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Home Arts and Culture  The great Lansing elf visit of 1998:
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Tuesday, December 23,2008

The great Lansing elf visit of 1998:

by Neal McNamara

For the purposes of this story, it would be important to point out that there's a difference between standard elves and Christmas elfs. Elves, according to Wikipedia, are fantastical creatures with roots in German folklore. Christmas elfs (do you see the difference in the spelling there?) specifically make toys, have pointy shoes and ears and wear shiny, red and green-colored clothes. One could assume that Christmas elfs were invented by some genius advertising executive back in 1930 so that Macy's and Sears could start making money from Jesus' birthday. But one would be wrong.

The Christmas elf race, however, shares lineage with the German fantasy elves, at least according to the Web site www.didyouknow.com. See, way back a long time ago, Scandinavian pagans thought that tiny elves guarded their homes and believed that if the little guys were mistreated, they would eat you or snap off one of your kids' legs. Later — around the 1800s (by the way, we're still getting our information from didyouknow.com) — Scandinavian writers started writing about the TRUE role of elves in society: They helped father Christmas make toys and supervise which little boys and girls should and should not get presents. Seriously, I bet you didn't know that the Christmas elf Bushy Evergreen invented the toy-making machine. I mean, where would FAO Schwarz and Mr. Toys 'R Us be without Bushy Evergreen? He was the Thomas Edison of toys. And Alabaster Snowball, well, hell, that elf takes care of the "naughty/nice" matrix, which is very important.

But, we digress. We're not here to talk about German, Scandinavian or any other Western European mythical (or totally real) creatures. We're here to tell the story of a good old American elf. In fact, not just an American elf, but a Lansing elf.

It might surprise you that, of all places, Lansing would get a visit from a Christmas elf. You'd think that Detroit or Chicago would get the elf. But no. We got him.

Unfortunately, we got him.

The story of Lansing's Christmas elf isn't all candy canes and cherry-red cheeks. Our Christmas elf story is filled with blood, tears and gritted teeth. Well, no, it's not that serious. But it is about a guy who escaped from jail and ran around the city dressed as an elf.

Remember, everything you're about to read here is true. Except that the name of the elf is being kept off the record, because it wouldn't be fair to re-embarrass the guy 10 years later. And, frankly, we're kind of scared that he would get pissed and come after us (ha ha?). Without further sarcasm, we present you — culled from several court and police documents, interviews and some educated guessing — the story of the Lansing pre-Christmas Elf Pandemic and Chase of 1998.

The costume change
Do you know how, in winter, Michigan gets pretty cold? Yeah? OK, well on Dec. 23, 1998, Lansing was cold and gray and there was snow piled up everywhere. It was gross out, except that a lot of people were happy that Christmas was coming up and they would get a few days off. There were wreaths and lights and things everywhere, and of course the tree was up in front of the Capitol. Gov. John Engler was sitting back somewhere just totally drunk on power, having just been re-elected governor, a woman named Robin Stewart was driving to work in her car, which was loaded with goodies for a holiday party at her office, and Lansing police officers were out doing their thing.

At the Towne Center building at the corner of Capitol Avenue and Kalamazoo Street, court was starting up for the day. One young man, dressed in the thin, yellow jumpsuit of the Ingham County jail, was about the appear for a parole violation. He was not handcuffed, because he was not a violent offender — he was on parole for some breaking and entering stuff earlier in the year.

And then, around 9 a.m. — and it's not quite clear how this happened — the guy just took off. It would be cool to think that the guy just snapped his fingers and disappeared into a cloud of sparkles and magic dust, but he most likely just booked it and was a little too fast for the bailiff.

So he's booking it. And he makes his way into a parking lot somewhere south of Kalamazoo Street off of Capitol.

This is where the magic starts to happen.

The guy then comes upon Robin Stewart's 1993 Mercury Topaz. He breaks into the trunk and finds a cardboard box filled with, well, an elf costume. We can't go back in time and find out what was going on in this guy's brain, but we guess he figured the most inconspicuous thing he could do would be to put on the costume and take off into the streets. And he did, his pointy shoes with bells at the end ringing as he ran.


The chase
It was only Officer David Isabell's fourth day on the job. He was training with Detective Bruce Holliday and the Crime Scene Investigation team on the morning of Dec. 23, 1998. Isabell, however, was weary of Holliday. See, Isabell's father-in-law was a Lansing police veteran, and apparently Holliday had promised Isabell's father-in-law that there would be some practical joking going on.

But a guy dressed up as an elf? No, that would be taking it too far.

As Isabell and Holliday were driving around in their C.S.I. van, a call came over the radio that there was an escape from the court downtown. Naturally — they were in the area — the officers went down to help out.

