ELWOOD – Saint Nick has been warned: Stay off public property in Elwood or face charges.
Nick Ellis, 55, admits his background is not nearly as pure as freshly fallen snow. But he says he’s served his time and wants to spread some holiday cheer – as long as it doesn’t land him in jail.
Ellis, dressed in his Santa suit, has greeted more than 200 children in Elwood since Thanksgiving Day. In fact, he says, city officials asked him to portray Santa after the man initially chosen for that role was asked to step down from his sleigh because he is under investigation for, allegedly, providing a firearm to a felon.
“They loved my Santa suit,” Ellis said Wednesday of city officials. “They said, ‘Our Santa is not working out’ and would I be the city Santa. They passed me the torch. I was dressed and ready to go to the Santa House last week when they called and said I wasn’t needed.”
Ellis said shortly thereafter two Elwood police officers went to his house and told him the city didn’t want him ho-ho-ho-ing uptown in his Santa outfit.
It’s quite a change in direction for Elwood officials.
Before last week, the city didn’t even do criminal background checks on those who applied to portray Santa in the Santa House and at the Elwood Christmas mall. They could be naughty, or they could be nice.
Admitting he has a criminal past, Ellis said he suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder from a traffic accident and was taking two medications that caused complications at the time of his felony arrests.
Ellis entered a plea of guilty in 2012 to a Class D felony charge of resisting law enforcement. He received a two-year suspended prison sentence. He also pleaded guilty that year to a misdemeanor charge of battery. He was sentenced to six months, which was suspended.
Vallee Ellis said her husband was taking two medications when he was arrested. She noted he has stopped taking one of the medications and has not had behavioral problems since.
“He loves this Christmas stuff,” Vallee Ellis said. “He lost his mom and dad and brother all within a year, and he has been kind of depressed and at a lot of loss all at once. (He) loves to go uptown and talk to all the kids because it makes him feel better.”
Elwood Police Chief Phil Caldwell said he has told his officers that, because of Ellis’ criminal record, he is not to portray Santa on the city’s property. He is, basically, persona Santa non grata in Elwood.
“I was contacted by people that control the mall that people know who the person is and they don’t feel safe,” Caldwell said. “Several people feel it is disruptive for him to be that way.”
City officials say Ellis has no business being in areas frequented by the city’s official Santa. They don’t want him treading on the official big guy’s turf.
“There is no way we can have a guy playing Santa if they can’t pass the background check,” said Elwood city spokesman Jeff Howe. “I know we can’t keep him from walking around the city. But we do not want people to presume he is the city’s Santa.
“That’s why we do not want him inside the mall or the property area of the Santa House,” Howe explained.
“I love kids and Christmas,” Ellis said. “I’m a totally different person when I put on the Santa suit.”
Caldwell admits there are no laws against people dressing up as Santa in public places. But, he maintained, if people complain, then police can ask a Santa poser to pick up his bag of gifts and move on down the road.
Madison County prosecutor Rodney Cummings said he understands the city’s concerns. But officials must have a valid reason to prohibit Ellis from being on public property in a Santa suit, according to the prosecutor.
“Just being a convicted felon does not deny any citizen access to a public building,”Cummings said.
If Ellis is being disruptive, police could ask him to leave, Cummings said, but merely walking around dressed up as Santa is not a crime.
An Elwood police officer, who asked not to be identified, said Santa Ellis gave his 3-year-old son a lump of candy coal after learning that the boy’s father is a city policeman.
“I gave it (the lump of coal) to the mother and told her to give it to her husband,” Ellis recounted. “I just do it to tease policemen.”
Since the incident, Ellis said, he does not carry candy coal with him. After being told he would be arrested for trespassing if he dresses as Santa, Ellis said this jolly old elf will no longer be coming to town.
“I am leery of (it) because I am afraid they will arrest me,” he said Dec. 18. “I am not going to let them take my spirit from me.”