All is right in the 100 Acre Wood once again...I think.
Jury acquits Tigger performer
By Anthony Colarossi | Sentinel Staff Writer
August 5, 2004
ORLANDO - A jubilant Michael C. Chartrand celebrated his freedom Wednesday night after jurors quickly acquitted him of molesting a 13-year-old girl while he was dressed as Tigger at Walt Disney World.
Jurors, who tried on the costume's paws and head during their deliberations, took less than an hour to clear Chartrand.
After hearing the verdict, he hugged his attorney and members of his family. He later thanked the jury.
"I just want to thank them for spending their time to do what they did, and sorry they had to waste their own time," said Chartrand, 36, who has been suspended without pay from Disney.
The girl who told police Chartrand touched her breast sat with her mother and other family members in the courtroom's front row. They gasped at the words not guilty and were hustled out of the courthouse away from reporters.
Asked whether he was bitter, Chartrand said, "I was brought up to be a gentleman and a scholar the English, old-fashioned way, and so I have no animosity to anybody. I have values that most Americans would probably wish to have." He moved to Central Florida from England last year.
His acquittal ends a three-day trial that gained international attention and became the subject of jokes on late-night television.
Disney, wanting to preserve what it called the "magic" of the storybook character, had asked the prosecutor and defense lawyer to disguise the costume during trial.
But Chartrand's lawyer, Jeffrey Kaufman, refused and made the costume a central piece of his defense. Kaufman, who portrays Tigger and other characters at Disney part time, argued that the costume is too bulky and cumbersome for anybody to grope a park guest easily.
During his closing argument, Kaufman climbed into the costume and spoke to the jury through the feline's oversized head.
Afterward, he said Chartrand should have never been charged.
"He was falsely accused, and he took the risk that very few of us would take to . . . to clear his name," said Kaufman, who took on Chartrand's case for free.
Before the trial, heard by Orange Circuit Judge Bob Wattles, Assistant State Attorney William Jay offered Chartrand a deal to plead no contest to misdemeanor battery in exchange for one year of probation.
But Chartrand refused and went to trial on a charge of lewd or lascivious molestation of a child 12 to 15 years of age. He could have faced more than four years in prison. The maximum is 15 years.
Jurors said afterward that the state didn't make its case.
"The state did not present enough evidence,"juror Kathy Bohn said.
One of the jurors, who asked not to be named, said Kaufman's theatrical closing did not influence the decision.
"It had no affect on our decision," he said. "It [the decision] was based solely on the evidence or lack of evidence."
On Wednesday, Chartrand called his brief time doing character work "a very magical job" but wasn't sure whether he would be able to wear a costume again. He suggested he might like to be a character greeter and remain out of costume.
Later, Disney spokeswoman Jacquee Polak would not comment on the trial or Chartrand's future with the company.
Chartrand took the stand Wednesday and denied rubbing the girl's breast.
"Have you ever touched a woman's breast intentionally while working for Disney?" Kaufman asked him.
"Never," Chartrand responded. But he said he might have touched the girl's breast accidentally.
But Jay told jurors, "It's an accident that happens an awful lot with this defendant. It was no accident and no mistake."
Earlier, Jay showed Chartrand about 20 pictures of Tigger and other Disney characters posing with guests. Chartrand, who said he collected the photos to show his family and supervisors, provided the pictures to the sheriff's investigator.
Many of the pictures showed characters holding young women under their armpits with their paws around their rib cages. With many of the pictures, Chartrand couldn't say for sure whether he was the person in the costume.
Jay asked whether the character was holding breasts in some of the pictures.
"I would say it's in the breast area, but not exactly on the breast," Chartrand said.
"What's the breast area as opposed to breast?" Jay said.
"I don't know. I'm not a doctor," Chartrand said.
Jay also showed Chartrand a picture of the 13-year-old and her mother with Tigger. The girl appears to be leaning toward Tigger, and its paw is not on her breast.
But Tigger's left paw does appear to be resting close to the mother's left breast. She also had complained to police that she was fondled, but Chartrand wasn't charged.
Earlier Wednesday, the mother testified that her daughter has suffered at school and become withdrawn since the February incident.
She said she reported the incident to get the person playing Tigger "removed in case another child was touched."
After the verdict, Chartrand was surrounded by family members.
Linda Chartrand, who flew in from London to watch her son in court, said she initially had some doubts about the American justice system but then changed her mind after hearing the verdict.
"Now I have hope and faith that justice worked," she said.
"There's no way on this earth he would have done such a thing. I absolutely know it."