Even a miracle may not bring Bill Lee's animals back
For a time, the North Pole existed in the Colorado mountains. On a ranch in Idaho Springs, a man with a white beard and twinkling blue eyes kept twelve reindeer. There was a Dasher and a Dancer, a Prancer and a Vixen. At Christmastime, the man donned a plush red suit trimmed with fur. He wore glasses on the end of his nose and jingle bells on his boots, and he visited with children at malls, parades and festivals. Whenever he could, he brought his reindeer with him.
But this Christmas, Santa will fly solo.
Earlier this year, Clear Creek County animal-control officers seized the reindeer along with nearly one hundred other animals and slapped the man behind the suit — 63-year-old Bill Lee — with 32 counts of misdemeanor animal cruelty.
"I love animals," says Lee, whose real belly is nothing like a bowl of jelly. On a recent blustery afternoon, his thin frame is clad in a dusty, well-worn Levi's jacket, and his wispy white hair is tucked underneath a baseball cap. His rosy cheeks contrast with his rough cowboy skin.
"It's a travesty this is happening to me."
The ordeal started in May 2011, when a woman who'd been to Lee's ranch reported that some of his donkeys looked thin and were losing their hair. Others had no shelter, she said, and the urine and feces in their pens had accumulated up to three feet deep. Her concerns set off a year-long chain of events that ended when the county seized all of Santa's animals — including three cats that lived in a grain shed, his prize-winning burros and a fifteen-year-old dog he'd had since it was a puppy. In addition to animal-cruelty charges, Lee was told to pay $30,000 per month — the cost, the county says, of paying various shelters and sanctuaries to care for his animals so they wouldn't be sold or given up for adoption during the court case.
Santa is known for miracles, but that was too much even for him. As a result, most of Lee's animals have already been given away. But the rest might be saved by a judge's recent finding that the law used to seize Lee's animals was unconstitutional because it didn't provide due process for animal owners. The law was so flawed, in fact, that at the same time Lee was losing his animals — and his livelihood — state legislators were amending it.
Still, the Clear Creek County District Attorney's office is appealing the judge's ruling, which means that Lee's case is on hold until the appeals court weighs in.
It also means that this Christmas will be the first in twenty years that Santa will spend without his reindeer.
Lee was working the counter at a McDonald's in southeast Missouri the first time someone told him he looked like Santa Claus. It was 1969. He'd moved to Missouri from his native Illinois to attend college and gotten a job managing the fast-food restaurant. He was a college wrestler with bushy blond mutton chops and matching hair that he kept short. He says a woman approached him and asked, "Would you be Santa Claus for us in our school play?" He agreed, wearing a cheap red suit and fake beard for the performance.
He enjoyed it, but portraying Santa — one doesn't "play" Santa, Lee and other professional Santas insist; one "becomes" him — didn't turn into a way of life. Not yet.
Lee married a local girl in 1970, and the couple moved to Denver, where Lee stuck with what he knew, managing bars and restaurants, including the 94th Aero Squadron, a now-shuttered theme restaurant by the old Stapleton airport. He was tending bar at a long-gone Glendale club called Rodeo when he had another Santa moment. "Some gal said, 'You have a twinkle in your eye. You should be Santa Claus,'" Lee remembers.
But it took another decade — and a divorce that still pains him — before Lee considered portraying Santa again. The impetus was an ad in the paper: One of the country's leading "naturally bearded" Santa photo companies was looking for a few good Clauses in Colorado.
"I came to the realization that I needed to do something different," he says. Lee bleached his beard white and got the job, portraying Santa at the now-demolished Cinderella City Mall in Englewood. Since then, he's ho-ho-ho'ed at the Tabor Center, in the Parade of Lights, at the annual Georgetown Christmas Market and at the Cherry Creek Shopping Center.
"I was a real popular Santa," he says, sitting at a small table in the front room of his handsome log cabin. The house is quiet. A row of empty dog beds lines the porch. Framed Santa art prints decorate the hallway, and holiday cookie tins are displayed in a neat row on top of the kitchen cabinets. Blue ribbons from the National Western Stock Show hang on hooks, and belt buckles he won at burro races are perched on the top sill of a large picture window. The window looks out onto his dirt driveway. From it, you can see his idle tractor, his empty trailer with the "BURROS" license plate and the wooden playground he installed for his grandchildren.
