BILLINGS — ZooMontana has dismissed its volunteer "Mrs. Claus" after it found out the woman playing the role is registered as a Montana sex offender.
According to zoo management, no one was harmed, and it alerted the woman that she could no longer volunteer at the zoo.
"This is an independent contractor position," said Jeff Ewelt, the zoo's director. "It's a volunteer position."
Ewelt would not comment on the name of the company, but the woman's family tells MTN that she was a volunteer with Elk River Outfitters, which helps with special events such as Zoo Lights.
According to the state's sex offender registry, the woman received an 18-month sentence in 1993 for an incident in California that happened when she was 18, involving a 14 year old.
MTN has not identified the woman because it's still unclear whether she was allowed to work with children.
According to law enforcement, some registered sex offenders can still interact with kids, depending on the conditions of their release.
Regardless, Ewelt says it should not have happened.
"As a family-friendly organization, we want to do everything we can to make sure this is a safe space," Ewelt said. "We take pride in that we've worked hard over the last 10 years to ensure this is a safe space. So when something like this happens, it's devastating to us and we want to do everything we can to better the situation."
It's also unclear whether the Elk River Outfitters knew she was a sex offender, or if it conducted a background check. MTN has tried to contact the company but our calls have not been returned.
"Quite frankly, the organization that's involved with it, the contractor was as surprised as we were," Ewelt said.
Ewelt says the zoo learned the woman was a sex offender after reading about it on social media.
He's now apologizing for the oversight promising to make changes to ensure what happened this year never happens again.
"By no means are we trying to throw blame anywhere and we feel we have some responsibility there," he said. "So one of our new policy procedures is that anytime anybody works on site, if it's an outside contractor, we're going to ensure that the individuals that they have working with them or for them provide background checks."