For the past year, John and Joan Leising had wondered about the people who "borrowed" the plastic baby Jesus statue from the lighted manger scene outside their North Buffalo home last Christmas season.
Friday afternoon, they got to meet them -- three 19-year-old college students from Amherst who apologized, brought over a plate of homemade Christmas cookies, and assured the Leisings that the prank was never meant to be malicious in any way.
"We just wanted you to know, we were very careful of him and never mistreated him," Caitlin Evans told the Leisings. "We called him 'Baby J.' We took him everywhere. We always had a seat belt on him when he was in my car, and he had his own little spot in my dorm room. He had his own profile page on Facebook . . . He almost became like a friend to us."
Evans, a student at the Hobart and William Smith Colleges in Geneva, showed up at the Leising home with two friends who were also involved in the prank -- Luke Haumesser, a student at Marietta College in Ohio; and Caroline Bell, a student at Boston College in Massachusetts.
It was Evans and Haumesser who snatched the Jesus statue from the Leisings' manger scene a few days after last Christmas. They returned the statue eight months later, after taking its photograph at parties, on camping trips and in many other settings all over New York. Bell was in on the prank from the beginning, and served as one of the "tour guides" for the statue.
They returned the statue to the Leising home last August, along with a photo album -- titled "The Baby Jesus Chronicles" -- full of pictures taken at all stages of the eight-month road trip. Since Tuesday, when The Buffalo News published a story on the incident, the tale has been picked up by Web sites and other media -- including CNN -- all over the United States.
Evans said she and her friends never gave much thought to the prank or the possibility that it might upset the Leisings. She said it was a "spur of the moment thing," a group of college kids having some crazy fun.
"We were driving through North Buffalo, and I had seen [the statue] a couple of times before, all lit up on the lawn," she recalled. "I said, 'I want that Jesus!' "
"We're a group of friends who just wanted to create this scene . . . this adventure," Bell said. "We didn't mean to hurt anyone by doing it."
The Leisings appreciated the visit from the three students. They shared some laughs and stories, and heard that the statue had actually been to a lot more places -- including Times Square in New York City -- than the Leisings had known about.
"It was great to see that they're good kids and that they had good in
tentions," said John Leising, a captain in the Buffalo Fire Department. "It was good to hear the rest of the story."
Evans said she and her friends decided to come forward for two main reasons: They wanted the Leisings to understand that they had no nasty intentions when they took the statue and that they were not trying to attack the Leisings for their religious views.
They also wanted to make sure that no one else got blamed for their prank. On Thursday, a news Web site in the Finger Lakes region published photos of two of Evans' friends with the Jesus statue at various locations at the college.
"I didn't want my friends to get into trouble for something we did," Evans said. "Actually, it's been well-known for months that the baby Jesus was on our campus. We had taken him to all kinds of parties. I was known for having him. He expanded my social circle, believe me."
On Wednesday, Haumesser was eating dinner with his family at a Tully's restaurant in Amherst when he saw a feature about the statue and its road trip on a big-screen CNN broadcast.
"I dropped my food, called Caitlin right away, and said, 'We have to do something about this,' " Haumesser said. "We never thought this would be in the paper or on TV."
Haumesser is a graduate of St. Joseph's Collegiate Institute. As it turns out, his father, a physician, has worked in the past with Joan Leising, a nurse at St. Joseph Hospital in Cheektowaga. Bell and Evans are graduates of Nardin Academy. The three students are all Catholics, as are the Leisings.
When Evans and Haumesser first abducted the statue, they left behind a hastily scrawled note saying they would return it in three days. But they found they had so much fun with it that they kept it for eight months.
Evans' one regret about the prank is that, during that eight months, she should have sent a post card to the Leising home, telling them that their statue would be back before the next Christmas.
"It was always our intention to bring him back," she told Joan Leising on Friday. "We should have let you know that."
The Leisings said they understood and were never really angry about the prank.
The three students spent more than an hour laughing and talking with the Leisings and their 10-year-old daughter, Julia. Evans said she almost got a tear in her eye when she got a chance to hold the little plastic statue for a few minutes.
As the Leisings posed for pictures with the three students, someone remarked that it was interesting how a plastic statue of Jesus Christ had somehow brought them all together.
"That's Jesus' history," Joan Leising said. "That's what he does."