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Sex offender's appearance as Santa Claus sparks outrage

Joel Hempel is shown portraying Santa Claus in a Cannon Falls holiday parade. Parade officials said they were not aware of his involvement or criminal background. (submitted photo)

A holiday parade in Cannon Falls has stirred unpleasant emotions after the community learned a man convicted of criminal sexual conduct posed as Santa Claus.

Joel Allen Hempel, 56, of Cannon Falls was charged with three counts of first-degree criminal sexual conduct in 1989. A plea agreement resulted in Hempel being convicted of second-degree criminal sexual conduct and sentenced to a year in prison and probation.

Records show Hempel served prison time in 2000 at the Minnesota Correctional Facility-St. Cloud for a probation violation related to the case.

Heather Oldeen, his victim, was visiting her hometown over Thanksgiving weekend. Oldeen said she was stunned to hear about her abuser's appearance in the parade. She contacted the Republican Eagle in hopes of alerting the public.

Oldeen started seeking civil action against him this spring.

Hempel appeared as Santa Claus in the two-and-a-half-block parade route for the Mississippi Valley ABATE group. The American Bikers for Awareness, Training, and Education of Minnesota is a not-for-profit organization that focuses on educating motorcyclists and the general public about motorcycling.

The parade during the Deck the Falls celebration Saturday, Nov. 26, featured a separate, official Santa float arranged and sponsored by the Cannon Falls Chamber of Commerce.

"We were not aware that anyone else would be dressing as Santa," Pat Anderson of the Cannon Falls Chamber of Commerce said. "If we had known, we would certainly not allow it."

None of the Deck the Falls events that had Santa interacting with children, such as Santa story time, visits at the bakery, holiday drawing and tree lighting ceremony, involved Hempel, Anderson said.

Leadership of the local Mississippi Valley ABATE chapter acknowledged Hempel's involvement, saying the organization was not aware of Hempel's criminal background until contacted by the RE.

"Had we known, it would have never been allowed to happen," leadership said. "Now that we do know, he has been removed from ABATE at both the local and state level and is no longer allowed to participate."

Oldeen was 10 years old when Hempel assaulted her. A hearing in her civil action in Goodhue County District Court, Dec. 16 was postponed.

In her adult years, Oldeen has started a petition regarding criminal sexual conduct conviction notices prior to the sex offender registry's creation. The Minnesota Sex Offender Registry took effect in 1991.

"He didn't have to register because it was right before the registry happened," Oldeen said. "There needs to be some form of notification. I don't know if anything will happen with the petition, but it is a healing outlet for me."