Aug. 5, 2004. 07:17 AM

Sad tale of a Tigger
Jury acquits Disney `character'
Was accused of groping girl, 13


ORLANDO, Fla.A furry orange costume was centre stage at a bizarre trial where a Disney employee dressed as the character Tigger was accused of groping a 13-year-old girl while her mother snapped a photo.


An Orlando jury took an hour yesterday to find Michael Chartrand, 36, not guilty of misdemeanour battery and lewd and lascivious molestation. The jury only considered the molestation charge, which could have sent Chartrand to jail for 15 years.


During final arguments, jurors saw Chartrand's lawyer, Jeffrey Kaufman, climb into the bulky costume of Tigger, a bouncy and beloved tiger-like animal from Winnie the Pooh books and Disney movies.


Kaufman said he needed to show how difficult it would have been for his client to intentionally grope the girl's breast during her Disney World visit last February.


Kaufman who works part-time at Disney as a costumed character and represented Chartrand for free put on the tail, a neck cloth, the enormous orange-and-black head and two large mitts to show how the costume limits peripheral vision and arm movements.


Veteran Disney employee Tom Biemann testified Tuesday that it's difficult to see out of the character costumes, the Orlando Sentinel reported.


"It's a guesstimate on where you're grabbing because of the limited visibility," said Biemann, who worked as characters, including Tigger, for nearly 13 years. "You aim for the waist."


The Tigger costume became so central to the case and so potentially damaging to the character's image that Disney suggested altering the costume for the court proceedings by dyeing the outfit and removing its ears. The request was denied.


On Monday, the girl had testified she was sure she had been fondled.


"I didn't know what to do. I didn't know what to say," she said.


Added prosecutor William Jay: "This defendant knew where his paws were."


Chartrand, who had been suspended by Disney, hugged his attorneys when he heard the verdict. Earlier this week, he rejected a plea offer that would have given him probation.


Chartrand said he wrote a letter of apology to the girl, but only at the urging of a detective investigating the case who said it would make her feel better.


"I believe (the detective) was trying to get me to admit to something I would never do fondling or groping a female,'' Chartrand testified.Under questioning from Kaufman, the girl's mother conceded that she had met with a civil lawyer about the case.


But asked if she thought she could make a lot of money suing Disney, she told Kaufman, "No, I didn't.''