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'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."
McBrayer voiced her concerns to both Lees; Carol Lee, she wrote, assured her that they understood the need for clean water and said teams of volunteers were coming to build shelters for the animals. Four days later, McBrayer spoke to Lee's vet, Dr. Debbie Mayo, who attested that Lee's animals, including the reindeer, were under her care.
But seven months later, in December 2011, the county got another complaint. A woman who'd seen Lee's reindeer at the annual Georgetown Christmas Market, where Lee played Santa, reported that one of his deer was in bad shape. Its spine looked curled and its front hooves were splayed in an attempt to avoid putting weight on its back legs, she told McBrayer. It appeared to be in pain, and its hindquarters buckled underneath it when it was led from its pen.
On January 5, McBrayer, Hayden and a USDA veterinarian showed up at Lee's ranch. Once again, Lee invited them to look around. McBrayer didn't like what she saw: Six donkeys still had no shelter. The water in several of the troughs was murky. Some animals' hooves were overgrown. One pen had too much manure in it. And two reindeer — a male and a female — appeared to be in pain. The female, McBrayer wrote, was lying down and refused to get up until Lee pulled her by the halter. The deer's breathing was labored, her nose "dripped with mucus," and "her front knees were swollen to several times their normal size," she wrote.
Lee explained that the reindeer was "an older animal he was allowing to live out her life," according to the affidavit. She has arthritis, Lee said of the deer, but she still gets up to eat.
McBrayer told him that the condition of both reindeer was "unacceptable" and to have a vet see them within 24 hours. Lee did so; records indicate that Mayo assessed the female reindeer as being knock-kneed but in "fair" body condition and the male reindeer as slightly hunchbacked but in "good" condition. McBrayer warned Lee again about the water and gave him a deadline of January 19 to build shelters for all of the animals.
She didn't wait that long. McBrayer visited on January 9 and again on January 13, this time with the USDA vet. It was 11 a.m., and they found Lee breaking the ice that had formed overnight in the water troughs. When he did, the animals drank "excessively," McBrayer noted, indicating that they were very thirsty. She also noticed two burros with sores on their spines, and four burros — all of whom were between 20 and 28 years old — that she thought were too skinny.
She decided to take action, seizing twelve burros, which were taken to Denkai Sanctuary near Grover. Floss Blackburn, president of the non-profit animal sanctuary, says five of the donkeys were healthy. But, she adds, "seven were in horrible condition."
McBrayer served Lee with a summons for animal cruelty and gave him bonding paperwork that indicated he'd have to pay $4,000 to keep the animals from being sold or adopted. Lee couldn't afford that. Instead, he says, he bonded three "out of principle": 28-year-old Nestor and 22-year-old Mr. Ziffel, seized for having "exceptionally poor" body conditions, and one-year-old Abigail, seized for having a lack of shelter and frozen water.
When McBrayer returned to Lee's ranch on the deadline day of January 19, she noted that he'd done as she asked: All of the animals had clean water and shelter. The old female reindeer, Cupid, was lying down in her pen. McBrayer wrote that she "appeared to be in pain."
But for the time being, Cupid was allowed to stay.
On April 3, the county got yet another call. This one was from Melody Charlton, the woman who'd looked after Lee's donkeys and whose friend had made the first complaint. It concerned Lee's dog, Forest. The woman said she'd recently seen pictures of the dog and he looked underweight, old and "miserable." Two days later, McBrayer, Hayden and the USDA vet were back on Lee's property. Forest, McBrayer wrote, was thin and had a quarter-sized lump on his jaw likely caused by a rotten tooth. Lee promised to take the dog to the vet later that day.
