Wearing a mustard-colored jumpsuit and looking ruefully through the visitors' window at Men's Central Jail in Santa Ana, the man with the full white beard and bushy eyebrows looked disarmingly out of place.
"Everybody says, 'Santa Claus, what are you doing in jail?' " said inmate Al Maier during a jailhouse interview Wednesday. "And they go, 'Ho, ho, ho' when I walk into the dining hall."
The good cheer his presence inspires among sheriff's deputies as well as fellow inmates delights Maier, who resembles the symbol of Christmas generosity in more than mere appearance.
Each Christmas season, the retired Marine pilot gains considerable girth and dons a traditional red outfit to play a jolly Santa Claus to please children at charity fund-raisers and parties.
He also has promoted soccer for youth in Orange County and opened his house in Laguna Beach to Scandinavian and German exchange students and to the homeless and others down on their luck.
"He \o7 is \f7 Santa Claus," insists Chris Johnson, 28, who has been living at Maier's house for two years and said Maier hasn't asked him to pay a nickel of rent since he lost his part-time job as a school bus driver about seven months ago. "He has a good heart and will take anyone off the street and give them the benefit of the doubt."
So, how come this sometime St. Nick recently marked his 62nd birthday in jail?
Municipal Judge Pamela L. Isles, who sentenced Maier on Dec. 31 to six months behind bars and three months' probation, has a ready explanation. She wanted to teach him that he cannot repeatedly break the law.
Since at least 1987, Maier has been wrangling with some of the neighbors near his Laguna Beach home, as well as the city's code enforcement authorities, over the state of his property, situated on Alta Laguna Boulevard beside expensive ocean-view homes high in the picturesque hills of the city.
A few of the neighbors were irked by the many old cars--sometimes a dozen or more--parked on the horseshoe-shaped driveway or along the curbs of the brown single-story stucco house with the Christmas tree lights strung under the eves.
Maier said some of the cars belonged to him. Others were "clunkers" that foreign exchange students staying at his home bought and fixed up to drive during their stay in the United States. Still other cars were left by friends who needed a safe place to park them while they went on vacation.
Another problem was the stack of tires and auto parts that he kept in his back yard.
After Maier was cited by the city, he pleaded guilty in July, 1989, to violating municipal ordinances prohibiting the long-term storage of cars on driveways or along the side of a house and was placed on probation.
Maier, however, contends that his guilty plea was a mistake. At the time, Maier says, he had yet to hire an attorney and didn't understand the charges.
A year later, Maier was found guilty of violating the terms of his probation and fined.
Again last December, city officials took him to court for numerous alleged violations. Among other things, they contended that Maier was repairing cars on his property and that he maintained an illegal second dwelling unit--a rumpus room that was being occupied by the homeless family of a man who had done some work for him.
"The real problem is that his house was junky," said Victor Hobbs, Maier's attorney. "They were looking for something to nail him on."
But even Hobbs was surprised when the judge, at the conclusion of the December court hearing, ordered Maier be taken into custody immediately and packed off to jail.
Judge Isles doesn't regret her swift and forceful administration of justice.
"He won't stop violating orders and won't cooperate," the judge explained last week. "It is his second probation violation."
Maier, however, said last week he believes that the charges were spurious and he was within the law. He said that the tires in his back yard were stacked the way a city fire inspector suggested, and that he religiously moved cars parked in the street every 72 hours so they would not be ticketed by police.
Maier said he had "no inkling" that he would be sent to jail. "I didn't know it was even a possibility."
His attorney, however, said he does not believe that the judge was out of line in using jail time to prod Maier into compliance with court orders, but believes that a six-month sentence is excessive.
Frank Battaile, deputy city attorney for Laguna Beach, said six months in jail was more than even he had expected.
"I would have wanted six months. But I didn't think I could get it," he said.
"Mr. Maier is known for supposedly doing charitable things and being the Laguna Beach Santa Claus. But his neighbors complained about property values," Battaile said. Nonetheless, "the neighbors all expressed their regrets that Mr. Maier went to jail."