Bet­ter watch out

The Brown Palace’s Santa Claus knows whether you’ve been naughty or nice. Yep. He used to be an un­der­cover FBI agent.

The Denver Post - - FRONT PAGE - By Max Siegel­baum

Vin­cent Wincelow­icz had a hard con­fes­sion to make to an ag­ing mob­ster.

“Bad news is,” he said, “I’m an un­der­cover FBI agent.” The mafioso had two choices: Go to prison or be­come an in­for­mant. Even­tu­ally, he chose the lat­ter, but his im­me­di­ate re­sponse was sur­pris­ing.

“I don’t care, you’re still my friend,” he said.

It was this abil­ity to con­nect to peo­ple that helped Wincelow­icz ex­cel dur­ing his nine-year ca­reer as an un­der­cover FBI agent. He used it to in­fil­trate crime rings and bust cor­rupt pub­lic of­fi­cials. Wincelow­icz, 68, says it also helps him in his cur­rent sea­sonal pro­fes­sion: stand-in for Santa Claus.

He’s in his 16th season as The Brown Palace Ho­tel’s in-house St. Nick, where he’ll be mak­ing merry this week­end. He also re­views the naughty and nice lists at White Fence Farm in Lake­wood.

Wincelow­icz grew up on Staten Is­land in New York City and started his law en­force­ment ca­reer in 1972 as a New York State pa­role of­fi­cer. He later earned a master’s de­gree from John Jay College of Crim­i­nal Jus­tice in New York and en­tered the high-stakes world of un­der­cover fed­eral in­ves­ti­ga­tions af­ter grad­u­at­ing. Now, he’s the chair­man of the crim­i­nol­ogy and be­hav­ioral and so­cial sciences de­part­ments at Regis Univer­sity.

The FBI gave Wincelow­icz three dif­fer­ent as­sign­ments dur­ing his time un­der­cover: whitecol­lar crime, the mafia and — dur­ing Rudy Gi­u­liani’s term as the top pros­e­cu­tor in New York —

cor­rup­tion in state agen­cies.

“We con­victed 239 pub­lic of­fi­cials for bribery,” he said. Wincelow­icz posed as a sales­man of mu­nic­i­pal sup­plies, sell­ing things such as street signs, chains and snow-plow blades, the lat­ter of which, he said, were a hot com­mod­ity in up­state New York.

The of­fi­cials would ask him to charge their cities ex­tra for some items, or they would sim­ply just take a per­cent­age of the con­tract.

“They would ba­si­cally say if you don’t want to do this, some­body else will,” he said. It turned out that other con­trac­tors were in on the schemes. “We in­dicted nine other ven­dors.”

When he dealt with the mafia, Wincelow­icz posed as a “fence,” some­one who bought stolen items. One year, he bought truck­loads of stolen Cab­bage Patch Kids dolls from the mafia in Buf­falo, N.Y. Later, when the men were be­ing ar­rested, one of them asked the agents, “Is this about the dol­lies?” Wincelow­icz re­counted.

Back then, the FBI didn’t have the ro­bust un­der­cover pro­gram it does now. “We were pretty much fly­ing by the seat of our pants,” he said. Agents were left to fig­ure out a way to get crim­i­nals to trust them.

“In the bu­reau, when you go un­der­cover, you’re gone. You don’t come back to the of­fice, so you have to be good at mak­ing re­la­tion­ships. You have to as­sim­i­late into that cul­ture,” he said.

Be­ing able to make con­nec­tions to peo­ple and build re­la­tion­ships is es­sen­tial for un­der­cover work, he said. It’s also vi­tal that an agent’s story lines up.

Af­ter he re­tired from the FBI, Wincelow­icz moved to Lit­tle­ton to pur­sue a teach­ing gig. One day, he saw a tele­vi­sion com­mer­cial for a Santa school and de­cided it looked fun. He signed up and soon found him­self in a class­room with other prospec­tive San­tas.

They learned things such as the his­tory of Santa Claus and how he gets into peo­ple’s homes (through the chim­ney or with a magic key). Wincelow­icz “cut his teeth” as a mall Santa be­fore mov­ing to the posh Brown Palace.

With his nat­u­ral white beard and 6-foot-tall, hearty build, Wincelow­icz is a nat­u­ral fit for the role. He also does video calls with kids, af­ter be­ing briefed by their par­ents.

Wincelow­icz, Ms. Claus, and their two elves are sched­uled to ap­pear at sold-out events at the Brown Palace on Satur­day and Sun­day, but if you hap­pen to be at the his­toric ho­tel to look at the Christ­mas dec­o­ra­tions be­tween 9 a.m. and 1 p.m., you might catch him strolling through the lobby. He also will be on duty 5 to 8 p.m. Satur­day at the White Fence Farm in Lake­wood.

This year, a com­mon re­quest is for hard-to-find Hatchi­mals, stuffed an­i­mal toys that come in an egg. How­ever, not all of the chil­dren wish for toys and video games.

“A lot of the kids ask for stuff you don’t ex­pect. ‘I want peo­ple to get along bet­ter. I want stuff for my mom and dad,’ ” he said. “One of the things they al­ways ask me is ‘What do you want for Christ­mas, Santa?’ I al­ways say, ‘I want you to be happy.’ ”

Part of the job of be­ing Santa Claus is mak­ing sure all of the kids feel com­fort­able and wel­come, as the scene can be over­whelm­ing and scary for some. Wincelow­icz likes to walk around be­fore the event be­gins to warm up the crowd.

One year at the Brown Palace, Wincelow­icz saw a girl — in a pur­ple vel­vet dress and adorned with a hat — stand­ing ner­vously off to the side of the room. Wincelow­icz went over and started talk­ing to her and she warmed up.

The girl’s mother ap­proached Wincelow­icz later, tears in her eyes. Her daugh­ter had can­cer and had been wor­ried about at­tend­ing the event be­cause she was wear­ing a hat to cover her hair loss.

“I made that fam­ily’s day,” Wincelow­icz said. “No script or any­thing.”

Andy Cross, The Den­ver Post

to kids from to 92: Above, Emma Kramer, 3, vis­its with Santa Claus, former FBI agent Vin­cent Wincelow­icz, at White Fence Farm restau­rant Fri­day. Santa met with kids of all ages, in­clud­ing Margie Per­ry­man, 92, right.

Andy Cross, The Den­ver Post

Alice Staver, 6, left, and her sis­ters Ava, 13, and Am­ber, 11, spend time with Santa Claus, former FBI agent Vin­cent Wincelow­icz, at White Fence Farm restau­rant Fri­day.

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