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Bill Lee, mall Santa charged with animal cruelty, pleads guilty to one count, gets reindeer back

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Bill Lee, an Idaho Springs rancher and mall Santa charged with 32 counts of misdemeanor animal cruelty, has agreed to plead guilty to one of those counts. He's been granted a two-year deferred judgment, meaning that if he complies with a set of conditions for two years, he won't be convicted of any crime.

As explained in our cover story, "Santa is Grounded," Lee made a living partly by portraying Santa Claus at Christmastime, often with reindeer in tow. He also kept llamas, Highland cattle and donkeys for burro racing.

In April 2011, Lee suffered grave injuries in an auto accident that compromised his ability to care for his animals. Though he attempted to find foster homes for some of his animals and hired a live-in ranch hand, a woman who'd been to his ranch soon reported that some of his donkeys had "severe hair loss."

Her complaint set off a chain of events that eventually led to more than one hundred of his animals being seized by Clear Creek County animal control officers and Lee being slapped with a total of 32 charges of animal cruelty. Four of his animals, including two reindeer, were euthanized. Lee was ordered to pay more than $30,000 per month in bond if he wanted to keep the rest of them from being sold or adopted during the court case.

But Lee didn't have that kind of money, and many of his animals are now gone.

In November, a generous friend purchased two of Lee's reindeer from the person who had them after they were seized. A few days before Thanksgiving, Lee brought the animals to El Diablo's annual Holiday Spectacular for a free reindeer petting zoo right on Broadway.

In all, Lee was facing charges in four separate animal cruelty cases. Last month, he cut a deal with prosecutors that included dropping two cases and returning sixteen animals.

This week, after Lee pleaded guilty to one count and the remainder were dropped, the county returned eighteen more animals. They include several dogs, donkeys and sheep; a llama, an alpaca and a horse; and six reindeer, including five females who may be pregnant. Lee allowed one of his dogs, a great pyrenees named Bubba, to stay with the woman who'd fostered him during the court case because she'd bonded with him.

The county paid Lee $15,000 for the animals that it seized but was unable to return. But he may not be able to use that money to buy more animals. The conditions of the deferred judgment include that Lee is not allowed to have more than 35 animals at any time (not counting baby animals). He has ninety days to thin his herd to that number. His animals will also be subject to frequent veterinarian inspections for which he must pay.

Lee isn't completely happy with the way things turned out. "It's not a real victory to me. I'm kind of melancholy about it," he says. Part of him wishes he'd have gone to trial and been completely exonerated, he says -- though he notes that doing so would have carried some risk. "Am I happy to get on with my life? Very much so," he adds.

Lee is due back in court in May for the official sentencing. He says the case has caused him a great deal of heartache and had a detrimental effect on his business. But come Christmas, he reports that he'll don his red suit again, perhaps with a baby reindeer by his side.

More from our Follow That Story archive: "Bill Lee, mall Santa whose animals were seized, gets two of his reindeer back."

Follow me on Twitter @MelanieAsmar or e-mail me at melanie.asmar@westword.com

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