80 miles an hour with their little girl hanging on for dear life.
"My wife's hollering, 'Tripp, go get him! Go get him!" Tripp recalled.
He scanned the parking lot but his daughter was nowhere in sight.
So Tripp did what any father would do: he got in his car and sped after her.
"My whole body just went cold and calm and I got focused," he said. "I knew what I had to do to get my daughter back."
Tripp finally caught up to him just down the road.
"I asked him, 'What were you doing? You took my daughter.' He said, 'I'm sorry, I got caught up in Santa mode.' It was very scary," Tripp said.
"If they can get away with your child, don't let them get near them," warned Venus.
We asked the eight-year-old if she thought Barton was going to hurt her.
"Yeah," she said.
Despite all of that, she says she still believes in Santa and she understands he wasn't Santa but a man dressed like him.
As for the bad Santa, he was caught hiding in a bar in Richland County.
John Barton's bond is set at $100,000. He could face a life-sentence in prison if he's convicted.
And he doesn't even have a criminal record.
The sheriff said Barton said he knew what he did was wrong, and he never meant to hurt the little girl.