Lee bought this property — nearly fifty acres surrounded by mountains — in 2002. He started building his cabin in 2003 and moved in two years later. He named his spread the Laughing Valley Ranch, after a place in L. Frank Baum's 1902 story "The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus." In it, an infant Santa is abandoned in a forest populated by fairies, elves and gnomes. He's raised by a wood nymph until he comes of age and the forest dwellers decide he must learn the ways of humans. Santa eventually settles in the Laughing Valley.

Though Lee moved himself and his animals to Idaho Springs about a decade ago, he'd been ranching on rented land for years. He started around the same time he became Santa. He didn't come from a ranching family, but Lee always loved animals and owned dogs. After his divorce, he took up trail running and became interested in burro racing. He decided to buy a donkey of his own, figuring he could also use it in the historical mountain-man storytelling show he was developing. Lee became deeply involved in both activities and his herd grew from there, eventually expanding to include a variety of animals that he used for petting zoos and other events. Along with the occasional bartending gig, he began making a living this way.

Lee holds a special place in pack-burro racing. The sport celebrates Colorado's mining days; according to legend, when two miners discovered gold in the same place, they'd grab their burros and race each other to the claims office in town. Today's pack-burro races are similar. Racers run while leading a burro on a rope. The burro must carry a pack saddle that weighs at least 33 pounds and includes a pick, a gold pan and a shovel. Riding the burros isn't allowed. Instead, the runners coax the stubborn animals to complete the course, which is no easy task; the annual Fairplay race, the first of pack-burro racing's so-called Triple Crown, is 29 miles long.

Bill Lee's beard gives him the look he needs to portray both Santa and a mountain man.
Bill Lee's beard gives him the look he needs to portray both Santa and a mountain man.
Bill Lee's reindeer and burro pens have been empty since the county seized his animals.
Bill Lee's reindeer and burro pens have been empty since the county seized his animals.

"Bill's one of the reasons the sport is still here," says Brad Wann, a fellow racer who handles media relations for the Western Pack Burro Ass-ociation. Lee kept a substantial herd of donkeys, Wann says, and was always willing to loan or rent them to newcomers.

His burros were impressive, too. They won prizes at the Stock Show and took first place in championship burro races. Blaster the burro served as the mascot for the Colorado School of Mines, and a contingent of Lee's burros — including a white donkey that had been painted green — won Best Equine Western Entry in this year's St. Patrick's Day parade in Denver.

But Lee's ability to care for his animals was compromised in April 2011, when he suffered grave injuries in an auto accident. He was in Arvada buying goat's milk for his baby reindeer when his truck started to roll down the driveway. Lee tried to stop it, but fell underneath it instead. The truck ran over his chest, breaking all of his ribs, cracking his breastbone and collapsing both of his lungs. He was rushed to a Denver hospital, where he spent several weeks.

His second wife, Carol, tried to take care of the ranch. She told the weekly Clear Creek Courant newspaper that she was searching for homes for some of Lee's animals while he was in the hospital. "I'm trying to foster and adopt as many animals as possible," she said, "and still maintain the reindeer, because he is Santa Claus."

**********

The first complaint came in on May 12, a little over a month after Lee's accident. A woman named Belinda Douglas sent an e-mail to the Colorado Bureau of Animal Protection, which supports local law enforcement agencies in investigating animal cruelty. The e-mail was forwarded to Staci McBrayer, animal-control officer with the Clear Creek County Sheriff's Office.

According to McBrayer's fifteen-page search warrant, Douglas reported that she'd been to Lee's property twice with a friend who was helping to care for Lee's donkeys while he was in the hospital. Douglas said she'd been given permission to foster two of the donkeys, though McBrayer noted "it was unclear who gave her permission." But once Lee was released from the hospital, he refused to allow her to take them. Douglas told McBrayer that the donkeys were suffering from "severe hair loss," perhaps due to lice or a skin infection.

McBrayer and fellow animal-control officer Tom Hayden (who recently won a bid for Clear Creek County commissioner) paid a visit to Lee's ranch. Lee was there with a live-in ranch hand he'd hired to help while he recovered. By all accounts, he was welcoming and polite. "Part of my problem is that I was too nice," Lee says now. But that's his nature. "I was quiet and respectful, and the animal-control officer deemed I was in denial or didn't recognize the problem."

That day, McBrayer observed 126 animals. Several — including six donkeys, a llama, two Highland cattle and a dark-colored mule — had no shelter. One pen full of goats, sheep and alpacas contained a buried water tub "that allowed manure and contamination to seep into it." And two of Santa's reindeer, she wrote, "appeared to move in [a] painful, slow manner."

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