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Santa is a con man. A bad check artist. A repeat drunken driver. And he once tried to bilk an order of nuns out of $10,000.

On top of it all, he is a man of the cloth, a sub-deacon in an obscure religion.

This Santa -- aka Bernard J. Zolnowski Jr., 29, of West Seneca -- recently made national headlines for picketing Seneca Mall over "elves rights."

But there is a lot more to Zolnowski's story than those newspaper headlines tell. Court records, for instance, show that he:

Passed bad checks in at least three states.

Served time on felony drunken driving charges -- only to demand that his jailors provide him with sacramental wine.

Filed several lawsuits, tying up the Erie County attorney's office for a year, as he sought damages for abridging constitutional rights to practice his religion.

Illegally paid attorney's fees with $10,000 that an order of nuns loaned him to make bail.

"We could not prosecute him criminally," the nuns' attorney said, "because theirs is a monastic order that will not leave the convent. But we did recover most of the money in a civil case."

Most recently, Zolnowski has threatened a $2 million lawsuit against the Seneca Mall after the mall ordered the elves from his Old-Style Music Co. to leave the shopping center, claiming one of them made suggestive comments to a mall employee.

The threat of the $2 million suit -- no legal papers have been filed -- mirrors the amount Zolnowski sought in U.S. District Court in 1988, when he filed six separate suits against the Erie County Correctional Facility while jailed there.

"When he was with us, he wanted a 24-hour votive candle, a ciborium (goblet-shaped vessel for holding Eucharistic bread), a pyx (small metal box for carrying the Eucharist), incense, charcoal and sacramental wine in his cell," said John Moerle, the prison's chief of security who was named in the federal suits.

"No way was he going to get wine. He was serving a term for felony drunk driving. He had an admitted problem with alcohol."

James F. Lagona, a Buffalo Municipal Housing Authority lawyer who represents Zolnowski in the mall lawsuit, identified himself as Zolnowski's bishop during the flap over the wine.

Zolnowski first made headlines in 1980, when he was billed as the youngest polka disc jockey in the Buffalo area. By 1984, he was promoting the "biggest Dyngus Day celebration in the United States" at the former Twin Fair store on Transit Road, West Seneca.

That event left a trail of unpaid bills and a bad taste in many mouths, according to various West Seneca sources.

"How many enemies does Bernie have?" asked a former business associate. "You got a phone book?"

The man claims that Zolnowski still owes him $3,000.

Zolnowski also has had problems with insurance fraud and bad checks.

Records show he served concurrent nine-month sentences for grand larceny and insurance fraud while serving time in the Erie County Correctional Facility from December 1987 until March 1989 for felony drunken driving and driving with a revoked license.

And, somewhere, Zolnowski found religion.

He became a sub-deacon of the Orthodox Catholic Church, Western Rite. Its members consider themselves Catholics, but not Roman Catholics, because they do not recognize the primacy of the pope. The sect is not listed in the 1990 Yearbook of American and Canadian Religious Faiths.

While in prison, "Bernie would write to his bishop -- or his lawyer -- who were pretty much the same person," Moerle said.

On one occasion, when a letter from his attorney was opened by prison personnel, Zolnowski claimed his rights to privileged communication were violated.

"That letter didn't say James Lagona Esq., or Bishop James Lagona, so how were our people to know?" Moerle said.

In a letter to prison authorities, Lagona identified himself as Zolnowski's bishop and said Zolnowski is a sub-deacon in his church. That position gives Zolnowski the right to preach and dispense consecrated hosts during Mass.

But that apparent conversion occurred sometime after Zolnowski victimized an order of nuns.

In February 1987, Orchard Park police charged Zolnowski with grand larceny, in connection with bad checks, and he was ordered held in lieu of $10,000 bail.

Zolnowski approached the nuns for help -- one of his relatives is a member of the order -- telling the mother superior that his father would make the bail good when he returned from Florida. The nuns wrote a check made payable to Zolnowski.

When his court-appointed attorney got the criminal charges reduced and drew probation contingent upon paying a fine and restitution, Zolnowski told the lawyer to cash the nuns' check and pay his legal bills. Zolnowski supplied a letter, authorizing his use of the "loan" for those purposes. The letter turned out to be a forgery.

"Because the nuns will not leave the convent to appear in court, we resorted to the civil, rather than criminal courts. We got most of the money returned a year later," said their attorney. He asked not to be identified in order to protect the sisters, who do not want publicity.

In April of that year, Zolnowski opened an account in the Laurel Bank of Ebensburg, Pa., using two bad checks drawn on a Buffalo-area bank, court records state. He then apparently returned to Buffalo, where he wrote two checks to a local music store using the Laurel Bank account.

That netted him the grand larceny conviction, for which he served time here.

Pennsylvania authorities dropped their extradition action for "theft by deception" when restitution was made, Cambria County Court records show.

And Connecticut also dropped charges in similar matters, connected in some way to the music business -- Zolnowski's Old Style Music Co., Inc.

In prison, Zolnowski began papering the walls with grievances.

And all of those cases were filed at taxpayer expense, for Zolnowski did not have an income and filed them as a pauper.

"Bernie sued us for everything," said attorney David Kane, now in private practice. "He filed at least 20 inmate grievances, and when those were found without merit, he followed up with lawsuits. If there wasn't a pencil in the library, he'd sue about that."

Kane was in the county attorney's office from August 1988 to February 1990 and "spent pretty much full time on Bernie's cases," according to County Attorney Patrick NeMoyer.

"I handled between 14 and 19 of them," Kane recalled. "All were dismissed as being without merit by every judge who heard the original motions.

"He is a very bright man who used this to get back at the county," Kane said. "It was a deliberate attempt to harass individuals and the state."

Last March, Full Compass Systems of Madison, Wis., contacted West Seneca police to help them recover $20,000 worth of audio equipment in what West Seneca police believe was another bad-check scam.

"Bernie had identified himself as a reverend belonging to the Servants of the Good Shepherd in order to get a clergy discount," said West Seneca police Lt. Thomas Hanover. "He said his church was Queen of Holy Rosary Orthodox Parish at 861 Seneca Creek Road. That's his home address, not a church. And Bernie's not a reverend," Hanover said.

Zolnowski returned the equipment and the company chose not to prosecute. But Zolnowski stands by his claim of his religious affiliation.

"I am a sub-deacon in the Orthodox Catholic (Western Rite) Church," he said.

And his bishop backed him up, correctional facility personnel said.

"You want to hear the best?" asked Frederick Netzell, director of the correctional facility.

"After all those grievances and all those lawsuits, when he got out, Bernie came back wearing a priest's collar. We had to let him back for a clerical visit to another inmate."

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