(Columbia) December 18, 2006 - A 55-year-old Batesburg-Leesville man dressed as Santa Claus and driving a motorcycle equipped with a sidecar in which he had placed a stuffed Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer has been charged with kidnapping an eight-year-old Augusta girl at a convenience store on Bush River Road near the interchange with Interstate 20, authorities said.
The girl was returned unharmed to her parents after the man forced the girl to ride with him for several minutes.
Lexington County Sheriff James R. Metts said John Michael Barton, 55, of Batesburg-Leesville, has been charged with kidnapping.
According to a news release, at about 7:52pm on Sunday, the eight-year-old girl, her two younger sisters and her parents had stopped to get gas for their vehicle at a convenience store on Bush River Road. They noticed that Barton, dressed in a Santa Claus suit, also was getting some gas for his motorcycle.
Barton asked the eight-year-old girl and her two younger sisters to walk over to his black 2003 Triumph motorcycle to see the stuffed toy Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer that Barton had placed in his motorcycle's sidecar, Metts said.
The children went over to the motorcycle. The mother of the eight-year-old then heard Barton start his motorcycle and drive away from the convenience store parking lot.
The girl's mother saw her daughter riding in the motorcycle's sidecar with the stuffed reindeer, and told her husband that Barton kidnapped their daughter.
The girl's mother kept the couple's remaining two daughters at the convenience store while her husband drove after Barton. The mother called the sheriff's department from the store to report that her daughter had been taken.
The girl's father told deputies that Barton turned right on Bush River Road, heading towards St. Andrews Road. He said he drove as fast as 80mph while he tried to catch up with the motorcycle.
The girl's father told deputies that he flashed his vehicle's headlights repeatedly as he followed behind Barton for about a mile in an effort to get Barton to stop his motorcycle and return his daughter, Metts said. Barton turned his motorcycle into a church parking lot off Bush River Road near Ashland Road and stopped. The girl's father parked his vehicle in front of the motorcycle in order to prevent Barton from leaving the lot.
The girl's father told deputies that he got out of his vehicle and confronted Barton, Metts said. The girl's father grabbed his daughter from Barton and drove back to the Bush River Road convenience store, where the girl's mother and her two sisters were waiting.
Deputies later found Barton's motorcycle parked outside a bar on Bush River Road in Richland County, Metts said. Deputies from the Lexington County Sheriff's Department and Richland County Sheriff's Department went inside the bar and found Barton's red-and-white Santa Claus hat and a glass of wine that Barton had been drinking sitting on the bar counter.
A Richland County sheriff's deputy found Barton hiding in a utility room inside the bar and arrested Barton without incident at 9:56pm, Metts said. Lexington County sheriff's deputies took custody of Barton's Santa Claus hat, wine glass and Triumph motorcycle and sidecar.
Barton had been drinking alcohol throughout Sunday night, including several glasses of wine at the Bush River Road bar where officers arrested Barton, Metts said.
The motive for the kidnapping remains under investigation.
Barton had been portraying Santa Claus for friends for several weeks at various locations in Lexington County, Metts said. Barton had given other children rides in his motorcycle sidecar while dressed as Santa Claus and also posed for photographs with children by his motorcycle.
Barton was being held on Monday at the Lexington County Detention Center while awaiting a bond hearing at 3pm on Monday.