But the inspection didn't end there. As always, Lee "willingly showed us the animals," McBrayer reported. They included a llama named Mama who was so skinny, McBrayer wrote, "I could feel every vertebra in the animal's back as well as most of its pelvis." Lee explained that Mama was thin because she was nursing a baby and that he was following his vet's instructions to separate her from the rest of the herd and feed her more beet pulp in an effort to fatten her up.
McBrayer also took another look at Cupid. "Her body condition had declined since I last saw her, and her ribs and spine were now visible," McBrayer wrote. Lee explained that he'd been giving Cupid pain medication per McBrayer's suggestion, and McBrayer watched Cupid go to the feed trough to eat alfalfa. But she argued that Cupid had trouble eating because she no longer had teeth; Lee attempted to demonstrate that she did by sticking his finger in her mouth.
McBrayer wasn't convinced. She served Lee with a summons for two more counts of animal cruelty and seized Mama and Cupid. They were taken to a vet in Conifer, who diagnosed Mama as anemic, possibly due to a treatable blood parasite. But the vet found there was nothing she could do for Cupid. The old reindeer, McBrayer wrote, "was euthanized without incident."
McBrayer kept returning to Lee's ranch. On May 17, she showed up for the third follow-up visit since she seized Mama and Cupid. By then, Lee had gotten treatment for Forest's tooth and taken all of his remaining llamas to the vet. But McBrayer still found fault with the way Lee was keeping his animals. The affidavit lists thirteen complaints ranging from dirty rabbit hutches to a thin goat named Oscar to sheep with "excessively overgrown" wool coats. The word "excessive" appears in many written observations, most often in reference to manure in the pens.
That day, McBrayer sent a letter to Lee and his lawyer, warning that if the situations weren't addressed, animal control would press more charges.
Two weeks later, on June 1, McBrayer was back again with the USDA vet and a USDA regional enforcement and compliance specialist. Lee's three cats were living inside a shed she deemed "filthy." Forest's tooth was better, but he now had an injury to his paw that was causing him to limp. Oscar the goat was limping, too. So McBrayer seized Forest and Oscar and handed Lee two more counts of animal cruelty. The same vet who euthanized Cupid diagnosed Oscar with a sprained ankle and a tapeworm infection. Forest had osteoarthritis.
All along, Lee was trying to make improvements. When animal-control officer Hayden visited him three days later, Lee told him that he'd sheared seven llamas and five alpacas, cleaned manure out of several pens and made appointments with his vet and his farrier, whose job it is to trim animals' hooves. Both were due to spend June 6 at Laughing Valley Ranch.
But they never got the chance to do their work. A judge signed off on McBrayer's search warrant, causing a team of law enforcement agents and veterinarians to descend on Lee's property that day. They seized all 106 of his remaining animals, including 25 chickens, one rooster, a goose, two rabbits, fifteen dogs, two horses, two ponies, seven llamas, five alpacas, six sheep, seven goats, eighteen donkeys, one mule, three cats and the remaining eleven reindeer. McBrayer wrote in her affidavit that she believed "no animal in possession of Mr. Lee can be considered cared for."
But after all 106 animals were evaluated, Lee was only charged with an additional sixteen counts of animal cruelty. Still, none of his animals were returned. Instead, Lee was ordered to pay more than $30,000 per month in bond if he wanted to keep his animals from being sold off or given away to other homes. Lee requested a hearing to dispute the cost, but after listening to testimony, Clear Creek County Judge Rachel Olguin-Fresquez decided against him.
Lee felt defeated. "All of the animals taken in the seizure, I believe none of them should have technically been taken," he says. He thinks animal control chose to see him as "a poor old fella who got run over by his truck" and had too many animals to care for — which he insists wasn't the case. "I don't think I was hoarding animals, because I used them," Lee says.
It especially irks him that the county took every last one of his animals — even the healthy ones. "They need to find a way to keep animal control from jumping the gun," he says.
This year, state lawmakers took a hard look at Colorado's animal-cruelty law with an eye toward preventing what Lee has complained about. An overwhelming majority passed a bill, House Bill 12-1125, in an attempt to fix the problems.