"A lot of units responded and people got out and were going around on foot — it was a cold day, lots of wind," Isabell remembers. "We searched the area for approximately 30 to 40 minutes, and by then most units cleared the area and gave up. But we stayed out a little longer because (Holliday) was showing me how to track footprints in the snow."

And then, a call came over the radio that a suspicious man was  hanging out in a trash receptacle on Capitol Avenue. It was called in as a possible vagrant, so Isabell and Holliday went to check it out.

They pulled up to the corner — Isabell doesn't remember the exact location, Holliday puts it at the corner of Lenawee and Capitol — and parked the van in front of the trash can.

"And then, we see the lid lift up," Isabell said. "And a little guy with an elf hat is peeking out."

The officers didn't quite know what they were seeing, so they moved a little closer. And yup, it was still an elf. Bells, pointy shoes and all.

"Yeah, he was dressed as an elf," Holliday said. "He saw us and then bailed."

Holliday and Isabell took off after the elf. At one point, Holliday ordered Isabell out of the van, which was still moving — he was probably chuckling a little, too — and made him chase after the elf. The spryness of the escapee, was, almost, elf-like.

"He was super quick — like 5'7'', 155 pounds, and I'm chasing him," Isabell, strapping and now an officer at Michigan State University, said.

The elf leaped over a fence and Isabell followed, but proved not as spry as the red and green prison escapee. Isabell lost the elf in a somewhere in a back alleyway of downtown Lansing.

But it wouldn't be the last the two would see of each other.
"When you see a cop chasing an elf, you gotta laugh," Holliday said." But it wasn't like he could go far in that outfit."

The capture
In a office at 605 S. Capitol,  Maureen McNulty was just minding her business and calmly working to arrange a series of victory parties for Engler. McNulty had been a spokeswoman during the former governor's campaign, and now she was in charge of the parties.

Now, picture this: a young, professional woman sitting at a desk making calls, typing and whatever else one does while planning parties. Suddenly, over her shoulder and through the window an elf runs buy. Kind of like a scene out of the Three Stooges, right?

"We were working on inauguration activities," McNulty recalls. "I looked out the window, and I thought I saw an elf running, with like, you know, pointy toes and an elf hat. I think he had tights on. It was a runaway elf." she said.

"Then I see him dive under a car. Then I see the police. Then, I remember pointing at the car because I was in an upstairs office."

Unfortunately for the elf, he didn't have any more magic to work. But, seriously, he must have had some magic because he eluded police for several hours before he was caught.

Police worked through the parking lot and eventually found him hiding underneath a car. It was Isabell and fellow officer Jacob Sinke that found and pulled the elf out from underneath the car.

"When the calls come over the radio, you get the description, you know," Sinke said. "When the call came in that he was wearing the elf costume, you kind of second-guess yourself. I don’t recall if he resisted — I know there were a lot of police officers in the area laughing when they pulled him out. It was very comical that he was dressed up as an elf. For years to come I’ve caught some flack from family members and nieces and nephews for arresting an elf.

"But that was by far the most comical thing I’ve experienced in 10 years. Given the circumstances and the time of year. And the aftermath, my family accusing me of arresting Santa's elf."

When the elf was pulled out from underneath the car, some jolly-feeling officer pulled out a camera and snapped a photo. The next day the Lansing State Journal ran the photo and a story on the front page, which made its way around the country as one of those "news of the weird" items.

"He didn't look up for the picture," Isabell said. "And he didn't have one word to say."

The elf was taken back to court and arraigned — apparently still dressed in costume. He was charged for stealing the costume out of Stewart's car.

"It’s one of those incidents that the two of us will never forget," Holliday said. "I just chuckle every time I think of it: Dave standing there with an elf in cuffs."

"It was definitely a highlight of that whole Christmas," McNulty said. "He was spry like an elf should be. But he should have stayed on the right side of the law."

Sadly — for the elf — he's been in and out of jail for the past 10 years. We tried to get in touch with him for this story, but he's probably not into re-living this incident. On his behalf, he was only 18 at the time.

But, uh, one more little tidbit from the file: On the police report about the escape, Holliday wrote under the "clothing" section:

"Red elf hat, red sweater, black pants, red elf shoes."

Under "unique personal characteristics," he wrote:

"Dressed like an elf."

And that, boys and girls and grown-ups of Lansing, is the story of the day that an elf came to Lansing. Well, maybe not. It's the day that a guy escaped from jail two days before Christmas and happened to break into the one car in Lansing that contained an elf costume ... and then put on the costume and led police on a chase. Hey, had it not been that costume, maybe the guy could have escaped. It may not be Bushy McEvergreen, or whatever, but that's some serious Christmas magic.

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