Tustin PD officer tows Santa’s sleigh through city one last time

By Lou Ponsi

For 15 days in December, kids throughout Tustin stand curbside, waiting for Santa Claus to roll through their neighborhood.

Tustin PD Master Reserve Officer George Vallevieni has the incredibly important job of making sure Santa doesn’t miss a stop.

In fact, if it wasn’t for Vallevieni, the jolly old elf might not be making the rounds at all.

Tustin PD Master Reserve Officer George Vallevieni organizes the kids as they wait to step up to Santa’s sleigh for a visit. This is Vallevieni’s last year helping with the sleigh that he is responsible for building as he gets ready to retire.
Photo by Steven Georges/Behind the Badge OC

About 20 years ago, Vallevieni, who had been a patrol officer and motor officer before moving to the community resources department, was asked by a supervisor to develop an outreach program for the city.

A skilled craftsman, Vallevieni purchased an old flat-bed trailer for $150 and fashioned a wooden sleigh, white picket fence, and seven reindeer. He added garland and Christmas lights.

Enter Santa and a few elves, and voilà.

Kids arrive at Heideman Elementary School in Tustin for their turn to see Santa, who arrived with the escort of the Tustin Police Department.
Photo by Steven Georges/Behind the Badge OC

For the past 19 years, Vallevieni has been driving the truck that tows the trailer that displays the sleigh and the picket fence, and of course, Santa.

After 35 years with Tustin PD, Vallevieni will retire this month, so this season is his last as a chauffeur for Santa.

“I’m going to be sad just to leave the department, and this has been a big thing for me here,” Vallevieni said.  “Everybody in the city knows about this and I’ve gotten very popular over the years doing it.”

The William family of Tustin smiles for the camera as they visit Santa and his sleigh in their neighborhood.
Photo by Steven Georges/Behind the Badge OC

Early on, Santa and his crew made the rounds over four nights.

“It was just an experiment,” Vallevieni said. “Nobody knew what was going to happen. We got mobbed.”

They increased the excursions to 10 nights and then finally to 15.

After visiting with Santa, 9-year-old Kimberley Morals of Tustin gives Tustin PD Lt. Manny Arzate a high-five after recognizing him from a visit he made to Heideman Elementary School. Tustin PD Volunteer Mandy Krisman is behind them.
Photo by Steven Georges/Behind the Badge OC

Santa now covers roughly 90 percent of the of the 11-square-mile city and greets about 10,000 kids throughout every holiday season, Vallevieni said.

“It makes me very happy,”” Vallevieni said during a recent neighborhood stop where a flock of kids waited in line for face time with Santa. “Look at these kids’ faces. We have people that plan their Christmas parties around us.”

Family members line up to take photographs of kids with Santa as the sleigh makes a stop in this Tustin neighborhood.
Photo by Steven Georges/Behind the Badge OC

Retired Tustin PD Capt. Mike Shanahan has donned the Santa suit for many neighborhood treks, with his wife, Kathy, serving as Santa’s helper.

“I know it has meant a lot to George,” Kathy said. “He has put his heart and soul into this. It’s not going to be the same without George.”

Santa comes down from his sleigh to visit 12-year-old Ernsto Carmona in his wheelchair as Santa’s sleigh visits a Tustin Neighborhood.
Photo by Steven Georges/Behind the Badge OC

But the children of Tustin need not worry.

Vallevieni is handing the keys to a fellow reserve officer who will keep the tradition alive.

“It’s a wonderful thing that they do,” resident Tina Diep said of Santa’s annual neighborhood visits. “We love Tustin PD and we support them. We’re going to be here every single year.”

Santa gives Ernsto Carmona, 12, a hug after arriving in his wheelchair to visit Santa.
Photo by Steven Georges/Behind the Badge OC

Guillermo Vazquez, right, stands with his family for a photograph with Santa.
Photo by Steven Georges/Behind the Badge OC

Three-year-old Kaylani Mondragon of Tustin runs to give Tustin PD Officer Hector Frias a hug after her visit with Santa.
Photo by Steven Georges/Behind the Badge OC

Tustin children make their way to Santa’s sleigh to talk to him and get their photo taken.
Photo by Steven Georges/Behind the Badge OC