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St. Paul's Vulcans may get a dousing

Charges of groping cloud the future of carnival tradition

ST. PAUL -- In their blazing red capes, superhero suits, and ski goggles, the boisterous men known as the Vulcans have carried out merry mischief during the city's Winter Carnival for more than 100 years.

But allegations this month that the group's leader groped three women in a bar have raised questions about the future of one of the most colorful pieces of St. Paul's history.

''I don't want to see them go away," said Gina Kuntz, 32, of St. Paul, who remembered the excitement she felt as a child when the Vulcans came barreling down a parade route. ''I always tried to get their attention. They were fun. . . . I thought they were like clowns."

Carnival organizers last week granted a leave of absence to the group's leader, Tom Trudeau, also known as Vulcanus Rex, and restricted the group's activities. Bob Viking, the festival CEO, said a special panel would consider changing the way the group operates.

The best-known practice of the Vulcans -- marking people with grease paint as a sign of allegiance -- has drawn some complaints over the years, especially from women who did not want to be marked.

In the past, Vulcans wore grease paint on their cheeks and gave women a cheek-to-cheek ''smooch" or ''smudge." After complaints in the 1970s, the smudge was largely abandoned. Now, the Vulcans use grease paint sticks to mark participants, mostly children, with a ''V."

According to legend, the Vulcans' antics during the 10-day carnival usher in warmer weather. But the group also makes appearances all year in their flamboyant costumes, including at parades and charity events.

The charge against Trudeau stems from the group's ''garter ritual," in which Vulcans place a garter on a woman's leg. Three bartenders say Trudeau groped them as other Vulcans held up their capes to shield him.

Trudeau has pleaded not guilty to three gross misdemeanor counts of fifth-degree sexual conduct. He is free on bail.

The allegation came during this year's carnival, which ended Feb. 6. The case has incensed some former Vulcans.

''It's devastating to our organization, it's devastating to me personally," said Howie Register, who was the Vulcans' leader in 1996. ''We're not a bunch of dirty, nasty old men out there being a bunch of drunks. We do too much good to have this be our black eye."

He said all potential Vulcans go through a screening process that includes a criminal background check.

Since 1886, about 400 people have officially worn the red Vulcan suit. Each year, there is a king and seven ''Krewe" members, and participants from previous years constitute a current organization of about 250, according to the group's website.

Steven Robertson, a former pastor at a Lutheran church and member of the Vulcan Krewe in 2003, said the Vulcans are about spreading cheer and goodwill.

He also said he has never smudged anyone without permission.

''Some people, especially senior citizens, will say 'I want it the old-fashioned way,' so you press your check against their cheek and you leave it at that," Robertson said. ''There's not any kind of innuendo at all. It's all in fun."

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