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Tigger Up for Sexual Molestation

ORLANDO, Fla. – A leopard can’t change its spots, but Walt Disney World wants to hide Tigger’s stripes – at least when the costume of the bouncy tiger shows up this week in court in a sexual-molestation trial.

To protect the frenetic feline’s innocent image, a Disney lawyer has suggested that the orange Tigger costume be dyed black or white and its ears be removed. The lawyer made the request to the attorney representing Michael C. Chartrand in the trial that is scheduled to start Monday.

Chartrand was suspended after he was charged with molesting a 13-year-old girl in February while he was dressed as Tigger at Disney World’s Toon Town.

Any case in which a child’s storybook character is linked to a sex crime is bound to be strange. But the arrest was just the prelude of what now promises to be a bizarre courtroom showdown.

For example:

Chartrand’s lawyer, Jeffrey S. Kaufman Jr., also has played Tigger at Disney and works part-time as a costumed character at the theme park. He said he reached out to Chartrand because he thought he was uniquely qualified to defend him.

Prosecutors hope to use as evidence about 200 photographs of tourists posing with Tigger and other characters. But the defense claims there’s no way to prove Chartrand was in all the photos.

The victim’s family has contacted a lawyer about suing Disney. It is the threat of such litigation and the fear of bad publicity that has Disney in full damage-control mode.

“Disney doesn’t want this costume out there,” Kaufman said. “They want to protect their copyright. They want to take off everything that would make it look like Tigger,” a character from A.A. Milne’s children’s books.

Disney spokeswoman Jacquee Polak confirmed that company attorneys had expressed concern to both Orange-Osceola Florida State Attorney Lawson Lamar’s office and to Kaufman about using the Tigger costume during the trial.

“Our hope is that the use of our costume will be handled with appropriate sensitivity so as to preserve the dreams and magic for our younger guests as much as possible,” she said.

However, Polak would not comment on Kaufman’s statement that a Disney attorney had suggested taking off Tigger’s ears or coloring the costume.

He said he refused to let the costume be “bastardized” because an altered Tigger suit might reflect poorly on his client, making him look demonic or freakish. He would not be specific about how he intends to use the costume during the trial.

Kaufman said he has played Disney characters for about seven years.

“No attorney on the planet could represent this guy better than me in this case,” he said.

Disney officials would not confirm that Kaufman worked as a character, saying they do not comment on personnel issues.

Kaufman expects jurors to take the costume with them during deliberations where they can handle it and put on the mask and gloves. Kaufman said he hopes by doing that they would be able to tell how difficult it would be to grope a young girl.

The suits are often bulky and have limited eyesight, say Kaufman and others who have played characters. Kaufman compared the Tigger paws to “oven mitts,” with the thumb separated from the other fingers.

Lamar’s office confirmed that Disney officials expressed concern about using Tigger’s costume in court. Prosecutors said they will not use the costume.

The State Attorney’s Office also confirmed that a Disney attorney had sat in on some depositions for witnesses in the case.

“We allow people to sit in on depositions if they do not disrupt the deposition process,” Lamar’s spokeswoman Lisa Roberson wrote in an e-mail. “However, this isn’t a common practice.”

Kaufman expressed frustration with the way the Orange County, Fla., Sheriff’s Office investigated the case that resulted in the lewd and lascivious molestation charge against Chartrand.

According to Kaufman and a taped deposition, the lead investigator, Kevin Kraubetz, never interviewed the victim before charging Chartrand.

Another deputy with the Sheriff’s Office interviewed the girl earlier, according to a Feb. 29 report detailing the incident.

“Is it normal for you not to talk to the victim?” Kaufman asked Kraubetz during the deposition.

“In this case at the time, I did not need to talk to the victim,” Kraubetz said. “I got what I needed from the mother by what she said.”

Neither Kraubetz nor the victim’s mother would comment.

In his arrest report, Kraubetz said Chartrand told him he might have “inadvertently” touched the girl’s breast.

Kraubetz also noted that the Disney worker had apologized and hoped the victim would forgive him.

Tampa attorney Todd Foster confirmed that he spoke with the victim’s family about the criminal case and a possible lawsuit.

“They didn’t hire me to file suit,” Foster said. “They were just seeking information. We didn’t do anything with it.”

After Chartrand’s arrest, the Sheriff’s Office said it had received about two-dozen similar complaints involving guests and alleged fondling by cast members. To date, no additional charges have been filed in those cases, but they remain active investigations, the Sheriff’s Office said.


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