The bill adds several provisions to the statute. Owners are now allowed to have their own veterinarian examine their animal within 72 hours of its being seized. They're also entitled to a hearing within ten days to determine not only the reasonableness of the cost of keeping the animal at a shelter, but whether there was "sufficient probable cause for the impoundment" — which advocates consider a huge victory. And if an owner is found not guilty of cruelty, a new provision requires that they be refunded the bond money.
The Dumb Friends League, the Colorado Humane Society, the Colorado Veterinary Medical Association and the Colorado Federation of Animal Welfare Agencies testified in support. Most agreed the bill wasn't perfect, but it was an improvement over the old law.
"The goal is to eliminate some ambiguity and to add clarity," testified Joe Stafford, director of animal law enforcement for the Humane Society of the Pikes Peak Region, before a Senate committee. Stafford added that animal owners "have argued we're holding the animal hostage: 'You either give me $600 to bond your animal, or the animal becomes my property, and you, as a citizen, have no rights to contest whether what I did was legal or not legal.'"
The bill was signed by Governor John Hickenlooper on April 12 — while Lee was going through his ordeal — but didn't go into effect until September 1, nearly three months after his animals were seized.
Representative Jerry Sonnenberg, a bill co-sponsor and the chairman of the House Agriculture, Livestock and Natural Resources Committee, wrote a letter to the judge in Lee's case explaining the changes to the law. Sonnenberg, a farmer and rancher himself, says several things about Lee's case concern him. "Cattle and horses lived outside without shelter for centuries," he says. "And now for a court to determine it's okay to take animals because they don't have access to shelter worries me." As for the frozen water cited in Lee's case, he says that happens in the winter. Ranchers break the ice in the morning, as Lee did.
And he doesn't like that Lee's old reindeer was euthanized. "I have a couple of dogs," Sonnenberg says. "One old dog has arthritis and is almost blind, but he's in a loving home, and I care for him as much as the kids. Bill Lee had the same with a couple of reindeer.... For animal-control officers to take those reindeer and make a decision that those reindeer are not living a quality life and euthanize them, I think is completely wrong and needs to be dealt with."
Lee was assigned a public defender, Dale McPhetres, who filed a flurry of motions in an attempt to get Lee's animals back. In one, he argued that the pre-amended law under which Lee's animals were seized was unconstitutional. Animal control seized more than 100 of Lee's animals but only charged him with animal cruelty related to 32 of them, wrote McPhetres, who declined an interview for this story because the case is still ongoing. If Lee didn't bond all of them — which he couldn't afford — McPhetres argued that he stood to lose them, even the ones he wasn't accused of abusing or neglecting. Essentially, Lee would be punished because he didn't have $30,000. "These animals are the property of Mr. Lee and absolutely essential to his livelihood," McPhetres wrote.
In August, another attorney, Jay Swearingen of the Animal Law Center in Denver, filed a motion in federal court for a temporary restraining order to stop animal control and Clear Creek County from selling, adopting or euthanizing Lee's animals. "We saw it as a statewide problem we've encountered before," Swearingen says. Plus, he says, "We needed to light a fire under the state court, because they weren't really doing anything or taking it seriously. By going into federal court, we said, 'One way or another, we're going to litigate this.'"
But on September 4, U.S. District Court Judge Brooke Jackson decided not to intervene, finding that Lee hadn't yet exhausted his remedies in state court.
His remedy came on October 23, when Clear Creek County Judge Olguin-Fresquez agreed with McPhetres's argument that the law was unconstitutional. The processes in place before the amendments went into effect on September 1 amount to "a taking by the state without any reasonable due process," she wrote. She ordered the county to hold all of Lee's animals "until these matters are finally concluded regardless of [Lee's] posting of bond."
On October 24, the Clear Creek County DA's Office announced its intention to appeal to the Clear Creek County District Court. DA Mark Hurlbert says no briefs have been filed yet.
Currently, the county has thirty of Lee's animals. Four — two reindeer, a donkey and Forest the dog — were euthanized. Another died of natural causes. The rest have been sold or adopted out.
Lee misses all of them.
