Meanie Mouse

At the age of 57, North Carolina businessman Thomas Dorsett is old enough to remember growing up with television's Mickey Mouse Club. He used to sing along as they spelled it out: " M-I-C-K-E-Y M-O-U-S-E."

"Disney's always been an icon to me. I think at one time they were an honorable company and Walt Disney's dream was probably a reality, but it's not that way any longer," he says.

He's changed his mind after an episode where his then teen-age daughter was accused of shoplifting a pen in 1995 from Disney's Magic Kingdom Emporium. She was found innocent at trial, but it turned out to be a costly emotional and financial experience for the Dorsett family.

"Our family has $30,000 invested in a $1.98 Mickey Mouse pen," says Dorsett.

To be exact, it's known as a Sorcerer's Pen.

Dorsett was referring to what he spent defending his daughter, Terri Diane Dorsett, on a shoplifting charge and subsequent legal fees from a civil lawsuit that claimed her rights were violated when Disney pressed shoplifting charges.

Last week, U.S. District Judge G. Kendall Sharp of the U. S. District Court, Middle District of Florida, ruled against the Dorsett civil suit, which he acknowledged required a "heavy" burden of proof. The ruling did not address her innocence or guilt, but was based on whether Disney had "probable cause" to prosecute.

The case initially drew national attention, some of which focused on the propriety of Disney's prosecuting such minor offenses -- especially when there were various extenuating circumstances such as the defendant passing a polygraph test.

"On this Dorsett case, I'll just have to let the decision stand for itself. I'm a big believer in letting the courts do the talking in these kinds of cases," says Disney spokesman Bill Warren. Disney's local attorney in the case, David L. Evans, didn't return calls for comment.

Disney generally exhibits a hard-nosed attitude when prosecuting infractions of any nature. Such all-encompassing power opens the company to criticism. Despite its pixielike reputation, Disney is a stand-alone 30,000-acre municipality with its own police force subject to far fewer limitations than law officers of mere cities.

During other incidents that at times questioned whether Disney shunned compromise in favor of confrontation, the company has insisted it runs its business in a legal and ethical manner.

Disney at times can't help but act in a heavy-handed manner to protect its self-interest, according to Rick Foglesong, a professor of politics at Rollins College. According to Fogelsong, who is writing a book about the company, "They have immunity from state and local land-use law. They can build a nuclear plant, distribute alcohol. They have powers that local communities don't have. Do they abuse it? In my opinion, yes."

Then-17-year-old Terri Dorsett's experience stemmed from a March 11, 1995, visit to the Magic Kingdom with her high-school band. Terri was carrying a plastic shopping bag shared by the girls.

Disney security officers detained the girls after visiting the Emporium. A security guard said he found three unpaid items in a bag including the pen, a Mickey patch and a Donald Duck statute.

One of Terri's friends confessed she had taken some items. She later pled guilty and received a warning. She also was required to perform community service.

Terri signed a confession of her own guilt, but her father blamed that on her treatment. "That was done under the threat of going to jail," he said. Terri testified she was fingerprinted and prevented from calling her parents.

Another girl testified she placed the pen in Terri's bag. Terri also passed a polygraph test. The teen-ager had never been in any kind of trouble before.

All of which helps explain why her father felt confident when he first met with seemingly sympathetic Disney officials. He was convinced they would drop the case.

Despite a Disney security official saying he saw Terri put the pen in the bag, a jury quickly found Terri not guilty, but the incident caused her emotional problems, according to her father. "She had to drop out of school for a year. She couldn't do anything. She was on medication," says Thomas Dorsett.

Dorsett said he pursued the recent civil suit not for any financial gain, but simply because his daughter was innocent, and that he hopes to prevent similar incidents happening to the children of others. He objected particularly to the procedures of Disney security officers.

"The way they handle children has to change. They don't even allow them to make telephone calls. They're forced to sign guilty statements or threatened with going to jail. That's not right," he notes.

He says he will appeal Judge Sharp's ruling, though that will run up his legal tab even more. He could be liable for Disney's legal fees as well, according to his attorney, Gregory K. Mausser.

Any case brought against Disney is "difficult," Mausser admits.

"The sheer size of what they are lends itself to special considerations," he says.

Dorsett is disillusioned in Disney but does not have much faith in the Orlando court system, either.

"The judicial system there seems to be looking out for the Mouse," he says.

In the meantime, Dorsett is left with some blunt but bleak advice for parents advising their children what to do if they're ever confronted with Disney's security forces. "The only thing I can tell my children or anyone else in that circumstance is to run," says Dorsett, "because nothing else works."

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