By Grant Boxleitner
FORT MYERS, Fla. - Some young children who saw the Easter Bunny this weekend at Edison Mall no longer see him as the lovable cuddly rabbit that delivers eggs and candy.
This 6-foot-2-inch, 280-pound bunny — also known as Fort Myers resident Arthur J. McClure, 22 — is facing battery charges after he allegedly punched a woman in the back of the neck and head during a fight near a photography set.
In boxing circles, that’s considered a rabbit punch.
McClure denied he punched the woman when he was contacted by a reporter from news-press.com Monday. He said he was trying to split up two women who were fighting, including his wife, exhibit manager Crystal Frechette. There was no way, McClure said, to satisfy the long line of people who wanted their children’s picture taken as the exhibit was preparing close. McClure said he was hot and couldn’t stand being in the bunny costume any longer.
“My shirt was soaked with sweat,” McClure said. “I almost threw up.”
The melee shocked customers, mall employees and the company who hired McClure and Frechette. Mall management issued an apology to parents and children.
Golden, Colo.-based Noerr Programs Corp., which contracted with the mall to run the Easter bunny photo set, fired McClure and Frechette on Monday.
“(The terminations) were a result of the incident that was embarrassing and uncomfortable for the mall patrons,” Noerr spokesman Charlie Russell said.
The incident began shortly before 8 p.m. Saturday when victim Erin Johansson of Cape Coral was waiting in line with her family and several others at a public Easter Bunny photo set near entrance G.
When the exhibit closed about 10 minutes early, some of the customers in line, including Johansson, got upset and questioned Frechette, 25, police said. The two women got into an argument before Frechette allegedly punched Johansson in the right side of her face, according to police reports. Before the punch, Johansson said she told Frechette it wasn’t 8 p.m. yet, but she and McClure started walking away with people still in line.
“At that point she sucker punched me in the jaw,” Johansson said. “She had the worst attitude, and I don’t think she wanted to be confronted.”
After the punch, Frechette pulled Johansson’s hair, and they both fell to the ground, according to arrest reports. That’s when McClure, who was still in the Easter Bunny costume, came to his wife’s aid. McClure took off the head part of the costume and then punched Johansson in the back of the head, police said.
Dozens of people watched the brawl, including about 15 children who were still in line, witnesses said. Johansson said many children had the look of “shock” on their faces. She said she doesn’t know how to explain what happened with the Easter Bunny to her 3-year-old niece.
Johansson was holding an ice pack on her face when officers arrived, police reports show. She said she underwent a CAT scan at Lee Memorial Hospital, which showed no internal injuries.
“It was horrible,” said Robert Johansson, whose son Victor, 8, also witnessed the fight. “They were trying to shield the kids from it. Now my son thinks the Easter Bunny is bad and went to jail.”
But McClure and Frechette tell a different story. They said the customers began yelling at them when they started to close down, then followed them as they walked toward a nearby mall office.
Frechette accused Johansson of poking her in the chest and said she was in front of a group of angry people. Frechette, who acknowledged she punched Johansson, said she got scared when customers started “calling me names and swearing at me.”
By the time the fight began, McClure said he had worn the bunny costume for nine hours, sweat through his shirt and nearly passed out.
“I just tried to break it up,” McClure said. “That’s when two guys grabbed me. I wish people were more understanding.”
McClure and Frechette — both of 3840 Central Ave., No. 208 — were charged with misdemeanor battery and disturbing the peace, police said. McClure’s occupation listed on the arrest report reads “Easter Bunny,” but the two said they used to work at Silver Spoon/The American Cafe in the mall.
Frechette said officers didn’t listen to their side of the story, saying she suffered a bruise on the back of her leg during the scuffle and were threatened by the group. They plan to retain a lawyer.
The couple were released from jail Sunday and have a May 2 county court hearing.