"Most of my donkeys were in through here," he says one bright but chilly November day, pointing to a large fenced-in area to the east of his house. The yard is empty except for some nailed-together shelters, overturned buckets and knee-high weeds that have turned brown. "Normally, this stuff wouldn't have ever grown up," Lee says, swatting at the dry stalks with his hand. "I'd pull them up and throw them over the fence" — a snack for the animals.
Pens surround his cabin and a barn sits behind it. Lee built the barn before he built the house. Like the animal shelters, it's made of mostly recycled materials. "I finagle a lot," he says. Wooden pallets are broken apart and used to build shelters. Two old street-sweeping brushes — six feet tall, the bristles a faded pink color — are mounted on poles for scratching posts. When rust eats tiny holes in the bottoms of water troughs, Lee reuses them as feed troughs.
He even sees manure as a blessing in disguise. "Sometimes there's this conception that manure is bad," he says. "But I don't think so. It's dirt." Lee would push the manure in his animals' pens up to the fence line, where it would dry and form a sort of retaining wall.
Lee wanders to the pen on the west side of his house, where animal control complained he kept six donkeys without shelter. The burros were wild, he explains; he'd taken them from an owner who didn't want them anymore. Lee didn't want to mix them with his own herd, so he kept them separate in order to work with them and get them used to humans, "so they could serve a useful purpose," he says. "When they've got a purpose, I think they enjoy life more."
It's true that their hooves were long; they were like that when Lee got them, and he was working with his farrier to trim them. But the farrier couldn't trim them all the way in one session because the burros' hooves became too tender. He and Lee's vet were due to come back to finish the job the day after the burros were seized in January, Lee says.
As for the shelter, he says, a tall row of trees blocked the wind and weather on one side of the pen while the house blocked the wind from the other side. "They were wild donkeys," he says. "They were used to living out in the cold and the snow."
Lee admits that his ways might be "old-fashioned." But he maintains that nothing he did was harmful. "I'm getting chastised for letting animals live out their lives," he says. His female reindeer, Cupid, was fourteen years old — which is about as old as a reindeer can get with proper care. "As far as I was concerned, the reindeer had the will to live." So did Forest, he says. "Would the dog have lived much longer? Maybe not. But if he'd been home these six months, he'd have been happy." Lee was allowed to say goodbye to Forest before he was put down last week.
State representative Wes McKinley, a rancher with property in southeast Colorado, met Lee through efforts to designate pack-burro racing an official Colorado summer heritage sport. He visited Lee's ranch in April, before the big seizure. The animals, he says, "were in great shape. They had quite a bit of room. They had feed and they had water and they were happy and content." As for the reindeer, he says, "their only problem was that they'd gotten old."
Keeping old animals isn't cruel, he argues, "as long as their eyes are bright, their ears are up, and they're happy to see you in the morning."
Holly Tarry, the Colorado director for the Humane Society of the United States, tagged along with McKinley that day. "I gave them, up front, a disclaimer that if I see animal cruelty, I'm going to report it," says Tarry. What she saw was a lot of animals, but none that were being abused.
"I did not see animal cruelty," Tarry says, adding that she's not an investigator. "The main thing I felt when I was there was that Bill Lee seemed to have an overwhelming urge to take on animals he perceived were in need, and that is a position I can sympathize with. But I also understand that animals can suffer if you take on more than have the resources to care for."
Captain Bruce Snelling of the Clear Creek County Sheriff's Office says there was never any doubt that Lee loved his animals. "But we're of the opinion that he didn't have the ability or capability to care for them," Snelling says — especially after his accident. "We made several attempts to get him to take proper care or limit the number of animals he had so he could take better care of them. But it ultimately ended up in charges being filed."
This Christmas, Lee will once again don his plush red suits and his boots with the jingle bells and become Santa. He won't be at any malls, but he's got some Christmas tree-lighting ceremonies, downtown celebrations, private parties and retirement-home visits lined up.
Unlike in past years, however, Rudolph, Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen, Comet, Cupid, Donder and Blitzen won't be with him. "I would have a hard time not being Santa," Lee says. "It's become part of who I am."
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in Denver, delivered to your inbox Monday through Friday.