The Grinch of Juneau who allegedly stole Christmas isn’t and didn’t.
Last week, a student group reported to police the theft of $358 in presents as they were providing gift-wrapping services in Nugget Mall for donations. The group told the Juneau Police Department they had been scammed.
Turns out it was just an honest mistake, the group conceded Monday.
“We were so sure that we were scammed,” parent-teacher volunteer Kathleen Galau said by phone Monday.
Volunteers for the People to People Ambassador student program were gift-wrapping presents in the mall on Wednesday to raise money for their upcoming trip overseas when a man dropped off two presents to be wrapped — a Barbie doll and a toy cash register, the group had said. When he returned to retrieve his gifts, the group had said he made off with two much more expensive gifts, a wine press and a sweater, instead of the two toys.
Police were called to the mall, but there were no suspects or leads in the case. The case was closed pending further leads, JPD told the Empire the following day. The Empire originally found out about the incident after Galau wrote a letter to the editor, which was published the Friday before Christmas Sunday.
Tom Paddock and his wife, Sarah, knew nothing of the so-called scam — only that their 4-year-old granddaughter, Sienna, opened her presents Christmas morning at their house on North Douglas, and she found a wine press and an adult sweater, not a Barbie doll and a toy.
“I felt very mad at Santa,” Sienna told the Empire on Monday. “He got me unusual things.”
Sarah added, “She was visibly upset yesterday — she thought Santa had made such a terrible mistake. And then last night when she went to bed, Sienna said ‘This is the last Christmas that little Sienna is going to ever open up a grown-up gift.’”
Confused, the Paddocks finally figured out there must have been a mix-up with their presents at the gift-wrapping table at the mall. Sarah posted something on Facebook to ask if anyone knows what they should do or who to contact. A family member about two hours later clued them into the story the Empire had written about the incident.
That’s when it clicked: Tom, the 67-year-old born-and-raised Juneauite, a retired construction contractor, was the alleged Grinch the group had reported.
“We were in shock,” Sarah, 64, a retired health educator, said on Monday. She contacted the newspaper almost as soon as they figured it out.
The comments online were particularly hurtful, so much so that their son told them not to read them.
“My son said, ‘Oh Mom, they just verbally blasted Dad on here,” Sarah said. “... And so we were just shocked, and we didn’t know who to get a hold of.”
The Empire has since stopped the comments and has taken the story off its website.
Sienna’s mother advised them to call police. They did, and an officer retrieved the wine press and sweater to return to its rightful owner at about 4 p.m. Christmas day.
The Paddock family also reached out to Galau on Facebook and told her there had been a mix-up and that the gifts had been returned to police. Galau responded, saying they could pick up Sienna’s gifts at the store where they were purchased.
JPD could not be reached for comment on Monday.
When remembering what happened Wednesday, Tom said he and Sarah had purchased the two toys from Hearthside Books & Toys and happened to see the gift-wrapping table in the mall. Being nice, he dropped off the toys to be gift-wrapped at the People to People table. He had a five-minute conversation with the four people, two women and two teenage girls, who were manning the table and they told him about their upcoming trip to Europe, he said. He asked what he owed and was told it was donation only.
Having spent all his cash at Hearthside, he walked to an ATM in the mall, took out money, saw a friend on the way back and chatted with the friend for a couple of minutes, then returned back to the table with Sarah. They were told their presents were ready. Tom said he remembers thinking that was quick.
He said he asked at least twice if they were sure those presents were his, especially since one of the boxes was much bigger that he anticipated. They said they were.
He tipped them $10, put the presents in the car, and continued shopping with Sarah until they left the mall.
“I didn’t know anything about it, there was one large and one small box,” he said Monday. “Why should I go and open a gift again and make sure?”
He said he and his wife were the only ones in line and the table was not busy.
In an interview Monday, Galau said there must have been some confusion because she maintains the four people at the table had made it clear there was a wine press in one of the boxes.
Tom said when asked the people if they were sure those were his presents, one woman hollered back at the two girls gift-wrapping, “‘Are the gifts for Sienna ready?’”
They responded, “‘Yeah, they’re ready. He can take them,’” Tom said.
Regardless of who was at fault, there was still a very confused little girl on North Douglas wondering why Santa Claus got her grown-up presents.
The People to People group had brought the two toys back to Hearthside Books so that employees could see who purchased them in order to snag the supposed scammer. Then Galau received the Facebook message from the Paddock family, and told them they could pick up Sienna’s presents at the store.
Tom picked up the gifts from the store on Monday and placed them under the tree that day for Sienna to open a day after Christmas. She gasped in delight when she saw her Princess Lilly Rose Mermaid Barbie and the toy cash register. Then she ran over to play computer games, the ordeal apparently over in her mind, which elicited chuckles from her grandparents.
The Paddocks say they hope this unfortunate incident didn’t ruin the magic of Christmas and St. Nicholas for their granddaughter.
“We’re trying to explain to her the whole Santa business, that magical thing... One thing she said was ‘Santa made a mistake but Jesus would never make a mistake.’ She’s trying to figure this out,” Sarah said.
One good thing to come out of it is that Sienna’s mother, who is a nurse at Bartlett Regional Hospital, told her coworkers what had happened. The nurses bought Sienna even more presents and plan to give them to her later.
Galau said she was relieved to hear the incident was resolved.
“Everybody got their stuff back, that’s the important thing,” she said.
The Paddocks agreed, but said they are due an apology from the group.
“They made a mistake, and they need to apologize,” Sarah said.
She explained, “Young people today really need to learn under a leader that, ‘I’m sorry, we made a mistake,’ and apologize, especially when it concerns putting something so negative in the paper about somebody that they don’t even know. And to me, they made a mistake, and they covered their mistake and pointed, they blamed, and that’s wrong.”
Tom said the group should have had a more secure system in place to ensure the right gifts were going back to the right people.
“What if there’s a bunch of gifts that were mixed up, and then they’d had to come up with more than $400?” Tom asked. “They would have been in trouble.”
Galau told the Empire earlier that after the incident that the group increased security at their table to ensure this doesn’t happen again. They began to give out claim tickets to make sure each person received the correct gift back, and they snapped a picture of each person with an iPad and made a corresponding note of what gifts they dropped off.
• Contact reporter Emily Russo Miller at 523-2263 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.